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What is Peace? Types, Examples, Learning Opportunities

Pursuing peace is one of the few values we share across cultural, political, and linguistic divides. The challenge, however, comes in understanding what ‘peace’ really means and how we are able to pursue it.

In summary, peace is… the feeling and experience of developing your capacity for maintaining social cohesion, positive interactions, and justice, free from the experience or fear of negative conflict and harm.

This definition merges a number of peace and conflict related concepts. Each of these concepts can help us understand the nuance of peace better. It can show why groups who all say they are seeking peace may come into conflict in doing so. It also shows us how peace can be understood as a feeling, experience, and also an outcome, all at the same time.

5 Different Types of Peace

Going phrase-by-phrase of the above definition, we can explore 5 different types or aspects of peace. Each of these help us understand peace – and by extension global conflicts – better.

#1 Peace as an ongoing process

Peace is the feeling and experience of developing your capacity for maintaining social cohesion, positive interactions, and justice, free from the experience or fear of negative conflict and harm.

Regardless of how stable a given region may appear, the potential for peace to be disrupted is constant. As such, our capacity to protect and maintain peace in the face of conflict is essential, leading to the idea that peace is a process. While peace may never be a destination we arrive at completely, by becoming competent at maintaining peace, a community can consistently reduce the likelihood of violent conflict.

e.g. If a conflict falls along religious lines, the existence of each religion and their differing values will always be present in that society. This has the potential to cause friction and small scale conflict every day. Viewing peace as something we constantly work towards, therefore, would help this society prevent these conflicts from developing and becoming violent.

#2 Positive peace

Peace is the feeling and experience of developing your capacity for maintaining social cohesion, positive interactions, and justice, free from the experience or fear of negative conflict and harm.

Positive peace is the presence of attitudes, institutions, and social structures that are able to sustain peace and reduce harmful conflict. This type of peace is essential, as it acts as the buffer protecting negative peace. Without a strong positive peace, any number of challenges can arise that may produce fear of harm and the experience of harm. Positive peace is a way of putting peace as a process into practice.

e.g. The presence of strong democratic values are a form of positive peace, as they mean that the peaceful transition of power is likely to occur in a society that votes for new leadership.

#3 Structural peace (justice)

Peace is the feeling and experience of developing your capacity for maintaining social cohesion, positive interactions, and justice, free from the experience or fear of negative conflict and harm.

Structural peace is the systemic way that an individual or group’s access to essential needs and freedom from violence are kept equitable. In a society where a particular group has reduced access to social services or individual rights, for instance, their relative structural peace or justice is reduced. They may not experience physical violence directly, but their perceived or experienced lack of justice will result in reduced peace.

e.g., After years of activism, racial tensions in a particular region may have been radically reduced. However, their government may still have active laws that entrench racial discrimination. Until these are dismantled, it can be harder for racialized groups to achieve structural peace. This is can be true even with the public support and a lack of physical violence.

#4 Negative peace

Peace is the feeling and experience of developing your capacity for maintaining social cohesion, positive interactions, and justice, free from the experience or fear of negative conflict and harm.

Negative peace refers to the absence of war and violent conflict. This version of peace is commonly cited in public discussions as it is the most obvious when it is missing. However, “violence” in this case is another nuanced word. It is defined by the World Health Organization as the intentional use or threat of force that is able to result in harm (physical, mental, or otherwise) of a person or group of people. This type of violence can be direct (e.g., a physical act of violence). It can be structural (e.g., taking away someone’s access to education and healthcare). Or, it

can be cultural (e.g., acceptance of a racist ideology among a given community). When an act of violence like this occurs, it is clear that the level of peace has been reduced.

e.g. When government security forces consistently use excessive force on the general public, negative peace has been lost.

#5 Peace as a feeling, experience, and outcome

Peace is the feeling and experience of developing your capacity for maintaining social cohesion, positive interactions, and justice, free from the experience or fear of negative conflict and harm.

Considering the types of peace discussed above, we can see how peace is simultaneously a feeling, experience, and outcome. Peace can be a feeling if someone feels that their historical mistreatment has not been fully reconciled. Or that the truth of a conflict has not been established. Peace can be an experience when someone cannot fully participate in society, even without experiencing physical violence or threat of harm. Peace can be an outcome if after a period of violent conflict a ceasefire is agreed to and respected. In each case an example of peace has been found, but a more complete peace may not have been achieved.

Understanding that peace can be seen as a feeling as well as an actual experience or destination is important. This difference can explain why a seemingly stable region may actually have deep unrest under the surface. If a population feels they are experiencing a harm or injustice, this must be addressed. When a population is experiencing limited access to social services and freedoms, this must be addressed. If a population has been experiencing violent conflict, this must be addressed.

Examples of Peace Seeking in Political Conflicts

Case Study #1: Israel-Palestine

A 2020 study on Israelis and Palestinians highlighted differing perceptions of peace between high-power and low-power groups. Jewish-Israelis, seen as high-power, were more likely to view peace as connected to harmonious relationships (positive peace), while Palestinians, considered low-power, were more likely prioritize justice (structural peace). Both groups agreeing on peace as the absence of war and violence (negative peace). However, their view of what long lasting peace would involve also influenced their preferences for conflict resolution methods. It also shaped whether they favoured a Two-State Solution or One-State Solution.

Case Study #2: Bosnia and Herzegovina

A 2009 analysis of post-conflict peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) argues that there had been no reconciliation or restoration of relationships (positive peace) in BiH, only the absence of violence (negative peace). For this negative peace to turn into positive peace, there needs to be greater contact between the interethnic groups, as well as agreement on the core truths behind the conflict.

How to Understand Peace and Conflict

To understand global conflicts, ask the following questions:

  • What versions of peace are being disrupted?
  • What kinds of peace is being pursued?
  • What kinds of tools or changes could be made to manage the conflict that is disrupting peace?

For example, following the ongoing conflict in Israel-Gaza, what kinds of peace are the populations of each side calling for? Is the focus an immediate ceasefire? Are they looking for institutional reform? Has there been a call for intergroup dialogues and cooperative programs?

To understand how your own experience with conflicts, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How is peace understood by those around me? How might I be supporting/disrupting other people’s peace?
  • What political values do I hold that might support/disrupt peace in my community?
  • How does this definition of peace relate to your lived experience in places like work or school?
  • How can you produce peace for those you come into contact with on a day-to-day basis?

Where To Learn More About Peace

Learn more about peace and ways of pursuing peace with these resources:

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