A program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst claims it is the first to train psychology students to conduct real-world research on the psychology of peace and prevention of violence. In the wake of traumatic conflicts in places like Rwanda, Sudan and Bosnia, the world is in need of psychologists trained to study conflict's roots and its remediation, says its director, psychology professor Ervin Staub, PhD.
"[Our aim] is to train committed scholars who are going to do work that can be transformed and used in real-world settings," says Staub. "If you understand the roots of violence, the chances of prevention are better."
Founded in 2004, the program curriculum includes a full load of social psychology coursework in addition to classes focused on such topics as conflict resolution and the origins of genocide. Students also take at least one course outside of the department, such as on international politics or economic sociology. The program also requires a three-month research internship in a real-world setting, such as post-conflict Rwanda or a U.S. community affected by violence. For example, students might help evaluate the effectiveness of a peace-building intervention or use their experiences to study the influences leading to violence or reconciliation. They also have the option to extend the length of the internship.
"They will be prepared to do work in academic settings," says Staub of the program's rigorous research training. "But the internship also gives them the option to do research in the field and maybe develop interventions to prevent violence and promote peace."
That dual purpose is what attracted the program's first six students, all in their first or second year of the program.
For example, second-year graduate student Johanna Vollhardt earned her master's-level psychology degree in Germany while an activist in the Jewish community there.
"I always thought my academic work would be separate from activism," she explains, "but this program fits me perfectly."
For her first-year research project, Vollhardt studied altruism in the United States after the Southeast Asia tsunami in December 2004. Among undergraduate students, she found that those who had suffered their own trauma-whether political violence, a natural disaster or physical abuse-were more likely to have pitched into relief efforts and have a helping attitude than those who'd experienced no trauma. This year, she hopes to evaluate the effectiveness of a Holocaust education project in Belgium.
Meanwhile, second-year student Rezarta Bilali spent the summer facilitating discussions between Greek and Turkish adolescents from Cyprus, an island long-divided by conflict. Other students may work with Staub in post-conflict Rwanda, evaluating the effectiveness of radio programs designed to help groups reconcile in part by explaining the roots of the genocide there.
-D. Smith Bailey
For more information, visit www.umass.edu/peacepsychology.