Problems with oversimplified categories in the study of collective violence

Hollie Nyseth Brehm, Michelle L. O'Brien, J. Siguru Wahutu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article critically examines oversimplified categories-especially binary categorization-in analyses of collective violence. Researchers often use categories to make sense of complex situations. While they are necessary, these categories can oversimplify people's lived experiences and can even directly harm individuals and communities during or after collective violence. Thus, we suggest that researchers continually assess their use of categories, and especially binary or otherwise oversimplified categories framed as mutually exclusive. To illustrate this argument, we focus on two major kinds of categories that researchers and others assessing collective violence often use: person categories (e.g., victim/perpetrator, civilian/combatant) and event categories (e.g., war/genocide, terrorism/insurgency). After highlighting issues tied to person and event categories based on our collective fieldwork experience, we propose that researchers can mitigate some of these issues through critical data collection and assessment, the triangulation of narratives, and the careful communication of research findings. We hope that this will help research on collective violence produce a more comprehensive understanding of suffering and resilience worldwide.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)394-415
Number of pages22
JournalSociology of Development
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021


  • Conflict
  • Knowledge
  • Violence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Development


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