Confusing “No Violence” with “Good News”


Over at Political Violence @ a Glance my friend David Cunningham sort of drinks the Kool Aid offered by my friends at Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), confusing the absence of violence with a positive state of human affairs.  This is disturbingly common among contemporary Peace Science scholars, and very much a hobby horse of mine.  Because he is the intellectual patriarch at UCDP I will pin this tendency at UCDP on Peter Wallensteen (pictured with me above at UCDP), with whom I had the distinct pleasure to interact regularly last fall while on sabbatical at Notre Dame.

So what, precisely, is my beef?  The absence of violent conflict is not a uniform category: it can be usefully divided into two types. Though I do not favor ideal type conceptualization, it is convenient, so I will use it here.  One of those two ideal types we can call harmony: people’s interests overlap sufficiently that the disagreements that exist can be settled to mutual agreement via some non-violent means.  The other ideal type we might oppressed quiescence: some portion of society is dissatisfied with the status quo, but is cowed from acting collectively to challenge it because the state’s coercive apparatus and, in many cases, those of civil society, cow them into submissive quiescence and the adoption of everyday forms of resistance.

Why do I describe Cunningham’s post today as sort of drinking the Kool Aid?  Because he offers this qualification:

There are all sorts of caveats to this discussion. One is the point brought up by Christian Davenport in his response to Stephen Pinker’s book—we do not have systematic data on what states are doing to their populations. The 500,000 plus Rwandans killed in 100 days in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide, for example, are not included in the Lacina and Gleditsch data nor in the UCDP battle-deaths data. It is possible that, without facing the threat of armed dissent, states can get away with more than they were able to in the past and so that bad behavior on the part of states has actually increased.

Excellent.  But I want more.  The standard analysis of which the majority of Cunningham’s post is but one of many examples fails because it implicitly assumes that only one category of “peace” exists; it implicitly rejects my claim that we should conceptualize an absence of violent conflict as composed of two types; it implicitly claims that Johan Galtung’s structural violence concept is unhelpful.  And I flatly disagree.  Indeed, any analysis of trends in conflict that examines only violent conflict versus not violent conflict is a poor analysis that, in my view, leaves us worse off.


And so I beseech everyone who studies violent conflict to add to their list of mantras: “No Justice, No Peace.”  This point has been made many, many times, in a variety of fora, and is widely distributed.  Let’s begin with Hannah Arendt:

Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.

Here is Malcolm X (I am blending two distinct quotes here):

I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against… [but] I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem just to avoid violence.

Those of you feeling Irie will remember Brother Bob Marley putting the highlight of Halie Selassie’s 1963 speech to the UN to music:

That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned: That until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained; And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.


About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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8 Responses to Confusing “No Violence” with “Good News”

  1. nonviolentconflict says:

    Reblogged this on NonviolentConflict.

  2. Love the justice angle. When I discuss violent conflict in my classes, I always open with the question “what’s the opposite of conflict?” with the answer from students invariably being “peace”. If one assumes (as I do) that most or arguably all social and political relationships of consequence can be described in terms of rational (not to be confused with competitive) interplay, the opposite of “conflict” is “cooperation” (your ideal type harmony?) with both relationships and everything in between on a continuum. The presence of violence in this world is really epiphenomenal–a tactic used in relationships that can be described as conflictual by virtue of interests, information, and a larger strategic context (read: imposed games). The absence of violence then indeed says little about conflict or–importantly as it relates to intervention–the risk of violence in t+1.

    Are we in harmony?

    • Will H. Moore says:

      Harmony? Don’t push it! 😉

      I struggle with terms discussing this stuff: have never settled on a set of concepts that I really like. Hence the use of ideal types in the post. But, yes, we are seeing things similarly, though your conflict — cooperation continuum, and epiphenomena comments go well beyond what I was trying to communicate, and, well, that gets complex fast (a rung or two higher up the ladder of abstraction than I typically like to climb). But, yes, I am very sympathetic to that sort of thinking.

  3. David Cunningham says:

    I appreciate this, Will, and agree with a lot of it. However, I do have one issue. Your argument essentially is that there are two main types of violence–physical (in this discussion taking the form of armed conflict) and structural and that we focus too much on the former and not enough on the latter. I agree entirely. However, the rest of the post seems to suggest that the decline in physical violence could mean an increase in structural violence, and then that the decline in armed conflict would not be good news.

    This seems to me to beg an empirical question that I don’t know the answer to. Is there evidence about the relationship between physical violence and structural violence? In this case, is there evidence that the decline in armed conflict has been associated with an increase in structural violence? I see three possibilities–both physical and structural violence have declined (which is good news). Physical violence has declined and structural violence has stayed constant (which I think is still good news, but not as good as it would appear by just looking at physical violence). Physical violence has declined but structural violence has actually increased (which suggests that the decline in armed conflict is actually deceptive and, depending on the magnitude of the increase in structural violence and some weighting of the two, it may not be good news at all). I think this is a very important question, but to my knowledge we don’t know the answer. I like the quotes you provide a lot, but would be interested in the data. Thoughts?

