Anthropology of Peace And Nonviolence Research Paper

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1. Definitions

The phrase ‘peace studies’ refers generically to studies of the dynamics of ‘peace,’ and specifically to the natural history of ‘peaceable’ or ‘nonviolent’ peoples. The two main foci, which overlap significantly, are (a) the analysis of particular conflict-resolution techniques, and (b) the holistic study of peaceable peoples.

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1.1 Problems Of Definition

The terms ‘peace’ and ‘nonviolence’ are relative, not absolute, referring to adaptations which are often transitory rather than to essential natures which persist indefinitely. Although researchers use the words ‘nonviolence’ and ‘peace’ as rough synonyms, the former creates methodological problems. How to observe and analyse the absence of violence? It might be useful to reserve this term for ideals such as Gandhi’s ahimsa or related techniques such as the nonviolent protest of the 1970s ‘Peace Movement’ of Europe and America, from which peace studies arose and borrowed the term.

Likewise, in most Indo-European languages ‘peace’ is a null category. When you have no violence, you have peace. Linguistically, violence is the norm. Peaceable peoples are ‘nonviolent’ (Ashley Montagu) or ‘low-conflict’ (Marc Ross). It is difficult for students of peace to avoid drifting into the null construction of peace which pervades the cultures within which they live their lives.

By contrast, Semai, a peaceable Malaysian people, use the term slamad to refer to a condition of security and serenity which they nurture with the same zeal that Indo-Europeans pursue wealth and happiness. In Semai construals, slamad is normal, ‘non-slamad’ the null category. Recent peace studies stress the distinction between ‘negative peace’ (refraining from violence out of fear) and ‘positive peace’ (maintaining slamad out of love of peace). In this construction, both forms of peace are activities rather than absences of activity, involving conscious and unconscious ‘peacemaking’ rather than voids. Defeat involves an agent’s act of surrender as well as another agent’s act of conquest. ‘Peacemaking’ is thus the category of behaviors and social patterns on which peace studies focus.

2. Why Not Study Peace?

2.1 The Ubiquity Of Peace

Any survey of the literature will uncover hundreds of articles on violence for every one on peace. Yet the most violent people spend most of their time in humdrum peaceful activities: Eating, sleeping, talking, daydreaming, scratching, and otherwise doing no harm. Most people in the most violent societies, even in wartime, spend their days in peaceful pursuits (Nordstrom 1997). The life of a soldier in wartime involves more hours of boredom than moments of terror.

No wonder. Violence hurts, and individuals dislike getting hurt. The possibility of counter-violence makes violence self-limiting in a way that peace is not. People prefer hurting those who, for whatever reason, cannot retaliate. Domestic violence is probably the commonest form of violence cross-culturally, simply because perpetrators are relatively safe from retaliation (Gelles and Straus 1988). Even then, when local values justify violence, the way human perpetrators obfuscate their actions by appealing to peace ideology reveals their uneasiness with violence: they are ‘maintaining law-and-order,’ ‘keeping the peace,’ ‘disciplining students,’ or ‘teaching them a lesson.’

In evolutionary terms, that makes sense. Other things being equal, organisms that avoid serious fighting with peers are more likely to survive long enough to produce fertile offspring than those that usually win fights but risk counter-violence; i.e., peaceful organisms are fitter. Moreover, violence disrupts cooperative activities that enhance the fitness of social organisms like humans. Such disruption is a common theme in non-Western peoples’ reconciliation ceremonies: if we fight, who will help to harvest the crops? Fear of disruptive violence rationalizes human rulers’ stamping out or severely limiting freelance violence, and monopolizing violence for themselves and their state. As a result, throughout human history peace prevails, in most places, most of the time. Peace is normal and normative. Violence is abnormal and disruptive.

2.2 Reasons Not To Study Peace

So why does peace get so little attention, even from social scientists? One reason is the definition of peace as an absence, discussed above. There seem to be several others. One probable reason is evolutionary: Violence threatens fitness. Successful organisms attend to threats. Violence is a problem; peace is unproblematic. So peace remains in the background, and violence is dramatic. Unsurprisingly, the most popular account of paleoanthropic violence is by a dramatist, not a paleoanthropologist, primatologist or prehistorian (Ardrey 1961). The very prevalence of peace makes violence salient: The exception, ‘man bites dog,’ makes news. Normal conditions do not.

