Measuring Peace and Conflict: Preliminary Thoughts

Recently I have been interested in the discussion about the measurement of peace. This and the following posts will constitute an effort to summarise some preliminary thoughts on this topic and, later point to specific aspects that I will be exploring in my own research.

For too long there has been a tendency in Peace Studies to focus on armed conflict/war as a means to understand peace. The general thinking is that ‘in order to understand peace you have to understand war’ (I recently heard this exact phrase from an Professor of International Relations in a conference). I agree that understanding conflict and violence more generally is important and may help comprehend some of the aspects underlying the failures and successes of peace around the world. But there is also a perverse logic here, where, ultimately, instead of focusing on peace, we end up focusing on violence and eventually forget to go back to peace.

This analytical paradox, where to understand a concept we focus on its opposite, and which, by the way, is definitely not exclusive to Peace Studies, has constituted a long-term challenge in this field of study. Already in 1988, Peter Wallensteen identified two traditions of Peace Research. The first was depicted as a critical tradition that is reactive and critical of Machiavelli and his legacy, in particular his understanding of violence as inevitable and instrumental. The second tradition Wallensteen called it ‘utopist’. Accordingly, the underlying idea behind the ‘utopist’ tradition is “not only to ask whether the world ‘really’ looks and works the way some people argue it does but also to say that the world has to be improved no matter how we describe it today, because it is not close to a meaningful definition of peace” (Wallensteen, 1988: 7-8).

I find it very useful to use this distinction in order to understand how peace and conflict have been measured so far. When the conflict data set ‘fever’ started, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, it represented a reaction to the intensity and scale of World War I and, later on, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. Many of the databases on armed conflict developed since then — such as the Correlate of Wars Project and the German Study Group on the Causes of War (AKUF, for Arbeitsgemeinschaft Kriegsursachenforschung) — were in fact concerned with the development of a theory of war, or, more generally, understanding patterns and correlations of factors that would lead to/ increase the probability of violent conflict internationally. The logic behind this is straightforward: if we understand what causes violence (i.e., direct violence), then we will be able to influence these factors and, hopefully, avoid its recurrence. In this context, peace was seen as the absence or war/armed conflict and intimately related with the concept of (international/state) security.

There is no doubt that such an approach is helpful in many ways: by looking at correlations across time and space we may identify factors that may cause/contribute to violence/war; we may compare; we may derive new research questions; we may visualise patterns of continuity and change. Yet, as thoroughly discussed by Cramer (2006), this statistical approach to understand armed conflict/war has several problems too, starting with the very definition of what an armed conflict/war is, up to how reliable the data collected actually is. As he reminds us “. . . classification systems are generally determined by some purpose­ — they are not ‘natural’ and they should always be questioned” (Cramer, 2006: 58). Moreover, in the case of wars, “. . .what matters is whether or not a set of categories hides more than it reveals” (ibid.).

I would say that, in addition to this, and equally importantly, the question to be asked is how much can we understand about peace by focusing exclusively on violence?’ Alternatively, ‘is thinking about a desirable peace a futile exercise in utopia?’

I have always been a fan of utopias. Back in time, as an IR young student, I felt that Carr’s ‘Twenty Years of Crisis’ was highly misinterpreted and had been arbitrarily placed under the label of ‘realism’ while, in fact, he was calling for an adequate balance between realism and utopia in politics. The fact that utopia has been given a bad reputation among IR scholars, however, does not strip its relevance as a building block of society and its evolution, as well as for academic research, especially in Peace Studies.

Wallensteen makes a good case for utopias in Peace Studies. As he explains, if there were no utopias, the discipline “would face the danger of only being reactive, not initiating” (Wallensteen, 1988: 20). This type of claim has been repeated in the domain of Critical Security Studies as well. Ken Booth (2005), for instance, stressed the need of societies to have an ideal, since it is through imagining and reimagining that societies can renegotiate the domain of what is possible. If humanity had limited its ability to imagine things differently and dare to create new realities, things such as human rights and modern democracy may have never become an issue in the international political domain.

That said, it is also the case that focusing on peace and expanding the boundaries of what is possible and imaginable does not preclude the empirical research of successful on-going experiments of peace. Indeed, Wallensteen notes that “researchers involved in studies of the causes of war might have very little to say about what a world without war would look like” (ibid.: 21). Moreover, there is a presumption that by removing the identified ‘cause’ of conflict, conflict itself would cease, which is not something which we have evidence on. Thus, whereas understanding armed conflict and violence in general is important, so it is to consider what are the factors that have been contributing to promote and sustain peace in real scenarios.

The more recent elaboration of peace indicators, as opposed to conflict/war indicators is, in this regard, a very welcome development I would like to highlight here two indicators that I shall discuss separately in subsequent posts: the Global Peace Index (GPI) and the Everyday Peace Indicators (EPI). In very different ways, they contribute to a major shift in the way we measure peace. Moreover, they bring an important change in terms of focus and discourse. The simple fact that ‘peace’ comes first and is not equated with ‘the absence of armed/conflict’ alone changes not only the frame of reference, but it also expands the fields of research to include variables that would never enter the analysis of the causes of war.

Unsurprisingly, measuring peace provides many challenges, some quite similar to the measurement of armed conflicts/war. First, how we define peace is subject to debate. Should we stick to a minimalist (negative) definition of peace — the absence of direct violence — or should we expand it to include socioeconomic and cultural factors (positive peace)? Also, as in the case of armed conflict, peace indicators also have specific purposes, so they must must be understood within the context of their own creation. Methodological issues also abound: which kind of data should be part of a peace index?; what is the reliability of the data collected and is this data comparable?; isn’t it more useful o discuss development/governance/etc., instead of peace, a too broad concept? As noted by Guelke (2014: 105) “The very notion of a peace index or reconciliation barometer . . . seems to embody an impossible quest: the devising of a set of objective quantifiable criteria by which the advancement of the condition/norm of peace or reconciliation can be measured.”

Yet, and despite all these challenges, it may also be argued that there is no good reason to not measure peace. Indicators, in whichever field, are not perfect, but they help comparison and allow us to synthesise lots of information in a simplified way. As long as the reader retains a critical point of view when using indicators, a peace indicator may help us see not only what are the obstacles to peace, but also are those factors that may increase the probability of peace an its sustainability. It will (hopefully) expand our existing options to promote peace. As Wallensteen noted (1988: 24):

The real challenge to a peace research drawing on utopian writing is not to show that there is a large undercurrent (or even a dominant current) of civil, nonviolent, peaceful activity. Rather, it is to show that such alternatives are equally or more effective for the attainment of particular goals.

A peace index (or several peace indexes) could definitely contribute to this endeavor.




Booth, Ken (2007). Theory of world security. Cambridge Studies in International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Cramer, Christopher (2006). Civil War is not a Stupid Thing. Accounting for Violence in Developing Countries. London: Hurst & Company.

Guelke, Adrian (2014). Brief reflections on measuring peace, New Shared Societies, 18, 105-112.

Wallensteen, Peter (1988) The Origins of Peace Research. In: Wallensteen, P. (ed.) Peace Research. Achievements and Challenges, Boulder and London, 7-29.


3 thoughts on “Measuring Peace and Conflict: Preliminary Thoughts

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking. The notion of a peace index looking at what good looks like, rather than merely stating that good is the absence of evil, will be result in a more positive narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment. I think both approaches are important and complementary, but I agree that looking at peace experiments not only provides a more positive narrative, but it also makes us more proactive, as we can visualise things that work and experiment them. In this case, I guess the challenge would be, then, how to learn with these experiments without transforming them into copy-paste templates, as it is often done.


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