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The Role of Psychology in Understanding Political Violence

Political violence, as well as any other kind of violence, has various causes at its core. Some people or groups resort to rampage when they want to reach equality. Others behave destructively when they desire to gain more power than they already have. Research shows that individuals are often motivated to fight because of ethnic differences, and such violence can have dramatic outcomes.

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Psychology can be helpful in understanding political violence since it explains the rationale behind aggressive behavior. According to research from various fields, including psychology, one of the main reasons for political terrorism is ethnic diversity. The most recent example of such behavior is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The former wants to deprive the latter of democracy and employs violent military methods to do so (Bonenberger, 2017; Snyder, 2015).

Fearon and Laitin (2003) note that “ethnic and religious antagonisms” are the root causes of civil wars (p. 75). According to Ioffe (2017), violent extremism has the same grounds for white supremacists and jihadists. The general explanation of political violence on the psychological part is the general aggression model (GAM) (DeWall, Anderson, & Bushman, 2011). Scholars single out different psychological approaches to understanding individuals’ aggression.

Among these, there are such theories as social learning, socioecological, frustration-aggression, cognitive no association, excitation transfer, and others (DeWall et al., 2011). Each of these approaches analyzes people’s behavior and suggests explanations of it. As a result, it may be easier to understand political violence and find solutions to politically-driven conflicts.

Despite the possibilities of psychology, there are still some issues that this science cannot explain. As Kaufman (2006) remarks, it is sometimes impossible to provide the rationale for extreme ethnic violence. Psychological theories of violence may not be helpful and informative enough when it comes to analyzing why people living in the same country and having similar possibilities initiate some aggressive conflicts. Where psychology fails to provide answers, political and social research may be helpful. Tilly (2004) argues that collective violence should be investigated from a variety of viewpoints for it to be explained properly. Ioffe (2017) expresses a similar opinion in her article on violent extremists.

The author notes that the concept of terrorism is frequently associated with the “violent interpretation of Islam” (Ioffe, 2017, para. 4). Meanwhile, those committing terrorist acts “in the name of extremist far-right ideology based on race” are treated as “troubled young men” (Ioffe, 2017, para. 4). Another problem not explained by the GAM is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine (Bonenberger, 2017; Snyder, 2015). Thus, political and social issues should be investigated along with psychological ones to reach an understanding.

Political clashes are some of the most dangerous ones since they can cause many suffering and numerous losses. While psychology is quite helpful in classifying some types of conflicts, it is not sufficient to explain politically triggered aggression. It is crucial to employ the knowledge and experience from such sciences as sociology and politics to present a full scope of the problem and analyze it effectively.

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Bonenberger, A. (2017). The war no one notices in Ukraine. The New York Times. Web.

DeWall, C. N., Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). The general aggression model: Theoretical extensions to violence. Psychology of Violence, 1(3), 245-258.

Fearon, J. D., & Laitin, D. D. (2003). Ethnicity, insurgency, and civil war. American Political Science Review, 97(1), 75-90.

Ioffe, J. (2017). The road to radicalism in Charlottesville. The Atlantic. Web.

Kaufman, S. J. (2006). Symbolic politics or rational choice? Testing theories of extreme ethnic violence. International Security, 30(4), 45-86.

Snyder, T. (2015). Edge of Europe, end of Europe. The New York Review of Books. Web.

Tilly, C. (2004). Terror, terrorism, terrorists. Sociological Theory, 22(1), 5-13.

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