Defining Peace

Cynthia E. Smith

Peace is not a static condition but a dynamic and complex process that can be built, nurtured, and achieved in a multitude of ways, in different contexts, and at various physical scales—from interpersonal, local, and community levels to national, international, global, and even interterrestrial dimensions.

Peace can be internally or externally focused. It can be fragile or sustainable. As an ideal, peace can inspire and clarify principles. In 1956 the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. said, “True peace is not merely the absence of . . . tension, but the presence of justice.”[1] Johan Galtung, the founder of peace studies, described negative and positive forms of peace in 1964, in the first issue of the Journal of Peace Research. Negative peace, he wrote, is defined by what is not there: the absence of violence and of war. Positive peace is defined by what is there: the presence of social justice, of equality, and of harmonious social relations.[2]

The Institute for Economics and Peace, an Australian think tank, publishes an annual Positive Peace Index that tracks key drivers of peace by country. It further expands the definition of positive peace, describing it as an active condition that comprises “the attitudes, institutions, and structures which create and sustain peaceful societies.”[3] Alternately, the research organization Everyday Peace Indicators takes a bottom-up, participatory approach in which communities define and measure peace for themselves.[4]

Activists and scholars point to a gendered dimension of peace. For Helen Kezie-Nwoha, an African feminist peace activist, one key aspect of “feminist peace” is the absence of structural violence—pervasive forms of violence built into social structures and institutions.[5] Feminist peace and conflict theory also points to the interconnectedness of violence of every type, whether domestic, societal, state-based, or interstate.[6] Canadian pacifist and feminist Ursula Franklin articulated a connection between peace, escalating militarization, and human experience, defining peace “not as the absence of war, but as the presence of justice and the absence of fear.”[7] Rosario Padilla, a Philippines-based women’s peace activist, calls for a “genuine peace,” which she defines as a state in which the majority of the world—women—can live their full humanity without oppression and repression.[8]

Not a passive concept, peace can destabilize by subverting the status quo.[9] To counter injustice in his native Mexico, peace researcher Pietro Patella introduced the concept of “disobedient peace.” He outlines an engaged peace process that collectively builds knowledge, questions the normalized social order and blind obedience to authority, develops a moral and social identity, and calls attention to injustice through acts of defiance, disobedience, and noncooperation with inhumane social orders.[10]

Cynthia E. Smith

Cynthia E. Smith is Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Curator of Socially Responsible Design. She integrates her training as an industrial designer with her advocacy on human rights and social justice issues, organizing a humanitarian-focused design exhibition and publication series, serving on international design juries, and lecturing widely on socially responsible design.


[1] Martin Luther King Jr., “‘When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,’ Sermon Delivered on 18 March 1956 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. 3, Birth of a New Age, December 1955–December 1956, ed. Clayborne Carson et al. (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1992), 208.

[2] Johan Galtung, “An Editorial,” Journal of Peace Research 1, no. 1 (1964): 1–4.

[3] “What Is Positive Peace?,” Institute for Economics and Peace,

[4] “The Everyday Peace Indicator research approach is a new means of understanding and tracking changes in difficult-to-measure concepts like peace, reconciliation, governance, and violent extremism. Instead of outside experts and scholars developing indicators of success, communities themselves are asked to establish their own everyday indicators. . . . This approach is driven by the premise that communities affected by war know best what peace means to them and therefore should be the primary source of information on peacebuilding effectiveness.” “What Is the Everyday Peace Indicators Approach?,” Everyday Peace Indicators,

[5] Helen Kezie-Nwoha, “What Feminist Peace Means in Changing Contexts of Conflicts,” African Feminism, June 28, 2019, For a further definition of structural violence, see Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969): 167–91.

[6] Annette Weber summarizes feminist peace and conflict theory in an unpublished 2006 essay. Weber, “Feminist Peace and Conflict Theory,”

[7] Ursula Franklin, interview by Anna Maria Tremonti, The Current, CBC Radio, May 6, 2010, in Ursula Franklin Speaks: Thoughts and Afterthoughts, ed. Sarah Jane Freeman (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), n.p.

[8] Rosario Padilla, “Feminist Perspective on Peace and Security in the 21st Century,” Transnational Institute (TNI), July 18, 2005,

[9] Catia Cecilia Confortini makes this observation in “What Is Feminist Peace?,” Chapter 1 of Intelligent Compassion: The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Feminist Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 7, pointing to the scholarship of J. Ann Tickner: “Feminist Perspectives on Peace and World Security,” in Peace and World Security Studies: A Curriculum Guide, 6th ed., ed. Michael T. Klare (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1993), 43–54; and “Introducing Feminist Perspectives into Peace and World Security Courses,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 23, no. 3 (Fall 1995), 48–57.

[10] Pietro Ameglio Patella, “Paz desobediente: No-cooperación hacia las órdenes inhumanas,” Polisemia 14, no. 26 (2019): 1–26. For an analysis of Patella’s work in English, see “Disobedient Peace as a Form of Non-Cooperation with an Inhumane Social Order,” Peace Science Digest, May 19, 2020,