Ron Roberts reflects on psychology’s ambivalent relationship to conflict

Ron Roberts blog photoRon Roberts follows up his powerful June talk to Leicester psychologists with further thoughts about the need for our discipline to think carefully about its involvement in situations of conflict and the reasons for this.

I was delighted to be asked back to Leicester to speak about the psychology of peace and conflict, having done my PhD here back in the 1980s and then gone on to work in Bosnia and edited the collection Just War (PCCS: 2007) on psychology’s relationship to the conflict in Iraq and the war on terror. I thought this blog post would be an opportune moment to reflect again on psychology’s relationship to conflict. This reflection addresses both the attempt to understand the psychological dimensions of conflict generation and resolution as well as the manner in which as a profession and academic discipline psychology participates in maintaining conflict.

Our understanding & theorising of social conflict draws heavily on experimental work deriving from Tajfel’s social identity theory. What is seldom if ever said is that this work is entirely lacking in ecological validity – laboratory studies with small numbers of individuals have no bearing on real-world conflict situations where very often tens of thousands of people – military, militia, citizens – are involved. Furthermore the elephant in the room in our obsession with theory is that no social psychological theory has ever predicted any real world conflict. (In the talk I discussed the ongoing drama in the Ukraine and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia as but two examples of this – but any will suffice) Despite this obvious problem professional journals display a disdain for publishing work about what events and perspectives exist on the ground. It is as if everything that does happen must perforce be explicable by existing theory. This is dogmatic arrogance and reflects a serious deficiency in how the discipline approaches the real world. The relegation of the real beneath the instruments of professional power occurs not just with theory but also with method where throughout the discipline data processing methods (multivariate statistical analysis, DNA sequencing and analysis, MRI scanning) have become a byword for truth – as if the sheer complexity of the method somehow guarantees the validity of any claim made on the basis of it. Oliver James’ recent comments on the spurious claims made by psychiatrists regarding the putative role of genetic factors in mental ill health are a case in point.

The theoretical and philosophical problems connected with our attempts to turn human behaviour into a field of interacting variables are complemented by our professional willingness – despite our professed neutrality and alleged freedom from bias – to actively aid those forces of the state which all too often manufacture war. Psychological operations, enhanced interrogation (torture) techniques, surveillance, ergonomics, missile guidance and artificial intelligence are just some of the ways in which psychologists have become front line staff in the perpetration of death and destruction. The recent failure of The American Psychological Association to discipline John Leso for ethical violations after he had admitted taking part in the effective torture of Mohammed Al-Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay indicates the magnitude of organisational complicity in state sponsored violence.

Many aspects of the above problems are a product of psychology’s ill-suited attempt to masquerade as a science and to seek state and corporate authorisation to present itself as one. The ways out of these are far from obvious but I can suggest at least two or three viable avenues. First of all an attempt to embed a radical psychological perspective in community work and activism – to do this effectively psychologists will need to be mindful of public distrust, not to mention, in the UK at least, the spirit of anti-intellectual thought which is pervasive in the culture. A good place to start might be an admission that we are unsure of how to proceed – the best place from which to begin any act of co-creation. Secondly if we are to cultivate a culture of engendering change we will need to face up to the shortcomings of the scientist-practitioner model and re-discover psychology’s roots as an art. All this leads to what were my concluding comments – the need for a new vision for the discipline – one which straddles the borders between the individual and the social, the past, present and future and the tensions between psychology and other disciplines; a vision which contains but does not privilege psychological explanation and positions psychological work as art and practice in the world. With this in mind I am currently engaged in an exploration to revision the discipline using Svetlana Boym’s concept of the ‘Off-Modern’.

Ron Roberts June 2015

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