“Peaceful societies demonstrate that human beings clearly have the capacity for living with very little violence and for dealing with conflicts without aggression,” Douglas Fry will argue tomorrow. In a presentation at an important conference in Denmark, he will also maintain that nonviolent societies provide “specific insights about ways to reduce violence.”

Fry will present an invited plenary paper on Friday, August 22, 2008, titled “Conflict and Its Resolution in Peaceful Societies: Lessons from Anthropology” at the conference “Understanding Conflicts—Cross-Cultural Perspectives.” The conference, underway this week at the University of Aarhus, in Aarhus, Denmark, has been organized with the purpose of exploring “cultural differences in approaches to conflict as articulated in theories and implemented in social practices.” The conference is focusing “on the analysis of cultural diversity in conceptions of conflict as documented in theoretical models of empirical research…”

Fry’s paper, based on his extensive research on peaceful societies, will present some key ideas to the conference delegates. He teaches in the Faculty of Social and Caring Sciences at Abo Akademi University in Finland and is an adjunct research scientist in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona. He will divide his talk into four sections.

He will open with a prologue, what he calls “the Unicorn Factor,” the tendency of some writers to deride as myth the concept that peaceful societies exist. “Neither in history nor around the globe today is there evidence of a truly peaceful society,” he will quote from one of those Hobbesian thinkers.

The first major section of his presentation will be to expand on his argument that peaceful societies really do exist. People in internally peaceful societies, he says, deal with conflicts by separating from one another, by finding ways to tolerate their differences, by discussing problems and finding solutions, by having third parties mediate their disputes, and so on.

Fry will cite several of the societies presented in this website, but of perhaps even more interest, he will mention numerous other societies that could be included here in the future. In addition to citing the Hutterites, Paliyans, and Batek as existing peaceful societies, he will discuss the Pemon of Venezuela, a society which rarely has a homicide and which does not participate in warfare.

He quotes Thomas (1994) about the Pemon, who “do not approve of anger or displays of hostility….The dispersion of settlements acts in concert with the tendency to avoid interaction between disputants to ensure that the main means of social control is not allowing the conflict to break out in the open in the first place (p.272-273).”

His second major section will present some facetious suggestions of ways that scholars can make internally peaceful and non-warring societies disappear altogether. After all, they raise problems for anyone who wants to argue that humans are naturally aggressive, violent, and warlike.

One of the ways the proponents of that viewpoint can get rid of the awkward existence of peaceful societies is to figuratively sweep them under the rug. Simply don’t mention them when discussing the universality of human warfare and violence. Another way to overcome the evidence in the literature is to argue that a peaceful society must have an absolute standard of nonviolence—even a single instance of violence disqualifies the people from being defined as peaceful.

Peaceful societies can also be disqualified by conflating violence with conflict, as Betzig and Wichimai did (1991). Then a society such as the Ifaluk can be defined as a violent people no matter how few actual instances of violence can be documented.

There are other ways of debunking peaceful societies. One is to falsify the numbers to exponentially exaggerate the rate of violent episodes that may have occurred. Another is to mis-define various forms of aggression as warfare. Still another is to confuse historical accuracy—that is, to misapply warfare or violence from past eras into present times by assuming that societies do not change. As he debunks these notions, Fry will enrich his arguments with many interesting examples and slides.

The third section of his presentation will analyze the ways that peaceful societies minimize conflict and violence. The first major factor in promoting a peaceful society, he says, is the belief system of the people. A good example he will mention is the Hopi pattern of valuing harmony, good thoughts, and humility. He quotes Schlegel (2004) about the Hopi: “anger and violence have no part in the life of a humble person who respects the autonomy of others.”

A second factor that helps build peaceful societies is the socialization pattern of young people. He quotes the work of Howard (1990) about Rotuma: “Some of the central factors that keep disputes from escalating into violent confrontations …include a pattern of socialization that minimizes aggressive dispositions, a set of culturally sanctioned beliefs that promises immanent justice for wrongdoing, social provision for mediation when impasses occur, and the custom of faksoro—a ritual that, under most circumstances, must be accepted by the aggrieved party… (p.268-269).”

A third factor is effective conflict resolution. After citing fascinating literature about the Semai, the Paliyans, and the Nubians, Fry will discuss the conflict resolution techniques of the internally-peaceful Norwegians. He cites Dobinson (2004), who indicates that Norway has a low rate of homicides, suicides, labor strikes, and other types of internal violence. “Peace is highly valued in Norwegian society,” Dobinson writes (2004, p.160). The Norwegians have local conflict councils that generally mediate and resolve disputes effectively.

Fry will conclude his presentation by emphasizing that peaceful societies are indeed possible—they do exist. Non-warring societies demonstrate that it is possible to live without warfare. A careful study of these societies might suggest ways that other people could become more peaceful.

The conference organizers state that they intend to publish the presentations in peer-reviewed books and journals. Hopefully, Fry’s outstanding contribution will be included.