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From the APA MONITOR (Vol. 29 , No. 8) August 1998

Historic conference focuses on creating a new discipline

Meeting in one of the world’s fiercest trouble spots, experts laid the groundwork for hope in ethnic warfare.

By Patrick A. McGuire

Monitor staff

Against a backdrop of disheartening violence between neighbors whose hatred of each other goes back more than eight centuries, 50 of the world’s 'finest minds' in ethnopolitical warfare arrived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland last month.

In their number were psychologists, sociologists, political scientists and historians, all experienced scholars and observers of the deadly internecine wars of places like Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda that have claimed 30 million lives across the world and made refugees of another 45 million since 1990.

The experts were invited to this unique conference by joint invitation of APA and the Canadian Psychological Association. Their challenge was straightforward: to establish a bedrock of scholarship on which could be built a brand new discipline of psychology. It would focus on how to prevent, resolve and intervene in conflicts like the one beginning, literally, to explode around them.

Though the timing of their conference—June 29 to July 4—was coincidental to the tensions building across Northern Ireland, it turned murderously ironic when, a week later, a dispute between Protestants and Catholics in nearby Belfast over a parade route resulted in the firebombing murder of three young boys as they slept.

Yet at the end of the five days of discussion on the Magee College campus of the University of Ulster in Londonderry, APA President Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, seemed more positive than even his trademark philosophy of learned optimism would suggest.

'It exceeded my expectations,' said Seligman, the prime mover behind the conference. 'When you get dedicated, talented minds coming together from different angles to stare at the same problem, you get progress.'

Seligman said APA would publish a book based on the ideas presented in Londonderry, and would likely bring together more experts from the field of ethnic conflict in the future.

Such encouragement will hopefully get more psychologists involved in the field, said CPA president Peter Suedfeld, PhD.

'When I would go to various uncomfortable parts of the world,' Suedfeld told the gathering in Ulster, 'I would see anthropologists in droves. I would see geographers, physicians and nurses. But psychologists were very scarce on the ground. We’re just too comfortable in our laboratories and clinics.'

The Londonderry conference was hosted by the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity (INCORE) on the Magee campus and featured five days of scholarly and practical discussions on theories of ethnic warfare and methods that have succeeded or failed in resolving such conflicts.

'Other places were mentioned as a site for the conference, but frankly we thought Northern Ireland a very appropriate place,' said psychologist Mari Fitzduff, PhD, director of INCORE. 'Those still trying to figure out what ethnic passions were about could have a chance to experience them in the raw.'

The Northern Ireland conflict, Fitzduff noted, was only one of 100 wars going on in the world. 'We are fragmenting at an alarming rate,' she told her audience. 'We have four times more nations in existence now than when the U.N. was set up. There are estimates that by 2050 we could have between 1,000 and 2,000 nations. And a lot of them could [come into existence] fairly bloodily.'

But not every one of those fights has led to a genocide, Seligman noted, and no one seems to know why. He cited the work of Dan Chirot, PhD, a sociologist from the University of Washington, who chaired the Londonderry conference. Chirot outlines a six-stage 'genocidal continuum,' in which stage 6 represents the kind of horror that has taken place in Bosnia, Rwanda or Nazi Germany, while stage 1 is typified by a reconciliation as in South Africa. 'The intellectual question we wanted to pose,' said Seligman, 'was when does a society move up toward a stage 6 or down to a stage 1?'

The nomothetic database

The answer, he argued, lay in the nomothetic stance of psychology. 'Often in the social sciences, we make a distinction between the idiographic and the nomothetic,' he told the group. 'Idiographic is the story of one instance. The other side of psychology is nomothetic: What are the regularities, the laws?'

He said that in the 20th century there had been at least 15 full-scale genocides, and another 15 instances where genocide might have come out of a conflict but did not. That is enough of a 'nomothetic' data base, he said 'to begin to ask the scientific questions about causation, about prevention and movement from one stage to another.'

Psychologists, he said, could 'look at what people said publicly, and we can begin to ask what kind of rhetoric leads upward toward Rwanda and Bosnia and what kind of rhetoric leads downward toward South Africa.'

