TFF logoFORUMS Meeting Point

What Is the Purpose of Peace Research?

Where Is the International Peace Research
Association, IPRA, Heading?


A Debate Between IPRA's Secretary-General Bjoern Moeller
and TFF director Jan Oberg

IPRA holds its 17th General Conference, this time in Durban, South Africa from June 23 to June 26.On this occasion IPRA Newsletter has carried a debate about the development and priorities of the academic discipline and its relation to the world around it. Participating in it was Dr. Bjoern Moeller, Secretary-General of IPRA and Dr. Jan Oberg, director and co-founder of the Transnational Foundation.

The debate started with Dr. Bjoern Moeller who in the September 1997 issue wrote a "letter from the Secretary General":

"IPRA as an organization, and indeed peace research as a discipline, may be at a juncture where the futures of both will be decided.

Peace research had a very clear raison d'etre during the Cold War, in the sense that it was to be the only academic area of study that did not take war, conflict, and arms races for granted, but took it upon itself to investigate the causes of these phenomena with a view to devising ways to overcoming them. Peace research was almost alone in pointing to the problems connected with "structural violence," that is, the realtive deprivation of large parts of the humanity, economically and otherwise.

Just as they thus recommended a conception of "peace" that went beyond that of a mere absence of war and required efforts to reduce global inequality, peace researchers were also in the forfront with their proposals for expanding the concept of "security." They questioned the traditional equation of national security with a maximum of military preparedness, pointing both to alternative means of achieving security and to security risks of a different kind.

Many of these ideas were so obviously right that they have now been adopted in the discourse of other academic disciplines as well as in that of states and international organizations. Even though we should surely welcome this belated endorsement, it also presents peace research with a twofold challenge: 1) what is now our raison d'etre, that is, what (if anything) is it that sets peace research apart from, for instance, international relations, strategic studies (or "security studies" as it is now called quite often), or development studies; and 2) is this enough to warrant the maintenance of separate peace research centres, institutes, or departments. In other words, peace research seems to be threatened by a creeping "mainstreamization" in the sense that it risks becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the academic spectrum.

Some might be tempted to try to avert this risk through a strategy that entails others, and pehaps more serious, dangers. Peace research might, for instance, seek refuge in a self-defined "political correctness" by defining the discipline, not by the questions it asks, but by a specific set of answers. Most of us would probably agree that all weapons are "bad" an that nuclear weapons are even worse than most other military means. This is an attitude which most researchers at strategic studies institutes will not share, even though some might. We might thus define peace research as research that is against nuclear and other weapons, and therefore it become explicitly normative aiming at banishing from our midst whoever holds a divergent opinion.

Even though this would seemingly allow us to preserve our distinguishing trait, namely our political correctness, it would be a very dangerous strategy. Not only would it tend to deprive peace reseach of its credibility, thereby also, in the long run, spoiling our opportunities for actually affecting politics, but even more importantly, would undermine our hard-earned reputation for unbiased, scrupulous, and meticulous studies of important problems in conformity with the highest scholarly and scientific standards. If peace research is unable to uphold these standards, it probably has no future, nor does it probably deserve one.

A much better strategy is to realize that we have now been engulfed by the mainstream and we have to make the best of it. The right way of doing so is to be at least one step ahead of the rest, and to refine our methodology, sharpen our logical tools, and ask even more vexing and fundamental questions than the rest of the academic mainstream. And surely the post-Cold War era poses a great number of quesions that stand in need of the kind of interdisciplinary research for whish peace research has always been renowned and which falls within the traditional field of peace research and at the same time go far beyond it. Questions about national and ethnic identity, territoriality, links between development, peace, and democracy, and human rights obviously fall in thi category.

The obvious interlocutors in such a much-needed discussions about the appropriate research agenda for peace research are the peace research institutes, centres and departments. Of course, one does not have to be an employee of such an institution in order to qualify as a peace researchers, bu to be so tends to greatly facilitate one's work as such and, surely, the established institutions, big and small, should have some accumulated wisdom to share with the rest of the peace research community. We need the established peace research institutions to take the lead in a discussion about the future of peace research.

