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"Social Psychologist Sabina Cehajic-Clancy on the Role of Moral Exemplars for Intergroup Reconciliation"

Dr. Sabina Cehajic-Clancy

Dr. Sabina Cehajic-Clancy

Jan 19 2015

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How to heal the wounds of civil war? Fulbright Scholar Sabina Cehajic-Clancy brought a social-psychological perspective to this question at CREEES on Friday, January 16th in her talk, “The Role of Moral Exemplars for Intergroup Reconciliation.”

Originally from Bosnia, Ms. Clancy pursued her graduate study at the University of Sussex under social psychologist Rupert Brown to explore questions that were particularly relevant to her as a member of a post-conflict society: How do people deal with atrocities and human rights violations that have occurred in the past? And, what social-psychological processes might facilitate or obstruct intergroup reconciliation?

Professor Cehajic-Clancy’s research across Bosnia, North Ireland, Chile, South America, and Israel shows that intergroup contact--that is, contact between groups on different sides of a given conflict--is a “powerful social-psychological variable with the power to change relations.” She is particularly interested in the experience of younger members in society, “the new generations...who aren’t directly implicated, but are implicated in the society.”  A correlational study on the antecedents of acknowledgement of ingroup responsibility conducted in Serbian-populated East Sarajevo measured the quality and quantity of contact that students aged 17-18 years old had with people of other ethnic groups and how this impacted their acknowledgement of each group’s role in the Yugoslav wars. What she found was that when participants had interactions with outgroups that was frequent and familiar, this led to a willingness to acknowledge one’s own in-group responsibility in the conflict as well as a decrease in perceived victimhood.

These results and others have important implications for the contact interventions that are a popular tool among NGOs working in post-conflict societies as a way to promote intergroup contact and what Cehajic-Clancy terms “intergroup forgiveness.” However, the focus of such contact is critical to the success of these interventions. “What is shown is that contact intervention that focuses on the past, which makes the conflict salient in the room, contact which focuses on history...has a negative trend,” she explained. Cehajic-Clancy’s talk focused on an alternative approach to contact interventions and the historical narrative of such conflicts: moral exemplars. Citing three different studies, one from Poland and two from Bosnia, Cehajic-Clancy discussed how informing the participants about such exemplars, ordinary human beings who sacrificed or risked their own lives for others during a conflict purely because it was the right thing to do, produced significant positive changes in measures including trust, forgiveness, belief reconciliation, and contact intentions (the intent to interact with other ethnic groups other than one’s own).

During the Q&A that followed her talk, Professor Cehajic-Clancy made it clear the importance she places on using her research in a way that is relevant and useful to current post-conflict reconciliation efforts that are in process across the globe, aiming to “try to give some sense to this research and try to devise policies and implement them.”  As one of the only scholars in social psychology focused on this issue, she is uniquely positioned to offer her expertise to NGOs and other organizations working in this space. She currently consults on contact intervention workshops and assists in their implementations and in measuring the success of such efforts. Still, her talk demonstrated that there is a long way to go. She recalled the willingness with which many of her participants in interviews and focus groups engaged in hate speech in the course of their conversations, and knows that many people are still resistant to the idea of reconciliation itself. All the greater is the imperative to re-frame the default narrative in conflict re-telling, especially among the younger generations: “The idea of homogenous entities eases dealing with complexities...accentuating the heterogeneity of outgroups is important, and even more important to accentuate moral heterogeneity...What are we going to put in the history books? How are we going to depict the other?”