Commentary on Townsend, Taylor, Merrilees, et al. (2020). Youth in Northern Ireland: Linking Violence Exposure, Emotional Insecurity, and the Political Macrosystem.

About the Author
Ann S. Masten

Institute of Child Development,
University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Dr. Masten, Regents Professor in that Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, studies resilience in children and families. Her research focuses on understanding processes that nurture, promote, and protect the capacity of young people to adapt successfully to challenges that threaten functioning, survival, and development.

The Promise of Multisystem Research on Risk and Resilience in Development

Multisystem perspectives and methods are essential for understanding and countering the challenges posed to child development and wellbeing by political violence, as well as by natural disasters, pandemics, terror attacks, and other adversities that threaten the lives and livelihoods of many individuals, families, and communities (Masten, in press). War and political conflict can disrupt and overwhelm the functioning of many systems simultaneously or in a cascading sequence. Knowledge is vital to protect children in advance of and response to such threats, but these situations also present enormous challenges to investigators.

The Monograph by Townsend and colleagues (2020) on “Youth in Northern Ireland: Linking Violence Exposure, Emotional Insecurity, and the Political Macrosystem” represents a rare attempt to study multilevel processes in the context of sectarian violence. Rarer still, this study directly measures sectarian conflict at a macrosystem level over time by identifying and coding newspaper accounts of incidents during the original period of data collection. This ingenious method made it possible to add a concurrent macrosystem level of analysis to an important existing longitudinal data set based on a study of youth exposed to residual intergroup conflict in Belfast, following the settlement of the longstanding conflict between Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland. The original study provided one of the most important longitudinal studies to date on the emotional adjustment of youth in families caught up in sectarian conflict (see Cummings et al., 2014, 2017). Adding macrosystemic data not only enriched the original findings, but also addressed one of the most challenging issues in research on intergroup conflicts and natural disasters, which is how to assess macrosystem influences in research on processes linking macro-, micro-, and individual-level systems over time and in historical context.

Concerns about the effects of political conflict on children and youth have a long history (Barber, 2009; Masten et al., 2015; Tol et al., 2013). The devastating global violence and trauma of World War II motivated clinicians and researchers during and after the war to observe and try to mitigate the consequences of war trauma on children. Yet decades would pass before research on mass-casualty adversities, including war and terror as well as disaster, became a more central focus of developmental research (Masten et al., 2015). The emergence of resilience science (circa 1970) played a key role in this history, primarily because leading resilience scholars integrated observations about the effects of war and sectarian violence on children into their reviews and conceptual frameworks (e.g., Garmezy, 1983). A number of influential researchers also had direct experiences from World War II when they were children and youth, including Garmezy, Rutter, and Werner (Masten, 2014). As time passed, the urgent need for research on child development in relation to political violence was underscored further by global surges in sectarian conflict, child soldiers, and genocide, together with the arrival of modern terrorism on 9/11 in 2001 (Eisenberg & Silver, 2011; Garbarino et al., 2015; Masten et al., 2015).

Multisystem Perspectives on Risk and Resilience in War and Political Conflict

As research expanded, it became clear that a multisystem ecological perspective was essential for modeling the effects of war and disaster on human development and intervening to mitigate risk or promote recovery (Masten, in press; Wessells, 2016). The study reported in this monograph exemplifies a contemporary multisystem approach to elucidating the effects of conflict on individual youth in the context of their families and socioecological contexts.

Multisystem ecological models in developmental science are rooted in developmental systems theory (Lerner, 2006; Overton, 2013), Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of embedded systems (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006), developmental psychopathology principles (Cicchetti & Toth, 2009; Cummings & Valentino, 2015; Masten & Kalstabbaken, 2018), and resilience models (Masten et al., in press; Ungar, in press). Child development in these models emerges from myriad, ongoing interactions within and between systems at multiple nested levels, from molecular to sociocultural levels. Effects of distal macrosystems on young people in these models are mediated by interactions of more proximal systems, such as the microsystems of family, school, or peer groups. Because of many interactions, the adaptation of individuals over time is dynamic and related to ongoing changes in many systems, including the broader context. Furthermore, due to these ongoing interactions and the dynamic nature of systems, changes in one level or system can spread to affect other levels or systems, resulting in developmental cascades (Masten & Cicchetti, 2010).

