In-Depth Analysis

Peace Writ Small: Reflections on “Peacebuilding” in Iraq, Burma, Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the Balkans and Beyond

“There’s a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”

– Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Over the course of my career as a practitioner and researcher in the field known as “peacebuilding,” I have worked alongside thousands of people in conflicted societies, including in Iraq, Burma, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, the Balkans, and elsewhere. In this article, I explore a dilemma I see in the field, namely the increasingly singular emphasis on grand narratives of peace, known as “Peace Writ Large.” I fear that this frame, while valuable in many ways, may have the unintended consequence of actually undermining inquiry into and support for the powerful micro interactions that occur in even the most polarized conflicts. I argue that we must not lose sight of the power embodied in “peace writ small.”

Since the mid-1990s, approaches to theory-building, policy-making and intervention in conflict have increasingly emphasized macro, long-term societal changes, first under the rubric of “conflict transformation” and now “peacebuilding”.

Building on Johann Galtung’s fundamental concept of positive peace (meant to contrast with “negative peace,” meaning the cessation of violence), “Peace Writ Large” articulates an expansive vision, embracing human rights, environmental sensitivity, sustainable development, gender equity, and other normative and structural transformations. (Chigas & Woodrow, 2009). Anderson and Olsen (2003:12) define Peace Writ Large as comprising change “at the broader level of society as a whole,” which addresses “political, economic, and social grievances that may be driving conflict.” Lederach (1997:84), integrates Peace Writ Large into his definition of peacebuilding, which is:

“…a comprehensive concept that encompasses, generates and sustains the full array of processes, approaches and stages needed to transform conflict toward more sustainable, peaceful relationships…Metaphorically, peace is seen not merely as a stage in time or a condition.  It is seen as a dynamic social construct.”

The focus in this article does not allow space for a full discussion of the rich dialogues and debates relevant to peacebuilding or Peace Writ Large. That said, I note that in my own work I have found that this meta approach expands our tools of engagement and pushes us to move beyond official “Track I” diplomacy and state-based mechanisms, to involve civil society, youth, women, faith leaders and others left out of traditional approaches to violent conflict.  I have worked with university educators in Iraq, police in Northern Ireland, resistance leaders in Burma, human rights defenders in Maldives, Lebanese youth, international observers in the West Bank, development practitioners in Timor-Leste, and others, to support them in articulating and strengthening their own roles in relation to peace. I have seen how a broad view of peacebuilding is critical for deeply transforming intractable conflicts.

However, I see that this trend also presents serious problems for theory and practice. Fundamentally, the problem comes down to what is being noticed and privileged in research and practice. As the lens widens to embrace a grander narrative of peace, dynamics of conflict and violence appear even more monolithic and without solutions. The fragile seams and small spaces, in which people and institutions do take enormous risks to engage across conflict lines, are overlooked or disregarded. They are obscured like hairline cracks in a massive obelisk.  These cracks represent micro peace capacities that must be noticed, analyzed, and strengthened. In fact, a recent report by a leading institution in the field explicitly prescribes this approach: “Rather than focusing on micro-level interventions, a systems approach to peace allows for macro-level planning and cumulative impact.” (Alliance for Peacebuilding, 2012:6)  My concern is that the increasing focus on Peace Writ Large actually leads us away from the very sites that offer some of the most innovative and powerful opportunities to change the dynamics of intractable conflict. I suggest that this could be one of many reasons that observers write increasingly of “incomplete” and “unconsolidated” peace (Daadler & Froman, 1999).

Therefore, I suggest we explore the power of the small in the context of the monolithic. Important preliminary research has already been done on the impacts of “peace writ little,” defined as “a local or community level of sustainable peace…coming from work on more effective mechanisms for resolving interpersonal disputes, land conflicts…or political, cultural and/or ethnic tensions at a local level.” (CDA Reflecting on Peace Practice Program, 2012:2)  However, I am here arguing for the need to look at an even more granular level of interaction, at what might be termed “peace writ small”.

Several social theorists have worked to illuminate the intrinsic power of the very small. In Violence, his epic exploration of the dynamics of social violence, Randall Collins focuses on micro interactions and face-to-face encounters, from muggings to the 9/11 cockpit fights. In explaining the importance of interaction, versus structures or institutions, Collins argues that, “…everything we have hitherto referred to as ‘structure’…can be found in the real behavior of everyday life, primarily in repetitive encounters. (Collins, 2008:17)

Social psychologist Peter Coleman’s groundbreaking work on intractable conflict focuses primarily on broad systemic and structural concerns.  However, some key concepts in his “Attractor Landscape Model” shed light on the power of micro interactions. For instance, “latent attractors”, are small but important anomalies in the conflict narrative. Individuals who transgress conflict norms to do business with enemies, serendipitous encounters, and mundane, (if hidden) interactions go against the script of the hegemonic conflict narrative. He calls these “latent attractors” because they may have the power to begin coaxing conflict out of its intractability. Coleman argues that, “These cracks in the foundation of our understanding of the conflict and of the other parties are often important sources of different information.  These latent attractors may prove to be avenues for escaping the conflict.” (Coleman, 2011:101)

Jeffrey Goldfarb’s work has influenced my own thinking and practice. Goldfarb describes the often hidden political power of everyday social interaction (Goldfarb, 2006). This power is particularly important in contexts of total institutions, authoritarian regimes, and intractable conflicts.

