Phillip Hammack, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California–Santa Cruz, has spent the past decade investigating how to foster lasting peace. His research suggests that facilitating contact between groups may not be enough. "Contact definitely does not always work," he says.
He first became interested in the topic in 2002, when he joined the comparative human development department at the University of Chicago, soon after the second Palestinian intifada began in Jerusalem. Hammack wanted to study violence and identity among Israeli and Palestinian youth, but he didn't have ties to the region. Luckily, he landed a summer job working with Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings youth from regions of conflict to Maine. He then went on to work for a new organization called Hands of Peace, a similar program that aims to foster friendships between Arab and Jewish teens during a two-week summer camp held near Chicago. Eventually, he became the program's director.
For his dissertation, Hammack tracked the progress of 45 Palestinian and Israeli youths who had participated in the programs over four years. Rather than doing quantitative research, Hammack conducted an ethnographic study.
"I realized I need to talk to these kids and see what's going on," he says.
He found that while students did feel less prejudice when they first came home from camp, the changes lasted no more than a year. His qualitative approach enabled him to see why: The program created an alternate reality in which the young people were on equal footing. But back home, "the social structure of the conflict endured." Contact between the Israeli and Palestinian campers was almost nonexistent.
Hammack turned his dissertation work into the 2011 book, "Narrative and the Politics of Identity: The Cultural Psychology of Israeli and Palestinian Youth." Moving forward, he hopes to find ways to increase the effectiveness of peace-building programs. His current research focuses on how conflicting groups respond to more confrontational conversations.