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Bridging the Gap: How to Make Peace Research More Useful

Bridging the Gap: How to Make Peace Research More Useful

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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Nathan, L., DeRouen, Jr., K., & Lounsbery, M. O. (2018). Civil war conflict resolution from the perspectives of the practitioner and the academic. Peace & Change, 43(3), 344-370.

Talking Points

  • Practitioners want more context-specific research from academics, such as case studies or comparative studies, that provide direct insight into real-world conflicts.
  • Academics must provide research on events following peace agreements—practitioners want to know more about what happens once the fighting stops, how relationships evolve over time, and how best to approach “repeated resolution attempts” if the violence recurs. 
  • Academics must improve the translation and explanation of their research (complex data, statistical analyses, etc.) into more accessible findings for those outside of the academic community.


Civil wars have become an increasingly prevalent form of violent conflict. Scholars and practitioners have devoted more attention to improving the methods used to transform these conflicts nonviolently, particularly how to approach civil war mediation. The various academic and practitioner communities working to improve these methods, however, often differ in their beliefs about and approaches to helping violent parties end civil war. The academic community, for example, examines civil war peace processes from a variety of perspectives, hoping to address the problem though the accumulation of knowledge and actionable research. However, as this article demonstrates, the research conducted by the academic community often falls short of adequately informing policy and practice. To address this problem, the authors of this article offer observations and recommendations to help bridge the important “theory-to-practice divide.”

The authors begin by providing a review of the academic research on civil war peace processes to try to understand how scholars have approached the topic thus far. They then turn to the potential relevance of civil war research, asking what type of academic knowledge is most desired by mediation policy-makers and practitioners. The authors conclude with a discussion on how scholarship on civil war mediation is generally perceived by practitioners and offer recommendations to the academic community on how to improve the “usefulness” of their research.

A review of the academic research on civil war peace processes reveals that scholars typically tend to focus their work on individual aspects and/or phases of the process. First, research regarding the efforts behind getting various parties to the negotiating table has found that mediators are usually necessary for effective negotiations due to the asymmetric power dynamics between the conflicting parties that often prevent them from trusting the other enough to begin negotiations. Thus, civil wars often necessitate an outside third-party to help address the conflict and its underlying grievances. From here, research has revealed that territorial, internationalized, and longer-lasting wars are more likely to experience mediation and that more intense wars are more likely to attract the attention of potential mediators, though these mediators are less effective when they arrive late to the conflict after “harder lines are drawn” by the conflict parties. Other prominent findings in civil war research include the importance of conflict “ripeness” in the timing of mediation initiatives; crafting peace agreements with “the understanding that the document itself is not only supposed to stop the violence, but also address underlying grievances to better avoid conflict recurrence”; and creating a “postsettlement environment” after an agreement is signed that assists with the normalization of intergroup relations and addresses lingering grievances and commitment problems between conflict parties.

Turning to an analysis of the type of academic research most desired by mediation policy-makers and practitioners, the authors survey the many factors contributing to the communication gap between research and policy or practice. The field’s research findings often include policy recommendations, but for various reasons the authors address, the recommendations rarely translate into changed practice or policy. Some of the obstacles to effective communication between the academic community and policy-makers or practitioners include the following: a mis-match between the research needs of policy-makers and practitioners and the research conducted by scholars; the mediation community’s perception of academic research; the focus, practicality, and accessibility of the research; and difficulties associated with the existing ways research can be acquired. The authors find that practitioners are least receptive to large statistical studies that have become increasingly common in civil war mediation research. This is largely because practitioners “view every conflict as distinct, dynamic, and complex,” and studies employing large-scale statistical methodologies often over-generalize approaches to peacebuilding and ignore many practitioners’ “preference for responsiveness and flexibility.” This “flexibility” may be why practitioners prefer research that offers comparative knowledge and more limited generalizations that appreciate that every conflict is different, with unique elements particular to each conflict environment; they place little trust in generalizations based on collective data that ignore the unique challenges and specific elements of each civil war. Practitioners and policy-makers are also interested in context-specific knowledge, especially while working in the field on a specific conflict where information about the conflict history, dynamics, causes, parties, goals, issues in dispute, and so on is most valuable and actionable. Also of value is comparative research like case studies where mediators can draw on the insights, variations, and examples of others’ experiences, as well as the mediator-produced (or heavily influenced) “best practices” research that provides overviews on key steps like “establishing a mediation team, designing a mediation process, preparing an agenda for talks, getting the parties to the table, facilitating dialogue and negotiations, dealing with spoilers…” and so on.

