Peacebuilding as a Response to War or Violence? Contradictions of a Field and Practical Implications

Peace has been traditionally understood in relation to its opposite. In International Relations this opposite has been described as ‘war’ or ‘violent conflict’. In Peace Studies and Research, following the work of Johan Galtung, peace has been discussed in opposition to violence more generally. In this case, whereas war is one expression of violence, violence is a broader concept that entails both a direct manifestation, where the subject of violence is clearly defined, as well as a structural aspect, where the ‘actor’ that exerts violence is not as visible, and yet its victims are.

The analysis of peacebuilding has been influenced by both approaches to peace. On the one hand, and whereas there are arguments that sustain the idea that peacebuilding is not necessarily strictly defined in terms of its temporality, in the literature peacebuilding is mostly depicted as a series of activities that take place after the signing of a peace accord, that is, after the official end of a violent conflict or war. War and violent conflict are furthermore defined in strict terms, where the conflict necessarily concerns government and/or territory, one side being the state (see, for instance, the UCPD definition). This common understanding is reflected in the general use of the term peacebuilding. It would sound odd, for instance, to speak of ‘peacebuilding’ in Brazil, as this country has never experienced a violent conflict under those terms, even though here crime kills more people than many wars.

On the other hand, the purposes and duration of peacebuilding have been discussed in light of the idea of peace as a broader concept that encompasses not only the end of direct organised violence, but also some degree of freedom and social justice (or at least formal democracy and free market). So what we see in the literature is the broadening of the scope of peace but not of violent conflict. In other words, the peace being sought is much broader than the mere absence of war, yet it is still framed through the lenses of war/violent conflict.

This framing of peace has several implications. Firstly, despite efforts to the contrary, it reinforces a bias towards an understanding of peace as mostly a concept that stands in opposition to war/violent conflict, and not violence more generally. Secondly, it emphasises that what is to be avoided is foremost war/violent conflict, and not violence more generally. Thirdly, it minimises the space for analysis of the potential links between war/violent conflict and other kinds of violence that precede/follow a war/violent conflict.

This artificial separation between political violence and other forms of violence is not random, neither natural. It reflects an intentionality and has also practical implications not only in terms of policy making, but also in terms of legitimisation and social acceptance of certain behaviours (see, for instance, Jabri, 1996 and Das et al., 2000). The fact that war has been given so much attention has less to do with its concrete effects in terms of human suffering, but with the fact that someone in a position of power decided that this was a type of violence that deserved more attention than others. In this case, the ‘someone’ is less a person rather than an institution – the state – which, ultimately is driven by a group of actors that, whilst supposed to represent the interests of a whole population, mostly represent the interests of an elite that has access to power.

It is within this state framework that war is seen not only as an important issue (perhaps the most important kind of violence) but also as something legitimate (as states have the right to pursue war and defend themselves through the use of organised violence). But what about other forms of violence?

I am currently reading a fascinating book just released by my colleague Sílvia Roque. Shifting away from mainstream approaches to peacebuilding, she proposes a series of important questions that are usually obliterated in the literature, in particular ‘how violence is experienced in the everyday after the end of a violent conflict?’ and, what I think is even less discussed, ‘Are these expressions of violence supposed to be understood as new?’.

The latter is in fact a question that interests me greatly, as I find that the bias towards political violence in peacebuilding does not offer space for important questions that touch the very quality of the peace achieved and pursued by peacebuilding activities. As violence (with except perhaps of ‘just war’) is perceived as ‘bad’ and something to be deterred, there seems to be little effort to try and understand the very symbolism of some kinds of violence that play a key role in some communities, including as a means for social order and regulation. If we researchers do no engage with the subjective views of the actors within post-violent conflict societies we risk missing important dynamics that may explain, therefore, not only the recurrence of different forms of violence during peace times, but the actual role that violence plays socially. And this brings me to Silvia’s question, which links to my own current research: what about the violences that existed before the war/violent conflict? Is it the case that focusing on the ‘post’-conflict blinds us to see other patterns of continuity of some forms of violence? What kinds of violence are taken as ‘normal’ in a particular society? And perhaps more importantly, how are some kinds of violences ‘normalised’?

This question transcends the temporal boundaries of a violent conflict/war. It touches more deeply the relation of humanity with violence. As reminded in detail by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, some violent behaviours that we today consider absurd and totally unacceptable were at some point in history glorified or even enjoyed as social entertainment. Yet the standards of what is considered ‘good’ or ‘acceptable’ behaviour have changed drastically. It seems to me that if a global change of attitude towards violence is visible, it is also the case to consider that different standards and understandings of what constitute violence and its functions also exist. How this affects peacebuilding and peace more generally is then a crucial question.

Let me finish this post with a controversial note. If we want to tackle violence perhaps we should first engage in an exercise of empathy, in the sense of seeing through the eyes of those who perpetrate violence as well as through the eyes of those who perceive violence (or some forms of it) as ‘normal’ or ‘legitimate’ in specific settings. Perhaps by doing so we may be able to grasp its social function and think of effective non-violent alternatives for peaceful social transformation.


Das, Veena; Kleinman, Arthur; Ramphele, Mamphela; Reynolds, Pamela (eds.) (2000). Violence and subjectivity. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Jabri, Vivienne (1996) Discourses on violence. Conflict analysis reconsidered. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Pinker, Steven (2011) The better angels of our nature. Why violence has declined. London: Penguin Group.

Roque, Silvia (2016) Pós-Guerra? Percursos de violência nas margens das Relações Internacionais. Coimbra: Almedina.


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