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The geography of peace?

Queen Mary researcher says peace is more than simply the absence of war and geographers have an important role to play in understanding what peace looks like and who it is for.

Dr Philippa Williams from the School of Geography says that people tend to romanticise the idea of peace as just the end of war, yet in reality peace is far messier: “It is a precarious and ongoing process that is rife with politics,” she said. “The making of peace doesn’t just happen in diplomatic boardrooms or through the actions of international ‘peace keepers’, but is actively forged through the everyday spaces and lives of ordinary people.”

In her edited book with Nick Megoran (Newcastle University) and Fiona McConnell (University of Oxford) on the Geographies of Peace she tries to de-romanticise peace by looking at contrasting practices of peace in different parts of the world from Central Africa and Israel to India and Tibet as well as Colombia and the UK.

At a time when the news headlines are dominated by stories about the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, the crisis in Gaza, the conflict in Syria as well as state violence against citizens in the USA, Dr Williams – who is presenting at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s conference this week – said it might seem trite to talk about peace. “Only by recognising the ways in which peace is political, and intimately related to practices of power and violence can we begin to understand why peace sometimes unravels in different places at different times, and not in others.

“In the first section of the book, we think about the way in which peace narratives are contested and argue that people need to interpret notions of peace within the context in which they are imagined and circulated,” Dr Williams explained. “The second section considers different techniques of peacemaking such as top-down, diplomatic state-led initiatives as well as imperial boundary making practices, grassroots cultural identity assertion, and boycotts.” The final section examines everyday personal relations and a range of practices around the concept of coexistence.

“Geography is in a good position as a subject to think about peace in critical ways because of its emphasis on understanding action across space and scale, from the sites of international politics to the everyday arenas of home,” Dr Williams said. The book opens up new ground for investigating peace by asking what spatial factors have facilitated the success or precipitated the failure of some peace movements or diplomatic negotiations, she added.

“Why are some ideologies productive of violence in some places but co-operation in others? How have some communities been better able to deal with religious, racial, cultural and class conflict than others? And how have creative approaches to sharing sovereignty mitigated or transformed territorial disputes that once seemed intractable?”

Dr Williams explores some of the themes of her book in her third-year teaching in the School of Geography on Contemporary India: Society, politics and the economy. “I think the book will be a great asset for geography departments across the UK, Europe and USA where a growing number of scholars have begun to think more critically about what peace means for different people in different places. The volume will also be interesting for those working on and for peace in policy and research.”

Dr Williams is currently finishing a single authored book entitled Everyday Peace? Politics, citizenship and Muslim lives in India which will be published by RGS-IBG Book Series.

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