- Rwanda Since the 1994 Genocide
Rwanda Since the 1994 Genocide


The role of human agency in the relationship between the past and present

By katie on February 3, 2013

This week, I was interested in Newbury and Vansina’s discussion about the relationship between the past and the present, and where and how individual, human agency factors in. Newbury writes in “The Historian as Human Rights Activist,” that “by allowing us to see more clearly the cultural resources and deeper structures that influence how people choose to act, the study of history brings greater understanding of the logic of people’s actions” (xxvii). Said in another way, as we talked about in class, history and historians provide context, not prediction.

This idea can be related to Burnet’s piece, “Social Classification, State Power, and Violence.” Burnet writes about gender roles and stereotypes and explains that “women are viewed positively when they are reserved, submissive, modest, silent, and maternal. . .By contrast, men should be self-assured, dominant, logical, brave and physically strong” (44-5). These are circumstances of Rwandan culture that contextualized certain behaviors during the genocide, such as female-targeted sexual violence. However, I think it is important to understand that while these circumstances may have CONTEXTUALIZED sexual violence, they may not have necessarily been direct CAUSES of sexual violence. To assume that they are is to ignore the human choice, capability, motivation behind the violence. Newbury asserts that “if history is created by human agency then it follows that humans can equally act to prevent the patterns of the past from being repeated in the future. We can prevent catastrophe if we wish to do so” (xxviii). Applying this lens, we come to view these cultural norms as less in terms of cause and effect and more so in the sense of how individual actors interpret and CHOOSE to respond; this interpretation assigns more accountability to the actors of the conflict, acknowledges that they have a stake in shaping their own future, and debunks the static notion that historical legacies and cultural norms deadlock a society into inevitably following a particular path.


  • kristi said:

    I completely agree, and think this is a very compelling point to be made. Especially in terms of the most recent film, “The Greatest Silence,” many of the perpetrators of sexual violence justified their actions as a natural consequence of war, and therefore inevitable. But your point of contextualization v. causation is really important to keep in mind, as not doing so leads to an oversimplification of the problem. This reductionist notion is a trend that seems to be reappearing time and again…

  • Professor Thomson said:

    agree with Kristi’s comment on your insightful post. Being awake, as a scholar, to the distinction between cause and context is really important, particularly for outsiders like us. When writing about a place that is not our own, recognition of agency and the structures in which people make choices is a good starting point for meaningful analysis. A focus on human agency also allows us, as analysts, to look behind essentialist categories of being “Hutu” or “Tutsi”, “male” or “female,” etc…

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