Forgiveness in Northern Ireland : a qualitative approach to building a theoretical model

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Moeschberger, Scott L.
Dixon, David N.
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Thesis (Ph. D.)
Department of Counseling Psychology and Guidance Services
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The purpose of this study was to develop a theoretical understanding of the relationship between empathy, cross-community contact, and religiosity and the impact on forgiveness for Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Based on the existing literature, three distinct guiding questions emerged: 1) "How are members from the Catholic and Protestant communities conceptualizing and defining forgiveness?", 2) "What role does religion and religiosity play in the conceptualization and process of forgiving members of the Protestant or Catholic communities?" and 3) "How does contact with members of the Catholic or Protestant community impact forgiveness and empathy?"Using a snowball sampling method, 17 participants ages 19-30 were identified and interviewed for 60-90 minutes. A modified grounded theory design was used to guide data collection and analysis, resulting in several main themes. The main themes that emerged from this study included a deeper understanding of forgiveness and the peace process from the perspective of participants, glimpses into the influences on their likeliness to forgive, and insight into the impact of cross-community contact. Forgiveness was universally valued by all participants, although this importance was balanced with concerns related to the interrelationships between politics, the peace process, justice, and the definition of forgiveness.Forgiveness was primarily defined by participants as the right of the individual, and as a means to interrupt a cycle of revenge. Among these responses to this topic, there was uncertainty about whether forgiveness could take place without an apology, and even greater confusion about whether forgiveness and justice could exist side-by-side. In addition, cross-community contact also seemed to influence the development of empathy and forgiveness between Catholics and Protestants. These findings were discussed in relation to Allport's (1954) contact hypothesis and Dixon et al.'s (2005) recent critique of the contact literature. In general, these results appeared to be consistent with previous literature on forgiveness, the contact hypothesis, and collective guilt assignment. There was evidence to indicate that contact was a necessary, but not sufficient condition for forgiveness. Limitations for the study and implications for practice and research are discussed.