This reflection explains how social psychological research on emotion inform my work in peacebuilding. My aim is to discuss how the study of emotion can improve our understanding of violent conflicts. I begin by explaining an excerpt from a memoir of a British journalist, George Alagiah, who worked in conflict prone areas across Africa.  In a Passage to Africa,[1] George Alagiah has captured a vivid passage about embarrassment in Somalia during the civil war in 1991. He writes:

And then there was the face I will never forget…I saw that face for only a few seconds, a fleeting meeting of eyes before the face turned away, as its owner retreated into the darkness of another hut. In those brief moments there had been a smile, not from me, but from the face. It was not a smile of greeting, it was not a smile of joy – how could it be? – but it was a smile nonetheless. It touched me in in a way I could not explain. It moved me in a way that went beyond pity or revulsion. What was it about the smile? I had to find out. I urged my translator to ask the man why he had smiled. He came back with an answer. ‘It’s just that he was embarrassed to be found in this condition,’ the translator explained. P. 104

The quote underscores the significant role of emotion in understanding how people deal with the reality of violent conflicts. The man was embarrassed because he was helpless – helpless for being in the presence of a foreign journalist, and being unable to help his family especially  women who despite the utter despair of the war “aspire to a dignity that is almost impossible to achieve.” P. 105.  Thus, the presence of a foreign other, and the presence of helpless women increased the man’s self-reported embarrassment (Omar and Collet, 2013). Furthermore, considering that Somali people are Muslims, a woman who is unable to cover her head experiences pain. The pain is even more for the man because of his identity as a protector.

Probably, the civil war has constrained this man’s ability to perform his most salient identities (father, protector, Muslim etc.) and has therefore generated embarrassment (Stryker, 1987). War terrorizes people’s lives and renders them helpless. Therefore, I would expect that in such a situation, it is normal to feel overwhelmed, and even a need to cry or display anger. But in the case of the Somali man, the societal feeling rules do not encourage men to cry or show their helplessness (Hochschild 1979). Hence, he must manage the negative feelings in a manner acceptable in his culture. His smile manages the outer impression but does it address his feelings (Goffman 1959)? Moreover, if the war persists, this man’s salient identities may never be verified. Thus, he will experience more negative emotions. He may address this by changing his identity to that of a refugee or victim (Stets 2005).  The expectations for this identity will be different.

The study of emotion will help people who intervene (humanitarian workers) in these psychological phenomena or conflict situations to be more useful to victims, that is, help them manage negative emotions (Kidder and Sharp 2013). Even people in conflict contexts will always attempt to maximize the experience of positive emotions, and minimize the experience of negative emotions (Ekman, 2003 cited in Kidder and Sharp 2013). Furthermore, during a war, negative emotions can persist for a long time when individuals are unable to manage them. According to Thomas Scheff, these emotions gather incredible force. For instance, “rather than only being ashamed, one is ashamed. One can also become ashamed when angry, and angry that one is ashamed, round and round, resulting in ‘humiliated fury.’[2] This humiliated fury might be the basis of violence or revenge. However, experiencing negative emotions does not essentially lead to violence as other social influences must be considered. (Gillan 1996) studied shame and identified three conditions necessary for shame to cause violence: (1) the shame must be a secret (2) the perpetrator perceives no other alternative than violence and (3) the perpetrator lacks the inhibiting emotion such as love or guilt. It is therefore possible that the study of emotion may lead to a theory of origins of extreme violence.[3]

(Thoits 1989) observes that most social psychologists study emotion as a dependent variable – a product of social influences. But social influences can also be a product of emotions. Arlie Hochschild, in her latest book, Strangers in their own land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,[4] writes about “people segregating themselves into different emotionally toned enclaves- anger here, hopefulness and trust there.” P.6.  Thus, categorization in this case is influenced by emotions. Hochschild was interested in understanding empathy walls, and how people can cross those walls. She defines empathy walls as barriers that prevent us from understanding the other, barriers that make us develop negative emotions to people who hold different beliefs from us. Although this study of emotion and how it influences social identity is based on Tea Party members in Louisiana (which she considers the center of American right), its results can be generalized to other populations across the US.   The methods of studying emotions takes the form of experiments, surveys, ethnographies, and in-depth interviews or a combination of the above (Sharp and Kidder 2013), given that most contexts are different especially conflict prone contexts, one wonders what to consider before generalizing results of a study.

In conclusion, the study of emotion is significant to our understanding of justice processes. Stets (2005) talks about the process by which justice is attained as being like that by which an individual’s identity is verified. But of interest to me, is how emotions change in Restorative Justice, and how they influence the identity of the victim and the offender.  Scholars generally agree that restorative justice is about relationships as opposed to the law (Llewellyn 2012, Zehr 2003). When harm is caused, a relationship is affected, and depending on the intensity of the harm caused, the victim might feel sad, depressed, helpless, humiliated etc. Restorative justice is supposed to address the harm caused and restore the relationship. An acknowledgement of the harm by the offender enables the victim to move from, say anger to compassion.

[1] Alagiah, G (2001). A Passage to Africa. (London: Abacus)

[2] Scheff, T (2010) Shooting Spree: A Response to Constant Humiliation, The Huffington Post

[3] Gilligan, J (1996). Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. (New York: Vintage)

[4] Hochschild, A (2016). Strangers in their own land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. (New York: The New Press)

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