Posted: September 17th, 2017

Research essays

You will be graded on the following:

 the quality of your preliminary research,

 the level of detail and specificity in your proposed argument and structure,

the clarity of your expression.

The purpose of the essay proposal and outline is to allow you to commence planning your first research essay, and to receive feedback on your approach to the topic. It is designed to encourage thought and preparation for the major assessment, the research essay.


Select one question from the first set of topics (listed under ‘Research Essay’) or devise your own question addressing a theme or movement from the course. As a general observation, there is a higher level of risk and effort attached to formulating your own question.

Conduct some preliminary research, identifying and consulting relevant journal and news articles, books, and, potentially, websites. These should be listed in a short bibliography at the end of your proposal. Four to five items will be sufficient at this early stage, though by all means list more if you have located them.

Give an overview of your preliminary argument, and some indication of the structure of your essay. Which areas will you focus on? Are there any particular case studies or examples that will be especially useful? Are there any notable scholars that have published widely on the topic? This discussion need not be highly detailed, and you are free to change your position in the finished essay – that is, you won’t be penalized for drifting away from your proposal. Certainly, your thoughts on the topic may well evolve dramatically between those initial ideas your present in your proposal, and those that you ultimately develop in the essay itself. Avoid vague statements (including the notorious, though amusing “I will begin with the introduction… and probably finish with the conclusion…”)

Research Essay Topics

1. Defining genocide is too perilous and political. Scholars and international jurists should instead focus upon the specifics of a particular atrocity and situation, as opposed to devising particular categories. War crimes, crimes against humanity, and mass, systematic human rights violations are more effective means for approaching the worst horrors of humanity. Discuss with reference to specific examples. Difficult question.

2. The Holocaust was an event of horror and inhumanity beyond comparison. Efforts at comparative discussion, in relation to preceding and following genocides and mass atrocities are profoundly problematic. To what extent is this characterization supportable? Discuss with reference to the debates in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s.

3. The risks of humanitarian intervention, using armed force, to prevent or stop massive human rights violations, are vastly outweighed by the potential for it to save lives and remedy conditions of severe repression. To what extent to you agree? Discuss with reference to at least two cases which have been presented as instances of ‘humanitarian intervention’ (1978/9, Tanzania in Uganda; 1979, Vietnam in Cambodia; 1999, NATO in Kosovo; 1999, INTERFET in East Timor; 2011, NATO/Arab League in Libya). Consider also, carefully, the contrary cases, where no humanitarian intervention was undertaken (1994, Rwanda; 1967/8, Biafra; 2006, Darfur).

4. There are recognizable precursors or steps that occur prior to the commencement of genocide; it is, therefore, a logical and predictable consequence of less lethal human rights violations. Is this accurate? Can genocide be ‘predicted’ from discrimination, racism, inter-communal hatred, or some other proxy ‘warning’ signal?

5. Democracy is no more or less likely to practice genocide than dictatorship. To what extent are genocides driven by popular prejudice and hatred – and to what extent are they enacted from ‘the top down’? Include at least two specific examples, and consider the manner in which the genocides were undertaken, be it centralized, systematic murder, or more distributed, locally conducted, campaigns.

6. A deep, embedded tradition of anti-semitism within German society was a decisive factor that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Was this the case? Is there a line of causation between older patterns of prejudice and what would eventually produce the Holocaust?

7. Settler colonies are, by their very nature, predisposed to genocide, or actions which are closely proximate to genocide. Consider one or two cases (Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the United States).

8. Debates about the ‘functionalist’ versus ‘intentionalist’ explanation of the Holocaust serve little purpose. Do you agree? Why is it important to understand the degree of ‘intention’ within the Third Reich?

9. Total war is itself a crime that implies genocide, or a scale and manner of death that is almost indistinguishable from it. Discuss with reference to specific examples from either the ancient or modern world (1941, Nazi war in the East; 1937, Japanese empire in North Asia; 1940-45, Allied area bombing campaigns in Europe and the Pacific).

10. Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 description of the German citizenry as ‘willing executioners’ is much more accurate than any competing explanations. Discuss the Goldhagen thesis and its strengths compared to those advanced by other scholars.

11. The gravity of the Holocaust is beyond representation, and seeking to capture it in film, memorial, literature, or other artistic work is inherently a fractional and partial exercise. What are the problems and perils of seeking to produce any sort of artistic engagement with the destruction of Europe’s Jewish citizens, and the numerous groups, ‘Gypsies’, homosexuals, and other ‘racial’ communities which were murdered by the Third Reich. Are their potential advantages in using artistic or creative means in commemorating or representing the Holocaust? (Note: You can adapt this question to other genocides).

12. Cambodia’s ‘autogenocide’ was much less an endogenous phenomenon that one that resulted from factors that were not within Cambodia’s society or tradition. To what extent was the Khmer Rouge a distinctly ‘Cambodian’ development?

13. Owing to their degree of centralization, control, and general capacity over the population, genocides that occur in developed, industrial societies, with strong state systems, are not usefully compared to those which occur in less developed regions? Are there meaningful differences between the Holocaust or the genocides of the former Yugoslavia, and those of Cambodia and Rwanda? (Note: This is an exceptionally dangerous question, and should be approached with the utmost caution).

14. The fundamental purpose and ideology of Belgian colonialism was genocidal. Discuss with reference to King Leopold’s rule in the Congo.

15. Large scale slavery, forced labour, and forced migration are close conceptual siblings to genocide. Discuss with reference to an event or regime that engaged in these practices.

16. Mass killing on the basis of political beliefs, or supposed ‘class’ identity, or similar identity marker, should properly be considered genocide. Is there anything intrinsic to ethic, linguistic, cultural, racial, or religious ‘group’ identity that sets it apart as of greater importance, compared to other criteria (for instance, class, political disposition)?

17. The Ukrainian Famine demonstrates that there is little difference between mass killing via ‘acts of omission’ as opposed to ‘acts of commission’. To what extent do you agree? Discuss with reference to the Ukrainian Famine and the relative role of Stalin’s policy.

18. As perverse and grave as they are, the phenomena of forced labour and slavery are not, of themselves, inevitably genocidal. Is this statement accurate? Discuss with reference to at least two examples (for instance, Cambodia, the PRC, the Soviet Union, Leopold’s Congo, or apartheid South Africa).

19. The recognition of sexual violence and mass rape as a constituent crime within the class of genocide and crimes against humanity has been a comparatively recent development of international law. How can the immense delay between the original formulations of genocide in international law in 1948, and the eventual clear recognition of mass rape as potentially genocidal in the 1990s, be explained? Discuss with reference to the deliberations of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and the 1998 Rome Statute.

20. The greatest challenge to understanding and preventing genocide is comprehending how seemingly normal citizens can murder those they live alongside. How can such transformations possibly be explained? Consider in particular the works of Lifton and Browning.

21. What is the role of the bystander or passive participant in situations of genocide or gross human rights violation? How can this category be approached in historical justice debates? Does the strength and relative power of the state or regime alter the accountability of individuals who acquiesce to genocide?

22. The case of Romania demonstrates a shared logic between forced sterilization and forced reproduction – to what extent do you agree? Compare and contrast Ceaucescu’s coercive pro- natalism with forced sterilization.

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