Hi Beth. Please can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do at XCEPT?

I’m Beth Heron, and I’m the Project Manager for the XCEPT research programme at King’s College London. Our research focus at King’s is looking at what drives people to violent or peaceful behaviour, against the backdrop of conflict-related trauma. To study this, our team is working across four conflict-affected countries, conducting large-scale longitudinal surveys, interviews, and other data collection.

As Project Manager, my role is largely to manage the operational side of this research. This means I oversee the finances, compliance, and contracting, as well as having a handle on our outputs, and managing relationships with our various stakeholders and subcontracted partners in South Sudan and Iraq. At the moment, a big focus of mine is completing a due diligence process that’s required for, who we hope will be, a partner who will work with us to roll out mental health interventions in Iraq. Whilst our researchers lead on determining the strategic direction of our research, it’s important for me to be involved across the project, particularly on strategic planning, so I can ensure the team is working together cohesively and to make sure our priorities are aligned.

One of the really exciting aspects about the work being done at King’s is that the team is so multidisciplinary. Is that difficult to manage?

When this project started, that was one of the things I was most excited about. It’s really fascinating to bring together psychology and conflict researchers, and it’s great to work with such a diverse set of experts. One thing I didn’t anticipate is how creating space for interdisciplinary discussions and outputs to take place is tricky and time-consuming. This is down to the scale of our project and the pace at which it moves – big and quickly! We’re learning all the time about how to bring out interdisciplinary opportunities though, which I’m sure will flourish once we have our first round of large-scale data collected. Having researchers from different disciplines speak on podcasts or at events has sparked some really interesting conversations too. We’ve also been working on ways to encourage collaboration through meetings where everyone has the chance to discuss their work in detail. It sounds very simple, but it’s a great opportunity for our researchers to understand what everyone is working on and to make connections with their own research.

Tell us about your background. What were you doing before you joined XCEPT?

My career began slightly unconventionally considering what I’m now doing. I went to art school in London for my bachelors, but my undergraduate dissertation (about a decade ago!) actually focused on memory, home and liminality, so it’s been very interesting to see similar themes threading through our research at XCEPT. After a brief period volunteering at a charity in northern India, I completed a Master’s in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy, and then spent a few years working at an NGO, tracking civilian casualty allegations against the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, which gave me great practical experience of the point at which research and advocacy meet. After this, I came to King’s to do the Conflict, Security and Development MA. My thesis was on western-derived mental health interventions in conflict-affected settings, and I ended up doing in-depth research on randomised control trials from a sociological and anthropological perspective, so I knew when I joined the XCEPT project that I’d find a lot of the research decision making, as well as the ethical and operational challenges, very interesting. I’ve found it so interesting, in fact, that I’m now working on a PhD proposal on an institutional ethnography of a large-scale mental health research project that’s led by UK universities and conducted in the global south.

XCEPT is a wide-ranging research project with different partners focusing on different aspects of conflict research. The focus of the team at King’s is on conflict-related trauma and how this intersects with behaviour. Why is this important?

Up until now, there’s been little research merging psychology and conflict studies that looks at what drives violence and peace. A great deal of work has been done on grievances and economic motives as drivers of conflict, but examining the behavioural science side, as we’re doing at King’s, is a relatively new way of looking at things, especially on a scale as large as this. We’re still in the early stages of research, but I’m excited to see what this cross-disciplinary approach will achieve, and I’ve no doubt there will be some important findings that will hopefully feed into policy and programming far beyond the UK.

I’ve recently been conducting research, as a second author, with an XCEPT consultant, and interviewees we spoke to really drove home the need for research on how trauma intersects with behaviour. One NGO practitioner drew a direct line between psychological suffering caused by conflict and an increased likelihood of participating in violence, or accepting it as a normal part of society. They felt that efforts toward better infrastructure, sanitation, and services risk being wasted if they simply get destroyed when violence flares up again. Addressing individual and collective trauma in parallel, however, was seen as a way of mitigating this. It was interesting to hear practitioners advocate so directly for mental health interventions, and I think that bringing local communities to the table from the outset to discuss what support is needed is what will really bring the best results.   

What do you hope that XCEPT will achieve?

I would like to see a shift towards taking trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and adverse adult experiences more seriously within the countries we’re engaging in. By this, I mean that I hope our research will have an impact on national policies, in terms of acknowledging the way in which violence and trauma influence each other, but also in terms of recognising the prevalence of victim-perpetrator cycles for individuals and communities. Within our research, we’re also exploring themes of poverty, social cohesion, and trust in state institutions, to name a few. The more we can understand about each of these factors and how they interact, the more we can help to build a nuanced picture of what drives violent and peaceful behaviour. Personally, I’d also love to take our findings into the communities where we’re collecting data and try to cultivate rich, candid discussions about how the findings may – and may not – be useful locally and nationally, based on the context. I think this could achieve a lot for the next steps in this kind of research.