The conceptual model framing this study of youth in Belfast is grounded explicitly in bioecological theory (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006) in tandem with Lederach’s (1997) integrated framework for peacebuilding. It is focused on multisystem dynamics, how fluctuations in macrosystem violence may cascade to influence youth and their microsystems, including their families, potentially spreading through system interactions like a contagion. Drawing from Lederach, the investigators also emphasize the patterning of conflict over time; Chronic political conflicts, similar to complex disasters of other kinds, have phases and cycles. Violence waxes and wanes over time and it is important to capture these changes in order to study how these fluctuations relate to youth adjustment.

No single study can focus on all of the system levels and interactions that shape the course of development in the context of community violence. This study focused on the interplay of adolescents’ exposure to sectarian violence and their emotional insecurity in the context of the sociopolitical climate, directly indexed at the macrosystem level. Other contemporary studies of children and youth exposed to political violence and war also are beginning to include systems at the biological level within the individual, for example by assessing biomarkers of stress regulation systems and immune function that may be affected by trauma exposure. A notable example is provided by Dajani and colleagues (2018) in their study on effects of a psychosocial group intervention for war-affected youth in Jordan had on the stress hormone, cortisol, assessed with hair samples. Hair can be assayed for cortisol to provide a kind of “stress diary,” where recent stress is reflected in hair segments closer to the scalp. This international research team also has measured C-reactive protein and Epstein-Barr virus antibodies at multiple time points in this randomized controlled trial (Panter-Brick et al., 2020).

Challenges of Research in the Context of Sectarian Violence

Attempting to capture multisystem dynamics presents formidable challenges because it requires longitudinal data with multiple assessments of multiple systems and complex modeling. The original study of these youth and families living in Belfast (described in the text of this monograph; see also Cummings et al., 2014, 2017) was exceptional in multiple ways. It included a longitudinal design with reasonable retention of a large sample over six waves of data collection and the use of mixed methods of analysis to test theory-driven process models linking youth perceptions of insecurity and community violence with youth social identity and adjustment, as well as family processes. This new monograph adds direct assessments of the macrosystem level of sectarian violence to five waves of the original data by coding news reports written and published over time, coincident with the timing of original data collection. This strategy afforded an extremely rare analysis of multisystem changes that included a dynamic index of community sectarian violence.

Research in the context of community violence also is challenging for many other reasons (Cummings et al., 2014; Masten et al., 2015; Wessells, 2016). Waxing periods of conflict and danger can disrupt data collection and endanger the participants as well as the researchers. Conflict zones and refugee settlements may not have reliable electrical power or internet service. Culturally appropriate and validated measures are important, yet often unavailable or impractical for field conditions. In many of these respects, the quality of the study represented in this monograph and related publications is exemplary. Extraordinary care was given to ethical, relational, cultural, and political issues to execute a longitudinal study in this challenging post-conflict context, particularly to establish initial relationships and trust and then to sustain ties and trust over time.

Beyond Conflict: Forging a Multisystem Science of Risk and Resilience
in Development

Advancing knowledge on the effects of community-level violence or destruction resulting from large-scale disasters on child development clearly calls for models, measures, and methods that can capture multisystem processes. In notable ways, this monograph is a harbinger of progress on multisystem dynamics in the domain of sectarian violence. In addition, it reflects a broader transformation unfolding in research on threats to human adaptation and development, focused on integrating the study of risk and resilience across levels of analysis and the disciplines that focus on those levels. Multisystem models and research are emerging in studies of diverse threats to human life and development, including COVID-19, maltreatment, racism, migration, climate change, and many other adversities (Masten, in press; Masten & Motti-Stefanidi, 2020; Ungar, 2018, in press). The ultimate goal driving many current investigations is to elucidate risk and resilience processes well enough to improve policies and practices that prevent or mitigate risk and promote or protect positive development. In the case of sectarian conflict, multisystem research holds the promise of illuminating pathways to peace.


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Masten, A. S. (2020). The Promise of Multisystem Research on Risk and Resilience in Development. [Peer commentary on the article “Youth in Northern Ireland: Linking Violence Exposure, Emotional Insecurity, and the Political Macrosystem” by D. Townsend, L. K. Taylor, C. E. Merrilees, A. Furey, M. C. Goeke-Morey, P. Shirlow, and E. M. Cummings]. Monograph Matters. Retrieved from