Towards a subjective understanding of peace

By Roberta Holanda Maschietto*

Peace has become such a common theme in the international agenda that its meaning is often taken for granted. Whereas there has been an important expansion of the connotation of the term, including in the policy realm — where ‘building peace’ includes not only the cessation of armed violence but also the consolidation of liberal democratic institutions — there still is a tendency to adopt a universal take on what peace is or should be.

In the academic realm, the recent critical literature discussing the ‘local turn’ in peacebuilding has contributed not only to the stretching of the concept of peace (by placing attention to issues of social justice, human rights, and social welfare), but also to highlight the different priorities that international and local actors often have, as well as their different expectations about what peace will bring. Projects such as the Everyday Peace Indicators have further gathered comparative evidence showing how local and international actors offer different narratives and assessments about peace. That said, we are still in the infancy of understanding the more subjective aspects of peace and how local subjectivities affect policy implementation, as well as how policy implementation affect local subjectivities of peace.

In 2013 a big study was published by Malley-Morrison, Mercurio and Twose, discussing how people across different regions of the world understood the meanings of ‘peace’ and ‘reconciliation’. In the case of peace, the answers were coded into three main categories: ‘positive’ definitions of peace (what peace is/should be about), ‘negative’ definitions of peace (what peace should not be about), and issues of attainability (whether a specific state of affairs — or peace — could actually be achieved). In each category additional subcategories were created, according to the answers.

The study showed that all around the world the answers included these three categories, although the distribution in terms of percentage was different. For example, while in Western Europe 40% of the answers were coded as ‘negative peace’, in the Anglophone groups of countries (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Northern Ireland and US), this percentage was 49% and in Africa only 32%. Conversely, the answers that referred to positive aspects of peace were, respectively 45%, 40% and 47%. Moreover, there were significant differences regarding the actual content of what positive peace entailed. For instance, in Africa one element that appeared as part of positive peace was ‘access to resources’, something that did not show significantly or at all in the other two regions. The reference to elements such as ‘harmony’, ‘positive emotions’ and ‘calm and tranquillity also varied significantly depending on each region. Finally, variations were observed across gender, as well as between military and non-military respondents.

The existence of such variations in the understandings of peace opens the doors for several important questions: Who defines the peace that tailors policy implementation at the international level? Why does a specific concept prevails and not others? Who benefits from the peace implemented, or, alternatively, how are the benefits of peace distributed across the different groups of a society after the end of a violent conflict? What are the connections (if there are any) between the more extroverted aspects of peace (e.g., democracy and human development) and the more introverted aspects of peace (e.g., a sense of harmony and tranquillity)?

These are not simple questions but they are certainly relevant. In a recent class with the Rotary Peace Fellows in Bradford, we engaged in an exercise where each of us provided our own definition of peace and then thought of ways to design policies to promote such peace. As much as in the study cited above, the definitions varied significantly and led to different ways of thinking how to make peace a reality. At the same time, it also became clear that peace might entail important contradictions, depending on how we define its very components. For example, what does it mean ‘to live in a state of tranquillity’ in concrete terms? Is it the case that ‘inner peace’ promotes ‘outer peace’, or is the outer change that will promote peace conditioned to some kind of rejection of the present situation (that is, a state of unease or ‘un-peace’)? If peace entails revisiting the way power is distributed in a society, how to promote this change peacefully?

These challenging considerations about peace were extended to the reflections about violence. Is some degree of violence necessary to make a society function? Is there a specific kind of violence that is legitimate after all, such as the conditioned use of violence by the state and its institutions? There are no easy answers for these questions, but reflecting about them and being reflexive about our own prejudices, background and positionality regarding such delicate topics is perhaps a good starting point to think of more efficient ways to engage with the promotion of peace apeacebuilding.

* Roberta Holanda Maschietto is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, and currently a visiting researcher at the Rotary Peace Studies Centre at the University of Bradford. Her new book ‘Beyond Peacebuilding. The Challenges of Empowerment Promotion in Mozambique’ has just been releaased by Palgrave Macmillan. She is a blogger at and member of the Brazilian Network of Peace, Conflict and Critical Security Studies (