What Is Peace Studies? Discuss! (post 4)

by joanfallon on March 1, 2013

In advance of a day-long faculty retreat in late summer 2012, Kroc Institute Director Scott Appleby asked four members of the faculty to present and comment on definitions of the interdisciplinary field of peace studies. This is the fourth in a series of posts reflecting the conversation, led by professors Atalia Omer, Ernesto Verdeja, Jason Springs, and Larissa Fast.

The self-critical nature of peace studies  Jason Springs, assistant professor of religion, ethics and peace studies

My task is to reflect on the claim that “peace studies interrogates its own presuppositions.”

Peace studies as a field of inquiry:  I’ll paraphrase the philosopher Alasdaire MacIntyre’s conception of a “tradition” as a historically extended, socially embodied argument — an argument, largely, about the nature and basis of the very goods around which the tradition organizes and orients itself (After Virtue). In the case of peace studies, the operative sense of tradition would be of a “tradition of discourse.” To use this framing for reflection upon peace studies as a “self-interrogating” interdisciplinary complex brings to light both strengths and risks.

First, a risk:  the emphasis upon “argument” could easily lend itself to a factionalized and fragmented exchange between competing camps, in which the participants argue incessantly and unproductively, and, perhaps “past each other,” from the opposing and incommensurable theoretical and methodological presuppositions associated with (or rooted in) their home disciplines. And yet, if we qualify MacIntyre’s reference to “argument” as an “unfolding, critical conversation,” then his definition actually illuminates many examples of the way that peace studies and peace research has, in fact, unfolded over the past several decades through processes of contesting and interrogating its organizing concepts, insights, and objectives.

Some examples:

1) The exchange between Johann Galtung and Kenneth Boulding that unfolded across the pages of the Journal of Peace Research over several decades about the conception of “violence” that peace studies would need to take up in order to actually address the causes, conditions, results of violent conflict, and to promote and build sustainable peace (often characterized as the debate over “negative” vs “positive” conceptions of peace.) Galtung argued that is was dangerously narrow to view peace as “the opposite of war,” and thus to “limit peace studies to war-avoidance studies, and more particularly avoidance of big wars or super-wars (defined as wars between big powers or superpowers), and even more particularly to the limitation, abolition, or control of super-weapons. Important interconnections among types of violence are left out…”

2) Emerging from these debates over positive and negative peace was recognition of the need for a multi-focal analytical lenses for identifying and assessing different forms of violence, and in particular the ways that “one type of violence may be reduced or controlled at the expense of increase or maintenance of the another.” To this end, Galtung devised and developed the concept of “structural violence” (in contrast to “direct violence”), and further on, confronted the need to develop a concept of “cultural violence.”

These concepts emerged from the critical conversation of peace studies and provide another example of the fruitfulness of conceiving of peace studies as an interdisciplinary complex persistently unfolding as a critical conversation constituted, in part, by the interrogation of the central concepts and values that orient and inform the conversation itself.

3) The reconceptualization of “conflict” in the conflict transformation literature, from that which is the opposite of peace — and thus which needs to be resolved — to re-framing conflict as a natural and inevitable part of inter-relationality that can be engaged in more or less healthy ways and which might be engaged transformatively — as an engine for positive change — rather than as something to be rooted out.

4) The still unfolding critical conversations about the kinds of justice that peace studies ought to be concerned with: retributive/restorative; reconciliation/forgiveness; distributive justice vis-a-vis impact of political economy and globalization upon the conditions and causes of violence in all its forms, and the promotion of justice, as indispensible elements for “justpeace.”

5) The dichotomy of “international/domestic” as it frames and guides our projects and curriculum, and especially in so far as there might be a tacit hierarchy between these terms.

Peace studies as based upon disciplinary humility

If we conceptualize the peace studies tradition of discourse as an unfolding argument about such central concepts as these, then the fruitfulness and utility of our reflective conversations will depend upon disciplinary humility. To speak of disciplinary humility is to speak of openness to the possibility, indeed the inevitability, that other cross-disciplinary vantage-points can, and will, illuminate blind-spots, enrich, and perhaps supplant the work, tools, and insights available in my own training and home discipline. It is to speak of flexibility and abiding sense of fallibilism.

In recent years at Kroc, we have sustained a series of conversations together in this vein for some time now. In such venues as: workshops in which we have shared and collaboratively developed syllabi; panel discussions and break-out sessions at the annual Summer Institute for Faculty in Peace Studies Program Development; various faculty and project meetings, usually oriented by the integrative intentions of strategic peacebuilding. To my mind, this points to the indispensibility of further such conversations to the life and health — and overall effectiveness — of the peace institute, and as much, if not more so, to peace studies itself.

