This article contributes to the ongoing and growing scholarly conversation concerning how best to define the term “genocide” following Raphael Lemkin’s coining of the term in 1944. The article first shows that the Convention definition ratified in Paris in 1948 was intended solely for juridical purposes and does not reflect Lemkin’s deeper understanding of genocide. It then surveys a range of scholarship after Lemkin that argues for alternative definitions of term or even calls for jettisoning the term altogether. While it is acknowledged that a clear definition is imperative in a juridical context, it is argued that there are problems and even dangers in demanding definitional precision. For purposes of coming to terms with the multi-dimensionality and complexities of genocidal events or the genocidal process, Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance provides an alternative way of seeing genocide that avoids the dangers of definition.


I wish to thank two anonymous peer-reviewers for their comments and suggestions. I have also benefited immeasurably from my many conversations on this topic with Professor Dale Snow.