Johan Galtung is recognized as being a primary founder of Peace Studies, as well as an important contributor to the development of the parallel field of conflict resolution. While issues of war and peace have been discussed by scholars since the beginning of the academic enterprise, Peace Studies as a field not only addresses issues of peace and violence, but does so following two nested concepts coined by Galtung.The first of these is the distinction between positive and negative peace and the second the distinction between direct, structural, and cultural violence. Most peace organizations during the Cold War, most notably the United Nations, sought peace as the absence of violence. Peace was declared when fighting ended. Galtung’s contribution was to recognize that a society could be free of overt fighting while still being a horrible place to live. The explanation for this is Galtung’s second contribution.

He recognized that physical violence (what he called “direct violence”) was not the only kind of violence to which individuals are subjected. By approaching violence as “the difference between the potential and the actual,” he saw that the world was filled with violence that is not physical. He called this “structural violence”.Structural violence is that which keeps people from achieving their potential when such achievement is possible.

As an example, Galtung would see poverty as structural violence, when specific policies that produce poverty can be identified.Later, Galtung added the notion of “cultural violence” to this. Cultural violence is:The aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence – exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science (logic, mathematics) – that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence.Cultural violence produces direct and structural violence, but direct and structural violence can also produce cultural violence.

Galtung sees these three as mutually reinforcing.While for Galtung negative peace is the absence of direct violence, positive peace is only possible when there is an absence of all three kinds of violence. He recognizes that this is a directional goal and that pure positive peace is impossible (and maybe even undesirable). Peace Studies is one component of the work that intends to produce positive peace.

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