In “Retreating from the Brink: Theorizing Mass Violence and the Dynamics of Restraint”, Scott Straus proposes a theory to explain the variation among cases that have similar probabilities of escalating to genocide, but in which so do and some do not escalate to the point of mass violence. In response to scholars who point to the twentieth century as the “age of genocide”, Straus alternatively suggests that genocide is actually a rare political phenomenon if one considers the number of situations in which such violence could happen. From this, he infers that strategies of accommodation and low-level violence are empirically much more common than strategies of large-scale violence.

The fact that genocide is presented by scholars as more common than it actually is, is due to the lack of a comparative reference point that happens when scholars compare genocide to genocide, resulting in a frequency mismatch which occurs as theories posit causal factors that are much more common that the outcome.

Instead of focusing only on instances where genocide did occur, Straus proposes that there is much to learn from cases where genocide could have occurred, but did not. These negative cases will give theoretical recognition to the conditions of moderation, de-escalation, or non-escalation that explain why genocide does not always occur. Straus’ question of why genocide often does not occur when it might, is framed more specifically in two deeper questions: first, why is genocide the outcome in some cases in conflict but not in others; and second, what explains the over-time process of escalation of violence?

By asking and answering these questions, Straus aims to open up the investigation of genocide studies to include a more diverse topic, namely non-violence, and to give hope to genocide prevention by proving that restraint does exist in societies. Straus’ exploration of why potential genocides do not occur focuses on Factors of Restraint ­- the ideas, institutions, and institutions that prompt leaders and/or citizens to abstain from or moderate the use of extensive violence against civilians – at three levels: micro, meso, and macro

How does this relate to the work we do at STAND Canada? Well, a better understanding of what emerically-demonstrated factors restrain the escalation of violence gives us ideas for how we can most effectively draft our policy recommendations, and at what level we should focus on advocating! Just another way in which academic work can have practical implications 😉

Having learned what ‘factors of restraint’ are, tomorrow we’ll begin to look at what factors of restrain at each level looks like. Keep reading!


Scott Straus, “Retreating from the Brink: Theorizing Mass Violence and the Dynamics of Restraint,” Perspectives on Politics 10, no. 2 (June 2012): 343.

Neekoo Collett is a Master of Global Affairs students at the Munk School, University of Toronto. Her research focuses on “factors of restraint” and the situation of Baha’is in Iran, as well as the politics of genocide language and the proposed Crimes Against Humanity Convention. This post is adapted from previously published work. 

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“What Stops Genocide From Occurring?” by Neekoo Collett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.