USP Emalus Campus collaborates with Oxford University

Dr Johnathan Jong (left) and Prof.Harvey Whitehouse (right) at the USP Emalus Campus.

Fern Napwatt

Professor Harvey Whitehouse, Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford and Fellow Researcher Dr Jonathan Jong, Deputy Director of the Belief, Brain, and Behaviour Research Group at Coventry University are currently in the country carrying out research that will potentially help Vanuatu and other countries around the world solve cooperation challenges.

This a unique set up that has brought together an anthropologist and a psychologist as a team to carry out collaborative work and has interestingly set a new route for researchers in this win-win initiative.

“This unique set up that Dr Krishna Kotra established here allows us to do a new kind of social science from a global perspective because it’s very hard for anthropologist and psychologist to team and do large scale comparative research,” Prof Whitehouse said.

Prof Whitehouse said that the research is about trying to understand how performing rituals in groups helps to produce social glue.

“Vanuatu is part of a global research effort to understand how different cultures solve cooperation problems and other kinds of challenges by bonding together successfully to accomplish a set of goals and that is the essence of why we doing this research,” he said.

Dr Jong, who is a psychologist and Senior Researcher said the research is also about the ways people’s moral and religious beliefs interact with each other and help to shape each other both within and across the cultures.

“We want to know for example the relationship between the diversity of the moral beliefs and diversity of religious beliefs around the world and within particular cultures,” he said.

Professor Whitehouse observed that for this particular project, they are using a very specific survey and after a pilot project done with the Americans, Vanuatu was the first country they have come to in order to do the survey in person.

“We have actually been investigating both topics for many years using different techniques so although this is a new research effort, it is building on the foundations that we have been constructing in previous years,” he said.

“We see this research as collaboration with the USP where in particular, our collaborators here, Dr Krishna Kotra and his students, provide us with expertise, language skills, cultural knowledge and other kinds of valuable information that enable us to work together to collect the data, so although some of the research questions come from Oxford or other universities, the actual work on the ground, travelling to islands such as Tanna or other regions on the island of Efate, that data collection will be done by students here.

Dr Jong added that they have trained some very bright students at the Emalus Campus to be able to run the surveys more or less independently when they head back to England and also visit other sites and hopefully the success that they expect here will also be replicated in their various field sites around the world.

Dr Krishna Kotra, a lecturer at Emalus said the institution has established the eighth collaboration with the University with the intention to increase capacity building for the students and provide a research site for other global research studies.

The Phase 1 of the research should be around a year or less depending on how successful things progress.

“But we have a research permit for five years and after the first phase should it be successful we want to build more studies and extend further,” said professor Whitehouse.

“There’s an enormous range of differences even within Port Vila and we couldn’t possibly study all of them but what we can do is ask a question about specific topic on ritual, religion, morality and group bonding in different cultural groups and compare the answers.”

Professor Whitehouse and Dr Jong are part of team of people trained in both disciplines and have multiple approaches to asking questions they are asking and for this research Dr Jong is learning tactics on field work from Prof Whitehouse as well as capacity building for the students involved in the survey.

“We go around to different communities and we make systematic observations, we ask questions to the people and that allows us to make comparisons of people from our field of expertise and look at their similarities and differences,” Dr Jong said.

“So we try to find as far as we can basic generalizable things that we can measure and that give us a way into very different rituals and beliefs that even though they are different we are still able put them together in this way.”

Prof Whitehouse added that all societies in the world have had to solve problems of cooperation in different ways, including cooperation within families, countries and in some cases across countries around the world.

“In Vanuatu people have solved those problems sometimes in unique ways so they have something to teach the rest of the world and we want to take the lessons that we learn from Vanuatu to a wider global audience and we want to share lessons we learn from other countries with the people of Vanuatu.”

Dr Jong said we live in a world in which people of different religious and different moral beliefs come together and sometimes they conflict, and so if we can understand where these differences come from and how they interact we might be able to help adjudicate these sorts of differences and hopefully avoid conflict in the future.

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