In this vein of the notion of humility as a central virtue for purposes of multi- and inter-disciplinary conversation, I’ll read a passage from William James’ essay of 1907, entitled “What Pragmatism Means” (his second lecture from Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1906-7). James is here describing a sensibility he ascribes to pragmatism as an approach to inquiry and criticism, but I think his insights apply equally to the multi- and inter-disciplinary character of peace studies as well. I’ll make some small adjustments to the passage and ask you to think of “peace studies” where I read the term “pragmatism.”

I’d say that this passage exemplifies virtues and interdisciplinary sensibilities that we at Kroc, at our best, seek to acquire and sustain. Need I say that, in my judgment, we ought to go striving for it in our work and in what we model for our students?


“If you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look at any [theory or method] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each . . . its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work. Being nothing essentially new, it agrees with nominalism for instance, in always appealing to particulars; with utilitarianism in emphasizing practical aspects; with positivism in its disdain for verbal solution, useless questions and metaphysical abstractions . . . . [Pragmatism] has no dogmas, and no doctrines, save its approach. . . . [It] lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating the body’s properties. In a fourth system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.” (510)

Surely this is not the only way of thinking about the practice-oriented, inter- and multi-disciplinarity of peace studies, but I’ll admit that this passage comes to my own mind quite often as I walk down the hallways of the Kroc Institute.







{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Joshua Gunty March 23, 2013 at 2:46 am

Thank you, Jason, for your deep reflection on the dialogical emergence of peace studies and its foundational concepts. You usher ideas I’ve been preaching for years into a new light of historical narrative–very compelling!

James’ call to step from theory into praxis sparks me to comment on the inverse–from praxis back to theory:

The genius of conceptualizing structural and cultural violence–that imposed harm becomes embedded in the very fabric of society–is also what makes peace studies such a dauntingly prodigious field; any project or movement that counteracts cultures and structures of violence can be construed as peacebuilding. However, from my post-undergraduate work in Chicago over the past two years, I’ve noticed how the field of peace studies remains mostly silent within the vast network of community organizations who are engaged in work that builds peace. The discourse in these communities invokes concepts of service, poverty, justice, education, development, civic engagement–and so on–but peace and violence are terms relegated almost exclusively to the sphere of direct violence, whether by guns or domestic abuse. How might the pragmatic strategies of service organizations transform through the incorporation of peace theories?

Beyond theory, the theoritician’s task is not merely to become a practicioner; it also involves engaging practicioners who might otherwise be unaware of the theory. During my short time in Chicago, I have begun to insert peacebuilding vocabulary into community service discourse, especially in legal aid and the arts. Though my work with organizations such as LAF (Legal Assistance Foundation), the Illinois Hunger Coalition, Burners Without Borders, and LYRIC has been inspiring, the impetus spans beyond my reach.

Recently, I attended two national hunger conferences in DC hosted by The Alliance to End Hunger, Feeding America, and FRAC (Food & Research Action Center). One of the plenary discussions–”What Do We Really Mean by ‘Ending Hunger in America’?”–advocated for more holistic approaches to hunger that frame our purpose and success measures beyond the limited scope of food security. Panelists stressed the wider context of poverty, invoking job development, education, and access to our political and legal systems as tools for ending hunger. Yet the terms “peace” and “violence” were strikingly absent from the conversation. So I gave the panel an example of how adversarial relationships within the public benefits system affect access to SNAP (Food Stamps), then asked: “Do the concepts of peace and violence carry weight in policy discussions on hunger?” As FRAC President and former LAF attorney Jim Weill put it, “The short answer is no.”

Remember the famous moral dilemma about stealing to feed your family? Two months ago an article in the Guardian reported a rise in people shoplifting for groceries in the UK. Much of this data came from law enforcement officials, which implies these people must now deal with criminal records–stigmas to further inhibit their climb out of poverty. The forces of structural and cultural violence whirl around the hungry, yet leaders of the anti-hunger movement do not understand their mission in these terms.

So, I encourage peace researchers to look out more for opportunities to engage nonprofit practicioners with theories of conflict transformation and strategic peacebuilding. Alongside our efforts to address protracted violent conflicts–as the Life & Peace Institute has done so well in Africa–we can employ Participatory Action Research to better incorporate service organizations with peace studies discourse. In turn, our theories could learn a lot from how they think and do.

~Joshua Gunty, BA 2010

** ** **

LAF: http://www.lafchicago.org
IL Hunger Coalition: http://www.ilhunger.org
Burners Without Borders: http://www.burnerswithoutborders.org
LYRIC : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_3z052RHvU
Alliance to End Hunger: http://www.alliancetoendhunger.org
Feeding America: http://www.feedingamerica.org
FRAC: http://www.frac.org
Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/25/stealing-to-eat-cases-rise

joanfallon March 25, 2013 at 11:22 am

Great points, Josh. Jason notes that you’ve made a very important contribution to the discussion. Thank you.

Joshua Gunty March 26, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Thanks to both of you! It’s an honor to participate.

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