Report on EASP Meeting: Understanding and Transforming Challenging Relationships
27.06.2018, by Tina Keil in meeting report
7-9th June, 2018 in San Sebastian, Spain; Organizers: Masi Noor (Keele University), Magdalena Bobowik (University of the Basque Country), Christian Chan (University of Hong Kong), Meytal Nasie (Bar-Ilan University), Amrisha Vaish (University of Virginia), and Loren Toussaint (Luther College in Decorah, Iowa)
Conflicts across intimate relationships, family settings, schools, neighbourhoods, work places, and wider communities such as nations or even continents can exert an adverse impact on both interpersonal and intergroup relations. Based on recent advancements of social psychological theory and research, this meeting titled “Understanding and Transforming Challenging Relationships: Setting a Research Agenda for 21st Century Social Psychology” aimed to address seven major hot topics which are key to understanding difficult relationships: forgiveness, apology, justice, trust, respect, hope, and power.
Currently, researchers disparately theorise and produce empirical work on one or at most two of these concepts. Bringing together researchers and practitioners from around the world and providing them with a space in which they can integrate their theories and see the bigger and more complex picture framing difficult relationships is what is required to galvanise this field towards the next step in developing meta-theoretical approaches to - and social psychological taxonomies of - such challenging relationships. This meeting created an important space for the multifaceted analysis of different perspectives on the psychology of challenging relationships. This broad focus offered researchers who study some of the above concepts from an intergroup perspective to converse and exchange with scholars with interests in similar topics but from an interpersonal perspective. Similarly, scholars who study these concepts among children were afforded the opportunity to discuss their theories and empirical work with scholars who focus on adults, and vice versa. Moreover, given that the above hot topics have been primarily studied separately, the meeting provided a rare platform for EASP and other international scholars to advance and lead more coherent theoretical frameworks with a view to developing a meta-theoretical understanding of the nature of challenging relationships across a diverse range of conflict settings.
Not by coincidence, this meeting was held in San Sebastián, Basque Country, a location that has real-life experiences with challenging relationships. San Sebastián served as an ideal setting for applied discussions with local academics, practitioners, and most importantly victims of political violence. The meeting took place in a historically significant location, namely, Palace of Aiete. Surrounded by a splendid park, this neo-classical building from 1978 was once the residence of Spanish monarchs (e.g., Isabel II, Alfonso XII, María Cristina and Alfonso XIII) but also served as a summer residence for General Franco. Today it is home for the House of Peace and Human Rights, hosting conferences, including the key International Peace Conference aimed at resolving the Basque conflict in 2011 with (among others) Kofi Annan and Tony Blair in attendance. The building and its surrounding park was an ideal setting for promoting not only interesting discussions but also warm interactions between participants of the meeting. This beautiful location was made available thanks to Donosti-San Sebastián City Hall dedicated to hosting meetings with a focus on protecting human rights. Thanks to the generous funding from EASP and other institutions, we were able to fully cover the food and accommodation costs for all attendees.
Our meeting was attended by 42 scholars who represented the international community of junior and senior academics located in 11 countries across three continents: Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, the UK, and the USA (with a significant number of participants originating from even more countries, such as Afghanistan and Russia). The diversity of contexts represented in the research presented during the meeting was even broader, including work with populations from contexts such as Israel, Gaza Strip, Basque Country, Northern Ireland, Hong Kong, and Lebanon, to name just a few. The diversity was reflected not only through the context but also populations under study, which included members from the Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Druze religious groups, male perpetrators of physical and psychological violence, and large representative samples from multiple countries, among others.
In total there were seven thematic panel sessions, each consisting of four to five individual talks. Each panel session ended with a panel discussion, which fostered clarifications but also stimulated reflections on bigger meta-theoretical issues. Thematic panel sessions included the following topics organized around the key themes of the meeting: 1. Apology and Forgiveness; 2. Trust across Societal Contexts; 3. Respect and Disrespect; 4. Trauma and Fairness; 5. Victimhood; 6. Power and Status; and 7. Emerging New Concepts. Additionally, across the 2.5 days of the meeting, there was a lunch poster session featuring 11 posters on a diverse range of topics central to the main conference themes.
On the last day of the meeting participants took part in a session titled “Understanding challenging relationships in practice: Meeting the Basque Country Adi-adian Educational Initiative.” The aim of this initiative is to foster understanding human dignity, coexistence, and empathy through the experience of listening to victims’ testimonies. This session allowed participants to encounter two survivors of regional political violence, who generously shared their personal experiences of mental trauma following physical injury and loss of loved ones. These first-hand testimonies were not only emotionally moving but they also expanded the focus and direction of our academic discussions on the seven hot topics identified as key themes of the conference. Simultaneous translation of this session was provided thanks to generous funding from the General Secretariat for Peace and Coexistence.
As such, this conference exceeded meeting its objectives. First, this conference was among the first to allow scholars to explore the same hot topics from different levels of analyses (i.e., intrapersonal, interpersonal, intergroup perspectives). To illustrate, the role of the dispositional tendency for victimhood was discussed, as well as its implications for how individuals with this tendency may approach interpersonal and intergroup conflicts. Naturally, the reverse would also be possible, that is the extent prolonged conflictual structures of society may shape individuals with a stable tendency for victimhood. Additional extensive discussions focused on the ethical dimensions of studying challenging relationships, for example, the extent to which experimental designs involving manipulations of the seven sensitive topics may be ethically appropriate, let alone produce informative findings. Debates in small groups as well as large group were also held regarding whether real-life experiences, such as survivors of political violence, should (or should not) inform our scientific studies. On the one hand, those involved in applied research reported that they themselves and their research projects were inspired by actual lived experiences. On the other hand, scholars also drew attention to the risk of being drawn in partisanship and advocacy work if our research studies were informed by lay experiences alone. Perhaps one of the most positive and concrete outcomes of this meeting was for researchers who had thus far focused on only one of the seven identified hot topics to see how their topic was intrinsically linked to the other six topics and therefore form new collaborative networks with other participants at the meeting.
To generate and maximise the long-term impact of the meeting, we are already planning the next conference (e.g., pre-conference at the ISPP in Lisbon), as well as submitting a proposal for a journal special issue (possibly in EASP’s main outlets, or SPSSI’s JSI). We will also prepare a proposal for an edited book on the seven identified hot topics (e.g., SPSSI’s book series).
This meeting was enriched by a welcome reception with a picturesque view on the riverside of the city, a joint dinner in the city centre, and a gastronomic tour through the Old Town on the evening following the end of the meeting, providing many opportunities for participants to interact more informally and continue their discussions. We thank EASP and other co-funding institutions for making it happen.
The meeting was co-funded by the General Secretariat for Peace and Coexistence of the Basque Government’s Office of Human Rights and Victims of Terrorism and the City Hall of San Sebastián (free access to the venue).