Cumulative Radicalization: New Models of Mass Violence

blocks at a holocaust memorial in Berlin

Year: 2022-2023
Research Team Type: Faculty-Led
Team Organizers: Robert Braun and Scott Straus
Disciplines: Anthropology, economics, history, political science, sociology

How and why do policies of mass violence and genocide emerge? This Matrix Research Team seeks to leverage the specialization of social scientists at UC Berkeley to develop fresh answers to this critical question.

A long-standing observation in scholarship on mass violence across the social sciences is that elite decision-making is processual. This agreement on the processual nature of mass violence notwithstanding, models for how this actually works remain opaque. The most extensive scholarship exists for the Holocaust, where historians developed the idea of cumulative radicalization. The approach suggests that, informed by animating but ultimately somewhat vague ideas from the Nazi leadership, local officials interpreted instructions, competed with their peers, and invented policies of violence in the field. Central authorities in turn affirmed and encouraged these levels of violence.

This Matrix project seeks to build on this insight through three key questions: First, how does this model of cumulative radicalization work for other cases of genocide? Second, how can the burgeoning literature on political violence in sociology and political violence provide insight into these escalation processes? And third, can the notion of cumulative radicalization taken from Holocaust studies help overcome the generalizability and aggregation crises which are currently haunting scholarship on political violence more broadly?

The culmination will be a one-day workshop in April, held at Matrix, featuring speakers who can speak to the comparative genocide dimensions (e.g., scholars of Cambodia, China, Bosnia, and other cases) as well as to the political violence literature. The team seeks to develop the papers from the workshop into a special issue of an academic journal.

Image: Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Photo by Michael Fousert on Unsplash