Defining Peace: Re-evaluating the Assumptions Behind the Term

When we planned the third episode of the first series of History in Politics’ podcast Dead Current about peacebuilding and memory politics, we decided to begin by asking a broad question about peace in the world today versus peace in the world historically. And whilst we knew this question was challenging in that it is very difficult to quantify an abstract concept such as peace, we overlooked the definitional complexities associated with the term.

The Cambridge Dictionary online defines peace as “freedom from war and violence, especially when people live and work together happily without disagreements”, but during our recording Dr. Stefanie Kappler reminded us that peace is a deeply contested term and ‘peace’ can mean different things to different people and within different contexts. For example, if peace is seen as an absence of an official war declaration, this may misrepresent relations. Dr Kappler explained to us that peace can be a loaded term, manipulated and used to pacify; she pointed to examples in history which have not been represented as war yet were very violent.

Jake Lynch, a peace journalist, covering protests opposing US-Australia military exercises in Australia.

Dr Kappler referenced a difference between positive and negative peace, which adds a further layer to defining and analysing the concept. Johan Galtung, who is widely regarded within Peace and Conflict Studies, distinguished between negative peace as an absence of large-scale violence, and positive peace which goes beyond that to include provisions against structural violence which hinders, among other things, democratic processes and social mobility.[1] Often when we refer to ‘peace’ we are only using the definition of negative peace, limiting our understandings.

Peace and its representation are inherently political and interesting concepts. When peace is discussed there are a number of assumptions and biases which interact with the use of the term. Perhaps then, there is scope to go back through history and re-evaluate periods which have been classed as peaceful. To truly understand and apply the concept of peace to an event or time frame the political context surrounding the use of the term, and who is using it, must be considered. Who stands to gain from a certain circumstance being labelled peaceful, and is there anybody whose experience is being misrepresented by affixing this label? These are questions which should be asked in considerations of conflict and peace.

Would this re-evaluation affect how we view contemporary occurrences and scenarios around the world today? And would it affect how we represent and interact with our own histories? Which aspects of modern politics could this pose a challenge to today?

So many political statements and beliefs rest on a certain narrative of history, and by challenging standard historical narratives we begin to challenge the foundations on which they are built.

To hear more of our discussion with Dr Kappler and Dr Olga Demetriou and other topics we covered, the full episode can be accessed here.


[1] Desmond Tutu Foundation USA

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