University of Minnesota
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Joachim Savelsberg


Room 1144 Social Sciences


Professor of Sociology Joachim Savelsberg is a pillar of the Human Rights University, on whose strength human rights scholarship, advocacy, and institutions have flourished at the University of Minnesota. Since coming to the University in 1989, he has helped cultivate the Sociology Department into a prominent destination for research and theory making in human rights. His own knowledge products have established criminology as a fruitful lens for understanding perceptions and practices within criminal justice contexts around the world while significantly contributing to that field as well. Savelsberg’s work utilizes the unique mix of quantitative and qualitative analysis prevalent in sociology to link single events and international movements to weave a rich representation of how memory and perception relate to the strengthening of human rights norms within and across space, law, and culture.

Trained in the sociology of criminology, Professor Savelsberg started his academic career doing research on white collar crime legislation, criminal punishment in international comparison, and sentencing and sentencing guidelines. Issues of atrocity demanded his attention in part because, as he says it, “Born in 1951, I grew up in my native Germany, where the crimes committed under the Nazi regimes were silenced far into the 1960s.” Accordingly professor Savelsberg’s human rights work focuses on the role the representation and collective memory of genocide and atrocity play in the development of institutional and judicial controls. Savelsberg has produced important work bridging the gap between criminology and genocide studies. His 2010 book, Crime and Human Rights: Criminology of Genocide and Atrocities, outlines and, “advances a sociologically based criminology of humanitarian and human rights crimes and their control.” Savelsberg’s belief is that because sociological criminology operates with a much higher degree of technical specificity it has much to offer the study of genocide and mass violence in terms of building judicial institutions and devising legal responses.

One can see the basis for Savelsberg’s intellectual project in the invective of Justice Robert Jackson, Chief Prosecutor at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, “Unless we write the record of this movement with clarity and precision, we cannot blame the future if in days of peace it finds incredible the accusatory generalities uttered during the war. We must establish incredible events by credible evidence” (quoted in Savelsberg and King 2011). Savelsberg’s writing is typified by a deeply realistic assessment of what can be done to prevent future acts of mass violence that is nonetheless infused with hope. As professor Savelsberg explains, Justice Robert Jackson (along with numerous scholars and practitioners) raised expectations that legal intervention can help in the writing of history, shaping collective memories of past atrocities, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and thereby slowing or ending cycles of violence.

Savelsberg’s current research project, “Collective Representations and Memories of Atrocities after Judicial Interventions: The Case of Darfur in International Comparison,” examines the response to judicial action in Darfur in eight Western democracies. Thousands of media reports and policy documents from each country are being collected and analyzed within quantitative discursive metrics. This data has been supplemented with in-depth interviews with the producers of the documents and their sources to gain a country specific understanding of the impact of judicial action on collective memory and the reflexive relationship between collective memory and state action. This project has resulted in three fundamental conclusions:

  • The events in Darfur have been framed as criminal actions.
  • Court intervention makes a difference as media representations adopt the court’s framing.
  • There are unique patterns to responses in different countries.

As the conclusions are further developed, the project will produce concrete policy recommendations concerning the use of place and use of international criminal justice.

Joachim Savelsberg’s scholarship is opening the doors to understanding both academically and pragmatically how courts have and can be used to support and promote human rights around the world. At the same time, he is training the future scholars of the field. Hollie Brehm, a PhD student and advisee of Savelsberg, says, “Joachim was one of the reasons I chose to attend the University of Minnesota. (I was already interested in human rights and genocide, but I wanted to work with him.) He imparts a commitment to rigorous theoretical and empirical research on his students. I truly couldn't say enough good things about his scholarship. He is truly a wonderful person as well.”

Read a review of American Memories: Atrocities and the Law here.

Honors and Awards

  • National Science Foundation, Law and Social Science Program: “Collective Representation and Memories of Atrocities after Judicial Intervention: Darfur in International Comparison.” National Science Foundation. 2010-2012.
  • Editorial Board, Criminology (2012-)
  • Elected Fellow, American Society of Criminology. 2008.
  • 2007 Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Minnesota, Fall Semester 2007.
  • Best Article Award, Section on Culture, American Sociological Association (with Ryan D. King; 2007. For “Institutionalizing Collective Memories of Hate.”
  • Best Article Award, Law and Society Association (with Ryan D. King). 2006. For “Institutionalizing Collective Memories of Hate.”
  • University of Minnesota CLA Student Board, Outstanding Faculty Award (for dedication to students and exemplary teaching ability). 1999.
  • Distinguished Book Award, Division of International Criminology, American Society of Criminology. 1995. For Constructing White-Collar Crime.
  • John F. Kennedy Memorial Fellowship, Harvard University (supplemental funds from DAAD). 1986. “The Construction of Federal Sentencing Guidelines in Light of Max Weber’s Sociology of Law.”
  • Research Fellowship, Johns Hopkins University, Center for Metropolitan Planning and Research, and DAAD. 1982. “Community based Crime Prevention and Ethnic Minorities: How to Learn from American Experiences for West German Cities.”

Major Publications

Discourses on Darfur: Law, Science, Journalism (with John Hagan and Jens Meierhenrich). (Cambridge University Press, In Progress).

American Memories: Atrocities and the Law (with Ryan D. King). (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011).

Crime and Human Rights: Criminology of Genocide and Atrocities. ( London: Sage, 2010).        

Constructing White-Collar Crime: Rationalities, Communications, and Power (with contributions by Peter Brühl). (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).


Courses Taught

  • Crime and Human Rights
  • Topics in Law, Crime, and Deviance
  • Criminology
  • Law, Society and Democracy
  • Law and Modernization
  • Sociology of Law

Written by Nathan Ratner.