The Social Sciences

Violence is a central problem for most, if not all, of the social sciences, but the perspective we take can contribute to the conclusion that violence is simply endemic to our world, and that little can be done to change this. Both political science and economics, for example, have promoted the assumption that humans are primarily driven by greed, competitiveness and aggression. History is often taught as a progression of wars, while psychology can encourage an excessive individualizing of the problem of violence, contributing to a sense of pessimism about whether the construction of a nonviolent society is really possible. All of the social sciences must play an essential role in any educational initiative to promote a more peaceful world.


  • A discussion of the psychological roots of prejudice demonstrates the danger of the societal manipulation of differences, but an examination of our positive emotions and the ways in which our empathy can be activated provides room for optimism. (Useful resources can be found at and the University of California’s Greater Good Science Center.)
  • Ervin Staub’s work on collective violence draws out the important relationships between individual and societal factors, while his work on the psychological factors that allow for reconciliation and forgiveness to occur between enemies is inspiring and would make a fascinating case study to examine human emotions.
      • Read Staub’s articles on promoting reconciliation in Rwanda which are available on his website.
      • Watch the powerful film, Fambul Tok, which looks at community-based reconcilation efforts in Sierra Leone. You can also watch excerpts of the film and a larger discussion of the potential of forgiveness and reconciliation by Fambul Tok cofounder Libby Hoffman by clicking here.
      • Read Michael McCullough’s article, “The Forgiveness Instinct” on how both a desire for revenge and a tendency to forgive are an essential part of human nature.


  • Our attitudes towards violence are complicated and quite contradictory in large part because, while we recognize the suffering it inflicts, violence remains largely accepted in society. How are we socialized to accept violence? This is a large question, but an interesting focus might be to look at violent video games from a critical perspective.
      • The video game industry, similar to the film industry, has extremely close links to the US military, which, for example, spent millions on a video game, America’s Army, which was constructed to its precise specifications as a recruitment tool. To begin a conversation in class about the social implications of war-themed video games, see this teacher’s handout from the Media Education Foundation.
      • An examination of the methods used to prepare soldiers for war reveals that killing does not come naturally to human beings. The 1982 NFB film, Anybody’s Son Will Do, remains a classic, but, since its production, violent video games have come to play a central role in recruit training (see the interview with Lt. Col. Grossman on our media violence page).
      • Another central issue is the extent to which new military technologies, like night vision goggles and other virtual technologies, are turning the battlefield into a video game. Much of this footage is then replayed at night for the television spectator as the gap between war and entertainment narrows.
      • Read David Leonard, “Unsettling the Military Entertainment Complex: Video Games and a Pedagogy of Peace,” Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education 4.4 (2004): 1-8. (You can access this article by clicking here.) This highly provocative article challenges educators to use violent video games as teaching tools to show how ideas about gender, race, class, sexuality and national identity are shaped. At the very least, the article makes a convincing argument that violent video games need to become a subject of discussion in our classes.
  • Ideas about gender shape the power relationships in our society and contribute to the problem of violence, but the teacher who confronts these issues in the classroom can face quite a bit of resistance from both male and female students. Dealing with both conceptions of masculinity and femininity can be a useful way to confront this by illustrating how both sexes are negatively affected by gender. Taking a historical perspective or confronting gender through a more philosophical discussion of questions of authenticity, freedom and creativity can also assist in beginning the discussion.
      • Promundo is a Brazilian organization devoted to transforming masculinity that has spread internationally; its website has interesting reports on male attitudes around the world that could provide some interesting material to use in a class and help depersonalize the issue.
      • Jackson Katz’s film, Tough Guise, remains an excellent resource to introduce masculinity to students, while the magazine, New Internationalist, also published a recent edition that focused on the changing nature of masculinity, and a few of its very accessible articles are available on line.
      • The short film below is a wonderful introduction to the global struggle for women’s rights. Kavita Ramdas introduces us to some powerful women in Afghanistan, Croatia and Liberia, who are challenging not only their own society’s views on women, but some of our own assumptions about them.

Click here to see the full size video



  • An anthropological perspective is an essential contribution to an educational initiative for peace and the discipline can provide insight into the diversity of our relationships to violence. We may think that violence and war are innate features of all human societies, but anthropologists reveal that this conclusion is too simplistic by showing the creative ways in which cultures — past and present — have found to nonviolently respond to conflict. Douglas Fry’s The Human Potential for Peace challenges many of our deepest assumption about violence through his discussion of peaceful societies, cultures which are not devoid of violence altogether, but have far lower rates due to their delegitimization of violence and promotion of nonviolent methods of conflict resolution. The website presents information on some of the most researched ones.
  • Anthropology’s focus on the construction of culture can shed light on the ways in which war and violence are legitimized through the manipulation of powerful symbols.
  • Carolyn Nordstrom’s 2004 book, Shadows of War, stands out and demonstrates the value of the anthropologist’s effort to have people tell their own stories. Nordstrom’s work in the war zones of the world, her efforts to show how war is “lived, felt, and died” (43), gives readers a sense of the real impact of war on the innocents caught in its crossfires, while revealing many insights on such issues as the limits of the power of governments and the nature of peacebuilding.

