Johan Galtung
And Early Peace Thoery

What were the theoretical contributions of Johan Galtung,
a pioneer of peace studies?
Johan Galtung is considered the pioneer of peace studies, and he dramatically changed the way violence and conflict are thought about and discussed.

What tools and paradigms did he develop, and how can they help us identify, analyze and respond to conflict?
Popular discussions on structural violence (including structural racism) can be traced back to Johan Galtung's early theories on peace. Many people take issue with structural theories, and we acknowledge that. Structural violence is presented as a valuable paradigm in this classroom, and it is my hope that readers are able to approach the concepts here with an open mind and understand the context in which this material has developed.

Much of today's lecture will follow up on last week's discussion on violence and conflict, professor Heather Eaton says.

She begins by saying how these words, conflict and violence, can be very slippery to define. For some, they refer to overt acts of physical aggression (known in peace and conflict studies as 'direct violence'), but for others even phenomena like malnutrition or disease can sometimes fall into the category of violence.

The definitions we looked at last week (direct violence, structural violence, cultural violence) emerged from the thought of a man named Johan Galtung, one of the pioneers of peace and conflict studies as a whole. He promoted a broader understanding of the two concepts, particularly in how one can easily lead to the other. And, he claims, if we have a narrow definition of violence then we can miss the underlying causes. And since he was interested in research that leads to better chances of peace, he opted for a model that might give a more comprehensive understanding of how conflict and violence work.

But we'll start with a bit of a biography first

Johan Galtung

Galtung was born in 1930, in Norway, and is still alive and active in the field today. His father was sent to a concentration camp after the Nazi invasion of Norway in WWII and, even after his father returned, young Galtung developed a resistance to the idea of war. It was a destructive phenomenon, he thought, and he was intrigued by Mahatma Gandhi's work with nonviolence.

He was originally a mathematician by training, and much of his early work had a hint of formula and classification. He wanted to put violence (and peace) on spectrums and find ways to quantify them. This makes some of his early writings harder to read, but eventually he founded his own organization (Transcend) to make his ideas on peace and conflict more accessible. He has written a great deal since those days, and his most recent work was published as recently as 2014 or 2015.

He is considered to be one of the original pioneers of the field, and Heather advises us to check out more of his work. One aspect that makes his approach particularly relevant is that he deals with both theory and practice – he has all kinds of resources on being a mediator, for example.

One of his early frustrations was that he found a great deal of work about war but very little about peace. Even today war is studied far more than its resolution, and violence more than nonviolence. There are promising movements today like those that study and work towards conflict transformation, but this is only a recent conversation.

For Galtung, what wasn't happening was a dedicated analysis of just what the necessary conditions to bring peace are, and what developments need to take place.

Gandhi was a major inspiration in this regard, as was Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss (who later coined the term 'deep ecology'). Næss was interested in an idea of 'social peace,' which also took from and developed Gandhi's thought.

This focus on nonviolence as a response to conflict sometimes gets him labelled as a 'softie' or 'idealist', and Heather wants to draw attention to the extent Galtung to which is actually a pragmatist. Part of this pragmatism, of course, was in how he wanted to classify different kinds of peace. He originally claimed that there were 35 classes of peace theories, and eventually UNESCO asked him at the end of the 1960's to develop them into a book called Theories of Peace Theories of Peace.

His definition of violence (which some may take issue with) goes like this:
Avoidable insults to basic human needs, and more generally to life, lowering the real level of needs satisfaction below what is potentially possible... A violent structure leaves marks not only on the human body but also on the mind and the spirit.
Johan Galtung
Part of what made his model innovative was that his focus wasn't only on overt expressions of violence (like physical attack, verbal assault and so on) but also on the hidden structures that prevent certain people (or groups of people) from living full lives.

This goes against philosophies and ideologies (Marxism, for example) that say violence can be productive. Galtung disagrees sharply with this point of view and claims that organized nonviolent resistance is both more sustainable and effective.

This thought generates some discussion in class, particularly with what you do when a government is particularly bad (and violence might be used to overthrow them and put a better one in its place), but Heather says she isn't here to point us one way or the other. Someone says that nonviolence is most productive when it's done right, as an organized movement that presses towards its goals (like with Gandhi or Martin Luther King)..

Of course, not everyone agrees. There are plenty of examples in military thought that claim violence is necessary for lasting peace. But we have to decide what we think for ourselves.

