Department of Educational Psychology


Document Type


Date of this Version

December 2001


Published in Journal of Genocide Research 3:3 (2001), pp. 431–450. Copyright © 2001 Research Network in Genocide Studies; published by Carfax Publishing, Taylor & Francis Group. Used by permission.


Our thinking is unavoidably constrained by our conceptual structures. To the extent that we reflect on and reconstruct our concepts, however, we can sharpen our thinking. The first section of this article considers the nature of concepts, highlighting a standard distinction between prototype-based and formal concepts.

Drawing on these insights from cognitive psychology, the second section suggests that the ability to recognize and understand genocides is greatly restricted by Holocaust-based conceptions of genocide. In turn one can enhance one’s understanding via the construction and application of formal concepts of genocide.

Extending this argument, I observe in the third section that genocide, however defined, has come to be seen as the ultimate human rights catastrophe, and thus the measure of all such catastrophes. Implicitly or explicitly, we routinely construe and evaluate mass killings, cultural exterminations, ethnic cleansings, political disappearances, religious inquisitions, chattel slavery, and other catastrophic violations of human rights through the lens of genocide. This often illuminates the genocidal aspects of diverse atrocities, but it also hinders and distorts our understanding of matters that cannot and should not be understood only in relation to genocide.

Finally, I consider the scientific and educational implications of the present arguments. By articulating, discussing, coordinating, and reflecting on diverse historical cases and diverse formal criteria for genocide and other human rights catastrophes, and by encouraging students to do so as well, we can foster the construction of defensible formal conceptions and an accompanying consciousness about the nature and limits of those conceptions. We cannot escape the constraints inherent in conceptual thought, but we can always transcend the limitations of our current concepts.