    • Will H. Moore says:

      “Your argument essentially is that there are two main types of violence–physical (in this discussion taking the form of armed conflict) and structural and that we focus too much on the former and not enough on the latter.” Nicely put! I guess I did not see the rest of the post implying that very strongly, but that may be me. In any case, yes. @CentAmPolMike tweeted me “Fair to say that we don’t know whether the absence of violent conflict is a good or bad thing? Or good/bad for whom?” and I suspect you will agree with him.

      As for data, we have some conceptual work to do: off the top of my head I cannot think of a project that undertook to measure structural violence, but there are projects underway to measure “peace”: Pat Regan, Christian Davenport, and Peter Wallensteen & Erik Melander each have projects underway to do so. I have not read any of their papers, so my familiarity is based only on a few conversations.

      In the absence of full blown projects, to model the level of structural violence in a country I would begin by thinking about the costs to collective action imposed by institutions: civil and political liberties and a powerful judiciary are places to begin. Second, I would include states’ respect for human rights (first and second generation). Third, I would use projects like the Ehtnic Power Relations and/or Minorities at Risk project to get at levels of discrimination.

      Lastly, split population models might be of some statistical value: my argument suggests that there are two types of zeros in the conflict variables produced by projects like UCDP, and one could evaluate the usefulness of the three types of variables above that I identify to identify which country–years with a value of zero are which type.

      If you (DC, or any reader) like those ideas, please, by all means, pursue them (or hand them off to a talented PhD student), because my plate is full. 🙂

  4. Cullen says:

    This was one of the motivating factors behind Idean’s and my decision to collect data on social conflict – a much broader range of contentious outcomes including protests, riots, strikes, government repression, and extra-governmental violence, such as ethnic rioting – in Africa: the Social Conflict in Africa Database (, apologies for the self-promotion). Once you integrate these data with the UCDP project data, you get a better (though not perfect) sense of how harmonious a society would be, to use your terminology. For instance, while Kenya has been relatively “peaceful” according to the armed conflict data (a 1982 coup being the only instance of armed conflict), the picture is very different when viewed from the perspective of SCAD: lots of ethnic violence related to elections, significant violence associated with cattle raiding and land conflicts. The absence of armed conflict does not equal the presence of peace.

  5. Joakim Kreutz says:

    First, I am the first to concede that there are problems with all data collection attempts – especially if the ambition is to cover multiple countries over long time-series – but that “coding something else instead” is not a viable solution to them. UCDP codes violence and peace making efforts – including violence in the form of election violence, cattle raiding, genocide/repression and so forth (but we include those as non-state conflict or one-sided violence rather than as armed challenges against the state because they, well, aren’t the same as armed challenges against the state…) (see;

    Second, while you mention that there are two 0’s in the data (no violent conflict without structural violence + no violent conflict with stuctural violence), you fail to discuss that their are also two 1’s in the data (violent conflict without structural violence + violent conflict with structural violence). Thus, if someone wants to focus on the presence of structural violence, they should not just focus on ostensibly “non-violent” cases but also whether structural violence exist during conflict. Based on my fieldwork (Burma) and other examples in the case study literature, I suspect that it is even more prominent in such situations than when no violence is present but that is of course open for debate/research. However, regardless of the level of structural violence in society, seeing a decline in the amount of people openly killed in conflict (or in one-sided violence, or in non-state conflict) cannot be viewed as anything other than an improvement, right?

    • Will H. Moore says:

      Thanks for your comment. I like your fist point quite a bit as I don’t recall having fully considered the joint distribution of structural violence and conflict as generally conceived in our field (e.g., COW, UCDP, and so on), yet I should have. Reflecting on it I think I have not because I suspect that conflict in the absence of strucutral violence is an empty set. But one could evaluate my belief by estimating a bivariate probit version of what I mentioned in my reply to David, above (or is it more complex than that?).

      Second, if by “regardless of the level of structural violence in society,” you mean “ceteris paribus,” then yes: “seeing a decline in the amount of people openly killed in conflict (or in one-sided violence, or in non-state conflict) cannot be viewed as anything other than an improvement, right?” But, and this is the crux of my “beef,” I think it is important to explicitly qualify “ceteris paribus.” That is, without the ceteris paribus clause, then no, I do not agree: I am unable to make a judgment without further information. This is the key point: an absence of violent conflict favors the status quo.* Some may argue that no single human life is worth revising the status quo, but I do not subscribe to that view. To me the answer to that question depends upon the status quo.

      * Qualification: barring the existence of a non-violent mass protest movement. My guess is that few such movements exist in the absence of violence, though we can certainly think of prominent examples. It would be interesting to check this using UCDP’s data and Chenoweth’s data on non-violent campaigns (I always forget the title of that project). Regardless, these events are rare and thus qualify only a small portion of any given spatial-temporal domain.

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