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Peace makingFences make good neighbors

Published 20 October 2011

Often, peace depends on boundaries — well chosen, not arbitrarily set — that separate groups; boundaries that give groups some amount of autonomy can serve to mitigate conflict where people naturally seek to live near others of their own group

A new paper published by New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), “Good Fences: The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Peaceful Coexistence,” carries implications for policymakers in understanding the fragile present and immediate future in the world today.

Often, peace depends on boundaries — well chosen, not arbitrarily set — that separate groups. This is an important modification of the frequently held notion that boundaries are negative barriers to harmony. A NECSI release reports that science proves otherwise. Where boundaries are properly drawn, peace prevails. As world leaders struggle to understand the conditions triggering ethnic conflict and civil war, quantitative studies of geographical and other boundaries yield important answers.

Trying to get people to ignore cultural, religious and ethnic differences is often counterproductive. There is an alternative that allows an active role for diversity,” said Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, who heads NECSI and is a co-author of the paper. “Boundaries that give groups some amount of autonomy can serve to mitigate conflict where people naturally seek to live near others of their own group.”

The paper considers both a country of peace and a country of conflict, comparing how their internal boundaries relate to peace and conflict. Remarkably, the country of peace, Switzerland, has one area of violence in Jura precisely where NECSI’s analysis shows boundaries are not adequate to separate distinct groups. The country of violence, the former Yugoslavia, has two areas of peace where the boundaries separate distinct groups.

The release notes that according to the theory, well mixed or well separated groups do not engage in violence. Groups of a particular size next to each other interfere with each other leading to conflict and violence. A well-placed topographical or political boundary, however, allows each group to establish its own domain and tensions are relieved.

Switzerland and Yugoslavia both have separated cultural, linguistic, and religious groups; they are not integrated, well-mixed societies. Surprisingly, the main difference between them seems to be whether the boundaries are in the right place or not. Both countries have conflict where the boundaries do not match the population groups. Both countries have peace where they do.

The prescription for peace is confirmed again and again in different ways in each of the two countries.

We’ve seen that the ways borders and boundaries between groups are arranged really can prevent violence. When I think of the suffering and the lives lost, and I see those results, the findings just can’t be ignored,” said Andreas Gros, another author.

Conflicts rooted in ethnic strife are tearing countries apart today,” said Bar-Yam. “Scientists who focus on predictive models cannot help but raise the question: ‘What, if any, conditions are identifiable for peaceful coexistence among multiple groups with linguistic and religious differences?’”

— Read more in Alex Rutherford et al.”Good Fences: The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Peaceful Coexistence” (New England Complex Systems Institute, 6 October 2011).