Elise Boulding

Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Dartmouth College and Former Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association

Topics: networking, peacemaking, conflicts in history

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: Could you give me a fairly brief overview of your work?

A: I would say my 18 years as a full time homemaker; peace building in the family, and raising kids to be peacemakers was a very important part of my life. I've always learned a lot from kids. I've done a lot of research on NGO's and the role they have played on civil society; locally, nationally and internationally. I've studied a lot different fields, including women, fields of development, and especially the development of peace culture through history. I've written two books about the underside concept of women through history, and then peace culture, the hidden side of history. So I think of peace culture and I think of women as hidden parts of society that are absolutely essential to their survival. I've also done a lot in future studies. The activity of networking has been a major part of what I have done through the years as well.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about an experience in your research that has especially touched and inspired you?

A: I think that one thing that was very important to me when I was teaching and that I learned so much from, was beginning to emphasize experiential learning, I was teaching peace studies in Dartmouth. My idea was that students could learn best about making peace and building peace and conflict resolution by experiencing them first hand. So the kind of assignments I would assign was to give them a list of all the local international NGO's and have them choose one where they would apprentice themselves for the term. Very often these NGO's themselves didn't know a lot about their own international office. I am talking about ??? New Hampshire, which is sort of way up north there. When they discovered here was this local branch which they had read about, that had an international office in Geneva or Paris. When they were studying, through an internship, the students learned that they could translate what they had learned in class to what was being done in this particular group.

The students became so excited about how the system worked, they became teachers of the group because they had looked up all the information about the international headquarters and the program. They often taught the local NGO what it was about at the global level. This is a way of experiencing the NGO world. When I taught sociology of the family, I had a list of families that were willing to have the students come in. The students would sit with these families at the dinner table and record and observe the families' interactions and conversation to understand the dynamics of family life at maybe the one time of day that they were all together. I got some very valuable material from this, plus the students were very excited about it because it made them think about their own families in a different way and how diverse family cultures are. Then I would send them to playgrounds to observe children and how they handled conflicts. This would be a way of seeing children as positive actors who affect their own lives, not just being bossed around by parents or teachers, but being able to come up with their own solutions. When I saw how the students responded and grew in their own thinking about the nature of society, it was a very rewarding experience.

Q: What sort of insights did your students observe when they were with the families?

A: They saw what the important themes were of that family life. And each family was focused in a different direction. And they also saw whether it was an equal family; whether everyone participated equally, or the father dominated, or the mother dominated. They also noticed to what extent they planned things together or were just organized by the parents. It was also very important to notice the conversation they had and what went on in the community that gave them questions to which they brought home to the family dinner table. So all these conflicts in their lives would come out in various ways at the dinner table, and the students would notice how the family would process them.

Q: So I imagine that the ways people deal with conflict are bred largely within the family at the dinner table?

A: Well, to some degree, yes. But there were other influences as well.

Q: What aspects of your work have been most rewarding?

A: I suppose in some ways the networking activities I've done have been most rewarding.

IPRA, the International Peace Research Association, was founded out of the wastebasket in the Center for Conflict Resolution at the University of Michigan, which my husband had helped start. Everybody was so excited about this new field of conflict resolution and peace studies. We were getting letters from all around the world asking what was going on.

I was raising children at that time, and had not been in school because my kids were still very young. So I came as a volunteer to the office. My friends would baby-sit the kids so I could be in the office, serve coffee at their seminars, take notes about the seminars, and I got a terrific education because I had never learned anything like this at school; I was an language major. I started when the center didn't have any staff because they couldn't afford to pay.

I noticed they were throwing away all these letters from around the world, so I would rescue them. I created a newsletter for those people who wrote. These people would get back a compendium of what everyone else had been sending in. This became the International Peace Research Newsletter. After a couple of years, we met in Geneva and London to actually form the International Peace Research Association (IPRA). But it was formed out of the network created by that newsletter.

I've done more networking than anything else.

