In Focus
Oct 7, 2021

The Enduring Utility of Peace Studies

As the normative commitments of the discipline meet practical demands, academics are opening up their scope of inquiry

Gillian O'NeillFeatures Editor
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

The first misconception about the academic study of peace is that the discipline is confined to pacifism and anti-war discourse. The second is that the driving interest in pursuit of “peace” is found in student activism.

Curiosity about the infrastructure and maintenance of peace has shaped peace studies since World War II. Although the Cold War milieu generated further development of the discipline in American academia, these efforts were met with scepticism. The academic legitimacy of peace studies was called into question.

Reverend Dr Liz Carmichael, the emeritus research fellow at St John’s College, Oxford, explains that “the idea that you could study peace was not universally accepted in academia. The question of what peace is, how people understand it and how you might go about making it, building it, keeping it and all the tendentious debates that go on around it are worthy of being looked at in an academic context”.


Carmichael is also the coordinator of the Oxford Network of Peace Studies (OxPeace), an academic initiative to promote the study of peace, with conferences, seminars and training workshops. This development, she explains, was necessary because “people studying politics and global governance and so on, at university level, don’t tend to get any practical training in conflict resolution and mediation and negotiation”.

Although her theology background informs the academic traditions and perspectives Carmichael brings, “almost every discipline has something to contribute and [peace studies] brings out something special in each discipline, and it creates a particular multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary synergy”.

The idea that you could study peace was not universally accepted in academia

Locating a starting point to create a discipline in a vast field informed by disciplines including philosophy, international relations and social science has challenged academics. The organisational dynamics of deciding the substantive content of a peace studies course must confront the practical societal needs for which students of the Peace Studies program at Trinity have advocated.

Gillian Wylie, an assistant professor in International Peace Studies at Trinity, explains that peace studies has a strong academic background in addition to a “normative commitment to change to global change in peace and justice”.

The central issue in feminist research has been the absence of women during the formalities of peace, despite organisational grassroots participation. Wylie explains that “we’re still a long way from achieving those aims” of the United Nations Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. “There’s still a lot to be done to bring a more equitable approach to peace processes.”

“At the same time, as being able to read and research and understand conflicts around the world, we do need to be listening to the voices of those who are impacted by those conflicts and learning from them, rather than assuming that we know everything from the western academic world view.”

There’s still a lot to be done to bring a more equitable approach to peace processes

Often the assumptions of liberal advocacy in the areas of international development and peace building are taken for granted. However, Dr Althea-Maria Rivas works in critical peace studies at SOAS University of London, and is applying theoretical pressure to expose the western textual tradition to criticism.

Rivas explains that making global connections and encouraging local reflection among her students is central to this work. Questioning our “understanding [of] the global south as a place of permanent crisis and war” will also encourage students to examine structural violence and reconciliation efforts in the global north, such as forging links between the Black Lives Matter movement and abolitionism.

“The academy is elitist and it’s also rooted in colonial imaginaries and in colonialism. There’s still a very strong tendency to study people from that lens, so to define what they do from how they’re able to meet particular western standards that we often ourselves don’t meet.”

As western paradigms are decentred, Rivas emphasises local and historical understandings by affected communities in the process of building social and structural relations after conflict. “To look at like different approaches to peace globally, and put all of those approaches on the same level … not put different approaches into a hierarchy”, she explains, is essential.

The academy is elitist and it’s also rooted in colonial imaginaries and in colonialism

Although the field grew rapidly in the post-9/11 years, it has been the security threats and implications posed by climate change on human relations and migration that have piqued the interest of academics in this domain in recent years.

How we approach peace-building efforts post conflict has followed along new academic paths in recent years as climate change and urbanisation are grounded in the discipline as fundamental themes. Although informed by trends in related disciplines, expanding the scope of the academic study not only enriches the student experience, but perhaps has a utility for the practice of peacebuilding.

Etain Tannam, an associate professor of International Peace Studies in Trinity, says that although at the cusp of religion and international relations, peace studies is also informed by the disciplinary backgrounds of the academic actors and practical application. “The emphasis of the department is on combining theory and practice [means] we all would have a theoretical and very academic base to the modules we teach, but we also then try and have an applied part.”

With internship experience incorporated in the Trinity programme, Tannam explains that the structure allows students to assess synergies between the academic tradition and practical conflict resolution at an NGO level.

We all would have a theoretical and very academic base to the modules we teach, but we also then try and have an applied part

In peace studies, equipping students with the vocabulary to analyse and the academic tools to reflect on conflict and the organisational dynamics of peace are central first steps in the discipline of peace studies. However, the alignment of educational opportunities along the divides of culture, affluence and nationality are serious considerations of many third level institutions offering peace studies programs.

