Archive | November, 2014

Why Study Peace Versus Violence?

11 Nov

*This is a lightly edited version of a short paper I prepared for an external project.


The choice of whether to study peace or to study violence is a more difficult dilemma than it would first appear. First, what is the relationship between the two? Are they merely inverses? If that’s true, why study one or the other? If they’re not, what are the differences? These questions will not fully be answered in this post, but I should be able to shed some light on ways to better conceptualize these problems.

Strangely, there seems to be very little written explicitly about the advantages of studying peace or violence (to the point where a literature review becomes unhelpful). It becomes even stranger when one realizes an entire academic discipline, peace and conflict studies, was founded in response to a perceived over-focus on the causes and manifestations of violence. However, from a bit of research I’ve done and my experience within the peace and conflict literature more generally, it seems peace and conflict scholars are more interested in how studying peace can lead to a more peaceful (defined broadly) world, rather than the advantages and disadvantages of studying one over the other.

The relationship between peace and violence

Determining the relationship between peace and violence depends on how one defines each. While “violence” is fairly well understood, peace is much more abstract. Some would define peace as the mere absence of physical violence, but some scholars, particularly in peace studies, go much farther, hypothesizing that peace entails everything from human’s symbiosis with the planet to harmonious family relations. While I would argue this expansive definition takes the concept of peace too far, rendering it practically meaningless, there is significant precedence in the peace literature to define peace as more than the opposite of violence. Peace, in the most basic conception, exists in negative form – that is, the absence of physical violence – and positive form – that is, the absence of barriers to social, political, and economic equality. When peace is defined as being comprised of positive and negative components, the distinction between “peace” and violence’s inverse becomes more clear, and peace becomes a concept worthy of study in of itself.

Georg Simmel was a German sociologist and philosopher writing at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. His work is foundational for the field of peace and conflict studies. In his essay “Conflict”, Simmel lays out his vision for the interconnectedness and form of peace and violence. Simmel argues that conflict is ever-present, but that it can take violent or peaceful forms. He writes that conflict, in whatever manifestation, is an attempt at socialization and unity, in that it seeks to redress grievances and eliminate sources of tension. Therefore, conflict can be physically destructive, but it is also generative in that it produces new social arrangements (a point now frequently made by anthropologists).

Simmel’s argument provides a basis for understanding the principles of conflict transformation: if conflict always exists, the challenge is to have it exist in a peaceful manner. A conflict transformation lens opens up avenues for studying the causes of peace, it more specifically, how violent conflict can be made peaceful without eliminating grievances.


Studying peace can be challenging because as a former peace studies professor of mine told me, it is like, “looking for answers on a blank piece of paper.” He went on to argue that because peace is the norm, it is best to study derivations in order to understand the norm itself. I was somewhat surprised to hear this from a peace studies professor, but I think it points to just how little understanding there is of why or how to study peace.

Part of the difficulty in studying peace involves disentangling peace from violence. Brewer argues that there cannot be one without the other: peace and violence imply each other. Even if peace is the norm, and is therefore difficult to study, it is conceived as normal in comparison to infrequent outbreaks of violence. Simply, it is hard to define peace without mentioning violence (whereas the reverse is not quite as difficult, because peace is so pervasive that it is assumed as the normal state). Even in a peacebuilding lens, studying the causes of positive peace is undertaken with the intention of preventing violence in the long-term.

Therefore, there is some confusion on what the explicit study of peace adds. The difficulty justifying its detachment from “violence” is hard enough, but even if that is achieved, it’s murky what studying peace provides that studying violence does not.


Ashutosh Varshney, an Indian political scientist, began a research project in the early 2000’s on why certain cities in India experienced Hindu vs. Muslim riots. He realized that to better understand why it happened in certain cities, he needed a basis of comparison, so he chose to also study cities where violence had not broken out.

Varshney’s research gets at a couple of key points on studying peace versus violence. First, it creates a context for violence as “abnormal” by setting a baseline for comparison. This is important for peacebuilders, because when seeking to prevent violence in a society, it is important to have a conception of what a low-violence society would look like for the target community. Since most peacebuilding organizations are Western and/or employ Western staff, and the paradigm of liberal peacebuilding, centered around concepts honed in Western countries like rule of law and an independent judiciary, is pervasive, peacebuilders are likely to operate with an implicit, but uncritical vision of peaceful societies present in the West. This vision may or may not have much in common with a realistic vision of how to create peace in the target community. When trying to prevent violence, failing to study what causes peace will lead to distorted perceptions of the routes to peace.


The existing research on understanding the causes of peace or the causes of violence is incomplete and scattered. No authors I found took on the theoretical issue directly, even if there is much work related to the question. For example, much of the peacebuilding literature operates on the assumption of preventing violence through causing peace, and therefore works on improving governance, for example, are largely looking at the causes of peace. While there is certainly a gap in the literature to be filled, I am skeptical of the value of studying the causes of peace in isolation. Because it is, as I have argued, so difficult to conceptually disentangle peace from violence to create two independent, non-overlapping bodies of study, I would argue that the existing research agenda can best be improved by seeking to studying the causes of peace and the causes of violence, much as Varshney has done. Such an undertaking would redress the overall lack of studies of peace and help ease, if not eliminate the dilemmas of a short-term versus long-term lens and focusing on physical versus structural violence.