Transformative Change: An Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies. Laura E. Reimer, Cathryne L. Schmitz, Emily M. Janke, Ali Askerov, barbara T. Strahl, and Thomas G. Matyók. Lanham, Lexington Books, 2015. Pp. 217. [Under Review]

Given the extensive growth of the peace and conflict studies field over the last 50 years, finding a way to introduce students to the range of relevant issues can be a challenge.  An equal concern for those who teach in peace and conflict studies (PCS) programs is that they are typically located in other departments, so they often like to bring some of their disciplinary insights into their PCS courses. Fortunately, with the publication of Transformative Change: An Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies, the peace and conflict studies community has an invaluable additional resource for introducing students to this important body of diverse scholarship.

This book is a collaborative effort by Laura E. Reimer, Cathryne L. Schmitz, Emily M. Janke, Ali Askerov, barbara T. Strahl, and Tomas G. Matyók that emerged from faculty, graduate students and undergraduates in the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro. Many elements of the chapters have been used in classrooms and/or were the result of reflections on the pedagogical experiences of the faculty and students, alike. Moreover, the analysis throughout is enriched by an interdisciplinary group of authors who bring their respective insights to bear on the topics addressed.

Chapters are designed with a thoughtful pedagogical strategy. They begin with clear learning objectives, an overview and a brief introduction. The body of each chapter typically includes both a theoretical section that acquaints the reader with some of the main conceptual paradigms used in that area, as well as a practical section that addresses how these frameworks apply beyond academia. At the end of each chapter, there is a conclusion and a set of questions that encourage the reader to both review and apply the material set out in the chapter. Equally valuable are both the footnotes for each chapter, which point to additional materials covered in the particular chapters, as well as the bibliography at the end of the book.

The initial two chapters of the book introduce the field of peace and conflict studies and provide a range of theoretical models and frameworks that are used to describe and assess the nature of conflicts and how they might be transformed. Chapters 3 through 5 take up strategies for people, communities, and interpersonal relationships to constructively engage conflict evaluation and transformation. In the next four chapters, particular social practices are examined as tools to facilitate forms of conflict resolution. These include the areas of negotiation, group processes, mediation and the “multidoor courthouse,” which outlines a variety of mechanisms to resolve disagreements between parties (i.e., self-help centers, arbitration, and settlement conferences). The final three chapters of the book explore using storytelling, restorative justice practices, and artistic expression as creative means of addressing conflict in a variety of settings.

While each chapter is effective in its own way, the two on the use of stories and artistic expression stand out as particularly noteworthy. The chapter on storytelling explores a variety of narrative forms that can help create a process through which communities can construct, reconstruct, or heal from conflicts and social trauma. Some of these stories can be tied to myths and allegories, while others may take the form of constructive storytelling and truth and reconciliation commissions. As the authors note, using stories is not uncontroversial, in part due to the potential for subjectivity to enter in to interpretation. Nevertheless, stories can play a critical role in new areas of research, in approaches to community development, and in ways to make interconnections within and across the human family.

Similarly, the discussion of the role artistic expression can play in bringing about transformative change was equally illuminating. Through artistic genres, such as theatre, photography, and music, people can help raise awareness about the sources and experiences of conflict while also suggesting ways that people use alternative processes for finding peace-oriented solutions.  A strength of these two chapters, as well as several others, is that they help readers see that being concerned with peace and conflict is not merely for the “professional advocates” who work in social-justice oriented fields. All people from virtually all walks of life can find creative avenues for transforming conflicts into healthier social interactions.

From a more practical standpoint, Transformative Change is an excellent text for an introductory peace and conflict studies course because, at 217 pages, it is succinct enough to be paired with other books that can illustrate some of the issues raised in greater detail or to bring in other disciplinary perspectives. This element could be especially attractive if one does not have a stand-alone peace and conflict studies program or one’s program is interdisciplinary by design. Based on my experience, one possible concern is that some readers who don’t have extensive experience in social, political, and historical areas may find some of the material somewhat overwhelming. I used the text in a philosophy topics course that had students from all undergraduate levels in it. I found that many first and a few second year students struggled with some of the presumed knowledge throughout the text. This is not an insurmountable issue but one to be aware of when using this book.

Transformative Change provides an excellent overview of the field of peace and conflict studies. More importantly, it helps make manifest the diverse venues and practices that can be used to bring about healthier, resilient, and more peaceful relationships and communities. It is a welcome pedagogical resource for those committed to increasing understanding of conflicts and how to creatively engage and transform them.

Dr. Paul F. Jeffries
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Ripon College
[email protected]