RESEARCH NEWS: “Corpses of Mass Violence and Genocide”: Dr Jean-Marc Dreyfus discusses uncovering the ‘forensic turn’ in his recent ERC-funded project.


Skulls displayed at the Nyamata Memorial Site, Rwanda. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What was the starting-point for this project?

Histories of genocide have tended, to date, towards examining the aftermath of mass violence in relation to issues of trauma and memory, and how these factors shape the subsequent political, cultural, and social characterisations of the aftermath of mass atrocities. This leaves us with a question: if we go back to the first moment at which mass violence was produced, what happens to the corpses themselves; and what role does the corpse play as the material remains of that violence? Cadavers, and their treatment (perhaps especially en masse) are invested with a significance beyond the personal and familial, though this is of course important. The treatment of cadavers can be an issue of phenomenal political tension, incorporating debates over the observance of appropriate religious rituals (and how to do so in the context of a mass grave) as well as having economic implications (the costs of identifying, burying, and potentially repatriating corpses), and these are just some of the issues to consider. On 1 February 2012 my colleagues and I were delighted to be the recipient of a 1.2 million Euro European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant, allowing us to establish a new collaborative network to investigate these themes between the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Principal Investigator Elisabeth Anstett, Social Anthropology), the University of Manchester (represented by myself, criminologist John Shute), the University of Groningen (Caroline Fournet, Law), the Université de Genève (Sévane Garibian, Law). As you can see from the team, it’s a very exciting interdisciplinary collaboration. We have sought to merge the fields of Sociology, Anthropology, Body Studies, and History in our approach to the topic of mass violence and genocide.

And what was the effect of this — what were your expectations of what you would be able to learn by collaborating in these ways?

Well, in the spirit of proper research at the beginning of the project we had no idea what we would find! Our research initially led us to sites of massacre in Bosnia and South America, and really it was the anthropologists who were first able to generate research findings through interviewing the forensics teams hired to investigate the graves and autopsy the corpses (which corresponds with the disciplinary evolution of anthropology from studies of funeral rituals historically). The politicized role of forensic investigations of corpses of mass violence really emerged as the key theme from this, especially from the 1980s (in what we call the ‘forensic turn’) as Forensic teams made a surprisingly considerable intervention into the political controversy that followed the discovery of the bodies. It was they who brought the corpses into the courtroom, both symbolically when relating evidence during trials for war crimes, and also sometimes literally when certain remains were physically present in the courtroom as evidence. Forensic teams occupy a very specific position in these circumstances, since they could not work for the police or the army who were suspected to be complicit in these crimes (for example in the case of Argentina). Instead, these teams tend to work for NGOs or international organisations. The interviews with the forensic teams challenged us to consider their accounts from not only historical, but anthropological, criminological and legal perspectives. Visual Studies also became incorporated into our research when we began to look at artistic representations of the exhumed – and sometimes exhibited – remains, like in Rwanda.

This reminds me of Ana Carden Coyne’s exhibition on the representation of war and trauma in art last year at the Manchester Art Gallery —

Yes — that was a remarkable and fantastic exhibition! What struck me, though, was the absence of corpses as figures in a great deal of the art generated as a result of war, and so we sought to find new examples of this in other artistic cultures to interpret.

This project is obviously very topical in nature…

Certainly. The political relevance of the project is clear, and one of the conclusions that emerged was how the treatment of corpses often functions as part of a narrative of appeasement and reconciliation after a massacre; so we have this trajectory of ‘Crime — forensic team arrive — exhumation of the bodies — identification of the corpses — they are returned to their families — and some form of resolution is achieved. Or, on the other hand, there is an opposing narrative wherein if the bodies are exhumed again for further examination or for other reasons, the war may start all over again. It’s a very binary narrative, and one we sought to complicate through bringing our different disciplinary perspectives onto the significance of these cadavers as both material and symbolic entities — but to learn more about that, you’ll need to buy the books or read the new journal we have launched, Human Remains and Violence!

We are just about to publish our third issue, and in total we are publishing ten edited volumes from this project.

So did the project make you reconsider your own research approach, and in what ways is this experience shaping your next project?

For my next project I am delighted to have received another grant, to examine post-Holocaust exhumations. My research questions are: What was the chain of custody of the corpses? To what extent were traditional funerary rituals and religious rites disrupted by the extraordinary situation of genocide and massacre, and did this mean that new rituals had to be invented? And there is another question, the question of dimensions, in terms of can we say that that more corpses means less exhumation, and therefore less identification of individuals —and what is the impact of this if that is correct? I’m also fascinated by the importance of landscape to the ‘ideology’ of killing; so the way in which the spatial context in which a genocide occurs also has an influence on how corpses are treated. So certainly, working with the project team on “Corpses of Mass Violence and Genocide” has forced me to reconsider my own research, and I think the anthropological approach has definitely had a great influence on the questions I am asking now.

Well, I look forward to reading the books. Thank you so much!

The website for the project Corpses of Mass Violence and Genocide and the journal Human Remains and Violence can be accessed here

Interview by Eloise Moss.



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