On Social Psychology and Conflict



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Psychology & Society, 2011, Vol. 4 (1), 1 - 6 1
On Social Psychology and Conflict
SÉAMUS A. POWER University of Cambridge Although there are differing ideologies, belief systems, cultures, histories and power structures at the basis of violent conflict, ultimately people are the creators, benefactors and victims of this violence. Much of the substance of conflict falls under the domain of social psychology, and previous research has made great progress in understanding the processes that underlie intergroup relations. Several high-status researchers have argued for the necessity of social psychological research to augment and inform other theories of violent conflict, mainly those used by political scientists and International Relations analysts (see, for example, Kelman, 2008). However, these interdisciplinary approaches are in their infancy. Moreover, social psychological contributions to the understanding of war and other forms of violent conflict lack integration with political theories of conflict resolution, and as such are often marginalized, ensuring social psychology’s inability to inform and augment policy formation in this area. There are several reasons for this. Traditional research paradigms, and the majority of contemporary endeavours, focus on a laboratory based approach to understanding intergroup relations. This research typically involves instrumental control of independent and dependent variables to find correlations between them. It is assumed from understanding such processes at this level, a big picture of what is actually occurring during interethnic, intrastate or international conflicts can be extrapolated. Certainly laboratory work has been, and will continually be, invaluable in understanding how individuals and groups act before, during and after conflict. However, I suggest the emphasis on these approaches, which are removed from violent conflict between real social groups, has limited the potential impact of social psychology in understanding conflict and creating ideas to resolve it. The distance between laboratory studies and the realities of actual conflict needs to be reduced, through theoretical integration and a refocus on the level at which research is conducted, in order to generate and inform ideas and policies to reduce its prevalence. It is necessary to take a step back, and look at the big picture. The world that we inhabit is constructed by people. We form political, religious and cultural systems that are regulated and enforced bylaws, beliefs, power-structures and histories. Within these constructs, people live their lives experiencing and generating an amazing range of phenomena from love to loss, youth to old age, security to injustice, peace to war, and remembering to forgetting, to name just a few. Within this contextualized mix of peoples, academia is borne outwith social psychologists given the responsibility to understand and explain such phenomena. In general, such motivated researchers are taught to study human interaction in a laboratory setting and somewhere between research, theory and policy, the influence of these

Psychology & Society, 2011, Vol. 4 (1), 1 - 6 2 findings becomes obscured to the world that people construct, give meaning to, and experience. This is evident in the distance between social psychological findings, and meaningful policy generation. Many social psychologists have been inspired by Bruner´s (1990) second cognitive revolution He calls to refocus social psychological research on both human experiences and the generation of meaning, which is situated in a fluid context. This thesis has important implications both for research on intergroup conflict between real social groups and the level at which government and private agencies fund social psychological research. If social psychologists are to move beyond explaining and understanding intergroup relations in a laboratory setting, and are interested in understanding violent conflict to generate ideas towards stable and contextualized peace, several changes are needed in the balance of social psychological research, and associated funding. A greater focus on fieldwork in (pre/post) conflict zones would augment existing theories concerned with intergroup relations, and have the potential to bridge the gap between academia and contextualized policy formation. By creating and augmenting theories sensitive to shifting contexts outside of the laboratory where actual intergroup conflict is occurring, social psychological research may have a greater impact on the reduction of violent conflict. The implication for funding agencies is clear money spent researching intergroup conflict is at least one level of abstraction closer to understanding the actual processes involved in violent conflict as it actually occurs or occurred. In order to de-marginalize social psychological research, it is necessary to increase the visibility of its primary function to help people liver their lives. Therefore greater efforts need to be made to engage nonspecialists with the findings of psychological research. Accessibility to psychological insights and conclusions could be improved with a refocus on writing-style. Complex ideas need to be communicated simply. One way to do this is to increase the level of narration in psychological publications. Some high profile social psychologists have published their seminal works in this format, such as Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect
Understanding how good people turn evil (2007). This has the benefit of engaging larger audiences as the findings are understandable to nonspecialists and are also more widely available. Such publications are the exception rather than the norm, but this need not be the case. A move towards increased narration to package social psychological findings in a more accessible manner would not de-legitimize the value of the research, if the research is well presented, and useful conclusions are drawn. If social psychological studies were made more accessible and understandable, the findings of this research could be implemented more practically. Elaborating upon the potential of mixing psychology with narratives illustrates how useful metaphors, such as Moghaddam´s (2005) Stairway to Terrorism are important in orientating the opinions and informing the debate of those who might be in a position to constructor challenge both foreign and domestic policy, and those who need to rethink how social phenomena, such as terrorism, are conceptualized. Moghaddam’s metaphor has implications for both long and short term US. foreign policy to deal with Islamic terrorism. Focusing on those who are

Psychology & Society, 2011, Vol. 4 (1), 1 - 6 3 already at the top of the staircase i.e. those who are already recruited into terrorist organizations brings only short term solutions. Long term policy, Moghaddam argues, should focus on generating contextualized democracies to increase an actual and perceived sense of voice and justice, thus preventing the potential to climb through the narrowing steps of the staircase to terrorism. In this sense, social psychological findings can act like good literature it provides useful and creative ways to think through cultures, and the problems associated with them. By drawing on creative metaphors, such as the staircase metaphor, social psychologists can frame how issues, such as terrorism, are conceptualized and subsequently how these problems might be resolved (Moghaddam, 2004). Secondly, the accessibility of social psychological findings must be improved. The open access nature of Psychology & Society increases the audience who can and will read this Special Edition. This journal, and others which are freely available yet peer-reviewed, encourage the circulation and duplication of potentially useful knowledge throughout the world, and subsequently are at the forefront of the Digital Age (Gillespie, 2010). Exclusivity to academic information is problematic, as it serves to distance potentially useful information from the very people who might be in a position to constructively implement these findings, provided they are understandable to the nonspecialist too. By using a variety of methodologies, bridging the dogged and tired gap between qualitative and quantitative research, the articles in this volume reflect the thesis I have outlined in this introduction, namely that social psychological research conducted outside the laboratory, and the format in which it is written and published, can be important in understanding conflict as it occurs between real social groups either on an international or intrastate level.


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