The caveat here, though, is that while in Galtung's philosophy violence is always destructive, conflict itself can be productive. If a couple is having an argument, for example, it can escalate to violence, sure, but it can also lead to a more honest encounter with the other. Crucial needs and interests can be clarified.

Analyzing Conflict

There are a number of tools and paradigms that Galtung developed that can help us understand conflict and how it works. This includes four key concepts: actors, goals, incompatibilities and the ways we resolve them.

Figuring out who is or isn't an actor is important. Is the government an actor here? What about cultural figures? Or the economic system?

Economic factors are important to Heather, and she lists examples involving the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. They have certain programs that can lead to resource extraction, which can lead to inequalities in less developed nations that are rich in resources. Or there might be certain programs that are meant to alleviate poverty but end up entrenching it (often unintentionally). For some, this is a conflict (and an example of structural violence, which will be described below). For others, this is just business – and if we want it to improve, we would just have to tweak the business practices.

The next major factor is understanding the goals involved. Following through on the above example, think about goals of economic systems. On a basic level it's a system of barter and exchange that helps us to survive, but the system is uneven and unequal throughout the world. Goals can involve wealth creation, or poverty creation, the creation and maintenance of affluence, or sustaining export economies (which then affect land use and subsistence farming). In this case, many of the negative effects that lead to injustice (and which may eventually lead to people starting an armed conflict) are negative. But in other examples there can be intentional goals that create further incompatibilities.

This concept, incompatibility, is another thing we can analyze. Are the interests and goals of these different actors incompatible with each other? Is the conflict rising out of this? Are these incompatibilities inherent in the situation, or can we suggest creative solutions that help both sides meet their needs? Are the actors thinking about their own interests alone, or do they take into account some concept of the common good?

Following up on this, the last concept we discuss are the ways people try to resolve these incompatibilities. You could also call this one 'strategies.' Maybe the goals/interests aren't incompatible, but the ways they try to resolve them create problems.

These four factors are mostly about conflict, and then violence itself can rise out of these conflicts – though violence doesn't always occur. There can be no violence without conflict, but there can be conflict without violence. The relationship between the two does make them appear fluid, and that can be confusing when it comes to where one ends and the other begins.

The Conflict Triangle

Last week we took a brief look at Galtung's famous conflict triangle, and we'll spend a bit more time on that today. Imagine a triangle, with three points called direct violence, cultural violence and structural violence. Direct violence is the top point, and the other two are the bottom points.

Direct Violence

This is the one that many of us associate with the word 'violence': physical attack, hitting, sexual assault, humiliation, verbal abuse, etc. These are overt expressions of what Galtung calls "the avoidable impairments of fundamental human needs." When someone is doing direct violence to you, basic needs like safety, security, life and others are being impacted.

Important here is the word 'avoidable.' There are unavoidable things, like a volcano erupting, or a lack of resources that comes more from a hurricane or drought rather than human action (though climate activists and researchers claim that many disasters, nowadays, are impacted by human activity and thus can be interpreted as a form of direct violence). For the most part, Galtung is interested in the avoidable things that affect our ability to live our lives.

He also includes into direct violence the threat of force. In many cases (we use the example of South Africa during apartheid), sometimes the threat of force is all that's necessary to get people to do what you want. This is also relevant when it comes to terrorism: you do't need to actually kill a lot of people, but the thought of people dying is enough to terrify people into changing their behaviour.

It's good to remember that the threat of force usually works because of a history of using force.

Cultural Violence

This is where it starts getting a bit more subtle (and less quantifiable than direct violence). Cultural violence is about prevailing attitudes and beliefs, and how these are reproduced in society. Think about the stories we tell ourselves about who is good or bad (or who deserves what rights, or who is worth saving). The narratives we find in history books, if they glorify certain sides of a conflict, or when atrocities are glorified, are pointed out as examples of cultural violence.

Violence, as a force that impairs our ability to meet our basic needs, can also be reproduced in art, media, advertisements, the way news is written, all that stuff. This could be overt, with people creating content that's meant to oppress certain people or groups. This could also be subtle, like with how only certain groups are represented (especially in art and media) or put forward as 'normal.' If you don't see your needs as equal to the needs of favoured groups, the argument goes, you might fight for those needs less. Or you might internalize status structures that imply that your needs are not as important as the needs of other people or other groups.

