Gendering Perpetrator Studies

Gendering Perpetrator Studies

Clare Bielby

Developing predominantly from Holocaust and Genocide Studies, ‘Perpetrator Studies’ has emerged as a distinct field of enquiry since the 1990s. Increased momentum in the last several years has resulted in the interdisciplinary research network: ‘The Perpetrator Studies Network, based at the University of Utrecht and founded by Susanne Knittel in 2015. Associated with that network, the first academic journal, Journal of Perpetrator Research, will be launched this year, with a Routledge Handbook of Perpetrator Studies on its way.

As the term suggests, Perpetrator Studies puts the perpetrator of – usually political – violence centre stage. Its underlying premise and intellectual and ethical urgency is that if we want to arrive at a better understanding of violence and conflict, we need to try to understand the perpetrator and what shapes her or his acts of perpetration. ‘To understand’ does not mean ‘to forgive’ or ‘to condone’; rather it means to reflect on and account for the social, cultural, political, historical and psychological processes that enable perpetration.

Gender should be a central concern here. Gender is constitutive of how we think about the perpetrator and perpetration. Even on an etymological level, gender is written into the category: the Indo-European root of perpetrator is ‘pəter’, referring to ‘father’. Hence Perpetrator Studies needs gendering, where gender analysis, as V. Spike Peterson reminds us, is ‘neither just about women, nor about the addition of women to male-stream constructions’; rather it ‘is about transforming ways of being and knowing’ (1). Perpetrator Studies, furthermore, need queering, where ‘to queer’ is not only to acknowledge and account for non-heterosexual desires and non-binary gender identities; it is also to turn something on its head, to question assumed meanings and categories, exploring the limits, the biases and the boundaries of those categories.

The Rise of Perpetrator Studies
Foundational to the field of Perpetrator Studies is the Holocaust, with associated ideas such as ‘the banality of evil’ (Hannah Arendt with reference to Adolf Eichmann during his trial of  1961 and ‘Nuremberg defence’).‘Superior orders defence’ used during the Nuremberg Trials of War Crimes 1945-1949 having become key points of reference (2). But Perpetrator Studies casts its net wider than this, focusing on other instances of violent perpetration, such as the My Lai Massacre of 1968, the Genocide in Rwanda of 1994, September 11 and Abu Ghraib, with further key moments including the Milgram Experiment on obedience of 1963 and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 (3).

Although scholars have considered the perpetrators of National Socialist violence since the end of the Second World War, it was in the 1990s, and specifically with the publication of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992), that Perpetrator Studies with regard to German history really took off (4). In the new millennium and particularly in the last few years, the field has become increasingly interdisciplinary, bringing into productive dialogue important work being conducted on political violence and perpetration in all manner of contexts under the umbrella of Perpetrator Studies, and reaching out to practitioners working outside of academia, such as museum curators, educators and those working in human rights, as events organised by ‘The Perpetrator Studies Network’ demonstrate. Key concerns of Perpetrator Studies, and that network in particular, include ethics, pedagogy and the question of representation.

Gender, (Political) Violence and Perpetration
Gendered ideas about violence, perpetration and victimhood count as cultural ‘common sense’, with theorists such as Critical Men’s Studies scholar Michael Meuser arguing that – still today – ‘doing’ violence is a constitutive part of ‘doing’ masculinity (5). Such gendering is bound up with ideas around war and nation-building, prevalent in Europe and beyond, at least since the French Revolution. According to these it is men who fight for the nation, defending and protecting innocent women and children, with women and the feminine often carrying allegorical overtones: Tamar Mayer maintains that in national narratives ‘the nation is virtually always feminized and characterized as in need of protection; women are figured as the biological and cultural reproducers of the nation and as “pure” and “modest,” and men defend the national image and protect the nation’s territory, women’s “purity” and “modesty,” and the “moral code”’ (6).

Meanwhile, crucially important work conducted by ‘second-wave’ feminist movements in the western world has served to further entrench these gendered ideas on violence, perpetration and victimhood. In fact, one of the most significant achievements of those movements was recognition of and awareness raising around the extent of patriarchal violence against women in all its forms – physical, sexual, structural and symbolic, for example.

All as result, masculinity has functioned as a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to the question of political violence and perpetration, whilst there has been little discursive space to imagine the female violent actor or perpetrator outside of sexist and sensationalist tropes. There has also been little will to engage with the idea of women as perpetrators, not least amongst feminists and feminist scholars. This was evident in the West German context during the so-called ‘feminist’ Historikerstreit (historians’ dispute) of the 1980s, centred on feminist historians Claudia Koonz and Gisela Bock, and the question of whether women under National Socialism should be seen as victims or perpetrators (7).

An approach evident in early feminist academic work on gender, political violence and perpetration is the ‘token women’ or ‘extraordinary women’ approach that takes unusual women, such as West German left-wing militant Ulrike Meinhof or women concentration camp guards, as its focus. But this approach has its limitations: it tends not to be a systematically gendered approach and it feeds rather too easily into the prevalent academic tendency to conflate ‘gender’ with ‘women’ whilst leaving the universal/default ‘masculine’ unexamined. This tendency is evident still today in so many collected volumes of essays on political violence and/or perpetration that, although they may take gender into account to some extent, seem to operate on the basis of: ‘we’ve dealt with gender because we had those two chapters on women concentration camp guards’.

