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Encyclopedia > Ethnocide

Ethnocide is a concept related to genocide; unlike genocide, which has entered into international law, ethnocide remains primarily the province of ethnologists, who have not yet settled on a single cohesive meaning for the term. Image File history File links Information_icon. ... Look up Genocide in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ...

Raphael Lemkin, the linguist and lawyer who coined genocide as the union of "the Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)", also suggested ethnocide as an alternative form representing the same concept, using the Greek ethnos (nation) in place of genos. It does not appear to have entered into wide usage at the time. Rafael Lemkin (June 24, 1900—August 28, 1959) was a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent. ...

Subsequently, ethnocide has been used by some ethnologists to refer to a sub-type of genocide, namely: while the United Nations' 1951 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as acts committed against "national, ethnical, racial or religious" groups, ethnocide in this context would refer only to crimes motivated by ethnicity. The United Nations (UN) is an international organization whose stated aims are to facilitate co-operation in international law, international security, economic development, and social equity. ... 1951 (MCMLI) was a common year starting on Monday; see its calendar. ... The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948 and came into effect in January 1951. ...

Another definition in use in some writings suggests that ethnocide could refer to actions which, while not leading directly to death or harm of living members of a group, have the long-term effect of, e.g., reducing birthrates, interfering with education or transmission of culture to future generations of a group, or erasing the group's existence or practices from the historical record. This usage is commonly found in discussions of oppressed indigenous peoples and is sometimes referred to as culturecide. Under the UN Convention, some of these practices could also overlap with legal definitions of genocide, e.g., prevention of births within a group, or forcibly transferring the children of a group to another group.

Although international genocide law focuses primarily on direct violent and repressive actions, it is worth noting that Lemkin, in his writings, considered genocide to be a crime above all others not solely because of the numbers of persons killed or injured, but because genocide carried with it the intent to render entire, irreplaceable cultures extinct. The broader definition of ethnocide may be useful in addressing perceived shortcomings and restrictions of genocide law and in identifying cultural destruction when it occurs by less violent and less visible means.

Like its related term cultural genocide, the etymology of ethnocide is seen by some as inflammatory; those who believe that directly killing, intentionally causing the death of, or physically harming members of a group make genocide unique among crimes may see parallel use of language as an attempt to equate what they consider to be lesser offenses, thereby watering down the particular horrors invoked by the term genocide. Cultural genocide is a term used to describe the deliberate destruction of the cultural heritage of a people or nation for political or military reasons. ...

Robert Jaulin and ethnocide

However, a deeper and more complex reason may lie behind the hesitations, the neglect or the rejection with which the concept of ethnocide is generally approached: the notion could pinpoint a deep-seated propensity of western civilization in its relations to other civilizations, a proclivity that, according to Leon Festinger's Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, could hardly become publicly known and acknowledged in the West and the westernized societies. Leon Festinger (born May 8, 1919 - February 11, 1989) was a social psychologist from New York City who became famous for his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. ... Cognitive dissonance is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions, which can be defined as any element of knowledge, including attitude, emotion, belief, or behavior; in other words, it is the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. ...

Such hurdle could explain the general unawareness of the work of Robert Jaulin, the French ethnologist (1928-1996) who reinstated the word and redefined the concept of ethnocide in 1970 with his ground-breaking La paix blanche : introduction à l’ethnocide (literally: “White Peace: Introduction to Ethnocide”). This capital work, which remains to be translated into English, gives a detailed account of the ethnocide-in-motion suffered by the Bari, an Indian people living on the border between Venezuela and Colombia, in the second half of the sixties, as witnessed by Robert Jaulin himself. Whether conflicting or collaborating among themselves, western multiple vectors of ethnocide in place (the Catholic Church and other Christian confessions, the Venezuelan and the Colombian armies, the American oil company Colpet, and all the “little colonists” as Jaulin calls them) converged to the relentless disavowal and destruction of Bari’s culture and society.

In Jaulin’s understanding of the notion, it is not the means but the ends that define ethnocide. Accordingly, the ethnocide would be the systematic destruction of the thought and the way of life of people different from those who carry out this enterprise of destruction. Whereas the genocide assassinates the people in their body, the ethnocide kills them in their spirit.

Collective and arbitrary murder, systematic abduction of children to raise them away from their parent’s culture, active and degrading religious propaganda, forced work, expulsion from the homeland or compulsory abandonment of cultural habits and social structure, all these practices, described by Robert Jaulin, have in common a deep despise for the other man and woman as representatives of a different cultural world.

