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Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Measuring Peace: Principles, Practice and Politics

Richard Caplan’s new book Measuring Peace: Principles, Practice and Politics (Oxford University Press 2019) may be small but is mighty. Caplan covers a lot of scholarly ground that evidences his extensive knowledge and empirical research. Representing parsimony at its best, the book offers a succinct discussion about the key principles, best (and worst) practices, and political constraints in measuring peace.

Such were the conclusion of the panel on Wednesday 23 October consisting of Jessie Barton Hronesova, Neil MacFarlane and Lord Alderdice. The panel started with Caplan’s summary of the book.

Caplan’s key findings are highly important and timely. He demonstrates that ethnographic methods are superior to universal technical assessments in acquiring accurate data about local peace. He also shows that local knowledge and contextualised conflict analysis give the most accurate picture and that idiosyncratic benchmarking is important to understand how the conflict or peace is changing over time. The question to Caplan is not about what does peace require to survive but what does this peace require? Regional scholars can rejoice.

Barton Hronesova noted that the key contribution of the book is its ‘convincing and well-researched argument that is highly accessible beyond academia’. She stressed that the book succeeds in giving peacebuilders a ‘compass’ to navigate the peacebuilding landscape. She also stressed that the book focuses on how to measure the quality of peace (not what to measure as each context will vary). She noted that the term reconciliation might be added among related terms such as security, stability and resilience. She also outlined some additional challenges in measuring peace such as security of local researchers.
Lord Alderdice focussed on the concept of positive peace that is widely discussed in the book. He used his experience from the Northern Ireland to show that being able to ‘disagree without killing each other’ is already a huge step forward. He further elaborated on the ideas of coexistence, trust and ability to see the other side. His experience also tallied with the findings of the book, i.e. that language and contextual knowledge count for more that indicators. He noted the case of Afghanistan, cited in the book, when Rory Stewart concluded that UK’s failure to understand their role in Helmand province was down to the lack of Pashtun speakers and knowledge of history and context.

Neil MacFarlane’s analysis focussed on the key concepts in the book and the different dimensions of peace. He also discussed the importance of measuring the breakdown of peace and start of a conflict. He noted the case of Tajikistan but also El Salvador that have gone through spirals of violence. He further discussed the difference between stable and sustainable peace and pondered over the difference in the needed conditions for peace. In his conclusion, he opened the question whether inter-state war should return as a topic of our analysis.

The discussion that followed mainly concentrated on questions such as the role of culture, elections, the role of external actors and education. The key point of conclusion was that peace is an ‘essentially contested concept’ and so it will inevitable be difficult to measure. However, Caplan’s books provides much food for thought and consideration in trying to do good peace research better.


Jessie Barton Hronesova (Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford)

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