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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
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.

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