Particularly Universal: Ethnography, Psychology and Conflict Transformation

Winner of our ‘Trust, Diplomacy and Conflict Transformation‘ blog competition.

Violent conflicts around the world have repeatedly demonstrated that polarised differences in perceptions of the legitimacy of violence perpetrated by one’s own society, as opposed to that of an “other”, can prove catastrophic.

Traditional political approaches to conflict based on conscious, rational choices made by the actors involved can only go so far in grappling with the issues underlying such differences.  These approaches cannot touch upon the unconscious processes that serve to colour perceptions and polarise views of the meanings of events, situations, and the “nature” of the enemy, nor can they explore the cognitive mechanisms involved in challenging well-established norms of one’s own group.  Psychological experiments designed to analyse questions of judgment and behaviour can provide the methods for exploring such mechanisms: ethnographic detail can provide the means for identifying culturally relevant stimuli to ensure that the design of such experiments is firmly rooted in real-world dynamics.  Such a synthesis of ethnography with cognitive psychology has much to offer the field of Conflict Transformation.

In seeking to discern the underlying factors which contribute to intractable conflict rather than focusing solely on addressing immediate issues, Conflict Transformation aims to effect long-lasting relational change between and within societies involved in conflict.  I would suggest that a better understanding of the dynamic relationship between our universal cognitive processes and the specific cultural contexts in which we live our lives and form our perceptions of the world could be invaluable in helping to unpack the elements which interact in the creation and continuation of violent inter-group conflict.

In my current research into moral decision-making among Israeli soldiers and conscientious objectors within the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I combine ethnographic data with a synthesis of cognitive dissonance theories and Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory in order to analyse what happens cognitively when individuals are faced with ethical dilemmas where acting in accord with “Individualising” foundations of morality (rooted in a sense of fairness and in the prohibition of causing others harm), conflicts with ethical requirements of behaviour stemming from “Binding” moral foundations (based on strengthening the cohesion of the ingroup).  While such dilemmas are universal in occurrence, the particularities of specific cultural and historical contexts affect how individuals from different societies perceive and deal with them.

For example, Israel has near-universal military conscription for its Jewish citizens, which means that the military is not segregated from mainstream society: part of the remit of the Israeli education system is to prepare young people for military service.  Loyalty to the ingroup is systematically reinforced from an early age.  One’s identity as a Jew and as an Israeli is continually linked to one’s responsibility to serve in the military.  The reserve system, in which individuals continue to serve in the military for one month a year until they are in their 40s, constitutes an important social network, providing both opportunities for individual advancement in civilian life as well as establishing bonds with one’s fellow soldiers which tend to be both strong and long-lasting.  To withdraw from reserve duty due to ethical concerns is seen by many as a betrayal of the members of this intimate group as well as treasonous to Israel as a nation.

At the same time, ideals of fairness and justice are also deeply ingrained in Israeli and Jewish culture, and conflicts between how ethics of group loyalty and of fairness are resolved are far from straightforward.  Long before the tensions inherent in the phrase “a Jewish democracy” were being discussed in the modern, secular realm, Jewish religious scholars were wrestling with the ambiguities found in biblical expressions of a universalist concern for all mankind on the one hand, and the particularism of the concept of the Jews as God’s chosen people on the other.  With this religious and cultural heritage, ethical dilemmas relating to military service have the potential for creating significant cognitive dissonance within individuals who feel torn between the often competing behavioural requirements of Binding and Individualising moral foundations.  Such integration of culturally-specific data into the design of psychological studies allows for a deeper understanding of the dynamic tensions between culture and cognitive processes which come to the fore in moral decision-making.

When analysing situations of intractable conflict such nuance can provide us with invaluable insights into the judgment, motivation and behaviour of the people involved.  Experimental designs based on relevant ethnographic data allow for exploration of the interplay between the universal cognitive functions which we all share, and the culturally-specific factors which make our societies unique.  A better grasp of this dynamic tension between the universal and the particular has the potential to radically transform our understanding of the processes involved in the creation and continuation of violent intergroup conflict, and therefore to offer new perspectives on how intractable conflicts might be transformed.

Donna Baillie is a Doctoral Researcher at the London School of Economics

Image source: Flickr / Saad Faruque

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