Summer Institute




The following article appeared in the March 1998 issue (Volume 29, Number 3) of the APA Monitor, the monthly newsletter of the American Psychological Association.

Ethnopolitical warfare

By Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD
APA President

"I want a new profession," announced clinical psychologist Barbara Smith at the first meeting of the joint Task Force on Ethnopolitical Warfare. "I go to Rwanda, I go to Bosnia, I look around and I am the only psychologist there. Where is everybody?" Barbara is vice president for overseas programs of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that for 70 years has intervened in genocides and spirited out refugees. Mike Wessells, the task force’s co-chair and professor at Randolph-Macon College, chimed in, "You only have to look down the main street of Luanda and you’ll see more child amputees than you’d see in a lifetime in North America."

Peter Suedfeld, president-elect of the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), and I convened the meeting because we believe that with the death of fascism and winding down of communism, the warfare we’ll face in the next century will be ethnic. In contemporary ethnopolitical conflicts, civilian populations are the primary targets of terror, marked by butchery, violence against women and children, and human rights abuses. The destruction of communities amplifies ongoing problems of poverty and hunger, creating deadly, difficult-to-break cycles. Therefore, we must be concerned that Bosnia, Rwanda and Northern Ireland may come to Los Angeles and Toronto.

How psychologists can help

What might psychology do to understand, predict and even prevent such warfare? Or, in the worst cases, how can we help pick up the pieces? These were the questions we considered as we convened the joint task force.

Barbara continued, "Marty, you are the head of the largest mental health organization in the world. Your constituents constantly complain about the shortage of good jobs. Well, there may not be enough jobs, but there’s plenty of work! And if psychology does the work well, the jobs will follow."

American psychology can no longer remain insular, preoccupied only with domestic problems. We want to make understanding and possibly preventing ethnopolitical war a central focus of mainstream psychology and we want to foster a new profession: psychologists who specialize in ethnopolitical warfare.

To accomplish this, APA and CPA will promote scholarly conferences and research on ethnopolitical warfare. The first conference, under the leadership of Dan Chirot, professor at the University of Washington and co-chair of the task force, has been funded. Titled "Toward a theory of ethnopolitical warfare: understanding the 20th century," the conference will bring together the world’s most distinguished specialists on ethnic conflict and its resolution in Derry, Northern Ireland, June 29–July 3. It will be hosted by professor Mari Fitzduff of the University of Ulster.

The questions to be asked include: What do we know about the roots of ethnopolitical warfare? Do we know why some potentially violent situations never produce violent clashes, while others do? Why are there so many levels of violence, ranging from the murderously genocidal to the mild, and even to reconciliation and forgiveness? Can we articulate a lawful set of stages from civility to murderous genocide? What causes a society to move from one stage to another, to escalate or de-escalate? Who resists the temptation to participate in atrocities? Who continues to try to make peace?

Training for a new profession

In parallel, the world’s major universities are beginning to collaborate on forming institutes to train dedicated psychologists in this new profession. These pioneering postdoctoral fellows will receive a combination of scholarship and field placement within psychology’s venerable scientist-practitioner model. The University of Pennsylvania, under the leadership of Rick McCauley and Paul Rozin, is in the process of joining forces with the University of Capetown in South Africa and the University of Ulster to create the first institute. The Mellon Foundation has granted them generous funding to plan and begin operating such a scientist-practitioner training institute.

The curriculum will provide an overview of social and clinical psychology relevant to ethnopolitical warfare, as well as perspectives from history, political science, sociology and anthropology. Teachers will include researchers and field workers as well as people who work for governmental and nongovernmental organizations around the world. The course will include the practical and ethnographic skills requisite to do productive research and effective intervention, followed by placement in war zones.

We hope that the first fellows will be admitted in 1999 and that they will become the vanguard of the new profession that Barbara has urged upon us.


About the Asch Center

Ethnopolitical Conflict

Solomon Asch



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