Peace Research and Peace Activism


Jake Lynch – TRANSCEND Media Service

“When peace research was launched as an academic field… the idea from the beginning was that this should be an applied social science with a value commitment: peace by peaceful means”. So writes Johan Galtung, in Searching for Peace, of the founding of the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), in 1959.

A few years later, the International Peace Research Association, or IPRA, was founded as a distinctive artefact of what Katsuya Kodama, calls a new part of human history: “after Hiroshima”, when the world awakened to the possibility of its own self-inflicted and total destruction, as opposed to the previous period, which could, from that point, therefore be regarded as “before Hiroshima”. Pursuing peace, as a way of forestalling a nuclear Armageddon, had moved measurably further up the global scholarly agenda.

PRIO is one of the tributaries Kodama identifies, in the History of IPRA he published to mark our 40th anniversary, in 2004, as having flowed into the founding of our Association. Another was the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which set up an International Consultative Committee on Peace Research, chaired by Elise Boulding. One of the most important initiatives of WILPF in recent years has been its Reaching Critical Will project.

According to its website, RCW “strives for the abolition of nuclear weapons [because] RCW recognises that nuclear weapons play an integral role in the militarism, ecological destruction, and social injustice plaguing our world today. Therefore, RCW works not just for nuclear abolition but also for total and universal disarmament, the reduction of global military spending, and demilitarisation of politics and society”.

So Peace Research, since its earliest iterations, has always been value explicit: striving for something. That is built into the fabric and history of IPRA and its traditions: traditions honoured and continued at our conference in Sydney this year, with the commemoration of Elise Boulding, who – along with another founding figure, John Burton – passed away shortly before the event; the keynote address by Johan Galtung and a plenary contribution from Dimity Hawkins, who was an instrumental figure in launching the RCW project during her time at WILPF.

The emphasis in the RCW declaration on social justice also stems from past IPRA initiatives. Kodama, who was elected in Sydney to serve with me as co-Secretary General, pinpoints the origin of Johan Galtung’s concept of “positive peace”, construing the imperatives of social and environmental justice as indispensable to a holistic sense of peace, in a contribution by an Indian scholar, S. Dasgupta from the Gandhian Institute of Studies at Varanasi, to the Association’s second general meeting in 1967. Hunger and poverty should, Dasgupta argued, be regarded as a condition of “peacelessness”.

IPRA is in favour, then, of both disarmament and demilitarisation, and social justice, or perhaps – as Galtung put it in his keynote – “equity”, as elements of peace. These preoccupations are all reflected in the rich array of specialist Commissions and Working Groups that comprise our Association in its present form. Neither do we, as IPRA people, generally confine ourselves to being notionally “in favour” of things, merely hoping that our visions will come to pass. To engage in peace research is to take on a responsibility to strive; to take action to help bring about these desiderata.

At the launch, Galtung says, of the Journal of Peace Research, “contributors were asked to add some policy implications”. That might make it sound as though access to policy-makers is something we can take for granted, but if so, that is to reckon without a phenomenon that has been named, by colleagues elsewhere in social sciences, as a “crisis of representation” or a  “crisis of political legitimacy”. It’s been evident particularly since the end of the Cold War confirmed the ascendancy of neo-liberalism, a period when supposedly left-of-centre political parties have entered government, in many places, and enacted warlike, environmentally destructive and/or socially inequitable policies.

For examples, one need look no further than Australia’s own Labor Party, which has pledged what is, in effect, an indefinite commitment to the war in Afghanistan, and significantly increased military spending, in spite of opposition from a measured majority of public opinion in each case, according to polling evidence.

Kodama characterises the beginning of this period as one of “maturation” for IPRA. Into the space vacated by party politics came the rise of “new peace movements” and NGOs, he says, which “came to play definite roles as powers putting into practice many of the accomplishments of peace studies”. This activity is borne of the search for ways to cross what another of our leading peace researchers, John Paul Lederach, has called the “interdependence gap” between levels of society.

As my immediate predecessor Kevin Clements observed in his Secretary General’s notes in our IPRA conference programme, “the rapid expansion of a large number of non-hierarchical social, economic and political networks over the past 25 years… are aimed at building networked solidarity across national boundaries”; and, by implication, around the unresponsive institutional frameworks that set barriers to the influence of our insights on policy formation within nation states.

In this, I believe, lies our greatest challenge. The impetus for progress towards enacting the values of peace research comes from social movements making unignorable to policy-makers the imperatives of peace, social justice and human rights. Members of such movements engage in them not because they want to be neutral and reach balanced conclusions, but because they are in favour of something and against something else. They, and their representations of the issues at the heart of their activism, are bound to be partial, in both senses of that word.

In order to enjoy any realistic prospect of bringing our research insights to bear on the actions and motivations of parties to conflict, we need to engage with social movements: a proposition that depends on their being prepared to engage with us. In many cases, a willingness to do so will, understandably enough, be prefaced by a wish to know ‘where we stand’. Do we, as peace researchers, have ‘a stand’ – or perhaps stands – in that sense?

Examples cropped up at the conference itself. Our Centre has contributed to efforts here in Australia, and across the international community, to hold Israel to account for its serial breaches of international law, by promoting the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. We heard from activists calling on us to join the boycott of Israeli Higher Education – academic research, our own field of endeavour. Advocates of the boycott call characterise it as a Gandhian form of global non-violent resistance. And they often quote Martin Luther King: “to be silent in the face of oppression is not to be neutral but to side with the oppressor”.

To consider such a challenge within the framework of IPRA may take some peace researchers to an uncomfortable place. Kodama himself, in his history of the Association, recalls an occasion when the IPRA conference in Sussex, England, in 1986, coincided with the bombing of Libya by the Reagan Administration. Calls were made to take the conference to join the demonstration in London, protesting this development, but in the end the meeting held a special plenary session instead, to discuss its implications.

“The majority of IPRA members strongly believed”, Kodama records, “that members should not take positions on political issues in the name of IPRA… IPRA is trying to contribute knowledge that is useful toward the end of building a more peaceful world. As we engage in this research, we should have visions of more peaceful futures, which we hope our knowledge will help policy makers to achieve. But it would be a great mistake for IPRA members to spend their time performing as a legislature, attempting to reach a common position on policy issues”.

Peace research, as a branch of scholarship, is not the same as peace activism. The two endeavours are adjacent, not co-terminous.  When we held a demonstration at this year’s IPRA conference, calling for more peace journalism at the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, it was as an early-morning ‘fringe’ event. But agendas for peace research need, in my view, to be formulated around the questions: how can social movement activism circumvent the crisis of representation over peace and social justice, and what does it need, to help it do so, from the value-explicit peace academy?


Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, and Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Oct 2010.

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