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Why do we have peace studies?

Exploring the relationship between peace studies and the peace movement: some thoughts to be discussed at PN Summer Camp

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The Academics and Scholars blockade at Faslane Naval Base during Faslane 365 campaign 2006-2007. Photo: Faslane 365

Working towards a more peaceful and just world, be it through a process of gradual change or through nonviolent revolution, requires a strategic, long-term view. We struggle for peace against seemingly overwhelming levels of violence, corruption and inequality. Within this context, I see a web of interconnected actions and approaches that directly challenge the status quo, set up alternative systems and support the long process of social change.

Peace studies is about engaging with the idea that you can change society so it becomes the world you want to live in.

I believe that we must keep testing ideas and theories about what will work. One of the components of doing this is ‘peace studies’, an academic discipline which includes research, education and thinking.

Although I feel that in one way I have made a transition into peace studies, I don’t feel divorced from the peace movement, and I want to explore the relationship between the two.

Peace education, in its broadest sense, has been embedded in social change for a long time. Peace studies, the strand most commonly associated with academia at the university level, has developed as a very diverse discipline over the past 50-60 years, including: how we end war, reduce violence, build peace, remove the structures of inequality and create justice. All questions that are debated widely in movements and by activists.

Magnificent seven

Thinking about seven features (identified by Oliver Ramsbotham) which mark peace studies out as distinct can give us a starting point to discuss the relationship of the field to other parts of the peace movement.

  • Peace studies is concerned with addressing the root causes of violence so that peace means overcoming a variety of inequalities not just focusing on a single event.
  • Peace studies draws on ideas and people from a range of disciplines, including psychology, social science, mathematics and history, in order to address the complex challenge of reducing violence. To me, this mirrors the diversity of the peace movement.
  • Peace studies searches for peaceful and nonviolent ways of resolving and transforming conflict, not in order to maintain the existing system, but to challenge it to achieve peaceful change. Our activist work on building co-operative and nonviolent structures in the movement supports this.
  • Peace studies takes a multi-level approach in its analysis and understanding of peace and violence in order to include the complexity of individual, community, state and intergovernmental levels of political activity – and how they relate.
  • Peace studies is global in its outlook, not only focused on colonial and imperial powers, but on the international and global dynamics between countries, and on the relationship between local and global in different cultures. The peace movement is good at networking and listening, acknowledging the range of people and communities involved in creating peace.
  • Peace studies analyses what is happening now in order to improve our understanding of current conflicts, but also seeks to show how our decisions and actions can contribute to a peaceful world. In this, it is more unusual in academia, but close to the peace movement where a conversation about creating a more sustainable future is often held. Finally:
  • Peace studies has a close relationship between theory and practice.

Oliver says: ‘While a clear distinction is persistently made between peace studies and peace activism, peace researchers very frequently engage systematically with non-governmental organisations, government departments and intergovernmental agencies. They frequently see this as part of a process of empirical testing of theoretical insights, regarding it also as a two-way process.’

Practical theory

Very early on, as an activist, peace studies gave me a way of thinking about social change, when I was taught about the work of Bill Moyer, who helped us understand that social change takes a very, very long time.

This theoretical understanding helped me make decisions about what to do as an activist.

To me, our peace experience teaches us many things, but one of those has to be about the enduring power of peace and nonviolence. People, organisations and communities don’t just change things overnight with a project grant for two years; we need to ensure our peace organisations and peace education similarly have an enduring power... and that we use every opportunity to build peace systems... and our universities should be part of it, and indeed challenged to bring forth new ideas on solving global problems as part of their role.

Peace studies is about engaging with the idea that you can change society so it becomes the world you want to live in.

Peace studies is about peace (challenging the idea that we should only study conflict and war if we want peace!); not ivory tower policy-making, but real working on social change. It’s also about challenging and critical thinking; engaging young and old people to work together....

If there is one thing we know in peace studies, it is that no one has all the answers and that shared learning across all ages and disciplines is important.

On the other hand, being challenging to the powerholders and to violent structures in both theory and practice means that peace studies is not universally supported. Maybe this is why we have sociology and business studies at almost every university, but in the UK we only have explicit peace studies at Bradford, Coventry, LeedsMet, Manchester, Liverpool Hope and Lancaster Universities (a northern theme here!), although peace is taught in many other places through other disciplines and in different places.

Peace studies investigates the arms trade, legal matters and relationships between groups – and can analyse on a large scale. Peace movements tackle daily challenges and change lives in communities. The two are linked.

Peace studies is not just about peace agreements and peacekeeping and big international interventions, it’s about how people relate to one another, it’s about acknowledging that conflict can be creative, and we can learn how to resolve conflict without violence, it’s learning about nonviolent social change and studying examples from around the world....

Peace studies is about engaging with the idea that you can change society so it becomes the world you want to live in, and you do that by learning, understanding and analysing the way people, organisations, states and international institutions influence the world today.

So what is the relationship between peace studies and the peace movement? Do we think on the same page, share a vision, support one another?


Rachel Julian has been in the peace movement for nearly 30 years and has recently become a senior lecturer in Peace Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University. Rachel is presenting a workshop on this subject at PN Summer Camp (31 July – 4 August).