I'm a Quaker, and when we lived in Tennessee during the early 40's Quakers were spread very thinly. We never saw any other Quakers. I started writing to other Quakers, creating a newsletter to friends in the South. Then they could begin to visit each other and not feel so isolated and so alone. When the Women's Strike for Peace movement began, I was part of the first telephone network to stop nuclear testing. I realized what we needed was a newsletter because we couldn't just take notes on the telephone. This was before email. So I sent out a newsletter that helped people know what everyone else was doing.

This kind of networking empowers people to do more because they get ideas of how other people are working in their settings.

Then I networked with the Futurist community and put out a newsletter for a while for faith communities.

The last one I did was Peace Teams. I started that shortly before I moved here around 8 years ago. There were all kinds of Peace Teams around the world, Peace Brigades International, SIPA Peace Teams, Mennonite Peace Teams. They didn't know anything about each other. Mostly they were acting independently, so they were not learning from each other. I then made a list of all the different kinds of Peace Teams, created an address list, and then wrote to them saying I was prepared to start a newsletter and would they please send news of their activities. The Peace Teams newsletter was started in Colorado then I turned it over to someone else because I didn't have an office anymore and it was getting too hard to do. But in every one of these cases men and women were learning from each other about what they were doing in their different circumstances. So there has been a lot of feedback. I think networking is a great idea. I feel some how that email is a little more impersonal. I wish people could feel the level of connectedness I felt in my years of doing newsletters.

Q: So the field must have benefited tremendously just from communicating?

A: Yes. I could never have written the Cultures of Peace book without all that experience. All the feedback I got over all those years went into that book.

Q: Is there a special role for women in peace making?

A: Definitely. I did my doctoral thesis when I decided to go back to school. I needed more training so that I could teach myself and just be better prepared for all the work that I wanted to do. By then our youngest was in junior high. So the five kids were sort of on their way by then. My dissertation was on the effect of industrialization on women's roles. I studied pre-industrial societies. I studied the UN statistics and the human relations area files for stories on how far pre-industrial women could travel from home in different countries. If they were market women they might drive all over the country or even internationally.

So looking at pre-industrial societies I noticed that women were more visible and active in many of these countries than they were in developed societies. This was mostly because they were very often the farmers and merchants, so they had a whole lot of activities. But once they got colonized and westernized, women were supposed to stay home. Of course I am not saying that all indigenous societies had women who were so free, but I'm saying that I got an idea that women are doing a lot of stuff that is not visible. So I took a year of solitude, a sabbatical, and did some reading on women through history. I went right through from the early homo sapiens to hunter-gatherers and up to the present. I went through history books and data. I found that most history books didn't have anything in them about women. I learned how to look for stories of women.

As I picked up stories, I saw them in every society, including in Europe. The way western women were active didn't show up at all in the history books, but they were the ones who started hospitals, social services, and set up services for women. Anyway, the women saw the problems where the men did not. The undersides of history were showing all the things that women did. Occasionally you would have a Queen, or somebody like Joan of Arc who made it into the history books, but the actual work done by women, the contributions to society, and the creation of hospital systems, which was very much an invention of women, was not visible.

It was quite an experience to do that.

Then I just continued in all the organizations I belonged to. In all the professional organizations I belonged to I helped make a section on women. Eventually, there were special sections for women in most organizations. The status of women was that they were always the lowest paid on any college campus and rarely promoted. Women were doing a lot of work on the campus in terms of teaching and research, but they were not recognized. So I was always looking at the underside in any institution to see how much women were actually doing. One thing is obvious; I am not what they call an essentialist feminist. I don't think it is in the genes of women.

But women's social roles and how they came to be has not always been invisible because in pre-industrial times women's' roles were quite visible. They had to be better listeners. They also had to be closer observers of the environment and know where the resources were located because they bore the children and had to feed them. They also fed the men.

The fact is that they were providing these basic services, and if there was violence they had to be the protectors of the children and the house, which meant that they were always listening for what was going on.

I have discovered that all these royal marriages in Europe were all diplomatic alliances. Women were married off to princes and kings because the marrying off country wanted better diplomatic relationships with the other country. So the whole system of marriage is an alliance creation. That was true in many countries and still is. If you have the patriarchal family, women have to go into the husband's village when she is married off and then she has to keep good relations between the two villages.

