About the
Asch Center






Research Agenda

The Asch Center seeks to encourage interdisciplinary research bearing on the critical issues that arise before, during, and after ethnopolitical conflict. The agenda below summarizes a variety of valuable research initiatives that the Center plans to undertake.


1. The Mystery of Group Identification.

Psychologically, the central mystery of group conflict is the phenomenon of group identification. We find it easy to care about the outcomes of groups, even groups we are not members of. A florid example of group identification is identification with sports teams: Otherwise reasonable people have their Mondays made better or worse by the victory or defeat of their team on Sunday afternoon. Identification can be negative: some people do not care about football except for feeling good when the Dallas Cowboys lose and bad when they win.

Similarly, political scientists find that it is group identification, not immediate self interest, that predicts voting and reactions to public events. Our political opinions are tied to perceptions of the interests of groups for which we feel sympathy or antipathy.

Ethnopolitical conflict depends upon mobilizing and making dominant one from among many possible group identifications; the interests of family, neighborhood, and occupation must be submerged or sacrificed to the interests of state, nation, or ethnicity. How this mobilization occurs is the first issue in predicting or understanding the origins of ethnopolitical conflict.

2. The Social Construction of Moral Violation

Related to the mobilization of ethnic/national group identity is the social construction of moral violation. This is a particularly powerful and reliable route to group consensus that an outgroup must be taught a lesson, crushed, or even eliminated. President Bush took this route in bringing the U.S. public and the U.S. Congress behind his decision to force Iraq out of Kuwait: he talked little and late about oil but talked early and often about the new Holocaust led by Saddam Hussein as the new Hitler. More recently, President Clinton justified attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan as retribution for terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies.

Moral violation is not objectively defined; rather it is constructed in a dialog in which those who do not want war interpret outgroup behavior as understandable, accidental, justifiable, or negotiable. Those who want war interpret the same outgroup behavior as intentional, avoidable, and unjustified. An important psychological issue in understanding ethnopolitical conflict is to learn more about thus kind of dialog by analysis of the rhetoric involved. This analysis may provide predictors of EPC, or even suggest interventions. What rhetorical moves are most effective in interfering with the construction of an outgroup's behavior as moral violation?

The obverse of constructing moral violation by the outgroup is constructing martyrdom for members of the ingroup. In 1981, for instance, the Irish Republican Army was re-invigorated--some would say resuscitated--by the deaths of ten IRA men on hunger strike in a British prison. The difference between a martyr and a crazy fool is an issue of considerable practical importance.

3. Forgiveness.

Ethnic conflicts are initiated and maintained by narratives of past injustices or brutality. These are often rehearsed and are repeatedly transmitted to children. The past injustice often dates to very distant times, but is repeated and elaborated to maintain its salience. Often, overt hostilities and other injustices are absent in the intervening years between the injustice and the present. Yet, there seems to be an undying life to these memories and narratives, a failure to forgive. Individuals often experience what they take to be unforgivable actions, while at the same time, forgiving many other actions. Religions have varying stances on conditions for forgiveness. There has been little research in psychology on the conditions of forgiveness: the type of actions which, in any particular culture, are more or less forgiveable, and the conditions which promote forgiveness. It seems that, in general, actions with negative moral import are extremely difficult to erase: consider for example, what "good works" would morally equalize a single murder. The principal of negativity dominance in the moral domain is no doubt a component of resistance to forgiveness. Exploration of forgiveness in a cultural and social psychological framework promises to provide helpful strategies to ameliorate ethnic hatred.

4. Organizational foundations of genocide

Although terrorist attacks are big news, it is state power that is the big killer. For 1900-1987, Rummel estimates 38.5 million battle deaths in interstate war and 169 million civilians killed by states in genocides or mass killings. The total then is at least 208 millions killed by state power in the 20th century.

