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Peace and conflict studies is a social science field that identifies and analyzes violent and nonviolent behaviours as well as the structural mechanisms attending conflicts (including social conflicts), with a view towards understanding those processes which lead to a more desirable human condition. A variation on this, peace studies (irenology), is an interdisciplinary effort aiming at the prevention, de-escalation, and solution of conflicts by peaceful means, thereby seeking "victory" for all parties involved in the conflict.
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This social science is in contrast to military studies, which has as its aim the efficient attainment of victory in conflicts, primarily by violent means to the satisfaction of one or more, but not all, parties involved. Disciplines involved may include philosophy, political science, geography, economics, psychology, communication studies, sociology, international relations, history, anthropology, religious studies, and gender studies, as well as a variety of others. Relevant sub-disciplines of such fields, such as peace economics, may be regarded as belonging to peace and conflict studies also.
Peace and conflict studies is both a pedagogical activity, in which teachers transmit knowledge to students; and a research activity, in which researchers create new knowledge about the sources of conflict. Peace and conflict studies entails understanding the concept of peace which is defined as political condition that ensures justice and social stability through formal and informal institutions, practices, and norms.
Academics and students in the world's oldest universities have long been motivated by an interest in peace. American student interest in what we today think of as peace studies first appeared in the form of campus clubs at United States colleges in the years immediately following the American Civil War. Similar movements appeared in Sweden in the last years of the 19th century, as elsewhere soon after. These were student-originated discussion groups, not formal courses included in college curricula. The first known peace studies course in higher education was offered at Swarthmore College in 1888.
After World War II, the founding of the UN system provided a further stimulus for more rigorous approaches to peace and conflict studies to emerge. Many university courses in schools of higher learning around the world began to develop which touched upon questions of peace, often in relation to war, during this period. The first undergraduate academic program in peace studies in the United States was developed in 1948 by Gladdys Muir, at Manchester University a liberal arts college located in North Manchester, Indiana. It was not until the late 1960s in the United States that student concerns about the Vietnam War forced ever more universities to offer courses about peace, whether in a designated peace studies course or as a course within a traditional major. Work by academics such as Johan Galtung and John Burton, and debates in fora such as the Journal of Peace Research in the 1960s reflected the growing interest and academic stature of the field. Growth in the number of peace studies programs around the world was to accelerate during the 1980s, as students became more concerned about the prospects of nuclear war. As the Cold War ended, peace and conflict studies courses shifted their focus from international conflict and towards complex issues related to political violence, human security, democratisation, human rights, social justice, welfare, development, and producing sustainable forms of peace. A proliferation of international organisations, agencies and international NGOs, from the UN, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, European Union, and World Bank to International Crisis Group, International Alert, and others, began to draw on such research.
Agendas relating to positive peace in European academic contexts were already widely debated in the 1960s. By the mid-1990s peace studies curricula in the United States had shifted "...from research and teaching about negative peace, the cessation of violence, to positive peace, the conditions that eliminate the causes of violence." As a result, the topics had broadened enormously. By 1994, a review of course offerings in peace studies included topics such as: "north-south relations"; "development, debt, and global poverty"; "the environment, population growth, and resource scarcity"; and "feminist perspectives on peace, militarism, and political violence".
There is now a general consensus on the importance of peace and conflict studies among scholars from a range of disciplines in and around the social sciences, as well as from many influential policymakers around the world. Peace and conflict studies today is widely researched and taught in a large and growing number of institutions and locations. The number of universities offering peace and conflict studies courses is hard to estimate, mostly because courses may be taught out of different departments and have very different names. The International Peace Research Association website gives one of the most authoritative listings available. A 2008 report in the International Herald Tribune mentions over 400 programs of teaching and research in peace and conflict studies, noting in particular those at the United World Colleges, Peace Research Institute Oslo, Universitat Jaume I in Castellón de la Plana/Spain, the Malmö University of Sweden, the American University, University of Bradford, the UN mandated Peace University UPEACE in Ciudad Colón/Costa Rica, George Mason University, Lund, Michigan, Notre Dame, Queensland, Uppsala, Innsbruck School of Peace Studies/Austria, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The Rotary Foundation and the UN University supports several international academic teaching and research programs.