Q: How does that translate into now?

A: You've heard of UN Resolution 1325, that women must be involved whenever there are peacekeeping forces. I always say to people it is because they are better listeners. Any peacekeeping station where a woman is in a decision-making role functions better because they learn how to listen to the community and figure out how things are going on. They're better listeners because they have to be. That becomes their special skill.

In my lifetime there has been an increased emphasis on women as peacemakers. I would say that this really began with Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, in which I had served as International President at one point. So I got to know a lot of the women who were working on the political and public policy level about disarmament. There were just so many different kinds of organizations. The Fellowship of Reconciliation runs a Women's Peacemaker Program, which is fabulous. It gives conflict resolution training and alternatives to violence in every country where there are members of the Fellowship. This organization is one of the oldest of the international peace NGO's. Rebecca Shelley runs a remarkable program of training.

Women don't get these skills of listening and so on, then go to another country and tell them how to behave. What they do is they go and listen. They make themselves a presence in any conflict situation. Then they combine what they know with what the women there already know and then they build up ways of working for peace. A very important part of it is the Women's Listening Circle Movement. The listening circle movement is an idea that if you are to resolve conflict you should all be sitting in a circle so you can see each other and have dialogue and settle conflicts. Instinctively, women form circles. They know that this is a way that it works.

Q: I have two questions. One,

does listening lead to peace?

Two, in a global, political system where mostly men are calling the shots, how do women get their voices heard?

A: Well, listening is an absolute precondition for conflict resolution because you have to understand how the other person sees their situation. So as you listen you begin to see how things look to them. Then you can negotiate something that deals with the conflict in a way that it takes into account their diverse needs and diverse interests.

Pointing out what women do, there becomes a slowly dawning awareness that women were playing a role all along, but were not listened to by men. So women became much more effective.

Ester Bozeroft went around the 2/3 world and studied farming and discovered that women do nearly all of the farming in every country. Once she pointed that out it became obvious that if you are going to teach development work to farmers, then you need to talk to the women. If you talk to men then you didn't teach anything.

The nunneries that existed in the Middle Ages in Europe were a tremendous opportunity for women. They enter as children, got a terrific education, wrote fascinating books, and made interesting discoveries. Calling attention to all this meant that men could see that they were developing a sense of partnerships and then teaching men about their brutality in wife abuse. So then men's networks wanted to understand themselves better. There are a whole set of men's networks who teach each other about non-violence and so on.

In terms of current politics, just because a woman is a woman doesn't mean she'll be a peacemaker, Condoleezza Rice is not a very good example. Yet, men can become masculinized by going into certain kinds of roles. You always have to remember that it's not just about being a woman; it has to be related to their actual skills.

Q: You mentioned hospitals and the listening circle dialogues forming, I wonder if in the developed world there are new roles that women play that are conducive to peacemaking?

A: There is the restorative justice movement, which goes from a punitive justice system in local courts to one where you have a community circle; women have played a very important role in changing this attitude of punishment and justice. You see what a problem women have been having when you read about the Air Force Academy in Colorado penalizing and raping women. This happens in all the military services. This has been going on all this time, but only now has this become public knowledge. These women have been abused and they have all the skills of listening and conflict resolution, which is very important for soldiers when they become occupying forces. The public consciousness about women is still growing very slowly. The Women's International League, the League of Women's Voters, and many women's organizations try to put forward women's platforms and women's priorities about what society needs. But we still have a long way to go, just as with racism. With sexism and racism, we are still a backwards society in relation to that kind of behavior.

Q: What are future studies?

A: There are a whole different array of future studies. I got into it through Fred Polak from the Netherlands who won a Council of Europe Award back in the 50's for his book on the image of the future. I happened to meet him and came to translate his book into English.

I realized that since Norwegian was my native language and I knew German, that I was capable of reading his book because it was in Dutch. So I read it, found it was very exciting, then translated it. That got me started.

