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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.

Quelling ethnopolitical strife is the goal of new initiative

A new center will train a cadre of scientist-practitioners who specialize in easing conflicts between ethnic or political groups.

By Scott Sleek
Monitor staff

Psychologist Barbara Smith has spent her career working with people oppressed by political violence, from Cambodian refugees who have lost their families to Sarajevans who must dodge sniper fire to run to the market for bread. And whenever she enters a war zone, Smith laments the fact that she’s something of an anomaly.

"I keep asking myself, ‘Where are all the psychologists?’" says Smith, who also is a registered nurse and vice president of the International Rescue Committee in New York City. "In a time of war, there are always lots of doctors, surgeons and nurses present, but you can’t bank on psychologists being available."

Smith is among many psychologists who are trying to move their profession closer to the front lines of ethnic conflicts. They are assembling the first of what they hope will be several academic centers where psychologists can train to work in regions beset by ethnopolitical warfare.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, well known for its grants to colleges and universities, in December gave a $120,000 grant to the psychologists to create the Penn Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania. The Penn Center has just begun planning the project and hopes that the first group of participants can begin training in summer 1999. The program will involve only postdoctoral training.

Penn Center students will attend classes, conduct supervised research and ultimately train in a region of ethnopolitical conflict, says Clark McCauley, PhD, a Bryn Mawr College psychology professor and co-director of the Penn Center. Psychologists in the program could work in such strife-torn areas as Israel, Northern Ireland or Central Africa. (No sites will actually be selected until the later planning stages, he notes.) Trainees could help people cope with death and destruction and conduct in-vivo research into avenues for peace between warring ethnic groups, says McCauley. Graduates of the training program could serve as consultants and staff members to the United Nations or to humanitarian or relief organizations such as the Red Cross or the International Rescue Committee, McCauley adds.

The center plans to develop additional training sites at the University of British Columbia, the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland and the University of Capetown in South Africa and may eventually open centers in India and Sri Lanka. And it will work with nongovernmental agencies to develop the field training sites, McCauley says.


A new profession

APA President Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, and Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) President Peter Suedfeld, PhD, sparked the idea for such a project during a 1996 get-together, where they shared their desire to boost psychology’s role in lessening ethnopolitical conflicts worldwide. (Although APA and CPA will jointly sponsor conferences and scholarship about ethnopolitical warfare, APA has no affiliation with the center.)

Seligman and Suedfeld are planning an international conference on ethnopolitical conflict and a variety of books on psychologists’ research into ethnic strife.

Those involved in the project hope the training program will yield a new generation of psychologists who specialize in studying and intervening in clashes between two or more ethnic, political or religious groups.

"We want to create a whole new profession," says Seligman, PhD, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor. "We want to stimulate a scholarship and practice that will increase our understanding of the psychology of ethnopolitical warfare. And that will help us improve our ability to predict where those conflicts might occur, how to prevent them from happening and how to resolve them when they do occur."

These efforts take place at a time when ethnic conflicts are proliferating across the world. As a result, people are recognizing the severe trauma, distress and uncontrolled hatred that accompany the physical wounds and death, say scholars involved in the initiative. The United Nations—in a recent report on the impact of war on children—emphasized the need to address psychosocial issues as an essential part of conflict resolution and prevention. And many relief organizations are now providing psychosocial interventions as part of their efforts to improve health, nutrition, education and family stability in war-torn areas.

Smith says she’s witnessed firsthand the demand for psychological services in violent regions. In Sarajevo, Smith opened a mental health clinic two years ago and drew more than 50,000 people through the door in the first year of operation. The Sarajevo residents saw psychological care as a critical need, not a frill they had to forgo in the name of self-preservation, she asserts.

"It was freezing, and folks didn’t have running water or heat," she says. "And they risked being killed or wounded by snipers every time they ran down the street for milk or a loaf of bread. But what the people were most concerned about was not the physical suffering. They were worried about having a mental breakdown."

Yet psychologists still remain sparsely involved in those endeavors, says Smith.


Pooling the knowledge

Psychologists could more effectively contribute to wartime relief efforts if the field’s ongoing study of such human conditions as trauma, prejudice and conflict were pooled into a specifically targeted intervention for people besieged by ethnic fighting, say scholars who are developing the training program.

The venture will tap into psychology’s already strong research and activity in healing traumatic stress, helping people resolve conflicts peacefully and reducing racial and ethnic hatreds. But it also will incorporate other relevant fields of study, including anthropology, sociology, history and political science.

Students in the program will be trained in a scholar-practitioner model, says Paul Rozin, PhD, co-director of the Penn Center. The curriculum will focus on research that explores the nature and origin of ethnic, racial and religious conflicts and on developing methods of intervening in existing conflicts, helping warring parties resolve their differences and identifying potential conflicts that could be prevented.

But the key component of the curriculum will be the field training, those involved in the initiative say.

"Psychologists’ current weakness in helping victims of ethnopolitical conflicts stems directly from their lack of first-hand experience of the phenomenon," McCauley says. "That’s why we want our trainees to go live in the culture, learn about the culture and then apply their training directly."

Seligman says he hopes the training program might also, as a fringe benefit, attract people who might otherwise spurn a career in psychology.

"I believe psychology has always attracted the most idealistic of young people, but we’ve offered a more narrow outlet for their idealism—clinical practice," he says. "And now, that’s tied up in all kinds of financial issues, like managed care. But we see this line of study as a profession that will speak to both their idealism and their talent."


About the Asch Center

Ethnopolitical Conflict

Solomon Asch

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