Religious Studies

  • The major religions have had an ambivalent relationship to war. Religions have provided strong ethical foundations for pacifism and contributed to an understanding of peace that include both a rejection of violence and the promotion of social justice. However, religious belief has encouraged many to take up arms and, when connected to state power, the world’s religions have frequently supported the use of violence against others. This history needs to be examined.
  • Moreover, given the rise of religious fundamentalism throughout the world, the study of how religious faith can contribute to a peaceful world that accepts diversity and bridges divisions is of central importance. To start a conversation about religious extremism, you might want to look at Nicholas D. Kristof’s short article, “Test Your Savvy on Religion.” (New York Times, Oct 10 2010. )


  • The field of geography can expand student’s understanding of the roots of violence by addressing how resource scarcity and other environmental pressures can cause an escalation in violence. This field can draw attention to the links between environmental problems and all forms of violence. With respect to war, while the extent to which the need for resources can fuel war is widely recognized, the environmental consequences of war have been largely ignored. Even in peacetime, the world’s militaries have a massive environmental footprint and many widely-used weapons are hightly toxic. Indeed, any discussion of building a sustainable world has to include a consideration of the use of military power.


  • History has long focused on the major battles that have shaped the prospects of nations. Discussions of warfare, however, need to examine far more than famous battles and the strategies behind them, as a preoccupation with these aspects of war often serve to validate existing ideals about honour and glory in war. For us to truly learn from history, we need to get a deeper picture of the traumatic effects of warfare on individuals and societies, which can allow us to question whether there are truly winners in war.
  • There are also many histories to be told. It is important that history not be told exclusively from the perspective of governments and other elites or focus solely on the worst of what humans can do. Harvard law professor, Martha Minow, has stated that she believes that the 20th century will ultimately not be remembered for its mass atrocities, but rather for the “mounting waves of objections and calls for collective responses to mass violence” (2002: 14). An examination of the various ways in which peoples have resisted war and struggled for their rights or have worked to bring reconciliation to deeply divided societies are topics that can promote empathy for those who have suffered, while also drawing attention to their strength and resiliance, as well as to the larger human desire for justice and positive change.
  • History classes provide an important opportunity for us to critically examine our memories. Few societies fully remember their pasts, particularly those parts that involve our violations of other people’s rights, but confronting this denial and the fact that all societes’s histories are, as Nel Noddings put it in Peace Education: How We Come to Love and Hate War, “enormously complicated and morally uneven” (2012: 61) is essential. To learn the lessons of history, we must face up to our own capacity to be participants in atrocity. For example, over 60 years since the end of World War II, the victorious nations have never really been pressured to examine the ethical controversy over the devastating bombing of German and Japanese cities. Our collective memories are also constantly being reconstructed; an interesting topic for Canadians is to examine the current efforts to rebrand Canada as a warrior nation, rather than one marked by our leadership in global peacekeeping missions. Ideally, both of these narratives need to be scrutinized more fully.  (The website Facing History and Ourselves has many resources to help teachers promote empathy and moral responsibility through the study of history,)

Political Science

  • War has been a central concern for political science, which has focused much attention on the governmental decision-making that has led to war or the military strategies that have been developed to prevent it. Such discussions can effectively normalize warfare if the suffering war engenders becomes invisible. You can find a useful attempt to examine the full costs of the United States’ wars in Afganistan and Iraq at
  • In addition, a political science that is more sensitive to the role of gender can help to remind us of the costs of violence; watch the PBS Series, Women, War and Peace or have a look at the following video of Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, as she discusses women’s roles in war and the necessity of including them in peace negotiations.

Click here to see the full size video.

  • Political scientists have also promoted the idea that war can be a rational choice on the part of governments. Powerful emotions, however, also influence government leaders to use force; they are, for example, far from immune to the influence of gender that suggests that real men or great leaders use force, rather then opt for nonviolent options, such as negotiating with an enemy or seeking support from the United Nations, which have often been deemed “weak” (Cohn in Gendering War Talk 1993). A 2006 Foreign Policy article, “Why Hawks Win, by Nobel Prize winning scholar Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon (available online), looks at the rationality of decisions for war from another angle by suggesting that some very common human biases encourage us to select more aggressive choices. The realization that war can be influenced by human emotion and common biases helps to promote more caution and skepticism when governments claim that war is the only choice.


  • Studies have suggested that the lower classes give more to charity and have more empathy and sensitivity toward those who are suffering than the rich (“Lower Classes Show More Generosity than the Rich, The Montreal Gazette, August 11, 2011). While economics examines unemployment and the problem of poverty, it does so from a very distanced position. Some attempt to give students a real understanding of what it means to be poor and the impact that unemployment has on our physical and mental health would thus be a very important element to add to the study of economics. A recent book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, is replete with statistics and tables which provocatively but convincingly argue that more equal societies do much better for their citizens.
  • The field of economics can also include some insight into the militarization of our world, through a discussion of the arms trade, the increased role of private corporations in war, and the revolving door that often operates between government, the military and industry. A question of who benefits economically from war and militarization would also involve some consideration of the extent to which massive spending on the military, which globally in 2010 stood at more than 1.6 trillion dollars US, often escapes scrutiny. Canada, similar to the United States (whose spending represents about 43% of worldwide spending), has a military budget today that exceeds its levels during the Cold War (for a discussion of Canada’s recent military spending, click here).

A wonderful resource is Peace, Justice and Security Studies: A Curriculum Guide (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2009), which offers diverse examples of social science courses devoted to peace and justice issues.