Peace Studies is…?

by Roberta H. Maschietto

As pointed out in previous posts, the substance of Peace Studies constitutes one of the challenges of its consolidation as a discipline. This challenge is related to both the meaning of “peace” as well as to the understanding of what “study” entails.

I would like to briefly explore three issues in this post.

First, what’s the fuzz about the ontological discussion? Do we need a clear definition of ‘peace’? My background in International Relations just makes me think that defining the object of a discipline is probably a never-ending process and this is not necessarily a weakness. It is actually amazing that the label International Relations is still used when some of the objects of study are far from inter-‘national’. Still, I don’t think anybody would diminish the relevance of this field of study and its actual influence in the shaping of our lives in direct or indirect ways. So, if ‘ok’ for IR, why ‘bad’ for Peace Studies?

Of course, the ‘need’ to define the boundaries is a constant in sciences in general. Looking back, I can easily remember the pages where Hans Morgenthau, in 1948, tried so hard to define the boundaries of what he would call “International Politics” and why this was different from Law, Economics, etc. Still, some of the issues that are classically put under the umbrella of IR were also stressed by James O’Connel while summarizing some of the mains topics covered in Peace Studies in 1984 (notably, arms control and the nuclear issue). Of course, it can be argued that the approach is different. But the object of reference is not.

On this, it should be questioned what is the relevance and what the purpose of discipline boundaries. The way social sciences are organized today is not a smooth and uncontested issue and a look into history would at least raise doubts about what may seem a clear rationale today (see, for instance, Wallerstein 2005, or Foucault, 2004). Further, even if a clear distinction existed between social science disciplines’ domains, reality takes place within multiple dimensions and what drive human behaviour is not circumscribed by the ontological conventions of academic disciplines. Peace (and conflict) permeates different domains of social reality. In my view, one of the strengths of Peace Studies is precisely the fact that, contrary to IR, it openly embraced multidisciplinarity since the beginning. By doing so, it simply embraced the complexities of real life, instead of trying to frame reality within artificial boundaries. In other words, if a lack of consensus of the meaning of ‘peace’ makes our (academics’) lives more difficult, it is a very efficient reminder that “that’s how social reality is” and an ‘elegant theory’ quite often is just not as efficient as elegant!

This leads me to the second point: what about “studies” in the Peace Studies? The issue of multidisciplinarity brings us to the deepest epistemological discussion on what are the ‘correct’ ways to produce knowledge as well as the more normative question of what’s the purpose of knowledge in the first place.

Allow me again a parallel with IR. When Morgenthau was writing Politics Among Nations, in the 1940s, not only was he concerned with the definition of boundaries of what would later be IR, but also with the recurrence of patterns in history and what is so much praised in mainstream social sciences: objectivity.

As my PhD colleague Heather so clearly pointed out in her post, quite often PS academics are criticized because of the clear expression of their normative values. It would be naive to expect that an epistemological consensus would ever rise in Social Sciences (it never did in Philosophy, which is much older…), but it should be at least recognized that there is no clear objective criteria to state that a non-normative[1] theoretical approach to social reality is more efficient that a normative one.

Whichever our epistemological preference, if our commitment is to a better understanding of social phenomena, we should at least be open to seriously consider the qualities of alternative ways of researching in social sciences. A different posture would risk the consolidation of dogmas or disguised forms of theology within science.

Here I come to the third and last point. I have no doubts that a ‘consensus’ on what ‘peace’ or Peace Studies means would make the academic work in the area much easier and consistent. But because such a task is at least extremely difficult, it does matter to at least acknowledge and, if possible, understand, the varieties of meanings underneath the labels.

Ultimately, people (organizations, states, etc.) will act in accordance to what they perceive as being the meaning of these labels. And ‘peace’ (and even ‘studies’ – or ‘science’, for the matter) varies not only in the historical context, but also geographically, as Galtung (1981) pointed out years ago.

For me, Peace Studies is a project which entails multiple ways to analyse human relationships and the factors that influence these relationships to move towards oppression (violence) or liberation. It does so because it is driven by the concern with human beings’ liberation from any kind of oppression (including oppression from their inner selves).

What is Peace Studies for you?
What is the first thing that comes to your mind?


Booth, Ken (2007). Theory of world security. Cambridge Studies in International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Morgenthau, Hans J.[1948] (1993) Politics among nations: the struggle for power and peace. New York; London : McGraw-Hill.

Galtung, Johan (1981). Social Cosmology and the Concept of Peace. Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 18, No. 2, Special Issue on Theories of Peace (1981), pp. 183-199.

Foucault, Michel (2004). Society must be defended. Edited by Mauro Bertani and Alessandra Fontana. Translated by David Macey. Penguin.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (2005). World systems analysis. An introduction. Duke University Press.

O’Connel, James (1985). Towards an understanding of concepts in the study of peace. In: O’Connel, J. & Curle, A. (1985). Peace with work to do. New Hampshire: Berg Publishers.

[1] I actually prefer the word ‘radical’ over ‘normative’. As argued by Ken Booth, “Normative is unsatisfactory for two reasons: first, all international theory has normative implications, either in a weak or strong from; and second, to call some theorising normative just because it is explicit about its values plays into the hands of those who want to claim that somewhere there is a class of international relations theory that is neutral” (Booth, 2007: 59).


About psforum

Student Led Forum at the University of Bradford to explore issues around the meaning and impact of Peace Studies as an academic discipline, on research and policy, local and international communities and activism.
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