What's Sociological About Peace Studies?

Dr. Ann Mische, Ruth Carmi, Anna Johnson, Dr. Leslie MacColman, Şehrazat G. Mart, and Carli Steelman

Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Department of Sociology, University of Notre Dame

Published on: August 21, 2021

Image: Street art, George Floyd protest, Minneapolis, MN, June, 2020 Wikimedia Commons

As sociologists affiliated with an institute for international peace studies, we have struggled with the interstitiality of our intellectual homes. At the Kroc Institute, we regularly exchange ideas with political scientists, anthropologists, historians, psychologists and theologians. While we often hear colleagues declare loosely that “we need more sociology here,” we find that their understanding of what sociologists actually do -- our concepts, methods and debates -- is often superficial and stylized.

At the same time, our sociology colleagues are often equally skeptical. For some, the term “peace” seems too soft and too integrative for serious research and scholarship. Others wonder about the relevance of the topic of “peace” in a context like the US, where the “wars” fought on domestic soil in the past 150 years have been “the war on drugs,” “the war on crime” and “the war on terror.” Some consider peace studies to be overly normative, lacking in sufficient “objectivity,” while others see it as too tame and uncritical. They may conflate peace studies with security studies, or see it as a politically suspect rationale for intervention and containment in the interest of capital, empire, or the “liberal order.”

We argue that sociology makes distinctive contributions to the rigorous study of peace, conflict and violence, even if the sociologists who make these contributions do not recognize themselves as “peace and conflict” scholars. Recent interdisciplinary discussions within peace studies in fact draw heavily on sociological ideas and insights and incorporate the discipline’s (implicit or explicit) normative concerns about inequality, exclusion and injustice as fueling conflict and violence. Yet many scholars, both within the discipline and in adjacent fields, have only a fragmentary understanding of what sociology offers to studies of violence and peacebuilding. In a series of essays, we will explore points of tension and connection between sociology and peace studies and consider the unique contributions of the sociological lens.

Historically, the social scientific study of peace, war and social conflict has been dominated by political scientists, whose paradigmatic assumptions constrain questions and necessitate methods that abstract from local contexts and culture. Anthropology also has a long history of studying communities affected by war and violence, bringing a critical perspective and deep attention to local context. Political science and anthropology often sit at opposite epistemological and methodological poles. But both disciplines tend to be fairly self-contained and somewhat suspicious of sociology’s awkward, in-between position. The proverbial “big tent” of sociology can easily be viewed as analytical eclecticism or lack of a true center.

Indeed, when it comes to the study of peace, war, conflict and violence, sociology has not had a true center. Sociologists have long researched state-society relations, large-scale physical violence and structural inequality. However, their work has been fragmented across different subdisciplines, finding partial homes in political sociology, collective behavior and social movements, comparative-historical sociology, global and transnational sociology, the sociology of law, and the sociology of crime and deviance. Similarly, gender studies, the sociology of race and ethnicity, and the sociology of religion have done their part to elucidate the linkages between physical and symbolic violence, patriarchy, racism and contending morality claims.

These diverse strands of work offer important sociological contributions to our understanding of the social origins, dynamics and consequences of peace, war, and collective violence. For example, the contemporary preoccupation of peace studies scholars and practitioners with “intersectionality” -- central to our current discussions at the Kroc Institute -- is difficult to explain without recognizing sociology’s contributions to peace studies, particularly as developed through the work of Patricia Hill Collins and others. Moreover, sociology’s extensive history of research on social movements, state formation, and contentious politics provides insight into the emergence, escalation, repression, prevention, and transformation of conflict and violence, often amidst calls for justice. This contribution reaches beyond the usual peace studies focus on “nonviolent” protest or civil resistance.

Several important framing concepts within the interdisciplinary field of peace studies have sociological roots and clearly connect to contemporary research in sociology. For example, the distinction between “negative” vs. “positive” peace -- often attributed to sociologist Johan Galtung, although developed around the same time by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- connects to historic sociological debates about the (troubled) relation between social integration, community, exclusion, and inequality. Likewise, the distinction between “direct” violence versus “structural” or “cultural” violence has generated fertile avenues of inquiry for many peace scholars. These terms can arguably be considered as code for “all of sociology”; they find more specified conceptual elaboration across nearly all sociological subfields. And recent discussions about conflict transformation, strategic peacebuilding, and “justpeace” -- developed by interdisciplinary scholars associated with the Kroc institute -- express our core sociological concern with social relations, with systemic analysis, and with the persistent tension between order and conflict in social life.

Sociologists working at the intersection of sociology and peace practice have contributed to both fields with analytical brilliance and methodological innovation. Elise Boulding sought to link social imagination and peace by leading future imaging groups in which she brought people together to imagine nuclear-free societies. She contributed to the emergence of the sociological study of the future as well as to the practice of imagining alternative futures, a tool that is still used in peacebuilding projects today. Jane Addams and her colleagues at the Hull House (where they offered numerous services to underserved communities) contributed to the development of the Chicago school of sociology by introducing them to applied social work. Addams also received a Nobel prize for her international peace activism.

Beyond these essential (but insufficiently acknowledged) early contributions, sociology continues to have much to offer peace studies -- including our focus on structures of power and domination, our attention to the interplay of culture, relations, and institutions, and our embrace of methodological pluralism and multi-level analysis. We believe that the converse is also true -- the interdisciplinary study of peace and conflict brings critical insights to sociology. We will explore both sides of this contribution in future essays.

Ann Mische is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her work focuses on political culture, social networks and social movements. She is working on a book on the use of futures thinking and foresight techniques in transnational interventions related to democracy, development, peacebuilding, and climate change.

Ruth Carmi is a PhD candidate at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. Her research uses an intersectional lens to study Israeli Supreme Court cases that reflect socio-legal struggles around questions of race, gender, class, nationality and religion in Israel-Palestine

Anna Johnson is a PhD student at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. Her research examines the complicated role of solidarity tourism in Palestine for transnational solidarity and social movement building.

Şehrazat G. Mart is a PhD student at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. She studies how intergenerational factors shape contemporary youth mobilization against authoritarian oppression in Turkey.

Leslie MacColman received her PhD in Sociology & Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame in 2020 and is now a post-doctoral scholar at The Ohio State University. Her research focuses on violence, politics, and public bureaucracies in Latin America. Her current work examines the causes and consequences of contemporary police reform in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Carli Steelman is a PhD candidate at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on mapping the spatial distribution of collective memory of violence.