This brings me to one of the most serious of the several problems IPRA is facing as an organization, namely the apparently receding commitment of the institutes to the organization..." - after which Dr. Moeller continues to discuss organizational and financial matters.


IPRA Newsletter of March 1998 carried the following two articles: Jan Oberg's critical remarks to Dr. Moeller and the latter's reply.

Jan Oberg wrote:

"Dear Secretary-General!

"We are now far too clever to be able to survive without wisdom," wrote E. F Schumacher in his seminal "A Guide for the Perplexed." It's more than 20 years ago, and I come to think of that upon reading your more perplexed than wise letter in Vol XXXV no. 3.

The opening is dramatic: IPRA and peace research "may be at a juncture where the futures of both will be decided." By whom, I humbly ask? Peace research had a very clear raison d'etre during the Cold War, you say. Thus, it may not have today when everybody assume that cold wars are gone and will be gone forever. (See it to believe it!)

You state that peace research was almost alone among academic disciplines in its choice of themes, the questions it raised and the values it had: in not taking war, conflict and arms races for granted. I think this is to place peace research on a pedestal, individuals in many other disciplines did the same. And when did we not take conflict for granted?

If I understand you correctly, the success of peace research threatens to kill us. Our ideas were so "obviously right" that they have been adopted by the discourse in other academic disciplines, by states and international organisations. Do you really mean to say that the world has come our way? If so, may I suggest that you leave for a year or so your protected academic activity and conference hotels, spend less time in "virtual reality" and begin to hear and listen and feel, in short to empathise with the world out there.

Those of us who have at least one of our feet in the nasty fields of violence need a little more evidence. I am not half as sure as you seem to be that the "creeping mainstreamization" is a result of the world adapting to peace research and its values. I could imagine it was the other way around: that an increasing proportion of peace researchers live a privileged university life and that thirty years of institutionalisation of the discipline caused a reduction in (controversial) criticism and constructivism and produced an abundance of (non-controversial) empirical studies, the latter more convenient for that very institutionalisation and getting the ear of the Princes that be?

With great concern you lecture us that, to stay in business and remain relevant, we must not fall for the temptation to "seek refuge in a self-defined political correctness" and to be against nuclear and other weapons and, thus, explicitly normative aiming at banishing from our midst whoever holds a divergent opinion." That's exactly what you do in your actual message. We must not be a discipline defined by our answers but by our questions. First, qualified science has not one or the other, it has both. Second, you seem to know the answer.

If peace research(ers) stick to nonviolence or "anti-arms" values, we lose credibility and cannot influence politics, neither can we do "unbiased, scrupulous, and meticulous studies in conformity with the highest scholarly and scientific standards." (High-pitched, if you permit me). The assumed incompatibilities between values and influence and between values and science are also false - and we had that debate in the 1970s.

So, what do you propose to save peace research from itself? "A much better strategy" is to realise that we have been engulfed by the mainstream and make the best of it, you answer and prophecy that "the right way" - is there only one? - is to refine our methodology and ask "more fundamental questions." To implement it you call for a discussion about the research agenda by institutes. What an anti-climax!

I think you have done the peace research community in a broad sense a considerable disservice. If I may, I intend to continue to be an IPRA member and stick to values and activities you term "politically correct" - among them nonviolence and a commitment to victims of violence outside academia.

To me one quite fundamental question is why human beings and states legitimate, use and sometimes even seem to enjoy violence. I feel offended by your statement that, if we research such things and propose less or nonviolent ways out of this civilisational malaise, peace research does not deserve to have a future.

In an era of increasing uniformity and Western mono-culturalisation worldwide, a wiser strategy might be to scrap all attempts at what one might call academic cleansing/banishing and, instead, insist on pluralism inside and outside IPRA.

I don't think we need a Secretary-General to tell us what is correct, but I do believe it would benefit peace research as well as IPRA if you as S-G show more awareness of the problems that remain to be solved worldwide before we can speak truly - in the Gandhian sense of the word, ooops! - about a world moving in the direction of the values of peace."