His thesis was that societies that have positive images of the future are empowered by their own images to act creatively in the present. Societies that have negative images will just wither away. Of course there are many cases in between. This was such a wonderful opening that it made a difference on how people think about the future.

After I translated this book, I gave a lot of talks and and wrote a lot of articles and went to a lot of conferences. I got to know the futures community, now it has become technologically oriented (looking at where inventions will go), which I am not the least bit interested in.

I'm interested in how people picture the possibilities in their society and in their world. In the peace movement, after World War II ended, I remember going to a conference in Sweden and asking the disarmament experts, "If we really had disarmament how would the world function?" Not a single person on that panel had anything that they could say. I realized that the peace movement was working on peace without knowing what a peaceful world would look like. They didn't know what they were looking for. It would just be a world with no weapons and no war. But what kind of society would it be? What kind of institutions?

So I began these imaging workshops: stepping people 30 years into the future, giving them help with how their imaginations worked, and asking them to imagine a world in which there were no longer any weapons. Once they had done the imagining and sharing in groups, they had a picture of what this world could look like. Next they constructed a history of the time-line back to the present. Then participants have to decide what they will do, starting now, to help this process along. So everyone sits and meditates for a while then speaks aloud their commitments.

A student of mine did research on the effect of being a participant in an imaging workshop. It turned out to be her masters thesis. She passed out a questionnaire before the workshop, then another at the end, with the same questions. She went back 3 months later and administered the same questionnaire to get the answer. Then I think she did it again about 5 years later. Even 5 years later, the answers were different than they were in the pre-workshop. So it really made an impression on how people thought about the future.

So now I am doing a workshop this weekend in Massachusetts.

Q: What have you found to be the most common obstacles to the success of your work?

A: Getting overloaded. And getting impatient with people. When I can see what can be done and people just don't see it. I have to struggle with my own impatience and try to put myself into their frame of mind and realize where they are. We have to start where they are, not where I am. I try to deal with it by a very conscious stepping outside my feelings and trying to be more aware.

There are lots of other things but those are the two things that I first thought of when I saw your question.

Q: Were there any techniques that you found useful for dealing with these obstacles? How can you put yourself in a position where you can be more patient?

A: I really had to kind of try to center in myself and not be so cerebral and be more centered in my own spirit, because impatience was a cerebral impatience, I could see what we could be doing. I just had to know that the spirit of action has to grow in other people too. They have to have their own time. I don't have any magic answer for impatience because it still happens at 82; you'd think I'd know better by now. One thing I have discovered is that being patient takes energy. Impatience arises when I don't exert enough energy.

Q: Which is very demanding. Do you have a favorite success story that you want to share?

A: Yes. I think that I've already mentioned the fact that I found the image of the future workshops to be so empowering and I think I also told you the story of IPRA. The fact is that IPRA went from a network to an international NGO, which now has members in 40 countries, and the newsletter, which I began, is still being distributed. There is an international community out there now who are interested in these types of things, many of them are researchers and activists too.

Q: Do you feel that that sort of organization, which sounds a bit like a grassroots effort, is the kind of thing that can really affect change in a particular conflict region?

A: That is an interesting question. The actual dynamics of the process of listening and so on, are different than the study of the factors that impinge. So

a researcher by no means is necessarily a conflict resolution specialist. What I kept saying in IPRA is that we needed to move from the research to the practitioners and begin networking with them. As I anticipated, the practitioner networks are formed separately. I don't say that there is no interaction but that is one of the things that I am really sad about. Some of my former students are very active in these practitioner networks. It's really sad that the two are separate. I still hope that we can develop more connections.

Q: So you would like to see a filling of the gap between the researchers and the practitioners?

A: Exactly.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is beginning to do this kind of work?

A: Practice networking. I realized from the time I was married that I had developed a habit of whenever I met somebody I would categorize their interests and where they fit into the picture of the local community. Then I began to see people who should know each other because of their common interests, but didn't know each other. Then I got them together. Just very simple things like when we had the urban renewal crisis in Ann Harbor. They were going to tear down housing and put up fancy stuff but without providing for the people who had been living in them. So bringing people in to listen to each other was so important. The practice of networking is something you get better at and better at.

