Building Resiliency: Research Looks At How Communities Manage Conflict

Protests erupted across Charlotte in the days following the September 20, 2016 police shooting of African-American Charlottean Keith Lamont Scott. At UNC Charlotte, faculty, students and staff have gathered peacefully to express their concerns and their grief in the aftermath of the shooting.

The campus also saw research- and scholarship-driven responses by faculty, alumni and students at UNC Charlotte, including gathering of protest images for archival and research purposes, talks on campus grounded in the history of the Charlotte community, and an artistic protest.

The college has continued to raise visibility of its commitment to the values of community, of diversity and inclusion, and of ethical behavior. Such actions include identifying curricula that study these issues so students can more easily find the classes, and scheduling and communicating the schedule of speakers and programs on related topics.

Among the responses, UNC Charlotte researchers Cherie Maestas and Sara Levens were moved to research how the emotions of members of the community translated to action following news of the shooting.

Maestas, Marshall A. Rauch Distinguished Professor of Political Science, and Levens, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, developed an anonymous random-sample research survey of UNC Charlotte students and an anonymous respondent-driven survey of residents of the Charlotte area to ask about their reactions – and actions – following the events. Here are their responses to questions about their research.

What motivated you to do this survey?
The shooting death of Keith Scott and subsequent protests and conflict in the city released a storm of emotional responses that affected all of us very deeply. What happened here, while unique and painful, is also part of a larger backdrop of tensions faced by many cities and campuses. The recent unrest in Charlotte raises difficult but important questions about how communities manage in times of conflict. In these critical moments, it is essential to understand the individual emotional experiences of those affected in order to understand how to build greater emotional resiliency in communities.

What are the anticipated products from the survey?
In terms of specific research papers and related projects, we are interested in understanding two key things from the survey responses. First, how do students and members of the community cope with difficult, emotion-laden situations; what strategies are effective, and what can we learn from them? Second, how can we create more effective survey tools to give individuals a voice to their concerns in a safe but impactful way during critical moments in a community?

Answering the first question is key to understanding the health of a community and its ability to recover and build following a crisis. In our preliminary analysis, we saw little evidence of information avoidance – even though information about the shooting and protests was upsetting, most people sought out news to stay informed. This is a healthy response. Not surprisingly, emotions ran high, but how those emotions connected to actions varied quite a lot across individuals, with some motivated to discuss with friends and family, or post on social media while others turned to more active behavior such as protesting. We hope to untangle the complex factors that gave rise to different perspectives and actions within UNC Charlotte and the broader community. The resulting analyses will serve the interests of the University both through practical understanding and through a series of academic papers based on rigorous empirical tests of theoretical models of emotion expression, crisis attitudes and behavior.

Answering the second question is key to understanding how people express their feelings and attitudes during times of crises in their own words – a necessary condition of truly understanding the essential meaning from all perspectives during crisis events. Natural language processing and advances in text coding technology make using open-ended survey questions a viable and important option in times of crisis. Moreover, understanding how individuals express themselves in this manner is becoming increasingly important, as blogs, social media posts and reactions become more and more common. What is often expressed on social media is emotion, and psychology studies show that individuals who are given a chance to express themselves are better able to regulate their emotions. In this vein, one resulting line of research is exploring whether surveys deployed during crises can serve both the aims of researchers while providing an outlet for much needed self-reflection and expression of meaning.

Why is this kind of work important?
Emotions are often thought of principally as internal constructs that exist within an individual to affect their attitudes, preferences and mental and physical well-being. Yet more and more it is becoming clear that emotions have unique interpersonal properties that can affect well-being at the community and societal levels as well. Anxiety, distress, anger and fear are communicable. Just as a great deal of research has investigated the effect of negative emotions on an individual’s health, this research is important because it is trying to understand how emotions are communicated and spread to affect the health and well-being of communities and groups of people.

How does this fit into your broader work?
This research project fits into each of our scopes of work, yet in unique ways. Dr. Maestas studies public response to crisis with an eye towards understanding what stimulates strong emotions, and how specific emotions like anxiety, fear, and anger, give rise to different responses to unfolding events. She is also interested in developing more nuanced survey designs to improve researchers’ ability to measure and understand individual and group-based emotions. Dr. Levens, on the other hand, studies how people process and regulate their emotions in a range of contexts and experimental conditions. Specifically, she examines the cognitive processes that are involved in the control and expression of emotions as well as the effect that emotions and emotion regulation have on mental and physical health.

How does the work that the two of you do intersect?
Our research principally intersects in the domain of emotion. While we both study emotion, it is from different disciplines, Dr. Maestas in the field of Political Science and Public Policy, and Dr. Levens in the fields of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience. While our experiences and expertise differ, the way that we investigate the impact of emotion on attitudes and behavior is quite complimentary, and a strength of our interdisciplinary collaboration. Our research partnership was solidified through the 2016-2017 Project Mosaic Research Mentoring Program, and we are thankful for that collaboration catalyst. Interdisciplinary research within the social sciences is critical for advancing our understanding of behavior in complex interpersonal and community contexts.

Words: Alexandra Celender with Sara Levens and Cherie Maestas | Images: Lynn Roberson

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