University of Minnesota
Human Rights Program

Human Rights Program's home page.

Joachim Savelsberg


Room 1144 Social Sciences


Professor of Sociology Joachim Savelsberg has made major contributions to human rights scholarship, teaching and institution-building at the University of Minnesota. Since coming to the University in 1989, he has helped cultivate the Sociology Department into a prominent destination for theory and empirical research on human rights. Savelsberg’s work utilizes a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods to examine how collective memories and perceptions relate to the strengthening of human rights norms across space and time.

Trained as a sociologist in Germany, Professor Savelsberg conducted early 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 of his biography. In his words: “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."

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 were collected and analyzed. These data have been supplemented with in-depth interviews with the producers of the documents (i.e., Africa correspondents) and their sources to gain a country- and field-specific understanding of the impact of judicial action on collective representations and the reflexive relationship between collective memory and state action. This project supported four fundamental conclusions:

  • The events in Darfur have been framed as criminal actions.
  • International Criminal Court interventions made a difference as media representations adopted the crime frame more strongly than the humanitarian emergency or war frames.
  • Unique patterns of representations emerge in different social fields (human rights, humanitarian aid, and diplomacy).
  • Representations also vary by country (varrying with colonial past, foreign policy foci, and collective memories of suffering).

These findings are laid out in several articles and in Savelsberg's 2015 book entitled Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur (University of California Press). The book is available in hardbound, paperback and online (open access) versions.

Currently, Professor Savelsberg is engaged in research on the dynamics between denial on the one hand and the fight for acknowledgment on the other, especially with legal and legislative means and for the case of the Armenian genocide. This work is supported by the Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair.

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 former PhD student and advisee of Savelsberg, and now a professor at The Ohio State University, 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

  • Editor, Law & Society Review (with T.R. Johnson, 2014-2016)
  • Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair, University of Minnesota (2014-2017)
  • 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 (2012-2015)
  • Best Book Award, Theory Division, Society for the Study of Social Problems, 2012 for American Memories: Atrocities and the Law.
  • 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

Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).

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
  • Criminology
  • Sociological Theory
  • Sociology of Law
  • Sociology of Knowledge