What it is:
the organised, even scientific, study of peaceful social conditions and what makes them last, and of the causes and structures of conflict.

What it means: We don't need reminding how brutal and violent human beings can sometimes be. But it's equally obvious that many individuals, groups and states can work, live and communicate together quite harmoniously and sensibly. After the horrors of the First World War, people working for peace thought that if everyone accepted methods like arbitration and diplomacy when there was international disagreement, no government would opt for the horrors of war again. But they did. After the new horrors of the Second World War, the United Nations charter, intended to prevent war, depended on the expected commitment of all countries to settle disputes peacefully and work towards 'general and complete disarmament'. It didn't happen. The Cold War and a nuclear arms race began, and other kinds of war were also started up around the world. By now, people working for peace had realised that they must understand both peace and conflict rather better, and even take a scientific approach to it (just as other scientists were investigating the ways human societies work). Between 1945 and 1970 all kinds of institutions for research into peace and conflict were set up, many of them international and almost all of them still at work today. Their staff provide the world's public with a vast amount of information - about war as well as peace. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, for example, is renowned for its reliable data on the world's military, its weapons, and the amount of money spent on them. The specialists who concentrate on conflict research study the way conflicts start and develop, where the flashpoints are, and how to control violence: they work out how conflicts can be prevented, and how to achieve conflict resolution. Some conflict researchers concentrate on particular methods of solving disputes, such as mediation and negotiation. Peace researchers, however, look at the ways human societies are organised, and at the divide between the powerful and the powerless (created by what some call structural violence: dominant groups victimising the rest through social systems that are designed to be unfair.) And yes, these researchers all study human nature. They learn about brutalisation and how (and why and when) people are likely to behave inhumanely. They learn how damaged people can contribute to conflict - and how conflict goes on to damage others. They learn how soldiers are taught to kill, and what happens to the minds of trained killers. They learn how poverty and despair create resentment that leads to violence, and that violence spreads. They look for answers to questions like 'What makes a man able to kill his friends and neighbours (as, for example, in Rwanda's genocide and in Northern Ireland)?' and 'What makes some people take up terrorism?' And most researchers don't sit at desks reading all day: they go to where conflict - and peaceful communities - are, and work out their theories in action.

Think about it:
You can start a conflict research project of your own: study how the use of armed force creates conflict, either straight away (as in Iraq after the US and other forces invaded in 2003) or stored up for the future. (Look at the history of Afghanistan, for example, or how the First World War led to the Second World War; or find out about violent conflict in any community - such as Bosnia or Kosovo, for example - where neighbours turn on each other.) You can also learn about conflict wherever there is anger or resentment or bitterness, where you live or where you travel. Conflict, of course, is natural, and part of what drives life onwards. Where it goes wrong is when people in conflict become violent and obstinate, instead of looking for solutions.
(2) Peace and conflict researchers have to be clear-eyed if their work is to be of use. One thing they have to understand is the power of people's attitudes. Whatever people thought of Britain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq, few thought the British government was 'uncivilised'. But the decisions the government took led to killing and devastation, just as 'uncivilised' outbreaks of mob violence do. The treatment of Palestinians (with no army) by the Israeli government and its army has been widely criticised: detention without trial, destruction of the homes of 'suspects', bombing of civilian areas, cordoning off entire districts, taking tanks to hunt 'terrorists'. The US army has done exactly the same in Iraq (whose civilians also had no army) during its post-invasion occupation, and thought what it did was justified. If we're to understand how peace and conflict work, we have to learn to look at events (and the way people, including ourselves, behave) with detachment as well as compassion or concern.