Peace Research institute Oslo
Lecture 1

What is Peace Research?

Henrik Urdal tells us why researchers study peace, how they do it and what questions keep them up at night.
Henrik Urdal, current director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), gives us a brief history of peace research, tells us what's covered in the field and shares an overview of current global conflict trends.
"PRIO," Henrik says, "is the oldest peace research institute in the world." This might not as monumental an achievement as it sounds, as the field itself has only been around for a bit more than half a century.

He describes peace research as a reaction to a philosophical movement that saw resurgence in the 50's and 60's: positivism. While there's a lot of debate over what positivism means, for our purposes it evokes the thought that, if something is real, it can be measured. Empirically. With data, charts, facts. That a scientific method can be developed. Even for something as seemingly abstract as peace.

If society could be seen a something like an organisim, then war and conflict could be interpreted as a sickness. If so, then we could be able to, in theory, identify the causes of violence and try to find remedies. There was a strong belief in academia's ability to respond to social issues. Research for the sake of policy, for example – if you could inform decision-makers properly, then maybe they could help resolve or prevent armed conflict to the extend that its possible. .

With that in mind, the Journal of Conflict Resolution was founded in 1957, with PRIO coming around two years later in 1959. At the time it was a department at another institute and known as the Section for Conflict and Peace Research. They eventually thought to drop "conflict" from the title, and as funds started coming in they set themselves up as an independent research center.

PRIO started with their own publication, the Journal of Peace Research, in 1964 and were big in helping to form the Peace Science Society (International), also known as the PSS(I). Uppsala University in Sweden opened up their own department of peace and conflict studies in 1971, and this along with other departments/institutes orbited collecting data on the causes of conflict and analyzing it.

A project called Correlates of War (COW) spearheaded mass data collection, with sets on interstate war (1971) and intrastate conflict (1982) rolling out in time. The Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) picked up the torch in 2003, with additional data collected in 2004 for democide, one-sided and non-state conflict.

Organizing concepts into proper terms helps folks study trends and dynamics in a clearer, systematic way. It's probably a good idea here to start defining some of them.
Types of Conflict (UCDP)
  • Armed Conflict
    A state-based armed conflict is a contested incompatibility that concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths in one calendar year.
  • War
    A state-based conflict or dyad which reaches at least 1000 battle-related deaths in a specific calendar year.
  • Interstate
    A conflict between two or more governments.
  • Intrastate
    A conflict between a government and a non-governmental party, with no interference from other countries.
  • Internationalized
    An armed conflict between a government and a non-government party where the government side, the opposing side, or both sides, receive troop support from other governments that actively participate in the conflict.
  • Extrasystemic
    An extra-systemic conflict is a conflict between a state and a non-state group outside its own territory. These conflicts are by definition territorial, since the government side is fighting to retain control of a territory outside the state system.

    The last extra-systemic conflict ended in 1974. This category basically contains colonial conflicts.

"The Peace Research Institute Oslo," says Henrik, "was originally, like the field of peace research generally, quite radical and pacifist."

Things have changed since then, and they position themselves as reflecting a diversity across methodologies and subjects. They're still trying to expand by partnering with more researchers from the Global South, although this has proved complex. We are told that many formal standards in the globals north and south are, to put it with tact, not always as compatible as might be desired. Some advocate for 'decolonizing' the academy (in effect, to stop making people comply with exclusively Western/Northern standards of research), while others advocate for encourating the Global South to adopt the customs of the north.

PRIO's operations break down into three different centers: humanitarianism, conflict patterns and gender. With these (and crossing boundaries between them) are various research groups studying topics like migration, religion, urbanization, law & ethics, regions, business & peace, non-state actors and more. The goal is the same though: they want their research to engage with policy makers. In their words: to make research seen, make it used and make it count.

In terms of international attention, their Nobel Peace Prize speculations make PRIO a flurry of international news for a day every year – understandable, as while most of the Nobel prizes come out of Sweden, the Peace Prize is based in Oslo. Though perhaps their greatest claim to global significance is the thought of Johan Galtung.