Gendering and Queering Perpetrator Studies: Some Ways Forward
So what might it mean to gender and to queer Perpetrator Studies? Certainly it means analysing the various actors involved in political violence and perpetration – be they perpetrators, victims, survivors, bystanders, or any combination of those – from a gendered perspective, seeking to understand how their gendered subjectivities and gendered bodies, as these intersect with other categories such as race, ethnicity, class, dis/ability, sexuality, might shape their behaviour. It also means critically examining how organisations, structures and discourses around political violence and perpetration – and academic discourse is no exception here – are gendered.

Gendering and certainly queering Perpetrator Studies also means thinking about the politics of representation that are at stake when we use categories such as ‘the perpetrator’, ‘the victim’ and ‘political violence’. As has been said of ‘violence’ and ‘terrorism’, ‘the perpetrator’ is always to some degree ‘in the eye of the beholder’; determining who counts as a ‘perpetrator’ is always culturally and historically contingent. A possible way round this is to suspend the legal framework entirely, understanding anyone who uses violence as a potential ‘perpetrator’.

But violence is a tricky one too. Perpetrator Studies tends to take for granted that we understand ‘violence’ as ‘non-consensual physical violence’. However physical violence surely needs to be understood in the context of those other, less obvious forms of violence, such as structural, symbolic, linguistic violence: queer-feminist scholar Sara Ahmed reminds us to attend to ‘the politics of who or what gets seen as the origin of violence: the revolutionaries expose violence, but the violence they expose is not recognized as violence: structural violence is violence that is veiled’ (8). Structural violence also tends to be gendered, affecting bodies and subjects in different ways, according to gender and other intersecting categories. And what about the question of ‘the political’? How do we determine what counts as political, and does the subject have to have a self-consciously political or ideological motivation for an act to count as ‘political violence’?

Ultimately, even the category ‘the perpetrator’ is problematic in that it seems to point to essentialist notions of ‘selfhood’, as though the act(s) of perpetration would characterise ‘the perpetrator’s’ whole being. Building on feminist and queer poststructuralist thinkers, then, gendering and queering Perpetrator Studies could mean understanding the ‘self’ as always fluid, relational, multiple, performative and gendered; understanding perpetration as a process or as cultural work that can often be generative at the level of the self. That is something explored in a forthcoming collected volume of essays I am editing with Jeffrey Murer (University of St Andrews), titled Perpetrating Selves: Doing Violence, Performing Identity (London: Palgrave Macmillan), which emerges from a conference that took place at the University of Hull in 2015: ‘The Perpetrator Self: Violence, Gender and Emotion in Culture and Conflict in the long twentieth century’.

Gendering and queering Perpetrator Studies is just one important approach to the field. But queering or ‘troubling’ categories such as ‘the perpetrator’, and asking questions such as what counts as violence, as political violence and how that might be related to gender and sexuality, seems a particularly important endeavour in 2017.

(1) Peterson, V. Spike (1999) ‘Sexing Political Identities/Nationalism as Heterosexism’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 1 (1): 34-65 (37).
(2) Arendt, Hannah (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press.
(3) Milgram, Stanley (1997) Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. London: Pinter & Martin; Craig Haney, Curtis Banks and Philip Zimbardo (1973) ‘Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison’, International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1: 69-97.
(4) Browning, Christopher (1992) Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Collins.
(5) Meuser, Michael (2002) ‘“Doing Masculinity” – Zur Geschlechtslogik männlichen Gewalthandelns’, in Regina-Maria Dackweiler and Reinhild Schäfer (eds.), Gewalt-Verhältnisse: Feministische Perspektiven auf Geschlecht und Gewalt. Frankfurt am Main: Campus, pp. 53-78.
(6) Mayer, Tamar (2000) ‘Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Setting the Stage,’ in T. Mayer (ed.), Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 1-22 (p. 10).
(7) Koonz, Claudia (1988) Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics. New York: St Martin’s Press; Bock, Gisela (1989) ‘Die Frauen und der Nationalisozialismus: Bemerkungen zu einem Buch von Claudia Koonz’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 15 (4): 536-79.
(8) Ahmed, Sara (2010) The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University Press, p. 170.


Clare Bielby is Senior Lecturer in Women’s Studies at the University of York, UK. Her research focuses on gender, violence and representation, particularly in the context of the Federal Republic of Germany. Her theoretical interests include queer and feminist theory. She is the author of Violent Women in Print: Representations in the West German Print Media of the 1960s and 1970s (Camden House, 2012) and co-editor (with Anna Richards) of Women and Death 3: Women’s Representations of Death in German Culture since 1500 (Camden House, 2010) and (with Jeffrey Murer) of the forthcoming Perpetrating Selves: Doing Violence, Performing Identity (Palgrave, 2018).