Along with a detailed description and analysis of Bari’s case, La paix blanche is also a broad reflection on western civilization’s tendency to disacknowledge, lower and destroy other cultural worlds as it comes in touch with them, while extending its own domain, bringing the focus of the discussion back from the frontiers of western civilization to its core and its history. As he takes his inquiry back in time, Jaulin shows that the way the West relates to other civilizations is a continuation of the way it has always related to its own inner cultural diversity, from the monotheistic exclusion of the representatives of different and differing cultural spaces (the “other” gods, divinities, entities, etc.) to its reinstatement under the successive garments of Reason, Revolution, Progress or Science.

A long reflection on the dynamics that led to worldwide ethnocide, its different “masks”, its history and one of its earliest manifestations, monotheism, led Robert Jaulin to a complete reappraisal of the phenomenal and conceptual fields polarized by the notion of ethnocide.

This reassessment took its final shape in the 1995’s work, L’univers des totalitarismes : Essai d’ethnologie du “non-être” (in free translation: «The Universe of Totalitarianisms: An Ethnological Essay on “Non-Being”»). In this book, the notion of “totalitarianism” (which should not be mistaken for Hannah Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism) depicts the underlying dynamics of which ethnocide becomes a manifestation among others. Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906 – December 4, 1975) was a Jewish-American political theorist. ... Totalitarianism is a term employed by political scientists, especially those in the field of comparative politics, to describe modern regimes in which the state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior. ...

Robert Jaulin defines totalitarianism as an abstract scheme or machine of non-relation to cultural otherness characterized by the expansion of "oneself " ("soi") through an election/exclusion logic. The totalitarian machine operates by splitting the universe into its own “agents” on the one side, and its “objects” on the other, whether they be individuals, families, groups, societies or whole civilizations. It proceeds by depriving the later of their quality of cultural subjects through the erosion and finally the suppression of their space of tradition and cultural invention, which mediates their relation with themselves, i.e. their reflexivity. With the mutilation of their “field of cultural potentialities”, as Jaulin calls it, the totalitarian dynamics transforms its “objects” into new “agents” of expansion, reduced to a mock self-relation defined by the horizon of a potential election. However, to become actual this election needs to articulate with a pole of exclusion; thus the need of a new expansion of this universe of non-relation, the universe of totalitarianisms, by definition an endlessly expanding universe whose theoretical limits paradoxically coincide with its own self-destruction.

The election/exclusion logics works by means of pairs of contradictory and, therefore, mutually exclusive terms. Their content may be as varied as the different semantic domains invested by the totalitarian machine: chosen/doomed, religion/magic, truth/falseness, literate/illiterate, savage/civilized, subject/object, intellectual/manual, proletarians/capitalists, science/illusion, subjectivity/objectivity, etc. In all these contradictory pairs, one of the poles “means” to occupy the whole field; but at the same time, its own meaning and “existence” depends on the virtually excluded pole.

According to Robert Jaulin, the asymmetrical relation portrayed by these pairs is but the starting point of totalitarian movement, its static and temporary position. Its dynamics derives from the “wished for” or prospective inversion of the relation between its two poles. This may happen through the totalitarian pair defining the pre-existing situation, the design of a new one or, more often, through recovery and adaptation of old formulas.

The recovery of the Marxist proletarian/capitalistic contradictory pair or the even older monotheistic chosen/doomed couple by many Independence or Prophetic Movements in the former European colonies as a means of inverting the pre-existing totalitarian field is an instance of the shifts through which the “totalitarian trajectory” reinvents itself. This example also shows the place of ethnocide within the overall totalitarian dynamics as the dialectical alternate to totalitarian inversion.

Such an inexorable and elementary logic, with its ability to migrate to, pervade and finally destroy ever-differing cultural and social worlds, accounts for the endlessly restarted trajectory of totalitarianism’s two-pole field through time and space.


La paix blanche: Introduction à l’ethnocide, Seuil, 1970.

Les chemins du vide, Christian Bourgois, 1977.

Notes d’ailleurs, Christian Bourgois, 1980.

Géomancie et Islam, Éd. Christian Bourgois, 1990.

L’année chauve, Métailié, 1993.

L’Univers des Totalitarismes: Essai d’ethnologie du « non-être », Loris Talmart, 1995.

Exercices d’ethnologie, PUF, 1999. (Posthumous work edited and presented by Roger Renaud.)


De l’ethnocide, Christian Bourgois, coll. 10/18.

L’ethnocide à travers des Amériques, Fayard, 1972.

La décivilisation, Éditions Complexe, 1974.

See also

Ethnic cleansing refers to various policies or practices aimed at the displacement of an ethnic group from a particular territory. ... Cultural genocide is a term used to describe the deliberate destruction of the cultural heritage of a people or nation for political or military reasons. ... Policide is a neologism used in political science to describe the intentional destruction of a city or nation. ...

External links

  • Ethnocide
  • "Robert Jaulin", short biography in the French Wikipedia.
  • "At the core of monotheisms", short article.



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