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The TMF Harvard Research Project 2003-2005

photoThe Research Consortium:

TMF has entered a research agreement with Harvard University investigating the following main questions:

  1. How do we develop the capacity to care for and respect others who are not perceived as similar to oneself with respect to one's own identity, be that identity national, gender oriented, racial, ethnic, and beyond?
  2. What effects do early social experiences of exposure to tolerant or prejudicial environments have on the later mental health or illness of children, especially those growing up under adverse social conditions?

Harvard University has formed a Research Consortium of five members from different disciplines. The aim of the Harvard Research Consortium is to strengthen common themes. One common goal is to study the linkages between cultural forms of tolerance and prejudice that are experienced by children and youth growing up and the forms of positive or negative orientations to others that develop later in life. What, for example, is the connection between early forms of intolerance and later forms of mental illness and participation in hate-groups? How can interventions that promote tolerance protect children who grow up in situations where groups have a history of hating one another? How can youth growing up under these circumstances develop the capacity to promote reconciliation across these groups?

A common initial agenda of the Research Consortium is to develop a range of methods of assessment that can be used in future longitudinal studies to look at these questions. A second goal is to determine the applicability of usable knowledge from these initiatives to assess programs that promote mental health and prevent mental illness in children and youth. For example, Mahzarin Banaji is studying implicit bias in young children and Robert Selman is developing methods to assess childrens' conscious reflective awareness of prejudice and tolerance. How can these methods be used together to assess in a comprehensive way interventions designed to reduce negative bias and promote social understanding?

Prejudice and intolerance, like viruses and bacteria, can be the source of illness and ill health in children, but little is known about how this works. As Felton Earls points out in his project, living under conditions of stigma, hatred, and intolerance is at best traumatic; more likely it leads to a chronic lack of wellness expressed as anger and bitterness, diagnosable disorder, or both. What are the effects of negative bias toward others on the self as well as others, in individuals and in groups? Living under conditions of tolerance, conversely, should have the opposite effect, but how can we demonstrate this? As Mica Pollock suggests, activism may be one of the best forms of prevention against hopelessness and despair that lead to depression.

While these questions ultimately may provide the gravitational force to form a critical mass of usable knowledge, during the initial phases of their work, the Research Consortium primarily focuses on developing the tools, the methodologies to be used in research to answer these questions. In the specific project sections that follow, the investigators describe their strategies for this first phase of work. However, here one can allude to some potential commonalities and complementarities across the projects.


The Individual Five Consortial Projects:

  1. Implicit Prejudice and Stereotypes in Children: Basic Research and Teaching Tolerance
  2. Seeking Asylum Alone: Improving the Treatment of Separated and Trafficked Children in Need of Refugee Protection
  3. Social Ecology and Child Well-Being
  4. Global Youth/Global Justice
  5. Research on the Promotion of Tolerance and the Prevention of Prejudice in Youth

  1. Implicit Prejudice and Stereotypes in Children: Basic Research and Teaching Tolerance
    Mahzarin R. Banaji, Department of Psychology

    Psychology, in the past, has paid relatively little attention to the development of social beliefs and attitudes. What we currently know about these concepts in children is based on verbal self-report measures that ask for introspective reports of what the child thinks and feels. These measures provide rich information about consciously accessible attitudes and beliefs, and especially with young children, it is conceivable that social pressures to report only acceptable views may not be as much of a problem as it is with adults. Yet it is clear that children early on are quite aware of the "right" answers to provide, and more importantly, just as with adults, children simply may not have access to their less conscious thoughts and feelings. The need to move to indirect measurement of prejudice is urgent. A focus on these developmental questions has obvious potential for advancing knowledge about the origins of belief and preferences, of the ability to challenge and shape existing theories and knowledge regarding the nature of prejudice and the scope of its influence in everyday life. A commitment to Lewin's notion of "action research", of moving from phenomena in the world to the laboratory and back, has already led Dr. Banaji's team to consider the applications of their adult work to the workplace, as well as in legal and educational settings. Such communication has improved their science and there is the hope that such work will have a positive effect on the society that supports this work by discovering what society ought to teach and especially how society ought to teach about tolerance. Dr. Banaji's main focus regarding the application of the research findings involves devising environments that can reduce both conscious and nonconscious bias.

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  2. Seeking Asylum Alone: Improving the Treatment of Separated and Trafficked Children in Need of Refugee Protection
    Jacqueline Bhabha, University Committee on Human Rights Studies

    Forced migration has emerged as one of the critical human rights issues of our time. The forced migration of children fleeing war or persecution and traveling alone in search of safety represents a particularly compelling problem. Ms. Bhabha's project focuses on a question that has generated increasing political and legal concern internationally without receiving adequate scholarly attention: how effective are legal mechanisms to protect child asylum-seekers separated from their families because of persecution or trafficking? Ms. Bhabha is coordinating an international research project to investigate this issue in several key asylum destinations on different continents: the US, the UK, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary and Australia.

