From the Future: Interdisciplinary paths to peace
Spencer Kelly | Monday, March 6, 2023
The issues of peace that dominate the headlines tend to focus on graphic displays of violence: war, shootings, assault. These issues are important. Still, the pursuit of world peace goes beyond addressing immediate, obvious violence. The Notre Dame Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, a leading peace research center, notes that peace studies is an “interdisciplinary field” that involves “a broad range of pressing topics” related to peace. In this edition of From the Future, we profile three interdisciplinary researchers studying overlooked paths to ending violence and promoting peace in the realms of urban infrastructure, social movements and developmental anthropology.
Physical structures of violence and peace
Gwendolyn Purifoye, Assistant Professor of Racial Justice and Conflict Transformation
One of the Kroc Institute’s areas of emphasis is “structural violence,” which refers to the ways violence or injustice are invisibly ingrained in the organization of society. However, Gwendolyn Purifoye, assistant professor of racial justice and conflict transformation, researches how structural violence can manifest in a literal sense: in the physical structures of our built environment.
A sociologist by training, Purifoye recalled how her experience riding public transportation in Chicago shaped her perceptions of how urban infrastructure can have implications for peace.
“The more I rode the buses and the trains, the more I really became attentive to the physical environment,” Purifoye said. “I began to really start paying attention to how our material space impacted not only how people were experiencing their lives, but also experiencing each other.”
In a 2020 paper, “Transit Affinities,” co-written with Derrick Brooms, Purifoye found that social interactions inside buses and train cars varied depending on the external environment. When moving through underdeveloped, predominantly Black communities on the south side of Chicago, conversations became more personal and interactions between strangers increased. Once transport entered the north side of the city, open conversations would cease.
Purifoye described this phenomenon as “transit affinities” that developed for the Black community inside of public transportation while their external environment remained under resourced.
“That brought a level of peace going through these areas of the city,” Purifoye said. “That’s often not talked about when we talk about areas of the city that may have some material struggles and also have some economic struggles — what about all these things that bring joy and peace, [and] how are people creating it within those spaces that are materially viable?”
Purifoye said that to mitigate violence manifesting in physical structures, we must constantly assess our built environments and the effects they may have on the people living within them. This means analyzing everything about the material surroundings.
“Is it wood, is it brick, is it greystone?” Purifoye asked. “Is it clean, is it dirty? Where are the garbage cans located?”
However, these spatial assessments should also take note of what is not there — what the community lacks. Addressing structures both present and not is essential to promoting peace and justice, Purifoye said.
She also said that these studies and assessments are not for their own sake, but to promote action that can reduce inequalities and create peace.
“I’m not doing research for the sake of research, but to provide community organizations and communities with the data that they need,” Purifoye said.
Purifoye noted the inspiration she has received from the Bible in conducting socially impactful research, but also said that people from all backgrounds can, and should, promote peace, fight structural violence and uplift the less fortunate.
“My mother always said, ‘You don’t have to be spiritual to do right,’” she said. “I would like to see more people really seeing and getting deep into how people embody and experience inequalities, and how the violence of that is bad for our entire society — not just bad for the people who are experiencing it, but bad for all of us.”
Reassessing the role of social movements in peace
Ann Mische, Associate Professor of Sociology and Peace Studies; Faculty Fellow of the Kellogg Institute for International Affairs
When she arrived at Notre Dame and the Kroc Institute in 2013, Ann Mische, associate professor of sociology and peace studies, noted that her background in social movements was not just unconventional for peace studies, but often seen in a negative light.
Some peace scholars feel uneasy about highlighting social movements, as they can be confrontational or even violent. However, Mische said she thinks social movements are a key part of peace studies and play a central role in addressing violence in our societies.
“Social movements are carriers of calls for justice,” Mische said. “Social movements are really important for peace studies because of the way that they articulate this broader need to have justice or serve as a means of addressing structural violence as a core component of peacebuilding.”
