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Psychopolitical Implications of Forced Migration and Violence on Human Behavior

June 1, 2021 | By Justine Davis, Jay-Miguel Fonticella, Hasan Abdel-Nabi, & Siwaar Abouhala | IGCC News

news_children-refugees.jpgResearchers and practitioners from a range of disciplines—including political science, psychology, neuroscience, and public health—met at the virtual Human Security, Violence, and Trauma Conference on May 26 and May 27, 2021. Hosted by the University of California, Berkeley and funded by the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC), panelists highlighted the importance of understanding and integrating community definitions of trauma into research and treatments; innovations in methodologies to study the effects of trauma exposure; and ethical considerations when conducting research on trauma-affected populations.

The virtual format enabled panelists from around the globe to participate and brought together a diverse array of perspectives and field experiences. The commencing panel characterized the brain activity and behavioral tendencies driven by traumatic memories and recovery. Yuval Neria (Columbia University), Adam Brown (The New School), and Richard Tedeschi (Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth) explored the cognitive neuroscience of trauma exposure and the psychosocial aspects of posttraumatic growth. Assessing the mass recovery rates of war prisoners and ex-militants, the panelists examined how pre-existing trauma sensitivity influences the development of psychopathologies or the efficacy of peer-led recovery programs.

Several panelists addressed the need for cultural competency and collaborative ownership when studying populations affected by trauma. "There’s a disconnect within the majority of refugee studies coming from the Eastern Hemisphere, as Western research practices are being used,” noted Rana Dajani, Associate Professor of Biology and Biotechnology at Hashemite University in Jordan. “As a Western scientist, I need to find a local Eastern scientist, whether they are in the country or the diaspora, because they know better. Why? To design better science.”

Dr. Dajani was joined by Mohammad Al-Rajabi (Questscope), and Melanie Greenberg (Humanity United) on the panel, which underscored how trauma research can be better-translated to community-based applications when local people are engaged. Specifically, Al-Rajabi questioned the role of studies with traumatized individuals who are unable to access or benefit from the results. To develop collaborative ownership, the panelists asserted the value of scientific transparency and the synthesis of localized models, as well as the value of returning to trauma-affected communities to disseminate and seek feedback on research findings.

Rebecca Wolfe (University of Chicago) and Rebecca Littman (University of Illinois Chicago) led a working group on the methodological challenges of conducting investigations in active conflict regions. They elaborated on the ethical difficulties inherent in randomization in vulnerable communities, in addition to the need to protect interviewers and implementers who may be traumatized from collecting data on trauma. Working group participants recommended thinking beyond the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and establishing a common ethical framework for researchers of trauma to follow.

In reviewing the political outcomes of exposure to trauma, Justine Davis (University of Michigan), Biz Herman (University of California, Berkeley), Phoung Pham (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative), and Lauren Young (University of California, Davis) emphasized the need for clear definitions of trauma exposure and response in order to build an accurate conceptual model linking violence to political participation.

On the second day of the conference, Patrick Vinck (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health), Brian P. Marx (National Center for PTSD), and Andrew Rasmussen (Fordham University) opened discussion by reflecting on shifts in definitions of trauma and the heterogeneity of trauma response. Rasmussen called for incorporating local understandings and definitions of trauma-related experience into cross-cultural frameworks. Vinck further encouraged the application of an intergenerational, qualitative approach to characterizing trauma-related events, highlighting the under-explored influence of information transmission within a community.

In their panel entitled “Mental Health Realities and Treatments in the Field,” Adeyinka M. Akinsulure-Smith (City College of New York), Mohamed Elshazly (Consultant psychiatrist), and Mike Niconchuk (Beyond Conflict) reflected on their own experiences working with trauma-affected communities across the globe. They underlined the importance of considering the impact of past and daily trauma events by being prepared to shift treatment and research priorities to accommodate populations’ evolving needs.

Although a significant amount of research focuses on individual experiences with trauma, several panelists stressed how trauma affects groups and communities, requiring structural interventions in addition to individual-level evaluations. Heidi Ellis (Harvard Medical School) described her work with Somali refugees, focusing on community strengths and community ownership over programming. Rose McDermott (Brown University) and Besty Levy Paluck (Princeton) suggested an alternative model to individualized psychological interventions by creating ethical interventions to simultaneously enact individual and societal change.

In her keynote address, Wendy D’Andrea (The New School) described psychobiological measures that are frequently used during violence-based investigations, including skin conductance, pupillometry, and eye tracking tools. She detailed the ways in which measuring physiological responses to trauma can enhance self-reporting. D’Andrea proposed bidirectional learning, where researchers and community members determine the best strategies to collect biophysical measures that are the least invasive to trauma-affected participants. 

In a final working group, Aila Matanock (University of California, Berkeley) and Tim Phillips (Beyond Conflict) asked how trauma affects the likelihood of building lasting peace in communities affected by violence. Matanock underscored the importance of thinking through conflict dynamics and different facets of violence before creating peacebuilding programs. Phillips encouraged more thinking on how trauma can serve as a driver of conflict and how its legacy can thwart or help transitional justice initiatives in the post-conflict setting.

Justine Davis (University of Michigan) and Biz Herman (University of California, Berkeley) closed the conference with a summation of the conference proceedings. Drawing from panelist and participant contributions, Davis noted a need to focus on relational and evidence-based approaches to assist individuals in healing from their lived experiences. “The sheer number of participants and amount of interest in the conference,” Justine said, “show that conversations—between practitioners and academics from diverse disciplines—are needed as we further the development of practices to treat and collaborate with trauma-affected communities.”


The conference on Human Security, Violence, and Trauma in the 21st Century: Psychological Response and Political Impacts of Civil War & Forced Migration, was organized by Cecilia Mo (UC Berkeley), Biz Herman (UC Berkeley), and Justine Davis (University of Michigan), as part of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation annual Academic Conference Competition.

Learn more about the Human Security, Violence, and Trauma (HSVT) conference.