Notes on the Future of Peace Research

These notes are about peace research in a time of war. Indeed, the media is dominated by images of confrontation, polarization, armed aggression, and human suffering – all the sorry ingredients of modern warfare. War sidelines peace, war images sideline peace images.

Yet, we want to write about peace, suggesting that peace research needs to focus again on peace rather than dealing with peace in passing, implicitly, or by implication only.

And we want to reflect upon complexity.

And, finally, we want to say a couple of words about hope, impact, and a feeling of senselessness that can easily emerge in a time such as ours – even among experienced peace researchers (who have seen it all before), let alone among students.

We need to talk about peace. Once the dynamics of the war machine got started in the military, in politics, and in the media, peace and its advocates find it difficult to get heard. The current militarization of international affairs affects not only foreign and security policy; it affects our whole society and our way of doing and thinking about basically anything.

Thus, we need to talk about peace and its many dimensions; we need to talk about peaceful change¹ and how to achieve it; we need to talk about peace by peaceful means.² This is the Nordic tradition in peace research. It is a strong tradition that we can build on rather than abandon in times of crisis.

There is literature in abundance indicating that things are not as bad as they seem. When consulting the media nowadays, we easily forget that war is the exception, not the rule.

Douglas Fry’s study Beyond War documents human progress over time towards peaceful conflict resolution.³

Rutger Bregman, in Humankind, presents lots of evidence undermining the belief that human beings are inherently violent.⁴  

Randall Collins micro-sociological study, Violence, shows how difficult it actually is to make human beings exert violence on fellow human beings.⁵

Going back in time, Lewis Coser’s work on the constructive role of social conflict still deserves attention⁶ just as does the human security literature from the 1990s (and its current feminist reincarnation) emphasizing human beings as referent objects of peace and security rather than states, power, or territory.

In the current situation, peaceful alternatives are neither particularly obvious nor particularly popular among those arguing for militarized security. We do understand why they do so; and we acknowledge that peace research right now finds it difficult to present a convincing answer to the recurrence of power politics.

But there have always been ups and downs, trends in one direction and countertrends in the opposite direction – Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Syria, Yemen etc. – reflecting political developments, historical experiences, ideological preferences, discursive constructions and, generally speaking, different ways of seeing things. Peace processes can be interrupted; peace is complex, and peace takes time. But time alone doesn’t make peace.

Indeed, the thirty years since the end of the Cold War are, historically speaking, a blink of an eye. During this time, there were attempts to establish peace on the basis of international cooperation, economic, political and even military integration including former enemies, the rule of law, interaction, communication and exchange of people and ideas.

These attempts always had to compete with a history of power politics which has now returned to the front stage and the front pages. Whether it stays there or not depends, to some extent, on us – as peace researchers and as citizens having to cope with the complexity of modern life including the complexities of peace and war.

Studying peace and conflict equals studying complexity. In a complex system, the system’s individual elements are all interconnected. Changes to one will directly or indirectly affect other elements. They will always have more than one effect, and not always will they have the desired effect, no matter how well the changes had been prepared.

In complex situations, the known becomes the unknown, the expected becomes the unexpected, the predictable becomes the unpredictable; and the unknown, the unexpected, and the unpredictable all become part of everyday experience. Side effects will always occur but can neither be predicted nor adequately prepared for.

Indeed, where there is complexity, there also is ambiguity; where there is ambiguity, there is never only one set of problems. Nor is there only one path towards resolution.

In ambiguous situations, a variety of permissible interpretations coexist and what is permissible is contingent across actors and over time. Different interpretations always compete with one another for legitimacy, resource allocations, and translation into politics.

That’s normal. In complex systems, it cannot be otherwise.

And because this is so, we need to be humble and patient: we will never achieve everything we set out to achieve and what we do achieve will take more time than we hoped it would.

However, we also need to be self-confident: peace research has, over the last decades, produced a wealth of knowledge that we can use to understand complexity and, by so doing, to contribute to the improvement of social relations – step by step.

Things are complex indeed, neither entirely understood nor entirely understandable. In our research on the visual construction of peace, for example, digitization has changed almost everything we used to take for granted. Research is a continuous learning process.

Peace and conflict cannot be adequately understood without understanding its components; understanding the components, however, is insufficient for understanding the overall operation of peace and conflict as the components interact with one another in diverse and often unpredictable ways.

This is why peace and conflict research can be frustrating – especially to those of us who look for and expect immediate social impact. A feeling of senselessness can easily emerge.

But this is also why peace and conflict research can be immensely rewarding.

We want to quote the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado: “no word spoken against violence and tyranny is entirely vain and useless: Somebody who hears it might just overcome fear and start to rebel.”⁷

Peace is a social concept. We do social concepts by analyzing them, applying them, changing them, developing them, thinking and talking about them – or ignoring them.

We believe that nothing we do in peace and conflict research – then, now, and in future – is entirely in vain and useless, even if the effects of our work are sometimes hard to pin down. At any moment, somebody might listen to us, talk to us, read our texts, and start working with us to create a more peaceful world. That’s what the future of peace research is ultimately about.

¹ Heikki Patomäki (ed.) Peaceful Changes in World Politics (Tampere: Tampere Peace Research Institute, 1995)

² Johan Galtung, Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization (London: Sage, 1996).

³ Douglas Fry, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

⁴ Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History (London: Bloomsbury, 2021)

⁵ Randall Collins, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008)

⁶ Lewis Coser, The Functions of Social Conflict (New York: The Free Press, 1956)

⁷ Jorge Amado, The War of the Saints (New York: Dial Press, 2005), p. 37