Hollie Nyseth Brehm, a current graduate human rights minor and PhD candidate in Sociology, recently returned from Bosnia, where she carried out research for her dissertation that investigates the causes and processes of genocide and the spread of violence. The project more specifically focuses on regional and temporal variation in violence, examining why some areas of Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan experienced a higher degree of violence during genocide and why some time periods were more violent than others.
Brehm has also traveled to Rwanda and plans to travel to Sudan to conduct research for this project, in an effort to shine more light on the topic of genocide from a new perspective. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Brehm about her work and experiences abroad, and about her aspirations for her dissertation. Brehm told me that a human rights class in the graduate minor ignited her interest in studying genocide, and her passion for understanding and battling this dark atrocity has since grown deeper through her research on the subject. She explained that although much has been written on the topic of genocide, empirical research in the sociological field is noticeably lacking. As genocide is profoundly a societal event, she feels that a sociological perspective is critical in fully understanding such a horrifying and complex crime.
Before traveling, Brehm carried out extensive empirical research, where she used quantitative statistical models to analyze the Rwandan, Bosnian, and Sudanese genocides. Almost everything Brehm had read on the genocides had been a second-hand source, filtered through the eyes of scholar and necessarily simplified to fit into a paper or a book. While this is important, Brehm felt it would be beneficial to travel to the countries in which these genocides took place, so she could hear first-hand accounts of the violence from many different perspectives, adding a deeply human element to the books she had so thoroughly studied and exposing the true complexity of each of these conflicts.
Brehm wished to travel to many different sites in each of her three countries of study, varying in the degree of violence they were exposed to. Prior to her departure for both Rwanda and Bosnia, Brehm did extensive networking, connecting with experts, scholars, NGO directors, and individuals who personally experienced the genocides, and setting up interviews with many of them. She principally conducted semi-structured interviews, using a flexible, basic guide of questions and varying them as desired depending on the particular individual or context. Her interviewees mainly involved two types of actors: experts, and those influenced personally by the genocide. Experts included such individuals as scholars studying genocide, people working at local NGOs, government workers, and people who worked in the courts during the genocides. Individuals who were personally influenced by the genocide included anyone who was there during the genocide and was willing to talk, and many times the individuals Brehm spoke with fit within both of these two categories.
Brehm was excited to find that the vast majority of interviewees were enthusiastic about speaking with her and readily shared valuable information and personal testimonies. Knowing that Brehm hoped to publish a book addressed to a highly influential American audience, many individuals saw Brehm as a way to make their voice heard, and wanted to assist in shaping how Brehm portrayed the events they experienced during genocide.
While conducting interviews, Brehm wished to give back to those who offered her their time and invaluable information and stories. In Rwanda, Brehm worked as an intern to provide assistance in writing grants and conceptualizing research projects for the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide. Brehm also often brought small gifts as signs of gratitude and peace during personal interviews, and would ask if there was anything more she could do for them. At times, individuals participating in the interviews would request Brehm to visit sentimental places with them, such as a grave, or a plundered home. Others would ask to look through old photos or to show her sentimental relics. Brehm hoped that in these moments, she was able to help these individuals in some small way to process past tragedy. It strengthened and deepened the bond Brehm felt with the people of Bosnia and Rwanda, allowing her to connect with them on an intimate level and adding much dimension to her work.
Genocide, a topic charged with violence, hatred and despair, can often trigger feelings of helplessness and pessimism. However, Brehm finds hope in her studies that motivates her to continue her research on such a dismal subject. As a sociologist, Brehm views genocide and many other crimes against humanity as caused by deeply social forces. If defined as societal, Brehm asserts, these practices can be changed, and do not stem from an innate and inevitable evil within individuals or human nature. The importance of Brehm's work as a sociologist studying genocide is thus paramount; her study of this crime will develop society's understanding of genocide in a way that gives us the agency to eliminate it. The Human Rights Program looks forward to reading Brehm's dissertation, recognizing it as an important contribution to scholarly study on the topic of genocide and the spread of violence.
Brehm's dissertation funders include the following:
• National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program
• National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Award
• Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, University of Minnesota
• University of Minnesota Dunn Peace Research Scholarship
• Midwest Sociological Society Dissertation Grant
• University of Minnesota Sociology Department Bright Award
• Vincent L. Hawkinson Foundation Scholarship
Written by Anna Meteyer.
Photo - memorial to victims of all wars, located in Tuzla, Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina