Johan Galtung Obituary


Hugh Miall | The Guardian - TRANSCEND Media Service

Johan Vincent Galtung, peace studies pioneer, born 24 October 1930; died 17 February 2024

Johan Galtung, who helped to settle a border dispute between Ecuador and Peru. Photograph: TRANSCEND Media Service

Norwegian sociologist who founded the discipline of peace studies and proposed creative solutions for many of the world’s conflicts.

21 Mar 2024 – The Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, who has died aged 93, was a leading contributor to peace and conflict research. His ideas about positive peace and structural violence have had a global resonance. Now taught in more than 500 universities, the field he helped to establish has become a worldwide endeavour to develop systematic knowledge about the causes of violence, the conditions of peace and the means of effective peacebuilding.

When he was called up to the Norwegian army in 1951, Galtung had a crisis of conscience. Should he follow his father’s example and go into the army, or should he refuse to serve? He decided to refuse.

But it was not enough just to say no. Feeling a “palpable disgust” for war, Galtung wanted to find an alternative. He asked a librarian for books on the study of peace. She said no such books existed. This was the moment his mission in life became clear. He would set about developing peace studies himself.

Galtung used his six months in prison as a conscientious objector to read the writings of Gandhi. With his mentor, the philosopher Arne Naess, he extracted a set of 81 norms for nonviolent conflict behaviour. The book and articles they wrote served as a foundation for Galtung’s later thinking.

He studied at the University of Oslo, gaining a postgraduate degree in mathematics in 1956, the year of his marriage to Ingrid Eide, a sociologist and later minister in Norway’s Labour party government. Active in student politics, he learned to speak eight languages and read widely in history, psychology, economics and international relations.

In 1957 he was awarded a doctoral degree in sociology and took up an assistant professorship in sociology at Columbia University, New York.

There he absorbed behavioural social science and statistical methods. Rather than accept tenure, he returned to Oslo and set up a department for conflict and peace research in the Norwegian Institute for Social Research, together with Eide.

In 1966 this department became the Peace Research Institute Oslo (Prio), with Galtung as its first director. It was also the home of the Journal of Peace Research, which Galtung founded in 1964. Both still perform leading roles in the field.

In a series of powerful articles for the journal, Galtung laid out a conceptual basis for peace studies. It should cover both direct violence (the application of physical force to hurt or kill) and structural violence (the deprivation of life chances as a result of social structures). To these he paired negative peace (the absence of direct violence) and positive peace (the absence of structural violence). The task of peace studies should be to pursue both negative and positive peace. To some, this risked peace studies becoming a “black hole”, with no limits on its scope.

But Galtung insisted on the need for a comprehensive approach. Development was a condition of peace. In 1977 he left his chair in peace studies at the University of Oslo to take up a project on the goals, processes and indicators of development at the United Nations University in Tokyo. A central challenge was to find ways to alleviate the consequences of conflict.

Galtung made significant contributions towards a theory of conflict and conflict transformation. He saw conflict as an opportunity for positive change, and advocated transcending difference by finding creative ways to reconcile differences.

He argued that if the Versailles treaty had been rescinded in 1924, and Germany helped through its economic difficulties, the second world war and the Holocaust could have been avoided. He went on to propose solutions for many of the world’s conflicts.

With Eide he had two sons, Harald and Andreas. They divorced in 1968. The following year he married Fumi (Fumiko) Nishimura, and they had a daughter, Irene, and son, Fredrik.

In 1993 he and Nishimura founded TRANSCEND International, a global network for peace, development and environment dedicated to bringing about a more equitable and less violent world through conflict transformation and mediation.

One success for TRANSCEND came in 1995, when Ecuador’s chief negotiator took up Galtung’s proposal for a binational nature park to settle the disputed border with Peru. It was incorporated in the treaty of Brasilia, which ended the conflict in 1998. Galtung also proposed the idea of peace journalism, based on balanced reporting of peace and conflict, rather than news values based on violence.

Born in Oslo, Johan was the son of Helga (nee Holmboe) and August Galtung, an ear nose and throat surgeon. He was nine when Hitler invaded Norway. In April 1940, the German heavy cruiser Blücher, leading the assault on Oslo, was sunk by Norwegian torpedoes. Galtung’s father was called upon to treat the wounded. Johan remembered asking him whether he was tempted to let his scalpel slip a little.

“Absolutely not!” his father replied. “The most essential duty of a physician is to save lives, anyone’s life, without distinction.” Galtung later took this as a norm for peace research. It should be a field for humanity, not any particular country. Diagnosis, prognosis and therapy should be the peace researchers’ concerns.

In 1944 Galtung’s father was rounded up with other prominent Norwegians and sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Every day his family feared they would hear of his execution. But he was released unharmed a month before the war ended. Galtung later spoke of his influence, notably of the need to be conscious of what you are doing, rather than just go along with what you are supposed to do.

As an inspirational, charismatic and eclectic speaker, Galtung connected with grassroots peacebuilders who thought outside the box. In 2011 he founded the Galtung Institute to ensure that his work in “peace theory and peace practice” continued. His contribution was recognised through his many honorary degrees, visiting professorships and, in 1987, the Right Livelihood award.

He is survived by Nishimura and his children.

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