ISSJ - N° 174 - Extreme Violence

December 2002

The idea that force, even lethal force, might be used for political purposes, and might even make it possible to achieve them, is familiar enough, albeit unpleasant. What, however, can one make of excessive uses of force that seem to exceed any form of instrumental political logic, even though political rationality may be discernible in them? Is it possible to give a social-science “account” of torture, mutilation, desecration, and genocide? Should one even try? Can the social scientist run the risk of «understanding»?

These difficult questions spring from the whole history of the twentieth century as well as from the most current affairs. To address them, this issue of the ISSJ offers some trans-disciplinary and comparative considerations both on the relevance of the concept of “extreme violence” and on the relation of the researcher to such an object. The articles show that extreme violence remains incomprehensible without reference to its social, economic, political and cultural context; but equally that it is irreducible to its enabling context. As for analysis, it is difficult, but not impossible. No doubt the choice of such a research topic is prima facie suspicious, and carries a whiff of unhealthy “voyeurism”. But this merely strengthens the ethical requirements incumbent upon the researcher, and it is in detailed attention both to contexts and to events, to mass dynamics and to individuals, that the possibility of genuine understanding can be found.

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