Galtung, PRIO's founder and first director, was one of the pioneers of the field. A number of the concepts and theories that he developed went on to define peace studies internationally.
Additional Terms (Galtung)
Negative Peace
The absence of overt, violent conflict. Deeper, systemic issues may remain unchanged or unresolved.
Positive Peace
Not only the absence of violent conflict, but also of indirect or structural violence.
Structural Violence
The systematic ways in which a regime prevents individuals from achieving their full potential. Institutionalized racism and sexism are examples of this.
The impulse to build systems leading to sustainable peace. These structures need to address the root causes of conflict and support local capacities for peace management and conflict resolution.
These terms have proved revolutionary, if at times controversial. The concepts of positive and negative peace have been a huge contribution to understanding various states of peace. There are some who suggest different name than 'negative' peace, mostly because a ceasefire or shaky peace agreement is still a huge step forward. The distinction has the advantage, however, of thinking of (positive) peace as the broader integration of human society – think not just tolerant coexistance (if that), but active cooperation, respect for human rights, social equality, economic freedom and so on. Creating these kinds of conditions is what's involved with what's known as peacebuilding. It's really a lot.

The term structural violence has also given a language for people looking to address the ways that soceities have internalized discrimination and oppression. There are those who adopt ever-widening interpretations of structural violence to include any real or perceived injustice, and a good deal of the criticism directed to the term claims that it makes the concept analytically blurred. If it can mean anything, can it really mean something?

Along with these terms, there have been a few major attempts to measure peace empirically. Henrik mentions some of the more successful efforts as the Human Development Index, the Human Security Measures and the Global Peace Index. These look at a number of factors, but most focus on measures of violence.

PRIO itself claims to do "research concerning the conditions for preaceful relations between nations, groups and individuals." If that sounds broad, it's probably meant to be. There are more conventional research programs that study armed conflict, involving ethnographic or historical research on particular conflicts like in the Caucasus, Sudan or Afghanistan, along with quantitative research to round it out.

Then there's research focusing on peacebuilding, which look at the conditions that might prevent conflict from breaking out in the first place. There are also studies into legal and ethical perspectives on war. Then there are subjects like identity, religion's capacity to legitimze certain grievances, societal security (and security technologies), gender, climate change, migration and transnationalism. These are all subjects we're going to be studying in the coming weeks.

But before then, we're to be taken through some of the bigger conflict trends of the past few decades. "So what do you think," Henrik smiles, "do you think the world is falling apart?"
Data's constantly being collected and it's often drawn from 1946, the end of the Second World War, this marked the beginning of a new paradigm when it came to conflict. All of the data PRIO uses is available online, and they partner with the UCDP in a number of ways.

The UCDP datasets are a huge source, and they focus on state-based conflicts. As mentioned above, an armed conflict is said to occur when there are two organized parties (at least one being a government), over twenty-five battle deaths in a calendar year, and a politically motivated cause (often over government or territory). While this allows for a certain kind of accuracy, there's a lot of talk now about non-state conflict (like with ISIS) or one sided conflicts like genocide. Other factors, like famine or sexual violence, are not included.
The spikes in the graph come from the Korean War, with gradually descending peaks with Vietnam, the Iran-Iran, and Ethiopia-Eritrea. These have been the largest interstate wars of the past seventy years when counting for battle deaths – it has to be mentioned, though, that the chart stops in 2008, before the start of the Syrian Civil War. Even still, this is used by some to declare a universal decline in war. If we look at the corpses piled up by the Second World War, one wouldn't be able to help but notice the progress. One thing Henrik wants us to do is just sit and look at the data.

In short, things are still bad, but bad could be a whole lot worse. This is one of the strange things about being a peace researcher: someone can find comfort in lists of the dead.

Often data like these are sorted by geography:
Some more data for you: in 2017 there were 49 armed conflicts, down from 53 in 2016 but still more than in 2015. Battle-deaths that year peaked as high as in 1992-93, right after the end of the Cold War. Battle deathssat around 69,000, lower than in 2014 (104,000) and 2016 (88,000) but still higher than at the turn of the century. Death from all forms of organized violence clocked in at around 89,700.

