Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Understanding geographies of peace

  • Written by  Dr Philippa Williams
  • Published in Opinions
Varanasi, India, home to a majority Hindu and a minority Islam population Varanasi, India, home to a majority Hindu and a minority Islam population filmlandscape
06 May
2016
Peace rarely makes the headlines, meanwhile accounts of violence prove far more sensationalist and seductive for journalists and academics alike

When we imagine peace it is usually as a condition that comes before and after wars, and as something notable for its absence of violence. Indeed, a great deal of academic sweat has been poured over understanding how to keep violence out of peace; how to make and sustain peace in the aftermath of war. But while peace studies agendas are important, they tend to construct utopian ideals about what peace should look like. Rarely do they reflect what peace actually looks like ‘on the ground’ and in the day-to-day routines of people’s lives.

As a discipline committed to examining practice, connections and unevenness across different sites, scales and bodies, geography is well placed to problematise and illuminate a richer geographical approach to peace. As Sara Koopman has argued space matters to the production of peace because ‘peace means different things at different scales to different people across scales’ and peace shapes places just as places shape different kinds of peace. Koopman’s research on protective accompaniment in Colombia shows how the alignment of privileged western citizens with Colombian peace activists who are under threat of violence creates localised spaces of peace.

If we think about politics as the question of who gets what, where and how then we might also ask: Who gets what kind of peace, where is peace made, and how is peace realised? This approach challenges notions of peace as romantic, idealised or utopic and instead encourages an agenda that seeks to uncover the uneven politics of power that shape peace. Take the concept of ‘liberal peace’ which has emerged in recent years as the dominant programme for UN peace-keeping interventions, conflict management and the co-option of grassroots initiatives for reconstruction and rehabilitation. On the face of it, these initiatives towards peace appear to be a ‘good thing’, but closer scrutiny highlights their elitist motivations and how agendas to counter global security threats are wrapped up with the introduction of liberal democracy, neoliberal development and technocratic state building.

The ongoing challenge for geographers is to understand both the perilous sides to peace, as well as its generative potential

Along with critical international relations thinkers like Oliver Richmond, geographers are engaged in qualitative research to examine, who ‘liberal peace’ is really for, and what are its longer-term implications for ordinary people? How do Western visions of peace interact with different cultural environments and conceptualisations of peace and what can be learned from vernacular expressions and practices of peace in different places. And ultimately, how might peace be done differently?

To understand multiple, and sometimes conflicting approaches to peace, geographers have focused attention on the everyday politics of peace, and the people and values that sustain peace through daily encounter, coexistence and exchange. Attention to local places illuminates the ways in which ‘peace-ful’ concepts such as tolerance, friendship, hope, reconciliation, justice, cosmopolitanism, solidarity, hospitality and empathy underpin peaceful realities, but it also reminds us that peace is not devoid of tension and conflict, as well as unequal power relations.

My research in a north Indian city showed how forms of ‘peace talk’, such as ‘Hindu-Muslim brotherhood’ both reflected everyday inter-community realities, but also acted as a rhetorical device in reproducing living spaces of everyday peace. But, ‘peace talk’ can also have a more pernicious effect. In this case the entrenched notion of harmony in the city acted to forestall questions about everyday Muslim experiences of inequality and injustice vis-à-vis the Hindu majority community. The ongoing challenge for geographers therefore is to understand both the perilous sides to peace, as well as its generative potential. Attention to the ongoing realities of peace will play an important role in how we construct the value and potential of our societies, now and in the future.

Dr Philippa Williams is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of the RGS-IBG Book Series title, Everyday Peace?: Politics, Citizenship and Muslim Lives in India, winner of the Julian Minghi Distinguished Book Award.

For further exploration into the subject of peace, read The Road to Peace, featured in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

Adventure Canada

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in OPINIONS...

Opinions

It’s time to stop relying on traditional commercial methods when…

Opinions

Lack of pollination of commercial crops is an issue of…

Opinions

Where does aid go from here? Pablo Yanguas calls for…

Opinions

Would North Korea give up its nuclear weapons? Would an…

Opinions

It’s time to tackle the hidden superbug menace in India’s…

Opinions

Earlier this month, an international sustainability conference brought together 400…

Opinions

On the Southern edge of the remote Kongsfjorden (King’s Fjord)…

Opinions

Exploring outdoors and in different places is important throughout our…

Opinions

Something has gone badly wrong with our planet’s oceans. If…

Opinions

Taking a wider look at Brexit from a geography standpoint

Opinions

The blockade of imports into Qatar by its Gulf neighbours…

Opinions

Is it time for a new and radical approach to alleviating…

Opinions

Plastic-free aisles in our local supermarkets may just be key…

Opinions

As reports of tourists being fed dog meat in Bali…

Opinions

The idea of rewilding boar into the UK’s landscapes is…

Opinions

2017 is the Chinese year of the chicken. This year, the…

Opinions

Despite the many claims of authenticity, modern filmmaking is still…

Opinions

With medical (and especially dental) tourism on the rise, Vitali…

Opinions

More drugs than you might think are derived from, or…

Opinions

The growth of cities is one of the defining challenges…