Peace Processes: A Sociological Approach

June 17, 2010

John Brewer's Peace Processes: A Sociological Approach stands out for two reasons: first because it is written in an accessible, reader-friendly manner - a sign, I always think, of the author's self-confidence - and second, because it is replete with references to key writers and debates in the field of what can broadly be called international relations. It would therefore be of interest to the initiated and uninitiated alike.

Brewer's main argument is that what is generically referred to as "peace" in popular discourse in the West is in fact a very specific type of peace, which he suggests is an exported Western liberal peace that, as such, has imperialist or colonialist underpinnings. As he explains, the "coalescence between US foreign policy interests, philanthropic foundations - mostly based in the USA - and well-funded research institutes and training centres, ensures that good governance rhetoric dominates our understanding of the process of transition in post-violence societies. Good governance is important to the success of peace processes. The danger is that good governance brings with it liberal democratic notions of governance, free-market economic principles and the hegemony of the West - and particularly of the United States - in defining what constitutes peace. This makes peace quite partisan."

This "good governance" approach, as Brewer calls it, or the liberal peace as it is also known, has been critiqued for the past decade or so. However, Brewer fails to mention two leading critics of this approach, Oliver Richmond and Michael Pugh. This is a small slip in what is otherwise a very well-informed look at the literature, but it is all the more surprising given the geographic proximity of Richmond (based at the University of St Andrews) to Brewer at the University of Aberdeen and more significantly, Richmond's prolific output.

As he explains in the introduction, Brewer's main reason for writing this book is to "inform sociologists about peace processes and enlighten experts in peace processes from other disciplines about sociology". It is worth noting, however, that some of the key founding figures of peace studies - Johann Galtung, for example, who Brewer acknowledges as "the principal founder of the discipline", and Adam Curle, who in 1973 became the first professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford - advocated a multidisciplinary approach to the study of conflict and peace.

Brewer makes no mention of Curle, who published quite extensively, and he is rather dismissive of the discipline of peace studies as "primarily located within political science". It is also worth noting that conflict resolution research since Curle's time has continued to develop multidisciplinary analysis in understanding the construction of inclusive peace processes that move beyond the liberal peace blueprint. Curle's successor, Tom Woodhouse, has referred to this approach as transformative cosmopolitanism - essentially a dialogue between the local and the global levels in reaching definitions of peace.

However, I was moved by the obvious respect - I would even say love - that Brewer has for sociology and the belief that it has much to offer in addressing some of the pressing issues we face. His closing words to the book are, accordingly, in praise of sociology: "Charles Wright Mills once said that sociology cannot save the world - adding the caveat, however, that he saw no harm in trying. I take his observation to mean that if sociology cannot solve problems, it offers, nonetheless, an informed, wise and enlightened commentary on current experiences, widening our horizons beyond usual perspectives."

Brewer argues that a political peace process and a social peace process are "recursive" or mutually reinforcing. To that end, he identifies several areas that he believes must be considered more closely, including civil society, gender, emotions and memory, "truth" recovery and victimhood, as it is these "sociological issues that shape the success of the transition" from war to peace. In that process, he draws fruitfully on the experiences of Northern Ireland, South Africa, Rwanda, Sudan, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Sri Lanka.

Peace Processes: A Sociological Approach

By John D. Brewer
Polity Press, 2pp, £55.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780745647760 and 47777
Published 12 January 2010

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