Cultural violence is also said to manifest itself in the way violence can be glorified or normalized in society. In violent media, for example. Or in ways that the choice to fight is preferred than the choice to follow a nonviolent path. There's a long tradition of entertaining ourselves with violent art, and Galtung refers to this as a 'diet of violence' that normalizes it. We may not mimic violence because of the shows we watch, but there's the change that violence becomes internalized, acceptable. We get desensitized, and it might become harder to resist expressions of direct violence.

There's also the thought that our educational systems don't give us the resources or know-how to create peace in our communities – this gap (a gap in our 'educational diet') is interpreted by some as an example of cultural violence. To rectify this, we would need to promote conflict resolution mechanisms into education and culture (imagine, for example, if kids watched shows where Pokemon negotiated with each other rather than fought?).

There's also the question of what values are transmitted in our cultures. Most cultures recognize that random killings are unacceptable, but that killing large groups of people in war is acceptable so long as you follow the rules. Or that violence within romantic contexts is less bad than between strangers. Some consider these ideological structures (ones that allow for violence in certain situations) as cultural violence. They prompt us to track these ideologies in our cultures and find out how they work.

Structural Violence

One of Galtung's major ideas is that of 'structural violence,' which refers to the thought that sources of violence can be found in the way society is structured. Think about economics, educational systems, food production, health care, political representation and more. We'll have a whole class about this, but important enough to discuss it a bit here as well.

One of the more famous applications of this idea is in the thought that whole groups (classes, genders, nationalities) are seen to have more access to certain goods, resources, capabilities or opportunities than others. When you hear people talking about structural racism in the context of American rare relations, that whole discourse finds its roots in Galtung's theory of structural violence.

What we're talking about here are structured inequalities that exist in society – many societies have these in different degrees, and it comes down to some people having more access, privilege or potentially more freedom than others. This can lead to ongoing situations of systemic discmination or, in some situations, lead to grievances that eventually have people picking up weapons.
A seminar at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), founded by Galtung, on the science between group (or horizontal) inequality and how it can lead to armed conflict.
Heather asks for examples of structural violence. Someone mentions the lack of access Indigenous people living on reserves have to the same kinds of education that Canadians who live in larger cities have access to. Someone mentions how queer people in Russia have less access to romantic expression, or even to psychological well-being. Someone else mentioned a situation in the Niger delta (in Nigeria) where Shell, the oil company, exploited the land of a cultural group that, because they are politically marginalized, didn't have the ability to fight the company effectively until Shell spilled tons of oil into the ecosystem.

This morning, on the CBC (which doesn't normally use discourse like structural violence), there was a woman who talked about which communities in Ottawa are more likely to contract COVID-19. These often included racialized neighbourhoods, low-income families, multi-generational households and people who work in the service industry. This may be because the way society is structured makes it harder for them to protect themselves, and not even increased numbers of testing centers address the issues involved. The issues, the argument goes, are deeper: it's in the way these people are expected/forced/choose to live their lives.

Nuances of the Triangle

Many people talk about how the top point in the triangle is visible – the bottom two are more hidden. They're more subtle, sometimes invisible, which makes them harder to address. There are certainly cases of direct violence that are random, gratuitous and individual, but sometimes they're prompted by an underlying system. And we may not be able to deal with the root causes because they might be invisible and normalized.

It might be easier to analyze apartheid, fore example, because there are plenty of examples of direct violence. Indigenous issues in Canada are tricker, however, because the systems of oppression involved are cultural and structural.

Other factors that can complicate our understanding of violence, conflict and oppression can include how some acts of violence are sanctioned by government systems. Think about how some people are allowed to carry (and use) arms, like the police. For some, the police are an expression of order in society, a force that keeps chaos at bay. For others, the police can express elements of structural or cultural violence (many people are making this claim in the US in the wake of the George Floyd killing), and because they're institutionalized it's harder to address this.

Another complicating factor is that certain kinds of violence are intentional, while others are unintentional. It can be easier to prosecure intentional violence, but who do you blame when a system is at fault? Or when a person reproduces discrimination or structural/cultural violence without being aware?

There's not only the issue of perpetrators of violence being unaware – victims can also be left in the dark. Paolo Freire, a Brazilian thinker famous for his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, says that people can internalize and normalize structural & cultural violence to the point where we don't notice it. Even if we're being affected by them. The opposite of this would be conscientization, or the act of becoming aware of these structures. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement claim that the 2020 protests are an attempt at conscientization.

Any mention of BLM creates discussion among our group, especially with regards to violent and nonviolent ways of reaching one's goals. Toppling a statue is considered a violent act, and there are those who claim that this is a necessary act in order to expose and resist structural violence. Others say that we need to stick to peaceful protests, which are expressions of conflict but not expressions of violence.