    The inquiry is important because available (often anecdotal) evidence suggests that growing numbers of separated children are forced to leave their homes and that they find it much more difficult than adults to gain asylum. They have difficulties getting adequate legal representation; their cases are more likely to be postponed and to drag on over time than adults; and they have less chance of being granted refugee status. The outcome of an asylum application is often a troubling limbo of indeterminacy, rather than a reassuring guarantee of permanency. Yet the grant of asylum constitutes one of the most powerful and successful contemporary human rights remedies. Are separated children missing out on a key human rights protection? It appears that the increasingly sizeable phenomenon of separated children seeking asylum has not been matched by the development of appropriate legal protections or understanding of the problems that arise. This international research project studies the claims of children seeking asylum alone to determine the extent and nature of the disadvantage they face within the asylum systems of the chosen countries. The central question is whether these children, burdened by the double jeopardy of alienate and minority, are also legally discriminated against. If minority is a handicap rather than an advantage in securing human right protection, how and why is this so?

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  3. Social Ecology and Child Well-Being
    Felton Earls, Medical School

    The central objective of Dr. Earl's work is to define, measure, and strengthen the skills needed in the development of personal and collective efficacy. The acquisition of these skills requires active participation in democratic practices, where the conditions of fairness, respect and tolerance are valued. These practices are viewed as key attributes of schools and communities, which constitute necessary conditions for the promotion of child well-being and the protection of the human rights for children.

    Most communities need assistance in overcoming the barriers towards instituting and sustaining democratic practices. These destructive circumstances are well known but poorly controlled. They include racism, ethnocentrism, war, terrorism and epidemic diseases. Dr. Earl's work seeks to engage children between the ages of 10 and 14 in the process of acquiring accurate information about these problems. The purpose of acquiring such information is intended to kindle children becoming actively engaged in applications of this knowledge. This objective of involving children is viewed as a frontier in health promotion, one that aims to enhance individual well-being while strengthening democratic ideals. The growth of tolerance and respect among children in a society should contribute substantially to fostering diversity and reducing disparities in the quality of life.

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  4. Global Youth/Global Justice
    Mica Pollock, Graduate School of Education

    Global Youth/Global Justice (GYGJ) is a multi-sited ethnography that identifies and analyzes networks of young activists who are defining and addressing social inequality transnationally. The project selects and studies eight representative youth-dominated transnational advocacy networks, based in the U.S. and in selected locations worldwide, that involve activists outside as well as inside the organizers' nations of origin -- and that have young people analyzing social problems as orders created, and thus solved, through transnational processes. The GYGJ project seeks to identify, analyze, and understand salient networks of youth, including young Americans, who themselves are figuring out how to connect transnationally with peers across the globe for the purpose of collective political action -- young people hoping quite literally to "change the world" through the creation and political use of globalization's human and technological networks. In the end, Dr. Pollock seeks to provide not just scholars but also youth, youth organizers and youth developers both within and outside the United States with key models of successful nonviolent and democratic transnational cooperation.

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  5. Research on the Promotion of Tolerance and the Prevention of Prejudice in Youth
    Robert L. Selman, Graduate School of Education

    Dr. Selman's research focuses on what can be learned about the origins of tolerance and prejudice in young children through research on how students in elementary schools develop and express their awareness of these attitudes as they actively participate in practices designed to promote the former and prevent the latter. Reciprocally he focuses on how to provide the findings directly to practitioners, in this case, elementary grade teachers, and explores how to study the uses teachers make of the information his team provides. Dr. Selman is asking two research questions:

    1. How do girls and boys at ages 5 through 10, who come from different backgrounds (e.g. poor, working, middle, and upper middle social class; different ethnic groups), and who study in schools with different institutional structures (e.g., integrated or segregated by social class), understand and deal with tolerance and prejudice in social relationships?
    2. How do teachers make meaning of the findings his teams obtains in the study of this question, and how do they translate those findings into changes in their practices?


    To respond to the first research question, Dr. Selman focuses on the validation of methods for the assessment of children's developing awareness of the roots of both tolerance and prejudice. Specifically, he proposes to analyze systematically the meaning children at different ages, and from different backgrounds, make of the multicultural children's stories the Voices of Love and Freedom organization selects for classroom use. This will afford Dr. Selman's team the opportunity to study both the developmental antecedents (e.g., capacity for perspective coordination and conflict resolution skills) and cultural foundations (e.g. orientations of children from one background to children from different backgrounds) that influence children's inter-group relationships.

    The second research question focuses on the process by which teachers and researchers together can inform and change practice, using the knowledge the researcher gives back. The emphasis of this aspect of the initiative is on the translational process between research and practice, and it is designed to insure that researchers return to the source of their inspiration. Through a series of professional development "partnership workshops" for researchers and teachers alike, Dr. Selman's team takes what they have learned in the research and uses it to improve the practice of promoting children's social competence. In these summer workshops, teachers both are paid consultants and getting "professional development points" for their participation. Dr. Selman explores how to validate the "embedded assessment" methods so that the scoring rubrics they are developing can serve as tools for evaluating the impact of a wide range of practices designed to improve children's inter-group awareness. The team studies their effectiveness through systematic interviews with teachers and researchers as well as analyses of video tape recording of the discussions in the meetings. The project staff need to know how "practice friendly" the rubrics are, and working directly with the teachers in the same schools in which Dr. Selman is doing his research will be one way to find out.

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