The authors conclude with recommendations for academics on how best to focus their research on material that is most needed by those working in the field. On the top of the list is the need for more context-specific knowledge such as case studies or comparative studies that provide direct insight into real-world conflicts. Also important is the need for research that examines civil war peace processes beyond just the end of violence or the signing of a peace agreement—practitioners want to know more about what happens once the fighting stops, how relationships between parties evolve over time, and how best to approach “repeated resolution attempts” if the violence begins again in the future. Finally, the authors point to the ongoing failure of academics to adequately explain the complex data, statistical analyses, and findings of their research: “if we are aiming to better inform practice, then we need to write in a way that is accessible to those without quantitative backgrounds or interests…doing so will take what often seems abstract to the concrete and, therefore, become more informative.”

Contemporary Relevance

Evidence supporting the communication gap between academics and practitioners is far from subtle. Practitioners often comment on the lack of relevant research that can inform the needs of organizations, while academics might not get the full access to the field they need to collect good data. Additionally, academics and practitioners tend to use different channels of information sharing and gathering. The journal articles published in traditional academic journals are not regularly consulted by practitioners, and articles written by practitioners or policy experts are infrequently read by academics. As a result, academics have a limited knowledge of topics, concerns and approaches relevant to those in the field and practitioners are unaware of the expertise available in our universities and how their own work might benefit future research. Access to academic research is commonly restricted to institutional affiliation or expensive individual subscriptions. Journal subscriptions are typically more than $150 a year, or around $30 for a single article. Even if someone outside the academic community could avoid these obstacles, most literature offers little to no practical relevance or paths to implementation apart from the possibility of a few lines in the conclusion. Additionally, studies have shown that on average, academic peer-reviewed papers are read by no more than ten people, other studies found more than 50% of academic papers are read by no more than three people—assuring an almost negligent impact on a practitioner community. 

There are, however, ways in which these communities can overcome these communication “road blocks”, including a better use of technology (using apps and other internet-based programs to increase the ease of communication without institutional roadblocks found in many organizational/university/publishing norms); hosting events where academics and practitioners interact to share their perspective to increase awareness and determine pathways toward collaboration; better integrate the experience and points of view of practitioners into graduate education (inviting them as faculty, guest lecturers, or a greater emphasis on case studies in classrooms); incorporate practicum components into universities that encourage students to work outside of the classroom to gain practical experience and perspective; and the creation of task forces that combine the expertise of academics and practitioners in a way that cuts through the above “road blocks” to provide direct accesses and communication between both communities.

Practical Implications

There are many benefits to improving communication and cooperation between academics and practitioners, especially in the field of peace research. The relationship improves the response and methods used when facing new and existing challenges, as it provides practitioners with theoretical knowledge upon which to base their programs and academics with practical insights and needs to improve and better focus their research. By bridging the gap between the two communities’ distinct and valuable bodies of knowledge, academics and practitioners are poised to collaborate on more effective projects to address the field’s pressing issues. If, however, there is a disconnect between these two communities, the vital dialectical relationship between academic and practitioner begins to dissolve—leading to less relevant and informed research as well as slow or negligible advances in the field.

As the authors point out in their conclusion, one reason as to why communication between these two communities suffers is because, commonly, academic literature is difficult to read, understand, and access. Articles are often filled with technical jargon or complicated statistical formulas, and access to most academic literature is restricted to those with institutional affiliations or expensive individual subscriptions. Even if someone outside the academic community might find a way to avoid these obstacles, most research offers little to no practical relevance or paths to implementation. Furthermore, the consequences of this communication gap expand far beyond mere underachieved theoretical and practical advancement. Rather, the greatest consequence relates to the goals of the field itself: bringing about a more just and peaceful society. Ultimately, meaningful communication and collaboration between theory and practice must be maintained in order to remain honest to the field’s ambitions.

Peace researchers must become more active in building a bridge between the academic and practitioner communities by producing policy-relevant, actionable insight for policy-makers, as well as by facilitating contextual and practical dialogue between themselves and the field’s practitioners. Likewise, academics from the field of Peace and Conflict Studies can provide theoretical context on issues of war and peace, opening up conceptual space for the broader public to question common-sense thinking about violence and to explore its alternatives.

Continued Reading

Keywords: academic research, research relevance, practitioner/academic divide

The following analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 6 of the Peace Science Digest.

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