Book review — Theorising Civil Society Peacebuilding (Emily Stanton)

Book review — Theorising Civil Society Peacebuilding: The Practical Wisdom of Local Peace Practitioners in Northern Ireland, 1965–2015 (Emily Stanton)
by Naomi HIGGINS
24 January 2022

In Theorising Civil Society Peacebuilding The Practical Wisdom of Local Peace Practitioners in Northern Ireland, 1965–2015, Dr Emily Stanton applies her doctoral research to make the case that “phronesis” —  the Aristotleian concept of practical wisdom — is beneficial to peacebuilding. To illustrate this, Stanton provides firsthand accounts from local peace practitioners in Northern Ireland. 

In 1992, Stanton attended a six-month academic programme in Derry/Londonderry, “to explore Peace Studies from the perspective of those living in conflict and to learn from organisations engaged in grassroots peacebuilding” (p. xii). After 20 years working as a practitioner, she reflected upon her journals and recognised “many names who were involved in civil society peacebuilding and social change projects” to still be active in the field today (xiii).  This led her to interview 40 practitioners active in conflict transformation at a grassroots level in Northern Ireland, to answer two questions: (1) “whose knowledge matters for building peace?” and (2) “What knowledge matters?” (p. 6).

Stanton, herself not from Northern Ireland, includes the caveat that readers will benefit from a prior knowledge of the Troubles (p. 68). The reader first explores the “development of the main theoretical concepts within peace studies” and “those addressing knowledge production for peacebuilding” (p.13). The goal here was to link academia and applied practice together through grassroot actions and written word, of key scholars and practitioners like Johan Galtung and John Paul Lederach (p. 18). Lederach specifically wrote on the importance of building on “pre-existing cultural understandings of conflict and peace” seeing locals as not just recipients, but “key resources” (p. 23).

The history of “phronesis”, or practical wisdom, is told through Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where he describes “three forms of knowledge” as virtues (p. 43): epistme, techne, and phronesis. The first value, described as invariable, is “episteme”, or scientific knowledge, and therefore can be proven through processes (p. 43). Techne and phronesis fall under the umbrella variable category, which describes “things made and things done” (p. 44). Techne is “described as knowledge of how things are made such as the production of art or craft”, basically a “skill based knowledge” (p. 44). Finishing the trifecta is “phronesis”, a variable that relies on the “knowledge needed for action and involves making judgements about what might be the right action to take in a particular context or situation” (p. 44). Aristotle argues that phronesis is knowledge important for both individuals and groups. Stanton introduces this as an important but lost type of knowledge, out of a need for us to better understand civil society-based peacebuilding. For her, as phronesis relies on “lived experience”, the accounts of generations of peace practitioners provides wisdom for promoting peace (p. 58).

The story of “applied phronesis” is told through historical accounts of grassroots and civil society peacebuilding practice in Northern Ireland from 1965 to 2015 (p.68). Through recounts of peacebuilding activities, the reader is aware of successes and failures of the field. Phronesis has a sense of “two steps forward one step back”, but persistence is key when trying to develop a collective effort (p. 69). Phronesis can be seen in Northern Ireland through in the late 1960s, when peace groups saw inconsistent trends in involvement and they began working alongside other peace groups in the early 1970s to create “peace networks”, such as an “umbrella group known as the Peace Forum” to “coordinate and maximise their collective efforts” (p. 80). Peace practitioners saw what was failing, and through their own lived experiences found a solution to their problems.

Stanton provides empirical data to support her claim that phronesis is a key value in civil society peacebuilding (p. 13). The goal here was to show that lived experience has been used and is valuable to practitioners on the ground in Northern Ireland. This is a positive thought to push, because it shows that it does not take a degree or certification to be a peace practitioner, rather courage. The majority of those interviewed “identified that they had been directly or indirectly affected by the context of growing up and/or living through the conflict in Northern Ireland” (p 122). Again, following this similar trend only a third of those interviewed traced their involvement to professional employment (p. 122). Phronesis prioritises the local, which in cases of civil society peacebuilding can make lasting change.

Stanton describes phronesis as value added for peace — it is just one of the many tools that can and should be utilised for successful peacebuilding initiatives. Of course there are limitations to phronesis, as with anything, especially when it comes to “contextual relevance” (p. 172). Stanton asserts that phronesis can bring so much context to conflict, especially for outsiders looking in, but is a “most germane” and necessary to bottom-up local peacebuilding (p. 193).

Stanton makes a compelling case, using Northern Ireland for her study. It prompts the question of where else a phronesis model of peacebuilding has been applied. As she argues,  locals have the context of conflict and with this comes power to communicate amongst groups. By engaging locals, trust building begins, those embedded in the conflict can be enlightened on opposing values. Stanton stresses the importance of using all three values — episteme, techne, and phronesis — as Aristotle intended (p. 197). One can see the potential in such engagement with local communities.

Theorising Civil Society Peacebuilding is impressive in its research and analysis. While it was an academic work, with a close eye it is informative for practitioners and locals alike trying to find their place in civil society peacebuilding, both local to Northern Ireland and globally.


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