Goldfarb describes the overall framework as “the politics of small things.” He theorizes that everyday life is a significant domain for politics. Concurring with Foucault’s analysis, he notes that control, discipline and subversion are present and observable in everyday life. (Goldfarb, 2008).  However, Goldfarb sees something that Foucault missed: in such interactions, there are also possibilities for change. Goldfarb (2009) explains that

The politics of small things happens when people meet, speak and develop a capacity to act together on the basis of shared commitments, principles or ideals. Through these contacts, they develop political power. This power is constituted in social interaction. It has its basis in the definition of the situation, the power of people to define their social reality. In the power of definition, alternatives are constituted to the existing order of things.

He further asserts that when this power involves the “meeting of equals, respectful of factual truth and open to alternative interpretations of the problems they face,” it has the capacity to democratize relations and the social order. In my work, I have seen that these are precisely the conditions for building peace.

In illustrating the politics of small things, Goldfarb offers the example of a small group of people in an oppressive society sitting around a kitchen table, sharing frustrations, identifying “seams” in the smothering fabric of the regime, and discussing coping strategies. Alternative interactions, not condoned within the intractable conflict, are acted out at these tables. Therefore, these apparently mundane interactions become extraordinary sites in which people can reach outside of the constraints of repression and conflict. If we peer into markets, theaters, hospitals, pubs, schools, and even military checkpoints, Goldfarb asserts that we may see that “…people make history in their social interactions…democracy is in the details.” (Goldfarb, 2006:1) I have repeatedly found this to be the case in some of the world’s worst conflicts.

Microscopes in Action

I conclude my discussion with an example of “peace writ small” and the politics of small things in action. In 2005, I led a training and dialogue on peacebuilding with a group of Iraqis involved in economic development. The participants shared some goals, but the stratifications within the group were also significant, and the group was reflective of Iraq’s demographic diversity.

The event focused on increasing community participation in economic and political development.  One hallmark of the facilitating methodology I used in this initiative is allowing participants a great deal of freedom during the process.[1] Small groups engaged, discussed, and planned action. Participants moved freely from group to group, often appearing to exit the formal process altogether. People drank tea, smoked in the garden, and shared food. To a great degree, they met as equals.

Much of the interaction appeared totally unrelated to the task. At one point, one of my Iraqi colleagues suggested I should bring order back to the apparently chaotic process. I chose to not intervene.

In the closing plenary, participants each reflected on the experience, as they passed a symbolic item (a branch from an olive tree) around the circle. When the olive branch reached a young woman from the minority Turkoman community, she began speaking in the Turkoman language, rather than in Arabic or Kurdish, the two official (and dominant) languages of the country.

Suddenly, an older Sunni Arab man interrupted loudly, scolding her for not speaking in Arabic. He shouted, “Iraqis speak Arabic! Why are you here if you are not a real Iraqi? Speak in Arabic!” This man came from Baquba, a city that had seen intense violence. As we had agreed to allow people to conclude in any language, I reminded him not to interrupt. The woman quietly finished her comments.

When the olive branch reached the man who had interrupted, he started to say the foundational Muslim blessing, often invoked at important moments: “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim – In the name of God, most Gracious, Most Compassionate…” After several words, he faltered and stopped. People prompted him with the next words of the blessing, but he held up his hand for silence. Then he started to weep, unable to complete his thoughts. He passed the olive branch to the next participant.

At the conclusion of the event, a participant complained that I had not really “taught” the group about democracy (one of their objectives). Suddenly, the elderly man who had interrupted earlier spoke up again, disagreeing strongly with the criticism. He insisted that the group had, in fact, “truly practiced democracy…because we were allowed to speak in our Mother Tongue and say what we needed to!” Others agreed, and the mood shifted to joyous celebration, unity and optimism, and away from tension and polarization.[2]

I maintain that this interaction was an example of the transformative power of the politics of small things and peace writ small. In this experience, the group transgressed the stultifying intractable conflict narratives. The historical pluralism in Iraq was re-embraced, and the ethnically divisive and anti-minority narrative of the Baath party (and of the current sectarian violence) was actively resisted. This group had met and spoken as equals, had developed a capacity to act, and ultimately had redefined the situation. This group engaged alternatives, which is miraculous in the context of intractable conflict. The man’s angry ethnocentrism, rooted in the intractable conflict narrative, had given way to tears and a renewed sense of freedom and possibility. A new narrative was enacted in that room, which, I believe, has long-ranging and important consequences for peace.