The predominant hesitation shared by academics revolves around the production and impact of their courses. If structural boundaries at third level inhibit access to the discourse of equitable peacebuilding, affected communities and marginalised victims in areas of conflict, the way in which peace studies is accessed and delivered requires serious interrogation.

In addition to access boundaries, exclusionary and self-reinforcing discourse presents problems not just for the development of disciplinary thought, but for the practical implications of the peacebuilding process. Inculcation into the academic community can involve the teaching of inaccessible jargon that belies the peace studies field’s commitment to open discussion. Rivas says that classroom dynamics and inaccessible frameworks propagate “conversation between Western students and academics, or students and academics in the Global North, that are totally divorced from the realities of the people and the voices of the people”.

The university is a forum for developing knowledge and venturing down new pedagogical paths, involving feminist discourse and critical theories. For peace studies in particular, the inherently rigorous self-assessment of the discipline allows academics to continuously rethink the ethical construction of their courses.

For Wylie, the prohibitive fees for international students forms part of a “wider global inequality” about which the course is concerned. “Even when we have an international student body, many of them will be people of privileged backgrounds, relatively … the classroom does reflect global power inequality.”

Where does power lie? Who gets to define what peace is?

“Ideally, we would have more such resources to be able to really bring students from the global south to the classroom. And it’s something we keep continuing to look for and work for.”

The legitimating power of intervention by the “international” community and the construction of western-style institutions in post-conflict zones – under the rhetoric of “liberation” – has been the subject of critical academic inquiry. Wylie explains that “there has been a lot of critical work building up over the years about, particularly, a predominant model of peacebuilding through western intervention that has been quite a phenomenon of the post-Cold War era, peacebuilding that really became state building … Afghanistan has once again shown the hubris of that model of peace”.

Ensuring that the development of the Trinity peace studies course is compatible with the ethical basis of inquiry in the academic field is a priority for Tannam. Accessing funding to improve access and inclusivity in an academic discourse that is reconstructing to facilitate marginalised and affected voices, Tannam explains, is a central concern. “I think we do relatively well – that is, compared to perhaps some other departments and institutions in attracting people from lower-income countries and from ethnic minorities”, she says. “But I think it’s definitely in our action plan to try and find ways of increasing that, bearing in mind that there doesn’t seem to be resources to provide scholarships.”

Not only admission criteria but scholarships and funding available to master’s students is an issue that universities, including Trinity, must confront

Rivas anticipates a steep learning curve in the methodologies of academic research and teaching. As case studies in countries blighted by conflict are detached from western standards and academic traditions, the discipline must adapt.

Ideally, we would have more such resources to be able to really bring students from the global south to the classroom. And it’s something we keep continuing to look for and work for.

Dr Devon Curtis, an assistant professor in the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge, says that different intellectual traditions combine to produce peace as political contestation. “Where does power lie? Who gets to define what peace is?”

“As researchers and as teachers, we really have to take responsibility, both for the kinds of representations that we sustain, the types of knowledge that we produce and what the consequences might be of that knowledge, and who might be excluded from that. And I also think we have to approach the discipline with a kind of humility.”

Curtis explains that the process of deconstructing the dominant conceptual frameworks, assumptions and power structures in peacebuilding in international relations can be a paralysing experience for students. Although Curtis stresses that students should be prepared to act within these structures with a new sensitivity and to be attentive to local conflict and social justice issues. “We have to look at the ways in which Cambridge is implicated in global conflict”.

Dr Brendan Ciarán Browne, an assistant professor in conflict resolution at Trinity, expands on the role that the peace-building process can play in international affairs. “My interest is in looking at ways peace has been used and abused to promote a specific agenda … In terms of the tradition of peace studies, I look at it from a critical angle: how peace is weaponised, how peace is about appeasement.”

I also think we have to approach the discipline with a kind of humility

He explains that peace can be “used and abused to promote a specific agenda”, which is essential to deconstructing how western interpretations of peace are cast as a global standard. For Brown, third-world approaches to international law – a particular mode of critical thought in social science – goes to the core of his teaching philosophy.

For Curtis, this critical approach must be supported by clear instruction. For students grappling with the responsibility of exercising solidarity and working in peacebuilding efforts, Curtis urges them to “act, but actually to be sensitive to the power structures and the imbalances and the injustice and how you inadvertently might be contributing to some of that”.

Transformative inquiries and continuous interplay with various disciplines has grounded the academic study of peace. But as the fundamental assumptions of the discipline are probed and the inequities embedded in the educational structure persist, academics must confront uncomfortable questions about its future.

Sign Up to Our Weekly Newsletters

Get The University Times into your inbox twice a week.