Answers to the question of how to live in peace have potential political consequences, which might affect the lives not only of this generation but of generations to come. In the 1990s, over 2 million children died in wars, 6 million were seriously injured or permanently disabled, a million orphaned, and 12 million made homeless. Children are the main victims of enslavement and domestic violence.

Awareness that research may be consequential can make it teleological, arriving at conclusions which reflect researchers’ political predilections. Hobbes, an early student of violence and peace, deliberately excluded empirical considerations from his work, relying instead on an a priori method which he felt derived from Euclidian geometry, and concluding that the political despotism of his time was a counterviolence needed to control the freelance violence which would otherwise ruin human life. Similarly, peace studies evolved from New Left political activism in the 1970s. A large number of peace theorists are pacificists or members of quietist religious groups like Quakers or Mennonites. Many are explicitly political, arguing that, since they feel peace requires respect for human rights and social justice, anthropology should espouse such causes. Pedagogy is a central concern.

The resulting atmosphere may alienate students who hold traditional social science notions of ‘objectivity.’ Moreover, this sort of partisanship generates equally political responses by students of violence and others for whom, as Max Weber warned might happen, social science is the handmaiden of the Establishment and the social controls that maintain it in power. Social justice, say the reformers, will produce (positive) peace. No, say the establishmentarians, sometimes marching under the banner of objective social science, you need the hangman and the Bomb (negative peace).

Such politicization makes researching these topics difficult: For example, anthropologists have been reluctant to undertake (and funding agencies to finance) studies on domestic abuse among indigenous peoples, at least partly because the hegemonic liberal ideology frames indigenous peoples as simple and peaceful, and representing them otherwise might exacerbate the difficulties they already face in finding allies among more powerful peoples. In rebuttal, opponents seem to be reviving the nineteenth-century hegemonic representation of indigenous peoples as savage and violent, an equally political representation (e.g., Keeley 1996).

It may be impossible and even undesirable to eliminate political concerns from research that is so ‘sensitive.’ It would be helpful to make them explicit, as students of peace traditionally do. But scholars may be unaware of the teleological concerns that bias their results. Even researchers, after all, swim in their own culture like fish, mostly unaware of how the medium that supports them also affects how they perceive the world.

A cognate difficulty is that discussions of peaceability often degenerate into speculations about ‘human nature,’ a Platonic essentialist concept which serves more to terminate research than to stimulate it (but cf. Boehm 2000). If people are ‘naturally’ violent, violence needs no explanation; if ‘naturally’ peaceable, peace requires no further examination. Recent studies such as Keeley’s (1996) suggest that violence has been part of human societies since early in prehistory. There may be no society in which violence has never occurred. By the same token, there is no society in which peace never occurs, in which the general rule is a Hobbesian war of each against all; and no period in prehistory or history at which no one lived in peace. One of the most interesting studies of war describes how, in the midst of all-pervasive violence, people continue doggedly to construct peace (Nordstrom 1997). The half-empty glass is half-full (Boehm 2000), and the decision on the question of human nature is more likely to reflect the political sensibilities of the researcher than the empirical data.

3. Styles In The Study Of Peace

The two main foci of peace studies reflect the dichotomy between positive and negative notions of peace. Although the sketch given in the previous section of ‘establishmentarians’ versus ‘reformers’ is a heuristic oversimplification of impulses which overlap and may coexist within the same person, nevertheless it is not completely inaccurate to see the establishmentarian impulse in the first focus and the reformist in the second.

3.1 Conflict Resolution Studies

The first subfield is, at least implicitly, instrumental or ‘applied’ anthropology, reflecting governmental interests in international diplomacy and administrative measures to reduce freelance violence, e.g., in the school system. It comprises ‘conflict-resolution’ or ‘mediation’ studies of the sort emphasized by the journal Peace and Conflict Studies— In the United States, George Mason University is a center for such studies. Since World War II, conflict resolution studies in anthropology have grown in tandem with their growth in psychology, sociology, and political science. This upsurge seems to be connected with the rise of UN ‘peace- keeping’ efforts and interventions by the USA and Western Europe in overseas conflicts. More recently, the perceived rise of violence in the USA has led to funding of ‘violence prevention programs,’ for example, by the Justice Department. Most such programs stress peaceful conflict resolution, some- times purportedly modeled on ‘primitive customs.’

