Understanding Peace and Conflict Through the Lens of South Asian Youth

By Ammaarah Nilafdeen (University of Delhi)

Despite the fact that South Asia is perceived as a developing region, it continues to grapple with challenges of its own. The region is no stranger to ethno-religious conflicts, border disputes, poverty, political instability and corruption. The initiatives to obtain an insight into the impact of such challenges from a psychological perspective are usually overlooked or discouraged. Much of the existing research and insight is based on an economic or sociological perspective, and therefore are only marginally useful in the fields of peace or political psychology. A 2006 study conducted with a segment of the Columbian youth and adult population revealed that there was an intergenerational and gender distinction in reference to the perception and understanding of the concept of “Peace” (Sacipa et al., 2006). Inspired by this research and its findings, I conducted a study to better understand the concepts of “Peace” and “Conflict,” as well as to identify any factors that might influence this understanding in the South Asian region, particularly from a youth perspective.

This study was carried out with 70 University students from Bangladesh (25.71%), India (25.71%), Pakistan (24.28%) and Sri Lanka (24.28%). An open-ended questionnaire was administered, with questions that attempted to assess participants’ understanding of the terms “Peace” and “Conflict,” as well as the factors influencing this understanding. This study used a phenomenological approach, which is a qualitative approach in research that seeks to gain a holistic and accurate understanding of a specific group’s lived experience. It attempts to look at the extent to which there is a commonality in the lived experience of a particular group and how the individuals understand these experiences from their perspective. The data gathered from these responses were thematically analysed using the Braun & Clarke (2006) framework.

During the data analysis, the most striking observation was the thematic similarity across the countries. When taking a closer look at these themes, it was found that the presence of the three factors of Religion, Media and Family significantly influenced how the youth perceive “Peace” and “Conflict”.

Theories of three scholars and its application to the South Asian setting are crucial for gaining a thorough grasp of how the identified factors affect the understanding of these concepts.

Bronfenbrenner (1994), a developmental psychologist known for the ‘Bioecological Model’, classified four factors which influence human development. Namely, the person, context, process and time. The “process” factor highlights the fundamental and reciprocal interactions that occur between an active, evolving individual and their external environment. These interactions, also known as ‘proximal processes’, occur throughout varied periods; ranging from minutes to years. Much of the interactions that occur with the external environment have a direct impact on the long-term cognitive development of individuals.

According to Vygotsky (1978), the community that an individual belongs to plays an important role in the cognitive process of “meaning-making”. He also emphasized that the cognitive development of an individual is determined by the social interactions they engage in, which occurs throughout their life span but most importantly during their childhood.

According to Bronfenbenner and Vygotsky’s theories, the understanding of “Peace” and “Conflict” are affected by social constructivism. The way an evolving human recognizes these conditions is linked to their own reality and experiences as a lifelong learner. It is fair to say that conditions of “Peace” and “Conflict” are social phenomena that are both created and defined by humans.

Lederach (1995) claimed that within a political culture, recognizing the value of the meaning attached to certain conditions by individuals, whilst also paying attention to the intricate interplay of political, economic and cultural processes could be useful in enabling political change. In Lederach’s viewpoint, meaning is tied to knowledge and knowledge is tied to a person’s culture. Therefore, subjective interpretations of events in an individual’s social and cultural context shape their understanding of terms like “Peace” and “Conflict”.

Following is a concise explanation of how the three factors identified through the results of this study, namely Religion, Media and Family, play a role in formulating the understanding of “Peace” and “Conflict” with reference to South Asia’s social and cultural context.

Religion

South Asia is deeply interconnected historically, politically and socially. Religion and faith play a central role in the lives of people in the region. Even though within nations and communities, there is tolerance for fluidity of faith and practice, a closer look at the region’s history will reflect how the politics of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ religions have played a role in molding ideas of nation, state and citizenship. For example, the formation of nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have a history that cannot be unlinked. Discriminatory policies that target minorities in one nation often are a concern for people of neighbouring states in the region. In the recent past, there has been increased local ethnic clashes within nations. Politicization of religious identity has become a critical issue in the region, and it has been further fueled by the increased paranoia among dominant ethno-religious groups who feel increasingly threatened by the minority groups (Bose, 2009; Robinson, 2017). Results of the study indicate that Religion is a significant factor that contributes towards causing and escalating conflict. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the participants identified ‘Religion’ as a factor that defines what “Conflict” is in this context. In addition, many participants in the study acknowledged religion’s ability to contribute towards peacebuilding, indicating religion’s dual role in both “Peace” and “Conflict”, as well as its unwavering standing as a key force in shaping both these conditions in the region.

