The Oxford Martin School Blog
Understanding the effects of violent human conflict
10 Apr 2012 2 comment(s)
Ahead of the lecture "Catastrophic dehumanization: the psychological dynamics of severe conflict", Oxford Martin School Events Officer, Clara Bowyer, asked speaker, Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon, to tell her more about his work
1. Your talk is entitled “Catastrophic dehumanization: the psychological dynamics of severe conflict". What do you mean by “Catastrophic dehumanization”?
THD: It’s a sudden psychological shift that often accompanies, and may in fact precede, violent human conflict. It involves three specific changes: first, the creation of a sharp boundary in the individual’s mind between “we” and “they” or, in the language of social psychologists, between “ingroup” and “outgroup”; second, the association of strongly negative emotions with the outgroup and its members; and third, a simultaneous loss of identification with members of the outgroup, which means a denial of the moral legitimacy of the outgroup’s interests and even existence.
2. For the past few years, your research has focused on threats to global security in the 21st century. How has this led you to think about the dynamics of dehumanization?
THD: I’ve been thinking about this idea, off and on, for almost 30 years. My original academic interest was the study of human conflict. Despite the fact that humanity has seen a general decline in violent behaviour in recent decades, I believe this trend will not continue through this century. Various material and social stresses are increasing around the planet—including climate change, resource depletion, and worsening economic inequality—and these stresses will, I expect, eventually trigger widespread violence. We therefore need to understand the phenomenon of human conflict better.
3. How does this help us in our understanding of human violence or severe conflict?
THD: The model I present is stylized and quite formal. It stipulates that the mental state of an individual who dehumanizes another group can be represented by a point moving through a three-dimensional space defined by the variables identity, justice, and structural constraint. These three variables turn up repeatedly in conflict theory, but as far as I know they have not as yet been integrated into a single model or explanation of human conflict.
4. The last time you visited the Oxford Martin School (in October 2010), you talked about a Plan Z in which you argued for a shift in our policy focus from the prevention of climate change to preparing societies to deal with environmental shocks. Is there a Plan Z approach to your theories on dehumanization in conflict or do you have recommendations for how to reduce or even prevent conflict?
THD: The model of the psychology of human conflict I will present could provide us with novel and substantial insights into how the worst forms of conflict arise and can be resolved. The kinds of shocks humankind is likely to experience this century will create the conditions, I expect, for mass violence. My model is an example of exactly the kind of knowledge we will need to proactively prepare for, and respond positively to, these shocks when they occur. In that sense, this current work is part of my larger Plan Z project.
Thomas Homer Dixon spoke at the Oxford Martin School 17 April 2012
- Read the blog from Thomas Homer Dixon's catastrophic dehumanization presentation
- Read about Thomas Homer Dixon's Plan Z - a new approach to climate policy
Watch the webcast of of Thomas Homer Dixon's presentation: Climate Shocks: Turning Crisis into Opportunity