At the Derry conference, Prunier characterized Rwanda as the "Prussia of Africa," a state with recent history of centralization of power and a population habituated in obedience to state authority. He described how the identities of Tutsi and Hutu were reified by the state, to the point that state ID cards were a major determinant of who was targeted for extermination.

If mass killing requires the power of the state, then organizational psychology offers a promising approach to understanding and predicting genocide. What are the organizational signs and symptoms of the kind of power structure that makes mass killing possible?

5. Measuring group isolation/integration

Ethnopolitical conflict in Bosnia and Rwanda emerged from a social background in which Serb and Croat, Tutsi and Hutu, had been intermingled at work, in neighborhoods, and in marriage. As group conflict escalated, face-to-face interaction across group lines declined to the point where neither side can any longer imagine everyday life together.

An important issue for social psychology is how everyday interaction across group boundaries first begins to decline, and how this decline accelerates to the level of "ethnic cleansing." A recently devised measure of intergroup contact may be useful at least in tracking the phenomenon. The measure gives a quantitative estimate of the exposure of a typical member of one group to members of another group; it can be applied to naturally occurring aggregations in public spaces, work places, teams, clubs, and housing.

Better description of changes in intergroup isolation/integration may lead to more than prediction of conflict. Patterns of change may imply tipping points at which change becomes autocatalytic. Particularly at such points it will be important to understand how individual behavior is a function of both individual attitudes of hostility to outgroup and developing ingroup norms that threaten reprisal for "treasonable" interaction with the outgroup.


6. Escalation

Many have recognized that new or stronger action against an outgroup creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of further increases in hostilities--a dynamic of escalation. There are basically three approaches to understanding this dynamic. Political scientists and policy specialists tend to focus on cognitive factors: each new escalation narrows expectations about the future of the conflict and its possible outcomes. Social psychologists tend to focus on the small-group effects of escalation: increased ingroup cohesion and polarization of group norms and group leadership toward hostile reactions to the outgroup. And personality psychologists tend to focus on emotional reactions to escalation as causes of further escalation: anger, fear, sympathy, and guilt. All of these approaches have value: the challenge for psychology is to begin to integrate these into a coherent theory that will offer suggestions for avoiding or reversing escalation.

7. Conflict resolution

There is a thriving interdisciplinary scholarship in the area of conflict resolution in which psychology already has a place. Although not closely integrated with any particular theory of group conflict or escalation, conflict resolution studies already boasts some useful interventions in difficult conflicts. Perhaps best known and most successful of these is Kelman's continuing program of intervention in the Middle East.

Since 1971, Kelman and his associates have been organizing and leading small group workshops to improve communication between Palestinians and Israelis. These groups typically involve influentials from each side (from media, academic, policy and political institutions) who are led by neutral professionals to try to build prenegotiation coalitions that will make official intergroup negotiations possible. Kelman seems to have found that one-shot workshops are not very helpful, but that a sequence of workshops, with the same people attending over many months, makes progress by encouraging an integrative and cumulative process of coalition building.

Kelman's workshop approach can profit from additional research, and the generalizability of this approach for other cases of group conflict is an important issue for psychologists interested in ethnopolitical conflicts.

8. Bystander behavior

In his far-reaching efforts to understand how normal individuals are brought to escalating hostility against an outgroup, Erwin Staub has given special attention to the role of "bystanders". In individual conflicts, bystanders are other individuals whose reactions or non-reactions to violence makes a big difference in whether violence is controlled or escalated. For intergroup conflicts, bystanders are other groups whose reactions in words or deeds can moderate or encourage intergroup violence. Hitler's famous observation is an example of the potential relevance of international bystanders: "Who now recalls the fate of the Armenians?"

Of course there is a big leap in applying the psychology of individual bystanders to the international scene, but this extension is one that promises important implications about when, how, and who may react to intergroup conflict in ways best calculated to discourage escalation. This kind of work has immediate relevance for current events in the former Yugoslavia.