Media

Media expansion in the region in the last two decades has had a significant role in forming popular perceptions and shaping public discourse. The capability of the media to construe realities and disseminate its own narrative about political and social issues has led to the creation of social imaginaries, making media a powerful force in regional politics. Findings of this study suggest that media could be a strong force in creating an environment of trust and understanding in South Asia. However, as opposed to bridging the growing division and functioning as catalyst to positive change, media outlets in the region continue to fuel both inter and intra-state conflict and thereby contributing to a hostile political climate. Furthermore, influence of market power in the media industry and deterioration of media freedom has hampered the scope for any positive contribution by media (Singh, 2016; Udupa and McDowell, 2017).

Family

In South Asia, the family unit plays an active role in transmitting social rules, beliefs and attitudes from one generation to the next. Results of the study indicate that observing the family environment and dynamics creates the foundational understanding of “Peace” and “Conflict”. According to the Social Learning Theory, observation is a vital part of the learning process. Observational learning is prevalent in cultures where children engage in legitimate peripheral participation in ongoing family work on a regular basis. This type of learning is most likely to occur in collectivistic cultures. Hence, individuals’ responses and understanding of social conditions are heavily dependent on what they have acquired from their family context (Bandura, 1977; Bronfenbrenner, 1994).

Taking into account the aforementioned points, it is possible to conclude that these three factors have a significant impact on the psychological process of meaning-making in the South Asian context and can thus be cited as important determinants of how young people perceive the concepts of “Peace” and “Conflict.”

Apart from emphasizing the importance of acknowledging the interplay between psychology and the social setting in the meaning-making process, this study also recognizes the value of youth as a valuable asset in the region. Even if deconstructing the psychological process of meaning-making may appear simplistic to some, there is considerable value in understanding this from a youth perspective. Young people in South Asia are a particularly vulnerable group in the region, as many have grown up witnessing or directly affected by physical or structural forms of violence. Lederach (1997)’s widely acclaimed work in conflict transformation constantly emphasizes the need for supporting societal potential for reconciliation by encouraging and valuing the narrative of individuals affected by conflict, promoting a more community oriented, bottom — up peacebuilding approach.

Extensive work by Martin-Baro (1989, 1990), Galtung (1996), Lederach (1995) and Fisas (2001) identify the value of dismantling the existing complex processes in order to effectively uncover solutions that would enable different peace-building processes in diverse contexts. Hence, the fundamental understanding gained through this work could be a valuable stepping-stone in identifying future areas of research and developing youth inclusive peacebuilding efforts specific to the South Asian context.

About the Author

Ammaarah Nilafdeen is an Applied Psychology graduate from the University of Delhi, India. She is originally from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Her current research interests are in applying psychological concepts from social, cognitive, and developmental perspectives to better understand complexities of intergroup conflicts.

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References

Bhandari, P., & Titzmann, F.-M. (2017). Introduction. Family Realities in South Asia: Adaptations and Resilience. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, (16). https://doi.org/10.4000/samaj.4365

Lederach, J. P. (1997). Building peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. United States Institute of Peace Press.

Robinson, R. (2017). The Politics of Religion and Faith in South Asia. Society and Culture in South Asia, 3(2), vii-xx. https://doi.org/10.1177/2393861717706290

Sacipa, S., Ballesteros, B. P., Cardozo, J., Novoa, M. M., & Tovar, C. (2006). Understanding Peace Through the Lens of Colombian Youth and Adults. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 12(2), 157–174. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327949pac1202_4

Santrock, J. W. (2014). Life Span Development. MC Graw Hill.

Singh, P. (2016). The role of media in promoting regional understanding in South Asia. Pentagon Press in association with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

Udupa, S., & McDowell, S. D. (2017). Media as Politics in South Asia. Routledge.

Vygotsky, L., & Cole, M. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

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