Wider Question: How has social psychology contributed to society with regard to genocide prevention?

Genocide refers to any actions which are intended to result in the destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The APA (2008) suggests that “Psychologists can enhance the world’s understanding of the factors that contribute to and help prevent mass violence and genocide” and say that “Psychology is in a unique position to both inform our understanding of the causes and solutions to genocide” (Munn, 2006;).

The APA has contributed to society by advocating for victims of genocide nationally through the US Congress and internationally through representation at the United Nations.  In January 2008, they published ‘Resolution on Genocide’ as a  response to the ongoing humanitarian and political crises in Darfur, Sudan; this was a similar situation to that of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in that 400,000 people were murdered, countless women and children raped, and over 2.5 million people displaced.

The purpose of the resolution was to raise awareness of the psychological causes and consequences of genocide and the role psychologists can play in promoting justice and peace-making and also to assist psychologists in providing consultation to humanitarian organizations and governments that are seeking to comprehend and respond to genocide

Using psychological theories and research to explain this contribution to society: There are many theories within social psychology which have been used to explain genocide, for example inter-group conflict can be understood by looking at social psychological theories of prejudice and discrimination such as Tajfel’s social identity theory and Sherif’s theory of realistic conflict (crisis of resources). Tajfel suggests that when people are categorised in terms of group membership, prejudice between in and out-group members is inevitable, as social comparison leads to in-group favouritism and out-group hostility in attempt to raise group and self esteem. The suggestion here is that where there is an unequal distribution of power in a society which could lead to low self esteem amongst certain groups, hostility is even more likely and therefore action needs to be taken to redraw the boundaries between majority and minority groups. Also it may be important to ensure that unnecessary attention is not drawn to group differences, as this will only reinforce cohesion between subgroup in society, as in the distribution of ID cards, categorising Hutus from Tutsis in Rwanda in the 1930s.

Sherif’s Realistic Conflict Theory suggested discrimination will be more likely at times of economic decline, due to competition for limited resources. This was certainly the case in Rwanda, as the violence followed a very poor summer which affected coffee production, the nation’s major export. This type of information to predict and pre-empt violence.

The APA also explain that authoritarian leadership can elicit agentic behaviour whereby individuals absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions and act without fear of reprisals, as in the classic Eichmann defence of ‘just following orders’. This suggests that curriculum development and media campaigns drawing attention to personal autonomy may be helpful.

Concepts such as bystander apathy and pluralistic ignorance emphasise the impact on individuals who have been passive observers of genocide. Social psychological theories in this area suggest that ambiguity and uncertainty lead individuals to look to others as a guide to their own behaviour; if no-one else seems to be intervening then this becomes the norm, however, the impact of not becoming involved may be long-lasting causing deep psychological difficulties following the end of a period of a conflict; social psychologists would emphasise the problems that this may cause at a group/community level; how does a group justify to itself its lack of involvement and how does this affect future behaviour.

The strengths of this contribution to society

  • “While other fields such as political science, economics, and sociology can shed light on the experience of genocide, psychology is uniquely able to connect the experience of genocide from the perspective of perpetrators, victims, and by-standers”, (APA, 2008); Psychology is able to provide insight that other disciplines are less able to comment upon and this is a strength of their work
  • The theories and concepts put forward in the resolution are supported by a wealth of social psychological experiments, both laboratory and field, thus the evidence base has both internal and external validity and can be seen as reliable, thus improving the overall credibility of the arguments

Weaknesses of this contribution to society

  • Whilst the suggestion of social psychologists about how reduce prejudice within a society may be helpful to a certain degree, and there may be some experimental research to support their effectiveness, the theories tend to be overly simplified and reductionist, ignoring factors such a motivation and individual incentives to become involved in violence
  • Authors such as Woocher (2007) indicate that despite the research and recommendations provided by social psychology and other disciplines, “the field may be further than is commonly acknowledged from developing effective early warning methods and mechanisms for the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities”.
  • Social psychological accounts about how to reduce prejudice, including ethnic tension, sometimes focus on redrawing boundaries to create looser more fluid groups, however group membership including national identity could be seen as an important source of self esteem and we shouldn’t lose sight of the benefits of group membership, despite the caution that groups with very clear cut identities can come into conflict.
  • Many of the social experiments which supports concepts such as social identity theory and realistic conflict theory have only been tested on American and European populations, many of which could be described as more individualist, it is therefore possible that the explanations presented and are culture bound and do not translate effectively in explaining the development of inter-group tension in collectivist cultures such as those of many African and Asian nations.

Further information about the APA resolution on genocide: http://www.apa.org/international/pi/2008/01/resolution.aspx