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Rooting Out the Root of Conflict: Michael Moncrieff

The commencement speaker is exploring the way ethnic violence explodes, in a bid to eventually help stop crises before they start.

People  |  May 7, 2018  |  By Jason Scavone
Michael Moncfrieff

Michael Moncrieff was a Fulbright scholar who did his research in Croatia on the causes of the Yugoslav Wars. (Josh Hawkins / UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 

Michael Moncrieff is one of the students we're featuring as we celebrate spring 2018 commencement. Join us in congratulating our newest alumni in social media with #UNLVGrad. Full ceremony details on the commencement website.


As silver linings go, Michael Moncrieff’s is a pretty good one.

Growing up gay in central Florida, Moncrieff experienced his share of hostile incidents. Things yelled at him from strangers. Verbal altercations. Once, a stranger crossed the street to assault him.

“I always wondered throughout my life, ‘What is it about being part of this group or part of that group that can create such aggression?’” the spring commencement speaker and Ph.D. candidate said. “There was a good part of me that was fueled by that idea. Now that I've gotten really deep into this area of research I'm really glad that I'm here because it's a really exciting the time for the field.”

Moncrieff came to UNLV to pursue his doctorate, specifically, in the young fields of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary anthropology, which are rare finds on some campuses, but not at UNLV, where four of the anthropology department’s 16 professors emphasize evolutionary anthropology. He ended up as a Fulbright scholar studying the psychological underpinnings of ethnic violence in the Balkans.

After graduating with bachelor’s degrees in public administration and psychology from the University of Central Florida, Moncrieff took a year off to travel through South America and the Caribbean, coming away from the experience with an interest in anthropology.,

His specialty crystalized in 2015 when Moncrieff’s proposal to study the nature of ethnic conflict during the Yugoslav Wars throughout the 1990s earned him a prestigious Fulbright. His research focuses on the ways that people reorganize themselves — and reorganize their morality — during ethnic strife.

He tells the story of a Bosnian police officer, beloved by his community, who was murdered when a neighbor rampaged through the community, killing others simply because of their ethnic background.

“The question is what happens to morality in these periods?” Moncrieff said. “How can we go from everyday occurrences where, if I hit your car and I'm your neighbor, I feel awful to, in a matter of months, being able to kill you?”

Working in Croatia in conjunction with the University of Zadar, Moncrieff interviewed veterans and survivors of the war to pinpoint their perspective on what changed during the conflict. Zadar, a coastal resort on the Adriatic that traces its founding to Rome around the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus, was under siege from 1991 to 1993 during the Croatian War of Independence.

What he discovered was that many felt their actions were merely the result of the duty they felt to their ethnic groups, pointing the way to new understanding of how coalitional psychology works. The ramifications of the work extends beyond these types of violent situations.

“If you bring it back to coalitional dynamics, like politics in America, these results apply in these situations,” Moncrieff said. “We do think how the brain works, if all these systems are integrated, we think this coalitional psychology underlies ethnic violence, it underlies fraternities, gangs, political units. I think it's all just the mind trying to maximize the welfare of the individual and the benefit they have.”

With commencement looming, Moncrieff is looking for ways he can continue his research in this developing field. One option, of course, is to remain in academia pursuing a career as a professor.

The other is to go work for a think tank that searches for nonviolent solutions to active and burgeoning conflicts like the Rand Corp., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, or, his first choice, the United States Institute of Peace. It's a small federal think tank that works with Congress and the White House to find ways to end conflict before any more harm is done.

Of course, that would mean travel to places already experiencing, or right after, full-blown violence. But he’s OK being in those kinds of dangerous situations.

“I don't know if my family would be,” he said with a laugh. “I think there's a way to go into places like that and do research and be relatively safe in what you're doing.”

It’s in those crucibles of conflicts that Moncrieff thinks he can find the fundamental answers to questions his research is asking.

“We have this idea that coordination is playing this larger role in moral rules, and we're sensitive to this coordination. We pick up on it intuitively. The question that's interesting to me is how does this psychology connect to all these moral emotions we have? I feel like that connection is really unexplored in any of the other literature. It gets down to the fundamental part of what makes us moral, cooperative people.”