Peace studies in the Nordics

A number of peace research institutes emerged in the Nordics from around 1960. They were initially seen as politically radical and interdisciplinary with a focus on the applied rather than the academic side of peace studies. Since them, they have become more part of the establishment, advising governments and producing staff skilled in peace negotiation and conflict management.

Sipri yearbook 2018
The SIPRI Year Book is the main publication of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It is published every year accounting for armaments, military spending and conflicts internationally. Photo: Courtesy of SIPRI.

Being small, wealthy, well-organised and at a comfortable distance from all warlike activity since 1945, the Nordic countries appear to be well positioned to promote peace. Active contributors to the United System – the two first General Secretaries of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld and Trygve Lie, were Swedish and Norwegian respectively – the region, which annually awards the Nobel Peace Prize, has an official self-perception as an active contributor to peace worldwide.

This attitude has an academic aspect in that peace research and peace studies developed in the region since around 1960. The term ‘peace research’ was invented by the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, a founder of PRIO (International Peace Research Institute); similar institutes emerged in Sweden (SIPRI, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), Denmark (COPRI, Copenhagen Peace Research Institute) and Finland (TAPRI, Tampere Peace Research Institute). Instrumental in developing the field worldwide, these institutes tended in their first period to be politically radical (opposed to all wars, especially the ones fought by the USA). Interdisciplinary in their approach, they drew on economics, sociology, political science and psychology in their endeavour to understand the mechanisms of armed conflict. Always with an applied side, some of the scholar-activists were active peace negotiators, while others wrote inflammatory pamphlets against warmongers. However, peace research eventually became more academically respectable, and by the 1980s it was considered an integral part of the academic study of international relations. Two of the leading journals in the field, Journal of Peace Research and Cooperation and Conflict, are edited respectively at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo and Lund University in Sweden.

While their counterparts in countries like the USA and Australia are still considered to be politically on the left, the Nordic institutes are increasingly being consulted by their governments on matters pertaining to international conflict. There is one exception to this, that is: COPRI in Copenhagen was deprived of its government funding and forced to close down in 2002, though some of its activities continue nonetheless, in other constellations, notably at the Danish Institute for International Studies. 

Peace studies are also pursued outside purely academic research institutes. Many of the non-vocational ‘folk high schools’ offer courses in peace and conflict management, and the Nansen College at Lillehammer has actively solicited students from the conflict-torn Balkan region and been involved in peace-building locally as well.

The development of peace research in the Nordics, long seen as a subversive left-wing activity, has arguably contributed to the relatively high skill in conflict management and peace negotiation displayed by Nordic professionals working either for governments, the UN or for NGOs. Many top executives in powerful international NGOs have a background in Nordic peace research; to mention but one example, Jan Egeland, the emergency relief coordinator of the UN (2003–06), and subsequently the incumbent of other important posts in the NGO world, did his postgraduate studies at PRIO.

Further reading:

  • Peter Wallensteen, Peace Studies: Theory and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011).

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