While I remain passionately committed to the optimistic vision of Peace Writ Large, I increasingly also believe in the power of the small to help guide the practice and study of peace building. A recent report by the Alliance for Peacebuilding (2012) argues that “Peacebuilding is on the cusp of a true revolution”. I concur, and I believe that the real revolution for the field will be in the details.


Peacebuilding 2.0: Mapping the Boundaries of an Expanding Field, Alliance for Peacebuilding, Fall 2012

Anderson, Mary B., Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – Or War, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 1999

Anderson, Mary B. & Olson, Laura, Confronting War: Critical Lessons for Peace Practitioners. Cambridge, MA: The Collaborative for Development Action, Inc., 2003

CDA Reflecting on Peace Practice Program. Issue Paper: “CLAIMS AND REALITY OF LINKAGES BETWEEN PEACE WRIT LARGE AND peace writ little”, 12 March 2012

Chigas, Diana and Woodrow, Peter, “Envisioning and Pursuing Peace Writ Large”, Berghof Handbook Dialogue No. 7, Peacebuilding at a Crossroads? Dilemmas and Paths for Another Generation, Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, (2009), accessed at this Web address.

Coleman, P.T., Vallacher, R., Nowak, A. and Bue Ngoc, L., Intractable Conflict as an Attractor: Presenting a Dynamical Model of Conflict, Escalation, and Intractability (June 1, 2005). IACM 18th Annual Conference.

Coleman, Peter T., The Five Percent: finding solutions for seemingly impossible conflicts, New York: Public Affairs, 2011

—- “Polarized Collective Identities: A Review and Synthesis of the Literature”, International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, Teachers College Columbia University, p.3

Collins, Randall, Violence: a micro-sociological theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008

Daalder, Ivo & Froman, Michael, “Dayton’s Incomplete Peace”, Foreign Affairs

Vol. 78, No. 6 (Nov. – Dec., 1999), pp. 106-113, Council on Foreign Relations

Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980

—-Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House, 1995

Goffman, Erving, The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959

Galtung, Johann, True worlds: a transitional perspective. New York: Free Press, 1981

Goldfarb, Jeffrey, the politics of small things. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006

—- “The Sociology of Micro-politics: An Examination of a Neglected Field of Political Action in the Middle East and Beyond”, Sociology Compass, Vol. 2, Issue 6, Nov. 2008, 1816-2008

—-“Resistance and Creativity in Social Interaction: For and Against Memory in Poland, Israel–Palestine, and the United States”, International Journal of Politics Culture and Society, Springer, Vol. 22 No 2, June 2009

—-Reinventing Political Culture: The Power of Culture versus the Culture of Power, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012

Lederach, John Paul, Building peace. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1997

—-Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996

Ross, Marc Howard, Cultural contestation in ethnic conflilct. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007

Vallacher, R. R., Coleman, P. T., & Nowak, A. (in press).  “When do conflicts become intractable? The dynamical perspective on malignant social relations.”  In L. Trop (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Intergroup Conflict.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] See Harrison Owen, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008

[2] From ZM personal field notes.

  • David Janes

    I think Metz provides some valuable insights in this essay. My current research involves, in part, looking at the role that origami cranes play in promoting peace. They operate on the micro level, but have the potential to have powerful macro level effects. For instance, a small origami crane folded in 1955 by Sadako Sasaki has just recently been given to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center in Hawaii. Once formally on display, this incredibly small object will be seen by millions of individuals and perhaps help them think deeply about the suffering that takes place due to war. Perhaps it will inspire them to support micro-level efforts to prevent war, such as the Track II and Track III dialogues/interactions that Metz suggests in his article since these can operate in ways that states, through formal Track I dialogues, cannot. Several organizations are currently operating Track II dialogues with countries in Asia in an effort to promote peace in the region and to prevent such things as territorial disputes from escalating and also to find common ground regarding how to deal with, and prevent war with, North Korea. If these small efforts to promote peace in the region fail, large conflict could ensue.

    It is also important, I think, to contemplate how education fits into this notion of “peace writ small.” In his book published in 1973 titled, Toward the 21st Century: Education for a Changing World, Amb. Edwin O. Reischauer, wrote about how the education of young children can matter more than contemporary balance of power challenges that absorb so much of our time and attention. He points out how children, through primary and secondary education, and over the course of years, develop views of the world, including stereotypes and prejudices, that they will carry with them throughout their entire lives. While it is perhaps forty years into the future, what kids learn in school while youth (a micro-level issue), has the potential when they are leaders in different fields to play a significant role in shaping the world in which we (and more importantly perhaps, they) live in (a macro-level issue).

    Small changes over long periods of time deserve just as much attention as due large changes that occur quickly. Earthquakes, bombs, revolutions, captivate us. But we should also find captivation in the ways in which slow drops of water over millions of years can decimate mountains, or how small ideas can slowly grow and change societies in unanticipated ways.