And this is Dr. Moeller's response in the same issue:

"Jan Oberg was apparently infuriated by my "semi-programmatic" first "letter from the Secretary General" in no. 3 of the IPRA Newsletter. The editor has kindly allowed my to respond to Jan's attack, which I will try to do in the following, albeit in a more mundane style than Jan's which I find more conducive to a debate. This will, hopefully, remove the impression of "perplexion rather than wisdom" that Jan has apparently got. It is, however, impossible to address all points of criticism raised by Jan, many of which are attempted rebuttals of views never found in my original statement.

My intention was to underline what happens to be my very firm conviction, namely that IPRA is, and should remain, a peace RESEARCH organization, not a peace movement involving academics. Not because the latter type of organizations are not valuable - far from it, as illustrated by examples such as the Pugwash Movement. But because there is a need for an organization devoted to research rather than policy-making, and because IPRA happens to be one such organization, as clearly stated in our statutes:

(Art. 2) "IPRA is a voluntary non-profit Association of researchers and educators cooperating for scientific purposes" and (Art. 3) "The purpose of IPRA is to advance interdisciplinary research into the conditions of peace and the causes of war and other forms of violence. To this end IPRA shall undertake measures of world-wide cooperation designed to assist the advancement of peace research, and in particular: (a) to promote national and international studies and teaching relating to the pursuit of world peace, (b) to facilitate contacts between scholars and educators throughout the world, (c) to encourage the international dissemination of results of research in the field and of information on significant development of peace research."

Jan is, of course, perfectly entitled to ridicule my "protected academic activity, conference hotels, and virtual reality" - and to advise me to put "at least one of my feet in the nasty fields of violence". It may smack a bit of the values of the Chinese "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" with its admonition to the students to "learn from the peasantry" and harvest the fields, but I am sure this is not what Jan intends.

In this question, it may be useful to distinguish, first, between research and all other activities, including "peace activism", practical conflict resolution, etc.; secondly, between field research and all other forms of research. It is obvious that some peace activism, most conflict resolution and all field research on violence has to be undertaken where violence actually happens.

However, as not all research is field research, it makes no sense to demand that all research on peace and violence should take place in Algeria, downtown Johannesburg or Rwanda or similar places. (As far as I recall, however, Jan's own institute, the TFF, remains located in Lund, which is about 100 kilometres. away from Copenhagen and at least as peaceful).

There is, of course, nothing to preclude a peace researcher from also being a peace activist, in fact this may be a very admirable activity. It is not research, however, even though it may be based on research. Nor is there, needless to say, any contradiction between a personal commitment to the values of peace, disarmament, non-violence, etc. and research on these matters - but neither is there any necessary connection.

Just as one may study war without being bellicose, it is possible to study peace without being a pacifist. One could even imagine a possible conflict between the above values and the scholarly values that Jan ridicules, namely those of of "unbiased, scrupulous, and meticulous studies in conformity with the highest scholarly and scientific standards." High-pitched though this may sound, are these not values to which all researchers have to be committed? Or should we accept biased, unscrupulous and slobby studies that do not meet high scholarly or scientific standards merely because we believe that they may further the cause of peace?

One could imagine cases where one might be tempted to accept that the end (peace) justifies the means (poor-quality research), but should we really succumb to such temptations? My point was not (and I think this was quite clear) that the commitment to values diminishes one's chances of a political impact, but that the lowering of standards risks doing so, at least in the long run.

As far as the value of pluralism is concerned, I am in complete agreement with Jan - but perplexed how my original statement could be read as an attempt any "cleansing", when the intention was the exact opposite, namely to warn against cleansing according to political criteria. Peace research should, of course, remain interdisciplinary and open for all sorts of political opinions, i.e for all sorts of questions as well as answers - even provocative and politically incorrect ones such as "Is disarmament always conducive to peace?" or "Is war sometimes justified (according to specified political, legal or ethical criteria)?"

This also goes for IPRA as an organization that should continue to have members with different values and political views, as long as they are engaged in peace research according to the definition in the statutes. This is precisely why IPRA should not become a peace movement and why the organization should not become engaged in political advocacy, even though its many of its members may do so.

A final word: Let us have more of this kind of debate, both in the Newsletter, on the IPRA-list and at the conference in Durban, where I look forward to continuing the debate with Jan and others."


Bjoern Moeller

Secretary General












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512   E-mail:

Contact the Webmaster at:
Created by Maria Näslund      © 1997, 1998, 1999 TFF