Program examines issues around peace, conflict

By Catherine Robertson Souter
June 1st, 2015

There are two sides to every story. It’s an adage that relates both to work that researchers at University of Massachusetts Amherst are doing within the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program and to the view they take of how this work can affect the outside world.

The program looks, first, to address the prevalence of violence in our world today by studying both sides of any conflict as well as conducting research on how to promote peace.

A second, main goal, according to Linda R. Tropp, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the program, is to address the divide between research and practical use often found with scientific work.

Tropp, who has written several books on group dynamics and prejudice reduction, has received awards for her work and has presented social science evidence in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on racial integration, spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the work she and her co-faculty members are doing with the UMass program and how their graduates are working to illuminate all sides of the issue of violence.

Q:  Tell us about the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program.

 A: It is a doctoral training program where students learn about basic research and theory relevant to issues around peace, conflict, and reconciliation and then learn how to use that work to promote effective strategies in the real world and become more effective in translating that work for policy and practice.

Students in our program complete all the requirements for a Ph.D. in social psychology with a specialized concentration in the psychology of peace and violence.

The first generation of students was admitted in 2004. We have three core faculty, myself, Brian Lickel, Ph.D., who is the incoming director starting in the fall, and Bernhard Leidner, Ph.D.. We all study different yet complementary aspects of psychological processes involved in peace, conflict and violence particularly as it pertains to racial, ethnic, national, religious and ethno-political groups in an international context of conflict.

One of the things we highlight in our program is that there are underlying processes that are fairly common in any group relationships such as anxiety, identifying strongly with your group, the roles of theology, processes for promoting trust. There are commonalities that are shared but that need to be contextualized within the different groups that we study.

Q:  So if we understand the commonalities, the basic human emotions, that exist – we can help the different groups relate?

A: Exactly. So we tend to study people’s emotions, experiences, motivations and perceptions as group members and a lot of those translate across contexts. They might manifest themselves differently due to different histories or legacies of conflict, but there are some understandings we can gain in terms of how we perceive experiences and respond to intergroup relations.

If you look at all the work we have done, collectively we have done research in nearly 20 countries. Different ones of us are actively doing research in Israel/Palestine, in Bosnia and Serbia, with immigrant populations in Spain and Germany, and with immigrant, indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Chile.

Q:  What type of students do you attract?

A:  What makes our students special is that they are committed to conducting rigorous scientific research and to using scientific knowledge to promote conflict reduction and reconciliation around the world. When we look at applicants every year, they loosely follow three clusters. There are some who really care about scientific research, but they may not necessarily be as focused on the broader social or societal implications of the work. And then there are perhaps the other extreme of students who really want to do hands-on work to make the world a better place, but may not be as committed to conducting rigorous scientific research as a vehicle to do that.

Then we have the sweet spot of students in the middle who clearly have a commitment to both.

To give an example of some of the research we have worked on, in Burundi one of our students, Rivarta Bilali, collected data from Hutus and Tutsis and asked questions about who was responsible for the conflict and who suffered most. Both groups were more likely to perceive that the other was responsible for instigating conflict and that their own group had suffered more.

That is just one example of how the types of basic psychological processes that are really plentiful in the field of social psychology can be useful in trying to understand conflict dynamics in a real world context.

Another student who just defended her dissertation is going to be accepting a Congressional post doctoral fellowship through the American Psychological Association, another example of someone who is interested in trying to bridge science and policy.

Q:  How unique is this program?

A:  Other peace studies programs around country tend to be interdisciplinary whereas ours is situated in psychology.

I have been asked what psychology has to do with conflict because conflict is often construed as a process between nations or politicians. I try to impress upon people that you might have state-level peace agreements but you will still have communities living with legacies of conflict who want retaliation. We need to understand how those groups are responding to conflict in hopes of achieving long-term and lasting peace.

Q:  Your own research has had a major impact on the field.

A: The thing that I am most well-known for is a meta analysis of more than 500 studies of intergroup contact from the 1940s through 2000. We looked at the effect of positive contact on prejudice or on inter-group attitudes. What we found across these studies with more than 250,000 participants is that greater contact between groups is typically associated with reductions in intergroup prejudice.

This was done in collaboration with Thomas Pettigrew, Ph.D., from University of California Santa Cruz. After we published a book (“When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact”) people approached us saying that they think we have contributed to a renaissance of research on contact.

Q:  How did you end up doing this work and what was the draw for you?

A:  I do think part of my own interest in doing this type of work has to do with where I grew up. I grew up a white, Jewish female in a predominately black industrial steel town in the Midwest during the height of black militancy. I saw very clearly how status differences can affect how people perceive and respond to each other. I became generally interested in social justice issues and I credit my undergraduate honors thesis advisor for helping me realize I could do this as a profession. It wasn’t just something that could be interesting but that could be something I could use to contribute to making a difference in the world.

I feel like it is our obligation as social scientists to do research that is relevant. I come from a long tradition of social scientists who got involved in conducting research because of its potential to contribute to the public good. 

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