Most conflict resolution theory is a subset of game theory models, in which participants try to maximize benefits to themselves, and minimize their losses. The ideal solution is ‘win–win,’ in which for each participant the sum of the benefits outweighs the sum of the losses. Ideally, participants arrive at a ‘rational’ resolution through reasonable (ideally numerate) discussion, perhaps with the help of mediators from outside, trusted by both parties, experienced in mediation, and dedicated to resolving conflicts peacefully. The ‘anthropological’ character of conflict resolution studies comes mostly from the attempt, in the face of skepticism from other disciplines, to deploy the concept of culture, and from the occasional choice of ‘tribal’ peoples as subjects. In general, however, the concerns and analytical techniques (e.g., cost–benefit analysis) are indistinguishable from those of the other social sciences.

Of course, as ‘conflict theorists’ have insisted since Georg Simmel, conflict is ubiquitous and need not produce violence. Conversely, conflict resolution is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce peace (Fry and Bjorkqvist 1997). Many non-Western peoples traditionally held interminable meetings explicitly to resolve conflict. During these meetings, everyone got to speak at length until participants were physically and emotionally exhausted, and no one had any unvoiced opinions. The conflict might remain, but angry emotions dissipated and the conferees could reconcile or agree to differ.

Another practical limitation is that most conflict resolution techniques require that participants be equals or equally subject to coercion by a power greater than they are. But, as cost–benefit analysts of domestic violence point out, violence is most likely to occur when unpleasant consequences for the perpetrator are negligible, i.e., when the parties are unequal (Gelles and Straus 1988). Thucydides records a conflict resolution conference between Athenians and Melians. Since the more numerous and better armed Athenians could (and later did) overwhelm the Melians, the Melian conference ‘failed.’

The corollary is that egalitarian societies tend to be peaceable, and peaceable ones tend to be egalitarian (Fry 1999); between nations, ‘mutual deterrence’ depends on perceived equality. Perhaps social justice in the form of felt equality is also important. Thus, although conflict resolution theorists tend to dismiss other tactics for preventing violence as unreliable (Fry and Bjorkqvist 1997), conflict resolution techniques are most likely to succeed when least likely to be necessary.

3.2 Peace Studies

Peace studies are more ethnographic, less technical and more value-laden, finding expression in, for example, Human Peace and Human Rights, journal of the Commission on the Study of Peace and Human Rights of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences— Syracuse University is a center for such studies as well as for conflict resolution studies in the USA. This research rests on the empirical observation that conflicts among some aggregations of people are less likely to erupt into violence than among others. One reason for such peace is a value system that promotes negative peace by abhorring violence (e.g., as stupid, scary, or self-destructive) and promotes positive peace or slamad, a value system somewhat like that of the 1970s ‘Peace Movement’ which inspired peace studies.

But that movement itself grew from the Vietnam War. Peace tends to be valued particularly by people who know violence firsthand. Peaceable values may maintain peace, in the short run, but they gain strength from the threat of violence (DeBenedetti 1978, Dentan in Silverberg and Gray 1992, in Sponsel and Gregor 1994, Nordstrom 1997). And one reason for war is that outsiders threaten slamad. In short, attributing peace only to peaceful values is as simplistic as attributing violence to ‘innate aggression.’ The stipulated variables are insufficient to produce the observed results.

The ethnology of peaceable peoples reveals how complicated is ‘peace.’ Documentation exists on a fairly large number of relatively peaceable societies, including traditional ethnic groups (e.g., Dentan in Silverberg and Gray 1992, Fry 1999, Howell and Willis 1989), cenobitic pacifists like the Amish or Hutterites, and other voluntary associations such as the Friends, the Rainbow Family, or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) (1994). Most have formal and informal conflict-resolution techniques, the latter derived from those characteristic of the species as a whole (Boehm 2000, de Waal 1989). Most lack the ingroup economic or political hierarchies which impede consensual conflict-resolution, although many are enclaves in hierarchical societies against whom they must maintain identity barriers.