You remember to check out about people that you are with - that is part of good networking skills.

Practice hope and practice loving people because that is all a part of that centering and seeing each person as special. If you get irritated with them you are no good. Remember to hope.

My husband, Kenneth Boulding, always used to say, "What exists is possible." Now that is a very profound statement. What it means is that if any peaceful segment or any successful group exists that has dealt with and gotten through really difficult conflicts and done it successfully, like a family or a community or a country, it is possible. In a way it is a basic statement of fact. People are always startled when I say it although some people are getting use to me saying it now. To remember that what exists is possible, I would say to any peacemaker, and that the best example that you can think of is possible. I would advise people to take some time doing some imagining what kind of world they are working for. Doing their own personal imaging. Knowing what you are working for affects your choices and what you do now. If you are reaching a difficult decision point in your own life, then think about that image of what you are working for and which way to go in relation to that. This would not necessarily answer it, but it would help.

Q: Are there other lessons that you would care to share with us?

A: One thing that I feel very strongly about, especially since I see it being violated so often, is for people who are taking on a role of a peacemaker or a mediator or a conflict resolver to be an apprentice to the situation they go into. They really have to know where people are coming from, what is going on, what are the priorities, in order to apply what they know. But you see, many trained negotiators set themselves up as experts and say here is what you need to do.

Q: Would you call "the Road Map for Peace" designed by the US, the UN and Europe for the Middle East as something like this? In other words, if it is not designed by people that are there it seems difficult to qualify?

A: That is a beautiful example. A horrible example.

Always remember that there are two groups that maybe won't be called upon in ways they could be. One is women, and the other is children and young people.

I have learned so much over the years about children and young people's creativity in problem solving that they have picked up in their own ways. I was thrilled a few months ago, when a colleague of mine conducted a peace day in Hartford, Connecticut. More than half of the people there were school-age children or college students. Normally gatherings like that are mostly adults. The whole thing had been created by a planning committee, in which David Adams of the Culture of Peace Program at UNESCO had been the advisor. He made sure to get young people on the planning committee, and that is what made the difference. So always remember that if you don't have all generations present, especially remember women and children, in any situation that you are working for are important participants are missing. Also, I would say that the role of music and the arts is beginning to creep in all over the place. Peace poets, peace musicians, and so on. These are all reminders of what the human spirit needs. Anything that has to do with peacemaking needs that. Also have fun. Giving chance for play life and recreation. If we just get totally serious, it gets too heavy.

Q: You mentioned that a lot of the experience that was most valuable was from when you were a homemaker. I wonder if you could share some of those lessons?

A: Our house in Ann Arbor was the only one where kids were let inside the house. If they came to our house they could come in, where as the other houses the kids could only play in the street or backyard. We had a playground outside and a recreation room in our house. The reason the neighbors didn't let the kids in was because they had nice furniture and stuff. We never had fancy furniture. So I got to see kids a lot. We had a fence around the backyard. We had this fence because when our first kid was two we put him out in the backyard to play. And then the doorbell rang and it was my neighbor holding him and said that he had wondered off down the street. So we built a fence. This would be the late 40's and 50's. Gun toys already existed at this time, and the rule was that there would be no gun toys allowed in our yard. So I had a lot of chance to observe what kids were doing, how they played. I wasn't eaves dropping, but I would be very aware and of the very interesting ideas that they had. When one of my son's was in high school he convinced many of his friends to fast for a day during Vietnam. He called it Hungry for Peace. This actually spread down to kindergarten, where these kids were fasting. I had angry parents calling me saying that their kid wouldn't eat and that it was my fault. It was only for a day!

Q: I wonder how the practice of visioning the future and the imaging you were talking about relates to post-conflict zones where people feel like they've been victimized for centuries (Palestinians, Sierra Leone, Rwanda). Is that where something like imaging can play a role?