The UCDP uses a number of different sources for their datasets, both from the news and from academic research centres, and it's generally agreed that the estimates are conservative. Getting an exact number is really, really difficult.

It goes both ways. The original amount of dead (battle-related and otherwise) as a result of the war in Bosnia was originally thought to be from 200-250 thousand. But when everything was over and all sides were consulted the tribunal came up with a new figure: 100,000. The actual number was half the generally accepted one.

There isn't a whole lot of data coming out of Yemen. Henrik tells us the death toll for Syria is about 400,000. It's considered one of the ten wars going on in 2017, down from 12 in 2016.
If we look only at interstate wars we'd have a lot of reasons to be optimistic. Unfortunately, intrastate (civil) wars are more the fashion these days. Thankfully civil conflicts tend to kill fewer people, but they can be much trickier to stop. That, and they can become internationalized really easily.
We're seing more countries getting involved in internationalized internal conflicts (19 of them have another state supporting or contributing troops to at least one side – that's 40%).

Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (the respective largest conflicts today, in terms of battle dead) are all examples of this. So war still happens, but it's being localized, and the list of countries that can be considered high-risk is shrinking every year. More conflicts are ending than beginning, but extra-state actors (think ISIS) are making it harder to resolve the ones we have. In 2017 the Islamic State was involved in around 30% of the world's conflicts.

Trying to answer Henrik's question is really hard. It's easy to be an optimist when looking at the amount of countries where wars happen, for example. More than half of the world's battle deaths are limited to the three countries mentioned above.
But then you compare it to the amount of countries getting involved in other nation's wars and internationalizing them.
Finding the silver lining is morbid when it comes at the cost of three nations falling into humanitarian ruin.

That, and paying attention primarily to battle deaths can obscure the total picture. Non-battle deaths stemming from war include one-sided violence, criminal and unorganized violence (often resulting from weak states and the presence of more weapons) as well as non-violent mortality. This includes famine, disease, collapsed health systems, embargoes, whatever. With the peace agreements in Colombia back in 2016 there are no official wars/conflicts in Latin America, but sometimes deaths from criminal or social causes can outnumber casualties of wars.

Then, of course, there's terrorism to think about.

There's been an increasing number of terrorism-related deaths over the past 15 years, with most of them concentrated in a small number of countries (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria). Many of the terrorist cells involved have jihadist links, and most victims are Muslims.

The rate of both deadly attacks and casualties has increased since 2010...
...though terrorism in Western Europe is lower than in the 70's and 80's.
The kinds of terrorism we're seeing is also changing – most terrorism now is associated with jihadism as compared to the 70's and 80's when it was mostly linked to nationalism or leftist-inspired terror. That, and focus has shifted from Europe and the Americas to the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Terror, Henrik suggests, can't be seen as independent from existing armed conflicts. It's not a separate phenomenon: it's a tactic of rebel organizations moreso than a separate thing.

But all this would be depressing if it was the exclusive focus of peace research. After all, where's the peace?
"So what do you think," Henrik smiles, "do you think the world is falling apart?"
When people study conflict, they are often looking at three factors: onset, duration and termination. When thinking about peace, researchers often start with the factors that prevent or end wars as quickly and sustainably as humanly possible.

Some try to make predictions based on trends in the data. The amount of wars, as well as the countries seriously damaged by war, is decreasing. They've been doing so since the end of the second world war, and are projected to decrease further.

Then there are notions like Democratic Peace Theory, where it's understood that democracies, for a number of reasons, are hesitant to go to war with other democracies. There's also the idea of the 'liberal peace', where active democratization is thought to make a state more stable. Arguments for this is how the presence of liberalized instituteions (democratic representation, education, health care, international trade) makes war much more of a disturbance to the status quo than not. Governments and businesses have a lot more to lose.

While this might seem to built a solid argument for the democratization of present or former autocracies, there's a catch. Established democracies are rather stable, but so are autocracies – the riskiest position to be in, as it turns out, is in a semi-or-developing democracy, also known as an anocracy. They neither have strong institutions or the stabilizing effect of a strongman.