Mische’s first area of research relates to youth activism and political participation. She spent years in Brazil conducting ethnographic and archival research on networks of youth activism in the 1980s and 1990s.
One of Mische’s main findings from this work was the growing skepticism of political parties among youth activists. This observation from Brazil in the 1990s foreshadowed trends today in the United States and elsewhere. Mische is currently working on a paper examining the rise of “anti-partisan contention”: protests that display a skepticism toward or objection of political parties similar to what she saw in Brazil. Examples include the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. or the Indignados in Spain, among others.
Mische also studies “futures thinking,” or foresight in social change efforts related to democratic development, peacebuilding and climate change.
She is currently working on a project related to “scenario planning,” where groups of people are asked about possible situations in the future and how they could be achieved or avoided. Mische is interested in understanding what futures participants are imagining and what effects these exercises might have on participants themselves.
While these two strands of research may appear distinct, Mische sees a connecting thread in how her work has emphasized the dynamics of collective participation and deliberation, and what we can learn from these dynamics to promote peace.
“How do you get broader public engagement in trying to understand the problems of our time?” Mische said. “And then, how do you actually translate that collective deliberation into actual movements to change the situation? That would be a unifying theme in both cases.”
Overall, Mische hopes that her work can present social movements in a more nuanced light, particularly in how they contribute to peace in the world.
“Sometimes peace studies has a tendency to overly dichotomize violent versus nonviolent movements — ‘nonviolent ones are good, violent ones are bad,’” Mische said. “I’m trying to bring a broader understanding of social dynamics into peace studies and not just dichotomize violence versus nonviolence. That’s part of what I’m trying to bring to the table.”
A questioning approach to peace
Catherine Bolten, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Peace Studies; Director of Doctoral Studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
While not a peace scholar by training, Catherine Bolten, associate professor of anthropology and peace studies, has always been interested in reducing suffering in the world. However, her approach deemphasizes the rush to find solutions and stresses the importance of asking the best questions.
“I think that suffering doesn’t just start from the bad things that people experience,” Bolten said. “It’s also because we’re not asking the best questions about why they’re suffering. My real drive is to ask better questions.”
After receiving an undergraduate degree in biology, Bolten worked on ethnobotany in Botswana during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, trying to find local, medicinal plant cures for the disease. However, the apparent futility of this effort led her to shift toward asking different questions about how to help people in Africa.
Bolten pivoted toward work in developmental anthropology, which she described as “the study of the things that keep people up at night.” This involved a whole new set of questions to drive scholarship that would help suffering people.
“What are their worries?” Bolten asked. “What are the questions that they can’t answer and the problems that they can’t solve? And how do we think holistically about the way that humans interact in the world that can help us identify the pain points and the pressure points and help us solve those problems?”
Bolten has spent much of her career researching Sierra Leone. In the wake of the Sierra Leonean civil war of the 1990s to early 2000s, Bolten researched the fears of violence recurring.
Her second book project looked specifically at fears that young people who grew up during the civil war were a threat to reignite violence. Bolten found that, in fact, the biggest threat to peace was not young people themselves — who genuinely wanted to be productive members of society — but the very suspicion adults had of the youth, which created intergenerational tension.
Bolten’s research in Sierra Leone has led her to reframe the questions we should be asking to help the country recover and grow. In particular, she works to emphasize the historical context in the country before the civil war.
“What I’m trying to do is introduce all of this history and the historical knowledge that is kind of being ignored right now into this equation,” Bolten said. “Nobody really talks about the slow forces of violence that precede that, that it’s not necessarily war that displaces people … It’s basically people being completely stripped of their identities.”
By asking better questions, Bolten said she believes we can foster a better understanding of the situation in question and put ourselves in a position to produce better solutions.
“My whole goal is to kind of flip the script on how people look at the world and get them to ask slightly different, slightly off-kilter questions that can be answered in ways that help us better understand humans and thus, the world around us,” she said.