Peaceable values are conducive to peace. Many peaceable peoples like peace better and violence less than more violent peoples do. But many, for example, the Amish and Mbuti, beat children severely. Others, such as the Semai, fantasize warfare against their oppressors, or boast, like the AA, that members can stand up to the challenges of warfare when their country calls. Generally, in-group peace seems more valued than peace with outsiders. And, as the ubiquity of peace may indicate, most people prefer peace to violence except under exceptional circumstances.

‘Negative peace’ based on fear of consequences seems more salient than ‘positive peace’ based on idealist values. Many peaceable peoples, particularly cenobitic pacifists, are patriarchal and physically punish disobedience by children. Oppressive regimes can also diminish freelance violence by retaliatory violence such as incarceration, mutilation, or capital punishment.

Avoiding others is yet another way of peacemaking. Cross-culturally, inevitable structural conflicts, such as that between a man and his in-laws over who benefits from his wife’s services, may result in formalized respect/avoidance relationships in which one or the other party expresses extreme deference to, or even avoids social contact with, the other. Avoiding a person with whom one is angry is an effective passive-aggressive communication of the anger and dramatizes the threat of withdrawing cooperation. Many peaceable societies of Southeast Asia arose in the context of a poltical economy based on slavery and coerced trade, in which the best way to avoid enslavement was to flee. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, like ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ in the USA, tried less successfully to minimize violence by minimizing mutual contact.

Another way of dealing with inherent conflict is to transform physical violence into ‘harmless’ symbolic violence. To some extent, sports in the Western world do provide the ‘moral equivalent of war’ that William James imagined. The ‘joking relationships’ that occur in many societies allow people to express anxiety and frustration about possible conflicts, especially involving sex, by hostile words and deeds which local ideology defines as ‘not serious.’ This technique is unreliable: fans battle each other and ‘locker room humor’ can erupt into violence.

3.3 The Future Of Peace Studies

What is needed is meticulous field studies of peoples who seem better at peacemaking than others. Such studies require avoiding essentialist notions of peaceability as a psychosocial deficiency, the inability to be violent under any circumstances. Rethinking definitions of peace and violence seems appropriate (e.g., Dentan 2000). If peaceability is an adaptation rather than an essence or changeless value, then changing circumstances should affect peaceability, so that such studies must take account of history in order to discover what variables are important. Perhaps the most promising future studies are those which make detailed comparisons between (a) peacemaking among specific human groups and among specific other primates (e.g., Cords and Killen 1998), or (b) ‘controlled comparisons’ between particular peaceable peoples and otherwise similar but more violent peoples, e.g. the studies of peaceable and violent Zapotec towns by O’Nell and Fry (see Fry 1999); the Robarcheks’ planned book-length expansion of their chapter on peaceable and violent tropical rainforest swiddeners, the Semai and Waorani (Robarchek and Robarchek 1992); the comparison of peaceable and violent Chicago neighborhoods by Sampson et al. (1997).

3.4 The Use Of Peace Studies

Improving conflict resolution techniques is of obvious importance. Are any lessons from peaceable societies of possible use to other peoples? The great student of primate conflict resolution, Frans de Waal dismisses peaceable human groups as a ‘few gentle, nonmartial human societies that have managed to survive in remote corners of the world’ (1989, p. 4). But many cruel martial human societies have also perished, because their cruelty and violence was as unsustainable as is peaceability as de Waal implies. The British poet Shelley’s poem Ozymandias says it best: There is an immense broken statue in the poem, on whose base are the words: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ All around the statue, as far as the eye can see, the desert lies unbroken. Scientists must not let the drama of violent conquest obscure the fact that organisms and societies often survive better by eschewing, preventing, or avoiding violent conflict than by engaging in it. As a long-term adaptation, neither peaceability nor violence is necessarily or essentially ‘good’ for survival; in the short term, either may work, depending on the circumstances. That is why peaceable people like the Semai may stop being peaceable, and violent people like the Waorani may turn to peace. Both fight and flight are active adaptations, which couple with caring for children and forming alliances (‘tend and befriend’) as human responses to environmental stress. The dynamics of these adaptations need the same careful study as any other ecological adaptation.


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