In fact, Seligman challenged the conferees to 'isolate the causal variables. By isolating movement from genocide to reconciliation you can use that science to prevent what happened in the 20th century from happening again in the 21st century.'

One of the most puzzling variables: Many potential ethnic conflicts never take place, as in the American South, where conflicts between blacks and whites never escalated to the level of genocide. John Reed, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, theorized that religious similarities between blacks and whites, the ultimate desire of both for economic development and the nonviolent preachings of civil rights leaders played major roles.

But Chirot cited a case less easy to explain. 'I haven’t spoken to anyone in Germany who thinks there is going to be a future conflict between the Bavarians and the North Germans. Why not? They do speak a different language. They are of different religions. They have long histories of war over religion and yet they’re not going to do it.'

Fitzduff said there were nearly 500 organizations dedicated to some form of assistance in worldwide conflict. 'And my sense is that these people are losing out because they do not have the insights. I think there is no other area in which psychologists can make such a contribution.'

As the week of discussion unfolded, it became clear to those in the room that the best way to meet that challenge was through interdisciplinary cooperation.

'There is also a sometimes conflictual relationship between pure research and practitioners,' said Chirot. 'We are hoping that we bring those together.' He said he likes the model of gerontology, a discipline that didn’t exist 40 years ago, but which now encompasses multiple disciplines working in harmony.

'I hope to make sure that interaction does occur,' he said, 'and that we all learn from each other.'

One of the most critical things to learn, said Michael Wessells, PhD, of Randolph Macon College and co-chair of the conference, is a need for sensitivity to local traditions when making evaluations in the field.

'No Western ideas can be applied off the shelf without evaluation,' he said. 'And no traditional methods [of intervention] ought to be treated as if they are some silver bullet. I don’t think there’s a Viagra of conflict resolution.'

He said that in the 20th century there had been at least 15 full-scale genocides, and another 15 instances where genocide might have come out of a conflict but did not. That is enough of a 'nomothetic' data base, he said 'to begin to ask the scientific questions about causation, about prevention and movement from one stage to another.'

Psychologists, he said, could 'look at what people said publicly, and we can begin to ask what kind of rhetoric leads upward toward Rwanda and Bosnia and what kind of rhetoric leads downward toward South Africa.'

In fact, Seligman challenged the conferees to 'isolate the causal variables. By isolating movement from genocide to reconciliation you can use that science to prevent what happened in the 20th century from happening again in the 21st century.'

One of the most puzzling variables: Many potential ethnic conflicts never take place, as in the American South, where conflicts between blacks and whites never escalated to the level of genocide. John Reed, PhD, of the University of North Carolina, theorized that religious similarities between blacks and whites, the ultimate desire of both for economic development and the nonviolent preachings of civil rights leaders played major roles.

But Chirot cited a case less easy to explain. 'I haven’t spoken to anyone in Germany who thinks there is going to be a future conflict between the Bavarians and the North Germans. Why not? They do speak a different language. They are of different religions. They have long histories of war over religion and yet they’re not going to do it.'

Fitzduff said there were nearly 500 organizations dedicated to some form of assistance in worldwide conflict. 'And my sense is that these people are losing out because they do not have the insights. I think there is no other area in which psychologists can make such a contribution.'

As the week of discussion unfolded, it became clear to those in the room that the best way to meet that challenge was through interdisciplinary cooperation.

'There is also a sometimes conflictual relationship between pure research and practitioners,' said Chirot. 'We are hoping that we bring those together.' He said he likes the model of gerontology, a discipline that didn’t exist 40 years ago, but which now encompasses multiple disciplines working in harmony.

'I hope to make sure that interaction does occur,' he said, 'and that we all learn from each other.'

One of the most critical things to learn, said Michael Wessells, PhD, of Randolph Macon College and co-chair of the conference, is a need for sensitivity to local traditions when making evaluations in the field.

'No Western ideas can be applied off the shelf without evaluation,' he said. 'And no traditional methods [of intervention] ought to be treated as if they are some silver bullet. I don’t think there’s a Viagra of conflict resolution.'

 

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