Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bedross Der Matossian reviews Knowing about Genocide

Joachim J. Savelsberg. Knowing about Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2021. 264 pp.

Review by Bedross Der Matossian 

29 September 2021

On 22 May 2021, the Council of Higher Education (CoHE) in Turkey announced that it had begun work on the establishment of The International Institute for Genocide and Crimes against Humanity. While one should be elated to hear about this new initiative, the second paragraph of the announcement comes to reveal its real intentions by stating that the institute “not only aims to do research on the so-called genocide allegations regarding the Armenians, but also to do research on crimes against humanity that are taking place all around the world, from America to Asia.”[1] By doing so, the CoHE assumes the role of knowledge entrepreneur reaffirming its country’s position in denying the Armenian genocide. While the accumulation of proofs, especially over the last few decades, has made it nearly impossible to deny the reality of the Armenian genocide, the investigation of the memory this genocide as an object of the sociology of knowledge has hardly begun. Knowing about Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles comes to fill a major gap in this field.

The book is not about proving or disapproving the historical veracity of the genocide; rather, it deals with the ways in which various knowledge entrepreneurs exercise epistemic power in affirming the veracity of their argument. Joachim J. Savelsberg is interested in knowledge entrepreneurs who through positions of power (such as the CoHe) “shape and spread their group’s definition of social reality to wider audiences” (p. 3). While the victim group has used these media to affirm the historical veracity of the genocide, the perpetrator group attempted (and attempts) to deny and distort the reality of these events. But as human rights have attained unquestioned moral status (at least in the West), they have become a losing strategy for perpetrator groups to attempt to control or block the dissemination of information by victim groups.

Part 1 of the book deals with the social interaction, self-reflection, and struggle over the knowledge of genocide. Savelsberg argues that this interaction, communication, and understanding of the past is rarely harmonious (see p. 32). By bringing forth the example of the American Missionary Carmelite Brewer Christie, he demonstrates the importance of systematic documentation and eyewitness accounts in the formation of knowledge. Part 2 of the book, entitled “Sedimentation,” explores repertoires of knowledge as “properties of social collectivities” (p. 53). After discussing theories of collective memory, presentism, and sedimentation articulated by Émile Durkheim and Maurice Halbwachs, Savelsberg outlines the knowledge of both Armenians and Turks about 1915, referring to them as carrier groups. He argues that even though knowledge becomes sedimented and resistant to change, based on collective memory and presentism, knowledge is subjected to modification. He explains how and why, after decades of silence, Armenians both in the diaspora and Armenia began gaining knowledge about the genocide. He attributes this to “status gains of ethnic communities, political opportunities, ethnic and national organization, and the formation of coalitions with fields such as academia and politics” (p. 79). In addition, Savelsberg credits “'ethnic revival’” and knowledge entrepreneurs for articulating and diffusing knowledge of the genocide (p. 81). In the Turkish case Salvesberg explains how the Turkish state acted (and is still acting) as a powerful knowledge entrepreneur that is continuously interested in the denial of the genocide but under shifting circumstances. Part 3 of the book examines the struggles over knowledge by concentrating on two fields: politics and law. Before doing so, Savelsberg analyzes rituals as “Durkheimian moments that affirm identities and knowledge repertoires among both Armenians and Turks” (p. 109). An analysis of the centennial commemorations of the genocide both in Armenia and France shows how rituals become a medium for reaffirmation of repertoires of knowledge. The discussion of Turkish ritual denials would have been fuller had he included such media as conference, movies, and documentaries. In chapters 7 and 8 Savelsberg discusses conflicts over genocide knowledge in France and the US. He argues that the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the French Parliament should be considered in the larger context of the memory laws in France. Nevertheless, he also credits French Armenian organizations, civil society, and the close relations between political actors and historians for this recognition. In the case of the US, Savelsberg and Brooke B. Chambers analyze the epistemic struggle over genocide knowledge in courts of law. For this they use the example of Griswold v. Driscoll, a court case carried out in Massachusetts between 2005 and 2010 dealing with the culmination of longstanding debate over the Massachusetts Board of Education’s draft of “The Massachusetts Guide to Choosing and Using Curricular Materials on Genocide [Including the Armenian Genocide] and Human Rights.” The case, which was about freedom of speech, turned into an arena for substantive debate about the Armenian genocide. The court case became a battleground between denialists (Turkish American Associations) and the Armenian community of Boston. The final chapter of the book deals with denial of genocide in the age of human-rights hegemony.  

Savelsberg’s sociological analysis of the knowledge about the Armenian genocide is an important contribution to the fields of sociology, law, political science, and history. His active engagement with theories of knowledge entrepreneurs, collective memory, and trauma of carrier groups backed by extensive empirical data has solidified our understanding of the impact of the Armenian genocide on the descendants of the victim group as well as the perpetrator group. His book enhances our understanding of how knowledge about mass crimes is shaped, disseminated, sedimented, denied, and acknowledged by contending parties.  


[1] “CoHE to Establish International Institute for Genocide and Crimes against Humanity,” Council of Higher Education, 22 May 2021,