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Peace research needs to re-orient


Jørgen Johansen, TFF Associate

28th of July 2010

First published February 7th, 2005

«Peace research concentrates on the question of violence. In particular, it has come to focus on organised violence on societal conflicts.» (Wallensten, 1988).

In the literature the most used term for such conflicts is «war». War has been defined in various ways but most of the definitions have in common the description of war as an armed conflict with a certain number of deaths. Disagreements are more around the number and how to count the deaths than the much more interesting and important part of the definitions, namely the almost universal view that war is a form of conflict. I will argue below that war is NOT a conflict and that this misinterpretation has had serious consequences for the field.

Most research on large-scale conflicts is focused on armed ones. Wars have been studied from a large number of perspectives since the first works in this field were published. This tradition, from pioneers such as Richardson and Wright, has dominated the majority of this particular field of research ever since. The exceptions are few but very important.


War Research - Violence Research

I agree completely with Wallensten that this has been the focus in peace research up till now. But I disagree strongly that it should be so in the future. First of all if the concentration shall be on violence it would be more honest and accurate to call the field «Violence Research» or «War Research». I don't argue so much against the research as such as against the labelling of it. Certainly we need someone to study wars and violence, but should it be the job of peace researchers to do that?

I will argue that the main task for peace researchers should be to help in building peace with peaceful means. Then it seems natural to study the most peaceful cases of conflict transformation in order to learn how to handle similar conflicts in the future. One problem is that most peaceful cases of conflict handling are not even noticed. Most of the large databases on conflicts only count cases where the numbers of killed are high. The different groups of researchers behind these databases use different definitions of the entities to be counted. They do not have the same opinions about what are sufficiently high numbers of dead bodies to be counted as a small, medium or large war, or on what is a sufficient duration of the war to be counted. But they agree and have in common the basis that in order to be included as an interesting case there must be a certain level of violence involved.

This focus on the most violent cases is something we also see in the mass media. Journalists and consumers are obviously fascinated by acts of violence and the consequences of these actions. But why should academia in general and peace researchers in particular also focus only on the most violent cases?


War is not a conflict

Maybe one reason is a misunderstanding of what a conflict is? Is the explanation that researchers do not separate the means used by the actors from the disagreement the conflict is based on? Without separating the means from the contradiction in the conflicts it will be difficult to understand any of these elements in a conflict. The «conflict triangle» developed by Galtung gives us a very straightforward but important insight into the complexity of conflict. It is crucial not to mix and create confusion about the different components which together make conflict.

The sum of A, B and C (Attitudes + Behaviour + Content/Contradiction) is a conflict. And in this model wars belongs in the B-corner. War in itself is NOT a conflict. Wars are simply a way some actors acts in some conflicts.

Conclusion so far: Focus on wars is too limited to understand the complexity of conflicts and creates a distorted image through selecting only a limited number of conflicts, ie. those with sufficiently high casualty rates and use of violence. In order to understand conflicts as such it is necessary to open up the studies for conflicts without any use of direct violence. It is also important to be much more specific on the many different means used by the many actors in a conflict.

Modern Peace Research

The last sixty years have seen a number of academic institutions for peace research established. Some of them are independent institutions; others have been set up as parts of universities. Most of them have very strong focus on violence. The Scandinavian research institutions have not been unique in this respect but rather relatively typical. The independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has focused on arms/weapons; their effects, costs, trade and negotiations of reductions. The best known peace research from Uppsala University is the project of counting armed conflicts based on the number of killings on the battlefield (Wallensten & Sollenberg, 1998). Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) has large programs on civil wars and on small arms.

The best exception from this general impression is the database from Heidelberger Institut für Internationale Konfliktforschung and their KOSIMO-database. They have four categories of conflicts and two of these opens for conflicts with little or no violence used by the actors.

Patric Brogan (Brogan 1998) in his large work World Conflicts tries to cover most armed conflicts with deadly casualties. The An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Conflict and Conflict Resolution, 1945-1996 (Jessup 1998) includes not only wars but assassinations, coups, insurgencies, terrorism, massacres and genocides. Others have different ways of classifying the conflicts, but they all have in common that they focus on the conflicts where violent means dominate.
When war is defined as a conflict then the definition in itself creates a number of difficulties for the handling, or management, of the conflict. A conflict is a complex social, and often political, process and includes a number of components which need to be studied separately both in order to understand the conflict and in order to deal with it.
Keltner (1994) identifies four main elements in a conflict:

  • The means used to influence the conflict
  • The questions the disagree about
  • The relations between the parties
  • The aims or possible outcomes.