9. Psychology of ethnopolitical killers

Even when a sizeable fraction of a group is involved in ethnopolitical killing (e.g., Hutu peasants, Serbian football club members, Nazi reserve policemen), there is still important variation in murderous behavior. Some Hutu died because they would not kill Tutsi spouses or neighbors; some reserve policemen took opportunities to refuse or avoid killing. This variation offers potential for understanding and reducing killing. Individual motives include fear of the enemy, hatred for the enemy, and hope of material gain. Group-centered motives may be more important, including the welfare and status of the ingroup in relation to the enemy. One form of group motive may be particularly powerful: devotion to the small group of friends who live, fight, and kill together. Browning describes German policemen killing Polish Jews because to do less than their part would have meant that their comrades, their whole and only community in a foreign land, would have to do more. The relative power of this and other motives for killing will likely vary in different ethnic conflicts, but understanding the power and differential appeal of these motives can help efforts, as in Bosnia and Rwanda, to reduce the impetus to killing.


10. Psychosocial services

Around the world, governments and especially Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) like the United Nations and Medicins sans Frontieres are targeting help for areas suffering from ethnopolitical conflict. In the past few years, this help has increasingly included provision of psycho-social services for victims of conflict such as refugees, rape victims, and even child-soldiers. The potential here for psychology is great: considerable is known about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and about Depression, and this knowledge can help those helping victims of conflict. The challenge here is to translate and generalize to other cultures knowledge that is based mostly on research with North American and Northern European populations. This will be a serious challenge, requiring expertise from both clinical and cultural psychologists.

11. Developing local capacities for psychosocial services

Clinical or counseling psychologists, even with postdoctoral training from the Center, will not alone be able to make much dent in the immense problems of victims of conflict. They will be too few, and often handicapped by lack of ability in the languages of the victims they would serve. Thus an important issue for psychology is to develop programs of education for conflict victims. Psychological knowledge must be made available to local people, in the local language, so that Center postdocs are teachers rather than direct service providers. Educational psychologists will be needed to work with cultural psychologists in producing generic education programs that can be translated (perhaps into film or CD) into different languages.

12. Program evaluation for psychosocial services

Many NGOs are beginning to realize the need for evaluation of the many programs they are currently supporting for victims of ethnopolitical conflict. Here is an enormous opportunity for psychology in general and Penn Center postdocs in particular: psychology has an armory of techniques, ranging from experimental to experiential, for evaluating the impact of interventions of many different kinds. Evaluation research that is sensitive to field conditions and constraints will be of immediate interest to those already in the field trying to work with problems of ethnopolitical conflict.

13. Designing Psychologically Sustainable Political Communities

Even as ethnopolitical mobilization produces horrific results in non-liberal democracies across the globe, liberal democracies, including the United States, debate whether or not there is enough community attachment and affiliative sentiment in the abstract categories of liberal polity membership--enough to support a readiness to sacrifice on behalf of the group and to satisfy needs for communitarian participation and political sociality. As liberal constitution makers seek communitarian forms of liberalism, and "liberal nationalism," to offer as architecture for new democracies, psychologists can ask what evidence exists that such formulas, on the state level, are necessary or important for human beings to lead satisfying lives.

Relatedly, theories in contemporary political science, sociology, and anthropology imagine that collective identities, which political authority structures draw upon to legitimate the exercise of power, are not fixed or univocal, but fluid and multi-faceted. A new conventional wisdom with respect to collective identity imagines individuals with repertoires of identities available to be traded and substituted in the presentation of self to others as changing circumstances warrant. Psychologists can play a key role in enhancing our understanding of the circumstances under which humans can trade old identities, which implicate them in hostile relations with others, for alternate if not new identities, capable of supporting friendlier relations with former enemies. What are the psychological mechanisms which lead to identity substitution? What may be the psychological barriers that make some identities resistant to change?

For additional perspective on psychological research relevant to ethnopolitical conflict, please see the Chirot Report.




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