UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

Center for the Humanities

Past Faculty Development Seminars
Fall 2015: Understanding Persecution

Fall 2015: Understanding Persecution

Led by Ivan Ermakoff, Professor, Department of Sociology; Affiliate, Department of History, Center for Jewish Studies, Center for European Studies

Seminar Description
Two basic observations motivate this interdisciplinary seminar. First, persecution has been a recurrent feature of human history, punctuating it again and again, at various times, in various places and under various guises. The fact is depressing. Its obdurate character makes it depressing. Still we cannot shrug it off. Nor can we shrug off the impression that its destructive potential remains intact.

Second, the complexity of the phenomenon is daunting. Throughout history, persecution has taken many different forms: physical violence, material destruction, expropriation, subjugation, statutory debasement, legal restrictions, special judicial treatments, and various forms of discrimination. Equally perplexing, the groups targeted by violence have been very diverse: persecution can be religious, ethnic, political, class-based, defined in racial terms, based on considerations pertaining to the health status of the victims, or their sexual orientations.

The purpose of this seminar will be to tackle this complexity. How can we account for the diversity and the ever-possibility of persecution? More broadly, how shall we study its occurrences in history? Which framework is most helpful to investigate this type of violence in a systematic fashion? I propose to explore the causes, processes and impacts of group persecution across different historical settings from a multiplicity of analytical perspectives, paying close attention to the perpetrators’ motivations, the machinery of persecution policies, the behaviors of state agents, and the range of attitudes and strategies displayed by potential victims.

Thus, the readings will reflect research conducted in the fields of history, political science, sociology and anthropology. Acts of persecution situated in time and space have been the subjects of many studies. Often, these studies speak to one another. Yet, analysts have not drawn the connections among them. This seminar will strive to connect these dots drawing on the conceptual tools and the in-depth knowledge provided by monographs and comparative analyses.

The structure of the syllabus reflects this effort at syntheses. We will contrast very different understandings of the temporalities of forms of persecution; examine the role played by popular beliefs in the diffusion of persecutory violence; consider policy-makers’ motivations and rationales; discuss the organization of violence, its apparent spontaneous character in some cases as well as the institutionalization of machineries of persecution; and tackle the range of reactions displayed by victims and the bystanders.


Week 1 (September 25): Defining persecution

  • Girard, René. 1987. "Generative Scapegoating," in Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation, edited by R. G. Hannerton-Kelly. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Week 2 (October 2): Moral purity

Week 3 (October 9): State structures

Week 4 (October 16): Group antagonisms

Week 5 (October 23): Popular beliefs

Week 6 (October 30): Organic democracy

Week 7 (November 6): Racial ideologies

Week 8 (November 20): The legacies of colonialism

  • Mamdani, Mahmood. 2001. When Victims Become Killers. Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Chapters 2-3.

Week 9 (December 4): Perpetrators

Week 10 (December 11): An anthropology of violence?