This makes it potentially wise to remember that, every time a westerner encourages a developing state to democratize, they're encouraging it to pass through an incredible risk of civil war.
But as development increases a country's chances of sustainable peace (the theory of positive peace at work), peace researchers are very concerned income levels, infrastructural growth, life expectancy and so on.

Education is a big factor – it's seen as raising the opportunity cost of violence. Meaning that the more educated a country's population is, the more it has to lose and thus, will be more likely to find nonviolent ways to solve issues.

Another factor, one that we'll be looking at in detail later, is inequality. The most significant breakthrough of recent years is the switch from looking at things in terms vertically (the inequality between individuals of a given society) to examining things horizontally (the inequality between groups in the same society). Disparities in vertical inequality doesn't seem linked to conflict, as it turns out, but horizontal ones very much are.

Demographics are another area of growing significance. Age is a big thing here, especially when it comes to the amount of young people in a country and how many resources are available to them. "Youth bulges" are similar to baby booms, and in developing nations they can lead to civil unrest. Some researchers are recording a decline in fertility and say this is an underappreciated factor – they argue that a lower youth bulge may very well lead to more opportunities and higher development.

The presence of peacekeepers is a controversial and touchy subject. There's a perceived lack of effectiveness, especially when it comes to their ability to reduce the risk of conflict recurrance through having boots on the ground. PRIO's data, Henrik says, implies that peacekeepers are, by and large, a successful measure. Even if the price tag is rather high.

Most of the factors mentioned above are associated with conflict onset, and some peace researchers say that we just need to keep things going the way they're going. After all, every war has to end, and if we can prevent new wars from starting then we can have a kind of peace that we've never seen before. Not total, obviously, but more than we have now. We're told that, maybe, it's not entirely crazy to be optimistic.
But of course there are reasons not to be too optimistic.

The above chart was developed in 2010 and projected much fewer conflicts than we had now. They couldn't predict the rise of the crisis in Syria, or the intensification in Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics of the 'things are getting better' camp are constantly reminding us that there are factors that we might not be paying attention to, and that these can be the ones that start wars.

We're in the middle of an economic slowdown (or collapse, for some nations). We're seeing major economic disruptions and this is a classic factor in conflict onset or reemergence.

We're also seeing democratic backsliding and the autocratization of certain states like Russia, Turkey, South Africa and Hungary. Then we have ideological millenialism, which is a way some researchers and academics speak about groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. We also are seeing more foreign interventions, particularly with the rise of drones. Then there are the rising amount of porous borders and internationalized civil wars. A skepticism of peacekeeping and it's value. Large shifts in the international systems formed after WWII and the Cold War.

So, really, we can't say for sure what's going to happen. We don't know if there's some next Big Thing that'll take us by surprise. But we do know more than we knew yesterday and, looking at the graphs, there are less people dying. More inequality due to globalization. Destabilizing alliances post-Trump. But less people dying.

Henrik brings us back there one more time. Repeat after him: less people dead. Where else are we going to start if not there?
Henrik Urdal is the director of Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and peacebuilding practitioner.
He studied at PRIO in 2018.

Banner photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash
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Further Reading
Introduction - Patterns of Armed Conflict Since 1945
Gleditsch NP; E Melander & H Urdal. (2016). Chapter 1 in D Mason & S McLaughlin Mitchell, eds, What Do We Know About Civil War? Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 15-32.
The Liberal Moment
Fifteen Years On
Gleditsch, Nils Petter. (2008). International Studies Quarterly
52(4): 691–712.
Peace Research:
Just the Study of War?
Gleditsch, Nordkvelle & Strand
JPR 1964-1980: What Have We Learnt About Peace?
Wiberg, Håkan. (1981). Journal of Peace Research 18(2): 111–148
Dupuy, Kendra, et al. (2016).
PRIO Conflict Trends Policy Brief.
Dupuy, Kendra, et al. (2016).
PRIO Conflict Trends Policy Brief.
Winning the War on War. The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.
Goldstein, Joshua S. (2011).
New York: Dutton/Penguin
The Better Angels of Our Nature. Why Violence Has Declined
Pinker, Steven. (2011).
New York: Viking