More than thirty years after some scholars wondered if the end of the Cold War might herald the end of war as we know it, humanity is fighting at least 27 armed conflicts, more than at any time since the Second World War.
Two billion people, one out of every four humans on Earth, live in a conflict zone. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 drove the number of people displaced by fighting to over 100 million: the most since the United Nations began keeping records.
With violence worldwide worsening for a decade, the UK aid-funded Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme has gathered a team of King’s College London (KCL) researchers from a diverse array of disciplines not often associated with war studies. The idea is to employ new tools, techniques and perspectives to answer some of the most complex questions surrounding the roots of human conflict, including: Why does one person turn to violence in response to a traumatic event and another to peace?
The study of armed conflict is as old as war itself, but the team at KCL are hoping to bring a new point of view to the field. While much of the scholarship has tended to view problems from a single perspective – with an economist investigating the financial interests of two warring nations, for example, or a political scientist exploring how cultural divisions and disenfranchisement lead to violence – the KCL team includes experts in such varied fields as epigenetics (the study of how behaviour and environment influence genetic expression), gender, memory, neuroscience, and trauma.
Researchers are employing techniques ranging from brain scans to storytelling to try and tell a fuller story of the causes of violent and peaceful behaviour, and perhaps even to begin triangulating a person’s life experience and very biology with their beliefs and actions.
What Brain Science Teaches Us About Radicalisation
Neuroscientist Nafees Hamid wanted to know how, precisely, did the chatty young man in skinny jeans and trainers come to be so taken with violent extremism? And just as importantly, might it be possible to change his mind?
Hamid rolled the 20-year-old into an MRI machine in Barcelona recently, as part of the first study to use brain scans in attempting to answer such questions. The good-natured would-be jihadist, who spoke repeatedly of his desire to travel to Syria and die for his cause, answered questions and played a video game as Hamid and his colleagues studied his brain activity. Searching for the neurobiological underpinnings of his radicalisation, the researchers were focused especially on regions of the brain that perform cost-benefit analyses and process social pressures.
Hamid and his colleagues have now examined the brains of over 70 men living in Spain, all “devoted actors”, in the parlance of some social scientists, due to the strength of their convictions, in this case to Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. He is interested in the development of so-called “sacred values,” convictions so cherished people are willing to fight and die for them, and whether those values might be altered again, rendered “non-sacred”.
Results from the first two studies indicate that the distress of being excluded from a social group, long known amongst sociologists and criminologists as a powerful motivator, can solidify formerly “non-sacred values” into potentially more volatile “sacred” ones.
As with other groups, however, even the radicalised “devoted actors” tended to reduce their commitment to violence if they believed it left them out of step with their peers, perhaps suggesting community as a tool for moderating extreme beliefs.
How Narratives and Memories Can Drive, Resolve, and Avoid Conflict
While much of Hamid’s recent work has focused on people sympathetic to violent groups, many of his colleagues are working with victims of violence – sometimes of violence committed by those very same groups – including refugees in Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan. All places that have been at war for years.
Narrowly-focused research efforts risk overlooking what happens just beyond the parameters of a study. A project might investigate the desire for revenge amongst people wounded in conflict, for example, but neglect those whose trauma is psychological.
To try and fill some of the gaps between disciplines, therefore, XCEPT researchers are turning to the age-old tradition of storytelling, asking refugees, combatants, survivors, and prisoners to share their experiences in their own words.
In order to understand the ideological and psychological journey many terrorists take, researcher Rajan Basra has turned to an institution that’s been at the heart of countless political movements: prison.
From Marxism in Latin America during the 20th Century, to Loyalism and Republicanism in Ireland during The Troubles, to Islamic jihad in Iraq in the 2000s, ideologies of every sort have been shaped and spread by prisoners. Some then go on to plan, or carry out, insurgencies, revolutions, and terror attacks.
But if prisons have long served as centrepieces of propaganda, and recruiting stations for ideologues, they’ve also been a place where many extremists have had a change of heart. Basra is gathering stories from former inmates – people either accused or convicted of extremist and terror charges in Lebanon – to learn more about how they chose their paths. He hopes his work will offer everyone from peacekeepers to policymakers a more complete picture of how people come to choose violence or peace, as well as practical strategies for breaking cycles of violence.
Tracing Conflict’s and Peacebuilding’s Impact on People Over Time
The evolution of war over the past century, from primarily conflicts between nation states, to civil wars, insurgencies, terror attacks, and other non-state violence, is the primary reason that, even today, casualty rates are a fraction of what they were during the wars of the early 20th century. Those same developments, however, have meant that contemporary wars often involve more parties with more competing claims, and tend to last longer.
Between them, Iraq, South Sudan, and Syria are home to hundreds of thousands of combatants, and millions more people traumatised by fighting and displacement. This is why XCEPT’s KCL researchers have chosen the three countries for one of their most ambitious projects: the Impact of Trauma Survey.
The Impact of Trauma Survey is designed to examine relationships between violence, trauma, mental health, and social cohesion: a little-studied nexus that researchers hope will reveal clues about how the effects of war often lead to further violence. Researchers will employ surveys across the conflict zones, and then speak again with participants after they have received counselling and other mental health interventions. The aim of the project is to study how therapy, as well as changes on the ground — renewed fighting, for example, or an extended period of peace — can influence such things as a desire for revenge or reconciliation. The team at KCL hope to use this research as a base from which to propose psychosocial interventions which could help to reduce violence and promote peace.
New insights from a new approach
The KCL team has begun publishing its new research on the XCEPT website, and, along with the programme’s other partners, laying out its vision for an interdisciplinary future in conflict studies that includes new kinds of scholarship from a broader variety of fields.
In an effort to probe several under-explored topics in conflict research, XCEPT plans in the coming years to meld the KCL team’s work with a variety of analyses, as well as with new research that other programme partners are conducting now – topics that include the dynamics of cross-border conflicts and how they impact people living in borderlands.
If the ultimate goal of conflict studies is to end armed conflict, the past decade has made it clear once more that there is work to be done. The researchers at XCEPT and KCL are hoping new approaches might lead to a greater understanding of how people come to choose violence or peace.
The most recent work of the King’s College London team of XCEPT researchers can be found here:
- The Spectre of Neuroscience in Security Studies
- Bringing Loyalist and Opposition Factions Together: The Prospects for Reconciliation in New Syria
- Review of evidence: Prison-based interventions targeting violent extremist detainees
- The Importance of Prisons to Terrorist Groups and Movements
- The Iraqi Politics of Memory and Victimhood
- Stories as Research: How Community Narratives Inform Conflict Research
- The Role of Trauma and Mental Health in Violent Extremism
- Mass Media and Persuasion: Evidence-Based Lessons for Strategic Communications in CVE
- Conflict Trauma and Violence: How Can We Promote Peace?
- Do No (Self) Harm: Acknowledging Researcher Vulnerability in Research Ethics