Kudos Column: Dr. Fouad Bou Zeineddine
I am a postdoctoral researcher in social psychology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In my work, I examine the dynamics of power and empathy as they apply to human resistance and resilience in intergroup relations and societal change. I use survey, psycholinguistic, experimental, and computational methods in an ecologically-informed perspective on these topics.
Political psychology, from my perspective, is a redundant phrase. Political structures, norms, beliefs, and emotions, have at their root individual minds and actions. Our understanding of people’s minds is distorted if they are not viewed as sensitive and responsive to their sociopolitical contexts. In my work, I have attempted to bring these disciplines and others together more closely, to achieve a more nuanced understanding of two particularly central concepts in social and political topics – power and empathy.
Human power, as understood by power basis theory (Pratto et al., 2011), is rooted in human need. It is the set of capacities available to a person to meet his or her needs or influence the need-fulfillment of others. Power and needs exist and operate at multiple levels of human organization simultaneously (e.g., relational, societal, international; Pratto & Bou Zeineddine, 2015). Empathy too can operate at multiple levels in conflicting ways. It can be seen as the ability to connect with and include others in the self whether cognitively, emotionally, or behaviorally. It affords or constrains multiple forms of power, such as legitimacy, social responsibility, or status. The dynamics within and between power and empathy are one theme in my work.
For example, my co-authors and I have shown that having higher compassion for others generally among people who have experienced political violence is a correlate of heightened perceptions of societal insecurity and thereby lower well-being in durable, powerful states. At the same time, we show that such compassion directly impacts well-being without influencing perceptions of societal insecurity in weak or fragile states (Bou Zeineddine et al., under review).
In intergroup relations, we have shown that an analysis of the effects of social dominance, resistance to foreign powers, and political affiliation on people’s political attitudes is more complete when international political ties with domestic political organizations and elites are taken into account, especially among less powerful nations (Pratto et al., 2014).
In other work, we show that high levels of distrust are more likely among disempowered groups, whether these are nations or communities. We argue that such distrust can be both the seed and the fruit of popular empowerment, and depends in part on collectively emerging empathic processes, including mimicry and contagion effects (Bou Zeineddine & Pratto, 2014).
In an international analysis of separatist and emigration desires, we found that the instrumental, ideological, and identity bases of support for such actions are universal, whereas the mediating political perceptions and tendencies, such as empathizing with the ingroup in victimhood, vary with the power and ecology of the group (Bou Zeineddine et al., in prep).
In conjunction with several laboratories, I am also developing a cross-cultural measure of inclusive social resistance. This concept describes the individual tendency to empathize with and support any disempowered group’s struggle for empowerment (and against social dominance or oppression).
In addition to asking how and how much psychological features and dynamics vary by political context, I ask the subsequent question of why context changes these dynamics in these ways, and reciprocally, what contexts are necessary to achieve different outcomes to what we observe. In essence, this suggests an advantage to a complementary, ecological approach to political psychology. Just like cultural psychology provided valuable explanatory input on cross-cultural research, ecological political psychology would enable reciprocal changes in the focus of research attention between the individual and the structural, as well as combined analyses (Bou Zeineddine & Pratto, under review).
In line with this perspective, I examined the structural, relational, and psychological aspects of activist groups (Bou Zeineddine, 2016). I found that activists tend to have socially dominant, competitive, cooperative, or avoidant orientations towards their target populations. However, there were also groups that practiced social mutualism, defined as the empowerment of a shared resource as a strategy to achieve self-empowerment in an ecologically positive way (meaning simultaneous mutual benefits to all people or groups involved in that commons). These groups, which I termed alter-cultures, had unique relational and psychological characteristics compared with other kinds of activist groups, particularly in their political and psychological resilience and empowerment. For example, I showed that this “commoning” orientation, more than others, leads to psychological feedback cycles of increasing feelings of collective efficacy, inspiration, and satisfaction. I was also able to show why such an approach reduced frustration, anger, blame, and feelings of injustice while maintaining activist motivation and commitment.
In my current position, working with Dr. Kevin Durrheim’s Virtual Interaction Application (VIAPPL) lab, I am using game experiments and computational models to extend this last work. One aim is to combine and refine the design of public goods and intergroup experiments. These research designs enable the manipulation of many functional properties of structures in the overall design (e.g., the overall productivity of the commons), as well as group and individual-level features (e.g., commons access, group size, perceived goals and relationships).
Another aim of these studies is to learn how attending to and interacting with one or more commons under different conditions alters behavior and psychology at different levels simultaneously (i.e., at individual, group, intergroup, or superordinate levels). In the first study in a series of these experiments, we alter the specific structural conditions of objective or perceived vulnerability and productivity at the level of the self, group, and commons. This allows us to identify the optimal balance of vulnerability and productivity for mutually beneficial outcomes to occur at all levels simultaneously, and to describe individual and collective psychology under such conditions.
My work has many potential practical applications for civil and political activists, policy-makers, and clinical psychologists, among others. Some of these applications might include:
a) Fostering socially mutualist norms and practices in targeted ways, so as to increase sustainability and empowerment in activism, development, and migrant policy efforts.
b) Understanding whether and how conflicting needs and social interlinkages can be reconciled and made to be mutually empowering (e.g., in formulating foreign policy while taking into account domestic politics and domestic political psychology, or in understanding how more sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyles can be supported).
c) Informing clinical psychologists and others regarding differences in the effects of political events (e.g., political violence) on psychological health and well-being across political contexts, so that interventions can be tailored accordingly.
d) Using individual (e.g., online archival data) and context (e.g., (sub)national indices of state power) data together to forecast and respond to political orientations and behaviours beyond conflict or protest (e.g., the potential for separatist, isolationist, alter-cultural, emigrant, or charitable movements).
These are only a few of the possible applications of some of the work discussed here today. I hope this short introduction to my research leads to yet more explorations, collaborations, and applications.
If you are interested in any of this work, or in working together on something new, please find me on ResearchGate, or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bou Zeineddine, F. (in prep). Alter-cultures, separatists, diasporas, and undergrounds: An introduction to the psychology of exit in collective action and empowerment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Bou Zeineddine, F. (2016) Social Mutualism as the Psychology of Alter-cultural Praxis. Doctoral Dissertations. Paper 925. Available online at: http://digitalcommons.uconn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7141&context=dissertation
Bou Zeineddine, F. & Pratto, F. (under review). The need for power and the power of needs: Towards a universalist political psychology. Advances in Political Psychology.
Bou Zeineddine, F., & Pratto, F. (2014). Political distrust: the seed and fruit of popular empowerment. In van Prooijen, J.W & van Lange, P.A.M. (Eds.), Power, Politics, and Paranoia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Bou Zeineddine*, F., Pratto*, F., Muldoon, O., Lemieux, T., Kteily, N., Levin, S., Sidanius, J., et al. (in prep). The sword and shield: Compassion and experiences of political violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Pratto, F. & Bou Zeineddine, F. (2015). Politics and the Psychology of Power: Multi-level Dynamics in the (Im)Balances of Human Needs and Survival. In Forgas, J., Fiedler, K., & Crano, B. (Eds.), Social Psychology and Politics, Psychology Press.
Pratto, F., Lee, I., Tan, J., & Pitpitan, E. (2011). Power basis theory: A psycho-ecological approach to power. Social Motivation, 191-222.
Pratto, F., Sidanius, J., Bou Zeineddine, F., Kteily, N., & Levin, S. (2014). When domestic politics and international relations intermesh: Subordinated publics’ factional support within layered power structures. Foreign Policy Analysis, 10, 127–148. doi:10.1111/fpa.12023.