Techniques of neutralization and identity work among accused genocide perpetrators

Emily Bryant, Emily Brooke Schimke, Hollie Nyseth Brehm, Christopher Uggen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, many defendants on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) testified on their own behalf. This article analyzes transcripts of their testimonies to learn (1) how defendants discuss the grave crimes of which they are accused, and (2) how their explanatory styles allow them to rationalize their actions and negotiate their tarnished identities. We find that defendants employ Gresham Sykes and David Matza’s (1957) classic techniques of neutralization as a means of rationalization, impression management, and identity negotiation. Nevertheless, these techniques, along with those developed in the decades since, do not capture all aspects of defendants’ accounts. We thus identify additional techniques of neutralization to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how defendants account for their actions. By extending this classic literature, we call attention to the situational context of international trials, the nature of the crime of genocide, the relatively high social status many defendants once occupied, and existing narratives surrounding the legitimacy of the ICTR. In doing so, our analysis contributes to understandings of narratives of violence and accused genocide perpetrators.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)584-602
Number of pages19
JournalSocial Problems
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2018


  • Accounts
  • Genocide
  • International criminal tribunal
  • Neutralization
  • Symbolic interaction

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