Each of these elements is of course in themselves complex entities. To use the term «war» for the whole concept will make it difficult to identify both the different elements and, more important, the range of other options than armed means in the conflict. To define war as a type of conflict reduces the possibilities to study other options than armed means in order to influence the conflict. In other words: If you define war as a type of conflict then you predefines the means to be used in these the conflicts. War is of course only one of a wide spectrum of means which are available for those who are engaged in large scale societal conflicts. Going back to Keltner (1994) I want to stress that conflicts with identical questions to disagree about, with identical relations between parties and with identical aims can be influenced (or solved) by a wide range of different means.

The two extremes in how to act in a societal large scale conflict are nuclear holocaust and complete surrender. Between these two there are a number of options which have very different implications and effects on the society.
Keltner has a spectrum which starts with «Difference» and ends with «Fight or War».  The second row in the table is Keltners description of the process leading to resolution.






Fight or War






Violent Conflict

Keltner is here mixing the C-corner with the B-corner in the conflict triangle. His classification starts with three varieties of degrees of contradictions. The next three are examples of means (behaviour) to be used in order to influence the conflict. The interesting part of this is the attempt to make a differentiation of how deep the contradictions are.


Active Nonviolence as a means used to influence conflicts

In recent years we have seen a number of large scale societal conflicts where the level of violence used by the stakeholders has been extremely low, in some cases not present at all. Regimes have been brought down by massive nonviolent actions in more than twenty cases since 1979. Recently we have witnessed such revolutions in Serbia/Belgrade October 2000, Georgia/Tbilisi November 2003 and Ukraine/Kiev December 2004. In these cases the uses of active nonviolent actions have been the result of a conscious decision by those who organised and prepared the revolutions.

These conflicts have a lot in common with civil wars and armed revolutions, but differ on the choice of means. That they should be left out of databases on conflicts is a mistake which has serious consequences. This selection of cases will create a bias which makes the collected material unfit for a number of studies. By only picking the most disastrous conflicts and leaving out the most peaceful ones you cannot expect to produce knowledge about these types of conflicts, but only of those that from my normative perspective «went terrible wrong». However you judge the different cases the consequences of only including the violent cases makes most analytical use of the material very limited. Any conclusions should clearly state that the material used only includes cases of conflicts where at least one of the involved actors have used violent means. Any general conclusions about large scale societal conflicts are not possible.

Below I will shortly describe two different sets of means used in large scale societal conflicts and make some proposals for future studies in the field of Peace- and Conflict Studies.

Definition of active Nonviolence

A combination of techniques by which people can address conflicts, including threats to their security, without using violence. It is not an attempt to avoid or ignore conflicts. There are three categories of active nonviolence:

  • Nonviolent protest and persuasion (mainly symbolic acts of peaceful opposition or of attempted persuasion, extending beyond verbal expressions) (Sharp 1973)
  • Noncooperation (deliberate withdrawal of cooperation with person, activity, institution or regime with which the activists are engaged in conflict) (Sharp 1973)
  • Nonviolent intervention (a class of methods involving the disruption or destruction of established behavioural patterns, policies, relationships or institutions that are considered unacceptable; or creation of preferred alternatives) (Sharp 1973).

Any combination of these means will in the following be named active nonviolence.

Comments about the terminology

This definition is descriptive and does not take into consideration any aspect of intentions of the participants or consequences of the actions.

Active nonviolence is used because it has a history and a tradition within the tradition of struggle for justice and liberation. It is not a perfect terminology, especially since the term «nonviolence» in many cases has been defined in a conceptual way, with a strong normative emphasis, and therefore not reflecting what is actually happening in the nonviolent action. The many definitions of Nonviolence can be seen as part of a spectrum. Narayan Desai can be a representative from one end of the spectra when he at the War Resisters' International Council meeting in Paris 1983 defined nonviolence as «perfect harmony of all life». In the other end of the same spectra we find the use of «nonviolence» as everything which does not include direct, serious physical attacks on human beings. In the following my intention is to be very close to the tradition from Gene Sharp in his book «The Politics of Nonviolent Action» (Sharp 1973). That is more close to Non-Belligerent or Non-Martial than to the more philosophical definitions. But rather than introduce a new terminology I have decided to base my terminology on a well-known concept.

Nonviolent Revolutions

In the following I will try to illustrate some of the possible misunderstandings resulting from the definition of «war» as an armed conflict. I will use the examples of Poland in the eighties, the People Power revolution in Philippines in 1986 and the «Velvet Revolution» in Czechoslovakia 1989 and compare them with some of the civil wars we have seen in last decades. In all cases the disagreement was about the political control of the territory.

