Mass Violence, Ethnic Competition, and Social Movement Scholarship

For some time social scientists that study mass violence, right wing and repressive social movements, and interethnic and interracial competition have analyzed similar collective phenomena using quite different theoretical frameworks. Inattention to theoretical overlaps across these subfields has not prevented scholars within them from generating robust findings and insights, but it has hampered efforts toward the development of a broader synthetic research agenda on social movements, violence, and social control. This inattention is particularly important given the recent movement of scholarship on mass violence and racial/ethnic competition toward meso- and micro-levels of analysis, placing them squarely within the territory of social movement scholarship (Collins 2008; Cunningham 2012, 2013; Karstedt 2013; King 2004; Owens et al. 2013; Tilly 2003).

My research addresses these issues by focusing on the role of collective action in constructing, defending, or transforming structures of racial, ethnic, and political inequality. Specifically, I focus on the mobilization of social control efforts by nominal power holders against disadvantaged groups, and seek to extend macro-level theories of interethnic competition and group threat by specifying the meso-level mechanisms that mobilize or demobilize adherents across divergent social environments.

To do so, I look at variation in the presence and intensity of these mechanisms at the local and regional level. This requires disaggregating larger episodes into their constitutive “micro-climates” (Karstedt 2013), within which collective mechanisms may influence actors towards more or less extreme forms of action. I look in particular at the symbolic “boundary work” (Lamont and Molnar 2002) of local actors in attributing identities, characteristics, and motives to a disadvantaged out-group, and the effects this “work” has on subsequent social control efforts. Here I draw from a robust line of research in collective framing processes (Benford and Snow 2000; Hunt et al. 1994) to identify the construction and imputation of out-group identities, characteristics, and motives as a crucial meso-level indicator of conflict severity (Hagan and Rymond-Richmond 2008; Shibutani 1973).

My theoretical understanding of this mechanism draws from relevant insights in the collective framing and symbolic boundary literatures, which argue that intergroup “us-them” boundaries are generally collective achievements of interactive processes, rather than straightforward products of ideology or macro-social change (Hunt et al. 1994; Lamont and Molnar 2002; Owens Forthcoming; Wimmer 2013). Despite their dynamic and contested nature, the construction of intergroup boundaries through framing processes remains a “necessary aspect of the collective action process inasmuch as it situates and places other categories of actors as targets of strategic action” (Hunt et al. 1994: 192).

In a forthcoming article in Social Science History, I leverage this attention to meso-level mechanisms to explain local variation in violent victimization during the Cambodian genocide (ca. 1975-1979). I find that the violent victimization of various subgroups became both more intense and more generalized when local political leaders used “crisis frames” to create a war-like political environment, defined by pervasive and proximate threats from “class enemies.” In areas where these crisis frames were not used by local leaders to describe local conditions, violence remained focused on the nominal enemies of the Khmer Rouge regime.

My dissertation research elaborates on the role of boundary work in intergroup conflict. Here I use mid-nineteenth century California (ca. 1850-1865) as a critical case study to explicate the collective dynamics of violence and social exclusion targeting indigenous Californians. To do so, I extend conventional competition and group threat theories to account for the colonial context of American territorial invasion, and specify the structural and meso-level foundations for the mobilization or demobilization of violence in different locales. My preliminary findings suggest that the collective “boundary work” of local actors was central in explaining why state and civic violence remained relatively consistent in some regions of California, but declined over time in others. Specifically, in northern frontier areas, influential local actors who deployed collective frames of indigenous peoples as inherently treacherous and violent were able to gain political standing with California state officials, increasing political opportunities for continued violence in the region. This contrasts with central mining areas, where indigenous peoples were more likely to be collectively viewed as pitiable victims of American invasion, and where indigenous policing and spatial confinement strategies prevailed.

While my work is primarily historical in nature, episodes of significant racial and ethnic violence and terror often have enduring effects on the communities in which they occur, and are thus relevant in understanding the allocation of ethnic and racial inequality and disadvantage in subsequent periods. For example, recent studies on the legacies of lynching violence and white supremacist vigilantism in the American South find that such violence had enduring institutional and community-level effects, weakening communal cohesion and increasing the appeal of vigilantism and violence in the areas where it was most pronounced (McVeigh and Cunningham 2012; Messner et al. 2005). Similar insights have been made by historians of race and empire in the American West, who draw important attention to the region’s “unbroken past”: the ways in which institutions and practices developed during previous historical periods structure subsequent intergroup conflicts and inequalities (e.g. Limerick 1987). My research on California thus maintains a commitment to the eventual development of a longitudinal approach to violence against indigenous peoples in the American West, in which past episodes of racial and ethnic violence and terror may help to constitute future intergroup relations and social control efforts.


Benford, Robert D., and David A. Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 26(1):611–39.

Collins, Randall. 2008. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cunningham, David. 2012. “Mobilizing Ethnic Competition.” Theory and Society 41(5):505–25.

Cunningham, David. 2013. Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hagan, J., and W. Rymond-Richmond. 2008. “The Collective Dynamics of Racial Dehumanization and Genocidal Victimization in Darfur.” American Sociological Review 73(6):875–902.

Hunt, Scott A., Robert D. Benford, and David A. Snow. 1994. “Identity Fields: Framing Processes and the Social Construction of Movement Identities.” Pp. 185–208 in New social movements: From ideology to identity, edited by Enrique Larana, Hank Johnston, and Joseph R. Gusfield. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Karstedt, Susanne. 2013. “Contextualizing Mass Atrocity Crimes: Moving Toward a Relational Approach.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 9(1):383–404.

King, Charles. 2004. “The Micropolitics of Social Violence.” World Politics 56(03):431–55.

Lamont, Michèle, and Virág Molnár. 2002. “The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences.” Annual Review of Sociology 28(1):167–95.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. 1987. The Legacy of Conquest: the Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton.

McVeigh, R., and D. Cunningham. 2012. “Enduring Consequences of Right-Wing Extremism: Klan Mobilization and Homicides in Southern Counties.” Social Forces 90(3):843–62.

Messner, S. F., R. D. Baller, and M. P. Zevenbergen. 2005. “The Legacy of Lynching and Southern Homicide.” American Sociological Review 70(4):633–55.

Owens, Peter B. Forthcoming. “The Collective Dynamics of Genocidal Violence in Cambodia, 1975-1979.” Social Science History.

Owens, Peter B., Yang Su, and David A. Snow. 2013. “Social Scientific Inquiry Into Genocide and Mass Killing: From Unitary Outcome to Complex Processes.” Annual Review of Sociology 39(1):69–84.

Shibutani, Tamotsu. 1973. “On the Personification of Adversaries.” Pp. 223—233 in Human Nature and Collective Behavior: Papers in Honor of Herbert Blumer, edited by Tamotsu Shibutani. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press.

Tilly, Charles. 2003. The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wimmer, Andreas. 2013. Ethnic Boundary Making: Institutions, Power, Networks. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

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