The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

A Tale of Two Peace Offerings

Studying the psychology of peace and violence
  • Billboard at Robben Island, South Africa, where political prisoners were held

“Through research,
we can test
systematically the psychological factors and processes that lead to violence, and conversely those that encourage perspective taking, trust, communication, and alternatives to violence as means to address conflict.”
-Linda Tropp

More than a decade ago, a pair of philanthropic peace activists began a quest for a research university to undertake the scientific study of peace. Their search ended at UMass Amherst in 2002. Impressed with campus scholarship on peace and violence, the West Coast couple gave $2.5 million to endow a chair in peace psychology and launch the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program. In 2011, encouraged by the training of PhD scholars and the research their first gift made possible, the couple donated $2.8 million more to establish a chair in the study of nonviolent direct action and civil resistance. Here is a look at what these two gifts mean to UMass and to the world.

The impact of a new endowed chair in the study of nonviolent action and civil resistance should reach well beyond campus. The scholars who hold the chair will aim to create new science based interdisciplinary knowledge on how and when nonviolent approaches can transform conflict and increase social justice. “This is about trying to understand in a deeper way when nonviolent direct action or civil disobedience will be effective,” says Joel Martin, vice provost for academic personnel and dean of faculty. A search is under way for a visionary scholar to serve as the inaugural holder of the endowed chair. The position is open to academics in many different disciplines with an emphasis on experience with science-based research on large scale social phenomena. Provost James V. Staros says endowed chairs provide competitive salaries, graduate assistantships, and discretionary funding for research initiatives. “The philanthropy of these donors will enable UMass Amherst to become a leader in understanding—and thereby contributing to achieving—social and political change without the use of violence,” explains Staros. The holder of the endowed chair will also serve as a catalyst to enrich other campus research, says Martin.

Ervin StaubBeyond the chair’s affiliation with the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program, the campus has a critical mass of other scholarly endeavors that will complement the work by the new endowed chair. Besides academic programs, the campus hosts public events such as the Art of Conflict Transformation Event Series that bring together scholars, artists, and conflict resolvers to explore change. “Ultimately we will create a new discipline and develop scholars who use science for research and field studies to help us better understand nonviolent resistance,” says Martin. The new field of scholarship, Martin explains, is using science and multiple disciplines to understand the resolution of conflict through nonviolent means. The new faculty member appointed to the chair will move beyond any single discipline such as sociology, political science, or anthropology to conduct integrative scholarship on nonviolent campaigns, such as the U.S. civil rights movements. The issue of studying nonviolent action is a timely one, with nonviolent protests such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements calling renewed attention to injustice. “Having this new position that relates to these issues can put UMass Amherst into a national conversation around nonviolent social change,” says Ervin Staub, emeritus psychology professor and the first director of the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program.

“There are many unanswered questions about these kinds of movements,” says Staub, who is internationally known for his scholarship on genocide, group violence, and violence prevention. “New scholarship can help determine when nonviolence is effective or not effective and exactly how it works.”

Johanna Ray VollhardtJohanna Ray Vollhardt ('09 PhD) grew up in a family with Holocaust victims on her mother’s side and Nazi soldiers on her father’s side. From an early age, she knew about genocide as well as reconciliation. The family of Diala Hawi (’13 PhD) is also familiar with strife. They moved from their native Lebanon to avoid violence and settled in Kuwait until they were forced to return to Lebanon upon the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s. These formative experiences drew both women to study conflict, peace, and violence. They both wanted a doctoral program that combined scholarship with field research in any number of places where unimaginable violence occurs. That brought them to the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program at UMass Amherst, believed to be the only social psychology PhD program in the country that integrates scholarly research on conflict with practical fieldwork experience. “Our program provides students with basic scientific training in psychological theory and research and more specialized training on peace and violence issues.

Typically, those two areas have been separate,” says social psychologist Linda Tropp, director of the program. Two years after anonymous friends of the campus established the program in 2002, the inaugural class was admitted. Since then, 12 students have enrolled and five have graduated.  There are three core faculty members with expertise in the study of intergroup violence, conflict, reconciliation, and peace. In its first decade, the program has forged links with related programs, centers, and institutes on campus and hosted an international summit of prominent scholars in peace and conflict. The PhD students have partnered with non-governmental organizations both near and far—from Orange, Massachusetts, where they consulted with mediation groups, to Sri Lanka and Tajikistan, where they helped to ease the trauma of war and violent conflict. Vollhardt, now teaching at Clark University in Worcester, worked locally and globally. Her international research included consulting on radio programs in Africa, where radio is used for social and public health messages. Her work involved programs in Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo designed to bring peace to post-conflict societies. 

As a doctoral candidate, Hawi has evaluated a program that promotes tolerance among adolescents in Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia. She came to UMass Amherst after working as a clinical psychologist in Lebanon and living through civil war, turmoil from political assassinations, and war with Israel. When listening to clients whose family members had been killed or injured or who had property stolen or damaged, she realized that she was only treating symptoms. “I saw that if I could understand the structural reasons for conflict, I would better be able to help people,” she notes.

Tropp, the program director, says UMass Amherst is training a new cadre of scholars who will transform the study of peace and violence by adapting a scientific approach. “Through research, we can test systematically the psychological factors and processes that lead to violence, and conversely those that encourage perspective taking, trust, communication, and alternatives to violence as means to address conflict.”

The program will be strengthened with research into nonviolent ways to achieve social and political change. Says Tropp, “We have to work simultaneously to understand the roots of peace and the roots of justice.”

Judith B. Cameron '75

Reprinted with permission, UMass Magazine Summer 2012