One person in our group brings this up in one of the more relevant questions: what if violence really does help? What if nonviolence doesn't take us far enough, or what if our nonviolent leaders (like Gandhi, Martin Luther King) keep getting killed? Heather doesn't want to tell us what to think about that, but presents Galtung as an example of nonviolent thought.

But it's good to keep in mind that structural and cultural expressions of violence can have very real impacts on people. Physical impact, psychological impact – it affects our well-being (especially when unrecognized).

Paul Farmer, a researcher we'll be looking at later who worked a lot in Haiti, saw people in that country having very physical issues because of structural inequalities. Faulty transportation affected livelihoods, pollution and land quality affected health. These issues held people back from improving their situation, and so he applied the idea of structural violence to discuss public health. These are very hard dynamics to track and address.

The ABC Triangle

Galtung apparently loves triangles, and there's another one we take a look at. This one is known as the ABC triangle.
Russell Watkins | wikicommons
The top point here is B, standing for behaviour. This, like direct violence, comes down to observable actions people take. A and C, the bottom points, stand for attitudes and context (in former models it was known as contradictions). Attitudes that underlie behaviours can include prejudices, beliefs or perceptions. The context here refers to the nuances of a given situation.

Like with the first pyramid, only looking at the top/visible point will only get you so far. You have to take into account these more subtle factors if you want a deeper understanding of the conflict (and thus create solutions that address the actual roots).

So if we take the issue of the Niger delta again, the behaviour would be the organized resistance of the people to Shell's actions. Divorced from attitudes and context, it might be easily to misunderstand (or easier to misrepresent) their resistance. The context involved would be the historical marginalization of the people living in the delta, their peripherality when it comes to state power, their inability to go through official channels to protect themselves from getting sick. The conflict looks much different when you take this into account.

This, Heather says, is what she appreciates about Galtung – he doesn't settle for simplistic models. Conflict (and violence) are more than what's obvious or measurable at first glance. And our inability to engage with these subtle factors might make it harder to create solutions that stick.

The point here is to bring clarity to complicated conflicts. This goes hand in hand with the idea of raising a conflict – which makes the underlying dynamics more visible. The BLM movement, Heather suggests, tried to use the protests to raise the conflict of systemic racism and make it more visible. This can be countered, though, but acts of obscuring. Instances of looting and crime during the protests, especially in Portland, had the effect of obscuring issues of structural racism by creating the ongoing debate of whether or not BLM is violent or not.

The media doesn't help – things can often get obscured easily. Different sides prompt their narrative, and it can be hard to find out what's actually happening on the ground. This, arguably, can be a form of cultural violence.

Positive and Negative Peace

Another major development that Galtung brought to the field is the idea that there is more than one type of peace. There are two broad categories that are particularly relevant.

For Galtung, the goal is social change. You can sign a ceasefire, but that doesn't mean that the underlying factors that lead to the war are going to be resolved. He wants to devise ways that reduce tensions, increase equality, share power. You can have an absence of direct violence, but cultural and structural systems can remain in-tact.

This lack of overt violence is known as negative peace, with negative meaning absence. Taking things further, though, and eliminating structural causes of a given conflict is known as positive peace. So, the theory goes, if you aim for positive peace then you'll eliminate the need for conflict again in the future.

Canada is given as an example of negative peace, but its arguable that there is still a long way to go before we can say there is true positive peace here.

You can look at positive and negative peace in the context of a given conflict, or you can look at it in terms of the total amount of structural or cultural violence that affect people's ability to meet their basic needs and live full lives. If a society's structure is set up with inequalities and oppressions (even if minor), people will resist. It might be on the level of a cultural rather than armed conflict, but resistance will happen.

Positive peace, you could say, is Galtung's vision of a total social project. And much peace theory comes out of a desire to reach precisely this.
Heather Eaton is a full professor at St. Paul University; her research interests include conflict and gender, religion, ecology and nonviolence.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied theories of conflict at St. Paul University in 2020.

Banner photo by the International Students' Committee on wikicommons
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Further Reading
Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution:
The Need for Transdisciplinarity
Johan Galtung
Transcultural Psychiatry 2010, Volume 47 (Issue 1) p. 20 to 32
Johan Galtung
New York: Dept of Sociology, Columbia University, 1958).
Transcend International
Founded by Johan Galtung.