The Solidarity movement in Poland did not accept the present government and their policy. The relation between the parties was more than hostile. The opposition in Poland had a long and violent history of struggle against the political leadership in their country. The Solidarity movement in Poland chose in 1980 to try with nonviolent means to achieve their aim. After many decades of armed uprisings (the last one in 1976) they developed a strategy of traditional nonviolent means such as demonstrations, strikes, blockades and occupations. They kept to their strategy despite the fact that the government, with military means, forced them to go underground for some time and threats from an invasion of Soviet troops. (Labedz 1984)

The case of People Power in the Philippines had a lot of similarities with Poland. The decision to avoid armed means was deliberately chosen. The most visible action was organised mass jogging with yellow t-shirts in the capital Manila. Although it appeared to the outsiders to be a spontaneous action, it was in fact the end of a long run struggle to remove Marcos from the presidency. After a disputed election the armed forces split and General Ramos joined the demand from the demonstrators in the streets to accept Mrs. Aquino as the winner. Marcos never understood the, for him, mysterious power of people when they organise and united in actions of protest and disobedience. (Mercado 1986)

In Czechoslovakia the revolution came as the final act of a several decade long opposition-movement. Charta 77 and other underground groups had joined in what was called Civic Forum and mass demonstrations and strikes followed. The opposition did not take to arms against the Soviet led invasion in 1968 and such means was never on the agenda in the years to come. According to a parliamentary committee investigation in 1990 the communist regime tried several times in November 1989 to provoke violence among the demonstrators, but Civic Forum managed to keep to the nonviolent line (Powers and Vogele 1997).

In these three cases civil resistance was only one aspect of a large range of factors leading to the victory for the opposition movements. But the means used had an important influence on the revolutionary process as well as on the outcome of the struggles.
Comparing these three examples with what is traditionally called civil wars raise some questions about the connection between means and ends and the importance for the countries possibilities for development after the revolutionary process.

Civil wars in focus

Since the end of the cold war the most typical armed conflict has changed from being a conflict between two or more states with more than 1000 battle-related deaths a year to be a civil war with less battle-related deaths (Wallensteen & Sollenberg 1998). Examples are Chechnya, the Basque country, East Timor and Afghanistan.

In these three examples the «question to disagree about» was the political control of a territory. The methods they have used to influence the conflict have in all three cases included guerrilla warfare as a dominant strategic means. The responses from the respective states have been severe military and policing activities. The civil population has suffered to a large degree from these activities.

The civil wars dominate the media-picture as well as peace-researchers and scholars in political science. Casualties among civilians, children, women and elderly people, have been broadcast and reported world-wide and no one is unaware of these victims. The terrible consequences of armed conflicts are to such a degree in the focus of political discussions that they tend to diminish other interesting trends in current areas of conflict studies.

The discussions on «democratic peace»; the research on the number and types of conflicts; the studies on specific types of wars or weapon systems are all necessary and important but there is an even greater need for studies on the more peaceful ways of creating peace and transforming conflicts effectively and constructively through peaceful means.

The future of Peace Research

If peace researchers want to produce new knowledge about how to handle conflicts without the use of violent means the focus must be to study cases where the stakeholders in the conflicts have not turned to armed struggle. The growing number of cases solved around the negotiating table or with use of active nonviolence are much more valuable as sources of information that the massacres and other forms of massive violence. The majority of peaceful/non-violent cases are not paid any attention in present peace research. This goes for large scale societal conflicts as well as for all other sorts of conflicts.

Conflicts between individuals are only recognised as conflicts when at least one of the actors uses violent means to influence the outcome of the conflict. In most families there are a number of conflicts every day and they are mostly solved without the use of violence. The few (but still too many) exceptions were the man is beating his wife gets attention and police, neighbours, media and researcher take interest in them. We should study the many successful cases in order to understand the mechanisms and conditions for the peaceful transformation of these conflicts.

In order to understand the mechanisms of Peace it seems natural to study Peace. Peace as defined by Galtung in his book «Peace by Peaceful Means» is the capacity and skills to act with creativity, empathy and nonviolence in conflict situations. It is the skills, mechanisms and theories for such actions that peace researchers should help us to develop. And that is not done by detailed studies on forms of violence and the consequences of violent actions.




Jessup, John E. (1998), An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Conflict and Conflict Resolution, 1945-1996, Greenwood Publishing Group,  London

Keltner, John W., 1994, The Management of Struggle. Elements of Dispute Resolution through Negotiation, Mediation and Arbitration, Hampton Press

Labedz, Leopold (and the staff of Survey magazine) eds., 1984, Charles Scribner's Sons.

McCarthy, Ronald M. and Sharp, Gene, (1997), Nonviolent Action, A Research Guide, Garland Publishing Inc. London & New York.

Mercado, M.A,. ed., 1986, People Power: The Philippine Revolution of 1986: An Eyewitness History. S.J. Foundation.

Powers, R. S. and Vogele, W B., 1997, Protest, Power, and Change. An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women´s Suffrage. Garland Publishing.

Wallensten, P. och Sollenberg, M., 1998 «Armed Conflict and Regional Complexes, 1989-97». Journal of Peace Research, vol 35, no 5, 1998 side 621-634.

Wallensten, P., 1988, «The Origins of Peace Research», in Peace Research- Achievements and Challenges, Westview Press, Boulder & London.

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