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Petersen Presents On Emotion In Conflict

Heights Staff

Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 14, 2013 01:02

On Monday afternoon, professor Roger Petersen of MIT gave a presentation on the findings he gathered during his time in the Balkans. The presentation, titled “The Strategic Use of Emotion in Conflict,” discussed how he analyzed specific emotions to predict how things would transpire between the Albanians and the Serbians.

Petersen, a professor of comparative politics at MIT since 2001, has written three books on violence and conflict in politics and was recently awarded the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science Award. His book, Western Intervention in the Balkans: The Strategic Use of Emotion in Conflict, has won three awards since its publication: the Joseph Rothschild Prize in Nationalism and Ethnic Studies, the Marshall Shuman Book Prize, and the Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Migration section Distinguished Book Award from the International Studies Association.

Petersen’s lecture outlined the main arguments of his book, which theoretically examines how emotion integrates with conflict, specifically in the Eastern Balkans. Petersen explained that he looked at several different cases of Western countries intervening during crisis to restructure and used that to compile his argument. Peterson also mentioned that a lot of his field research took place in Yugoslavia to study the act of “ethnic cleansing,” and get a better idea of the feelings of both Serbians and Albanians in the region and understand what prompts acts of resistance and violence.

Petersen described “ethnic cleansing” as attempting to eliminate or alienate certain groups of people from a specific region. In the case of the Balkans, Petersen explained that opposing ethnic groups would anonymously burn houses and even whole villages, and commit assassinations to mark their territories.

Petersen then outlined the primary question he tries to answer in his book, by examining what these feelings could explain about the political atmosphere of a region.

“The emotions become resources for political entrepreneurs and this is really the whole idea about this book,” Petersen said. “What if we were to treat emotions as resources in the same way that we treat guns and money in our models? What are we going to be able to explain then?”

Petersen then explained that the main emotions he examined were anger, fear, contempt, hatred, resentment, and spite. Petersen worked these emotions into the rational cycle used to solve political problems, and had interesting results.

“The game I set up for myself is if I could specify which of these emotions were at play, then I could make predictions about the type of provocations that were made during the intervention,” Petersen said.

Petersen found that when emotion was placed into the rational cycle, which is ordinarily ordered and transitive, the emotions changed the preferences and functions and ultimately effected decision-making. He found that the emotions of fear created the desire for safety, and that anger was associated with punishment, for example, and that the emotion of spite was specific to the case of the Balkans due to the way their culture and society is composed.

Petersen eventually proposed the question of his study, asking, “Are emotions the same for human beings everywhere—or if you change the region or the political system, are emotions really culturally framed?”

In his book, he outlines 13 different predictions for his case study, and admits some of them work out and some of them do not. He explained that if the emotions are available, then predictions can be made about what the outcome of the intervention might be. He attributes the success of his study and his research, however, to the fact that his work found a way to integrate emotions into social science, and using emotions to create hypotheses about political situations of unrest.

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