A: Let me say that a lot of the supposed ancient ethnic hatred is politically produced. Ethnic identity itself is not a cause for conflict. I just finished this very interesting peace journal that studied a number of countries with a number of different ethnic groups within Africa mostly, some in Asia, and the history of relationships between them. In the Balkans, for example, you can show that all kinds of groups have gotten along together. But when it serves the political leader's interest they can start building images of the other and denigrate it. Then they might remember some past thing. It is important to know that it is introduced politically.

There is a practice among indigenous people. Say a stranger appears on the horizon, I don't say they all do this but it is an example.. Someone in the village will go out to talk to the stranger and say who are you, where are you from, and learn a little about him/her/them. Then they are brought back to the village. The go-between will introduce the person so the community can place that person in the context of their network of how things should be and so on. This is a form of ritual contact to learn about the other and explain about oneself.

These practices are very widespread traditionally, but they are not written much about. I think that there is a lot of learning that needs to be done on how to deal with the stranger. But the history books are always emphasizing the conflicts. The stories that we get are the conflict stories. Then we get phenomena like the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was the only empire in that region, which allowed every group to follow their own faith. Whether it was Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever. They could all live by special dispensations under the Ottoman Empire. In other words, it acknowledged diversity. Things like that are not played up in the history books.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

A: I'll just add one thing. I'm very concerned what is happening to the U.N. now, really deeply concerned. I talk about the world as it is. I think so much of the fact that there are these 6 billion people and maybe about a million families who belong within the boundaries of some state; one of 191 states. But all across those state boundaries are the 10,000 ethnicities (the culture, language, and racial groups). It is those 10,000 peoples who are our human family. To think in terms of boundaries being a convenience in a certain mode of development of state systems, which are changing already, we should take away this worship of the sovereignty of states. This is so much of our trouble in coming to agreement.

Each state says "No limitations on my sovereignty." This is so difficult, but if you see what has happened in the European Union, they have set up a special commission on minority peoples in Europe. There are now several countries that are beginning to give regions self-rule. Spain for example, Catalonia has self-rule except for military defense matters. The map of Europe is essentially changing, with provinces becoming autonomous. But it is a very slow process.

A favorite concept of mine is the 200-year present, a way of thinking about change. The 200-year present began 100 years ago with the year of birth of the people who have reach their hundredth birthday today. The other boundary of the 200-year present, 100 years from now, is the hundredth birthday of the babies born today. If you take that span, you and I will have had contact with a lot of people from different parts of that span.

So think in terms of events over that span and realize how long change takes. You can see how difficult it has been to create these bodies and new ways and how in many ways we are slipping backward; but in other ways we are not. I take comfort to know that super-power hegemony has a very limited lifespan (decline and fall of Rome, the Ottoman Empire).

Q: Do you think part of the reason why the U.N. is falling apart is because it is predicated on sovereign states?

A: Yes. Well there needs to be a second assembly, a people's assembly. But how that should be designed is very difficult to figure out. There certainly should be an assembly of NGO's, but there could be several different compositions that would represent more of the people's voice, whether it be ethnic groups. The U.N. is an oversimplified body just based on nation states. I have a piece I've written on citizenship in the U.N. The U.N. was founded as "We the peoples form this union to bring an end to war." Not we the states, but we the peoples.

So I'm suggesting that we have to learn citizenship in the U.N. and then help to develop it. The best way to be active through the U.N. is through the NGO's you belong to. You pick the NGO you want to represent your concerns. I am a member of the Women's International League. I am a Quaker. I have representatives at the U.N. that I can work with. Building up and working on one's own country's policies through NGO groups to become better participants in the U.N. enterprise: this is one thing NGO's can do. Another thing that you can do through NGO's is help with the treaty formation process. That involves accepting a new behavioral norm and new principles of governance. This takes a lot of education, thinking and talking. For example, the treaty on climate change, letting countries know where they are willing to give a little. The UN depends very heavily on NGO expertise. The NGO's that are present at the U.N. spend a lot of time helping countries work these issues through. A lot of negotiation and bargaining done by NGO's is trying to help countries learn how to give a little, in resolving differences. It is a process.