The Science of Sustaining Peace

What the UN should learn about peaceful societies

Posted Feb 13, 2018

Peter T. Coleman, Douglas P. Fry, Larry S. Liebovitch, Jaclyn Donahue, Joshua Fisher, Beth Fisher-Yoshida, and Philippe Vandenbroeck

The UN has designated 2018 as the year of sustaining peace. But until recently, very little was known about peace. War has consumed researchers for centuries—which is sort of like studying bankruptcies to learn what makes for a thriving business.

In response, our multidisciplinary team set out several years ago to study and model the basic dynamics of sustainably peaceful societies. Through a review and synthesis of case studies of 74 non-warring and over 80 internally peaceful societies, we have discovered surprising, hopeful truths about peace—which should shape the UN’s efforts going forward.

First, peace is not an idealist’s dream. The widely held belief that humans are naturally warlike has driven the world’s approach to security and international affairs for generations. However, the study of scores of peaceful societies from around the globe by anthropologist Douglas Fry of the University of Alabama at Birmingham directly challenges this assumption. He finds, “Scenarios portraying the naturalness of war are contradicted across the board by…archaeology, hunter-gatherer studies, comparative ethnography, the study of social organization, cross-cultural research findings on war and justice-seeking, and research on animal aggression...” In fact, despite myths to the contrary, strong archeological evidence suggests that warfare is a relatively new invention with humans, first surfacing some 10,000 years ago. This means that members of the genus Homo, which have been around for about two million years, spent the vast majority of their time on Earth free of the scourge of war.

Second, peace is highly complex but fundamentally simple. Although a large array of factors can influence peacefulness in communities, at its core it is quite simply a function of how members of different groups (national, political, ethnic, and so on) mutually treat one another. In other words, the higher the ratio of acts of reciprocal kindness, respect, inclusion, and so on, to acts of hate, contempt, exclusion, etc., the higher the probability of sustaining peace. The right mix of these simple interactions, multiplied a million times over daily, bubble up to create norms, taboos, institutions and cultures that sustain peace.

All of which means that policy makers should intentionally cultivate a higher ratio of positive to negative acts, in all manner of ways. Peaceful societies tend to be ones that foster relationships across difference through mixed group sports teams, schools, workplaces, and social clubs that pull group loyalties in more than one direction. These places have, intentionally or not, developed a sense that the fates of very different groups are intertwined-- due to mutual ecological, economic or security interests. Peaceful societies also keep their ratios healthy by reinforcing peaceful values and taboos against violence in homes, schools and communities, particularly in relation to women and youth, as well as symbols and ceremonies that celebrate and reinforce peacefulness. As a member of one of Brazil’s peaceful Upper Xingu River basin tribes reported, “We don’t make war; we have festivals for the chiefs to which all the villages come. We sing, dance, trade, and wrestle.”

More broadly, peaceful societies explicitly define and celebrate peace as something that needs be both actively promoted and securely defended. Research has also found that when societies define themselves as peaceful, they are much more likely to behave and organize themselves in a consistent manner. Today, Iceland, Denmark, Canada and Norway provide good examples.

Finally, peace comes from above and below. Grassroots programs are usually more effective and sustainable, and they also allow for more genuine inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups such as women and youth, who typically have a more nuanced understanding of local challenges and of the viability of particular remedies.

The noted economist Kenneth Boulding once said, “Anything that exists is possible.” The scientific evidence suggests that living in peace is both possible and replicable.