New movie to feature “nonviolent conflict resolution specialist teaching sociology”

It is relatively rare to find television shows or movies that feature sociologists. Here is a new one: the upcoming movie Hit & Run features one of the lead characters as a sociology instructor.

Charlie Bronson (Dax Shepard) is trying to live a quiet, respectable life in a small California town in Hit & Run. He’s doing right by his girlfriend (Kristen Bell), a nonviolent conflict resolution specialist teaching sociology at a local college, sharing a tender moment in bed as the film opens. But, things go south really quickly.

You see, Charlie’s actually in the witness protection program for testifying about a botched robbery turned homicide he witnessed in Los Angeles. Now his girlfriend’s been offered the opportunity of a lifetime in LA and, rather than lose her, Charlie decides to risk everything to get her there. The couple quickly picks up a few tails in pursuit, including Charlie’s assigned marshal (Tom Arnold), Bell’s jealous ex (Michael Rosenbaum), the cons Charlie ratted out (Bradley Cooper, Ryan Hansen and Joy Bryant), and a pair of local law enforcement caught up in the swing of it.

I wonder how much the film plays up the irony of a “nonviolent conflict resolution specialist” teaching sociology getting involved in exciting car chases…

Sociologist as “father of peace studies”

While roughly 400 universities around the world have Peace Studies programs, I don’t know much about how the field started. Therefore, I was intrigued to see that the “father” of this field is a sociologist:

Internationally known as the “father of peace studies”, Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung broke new ground in 1959 when he established the Peace Research Institute Oslo. In the past half century, Galtung has published over 150 books, including “The Fall of the U.S. Empire – And Then What?” and mediated in over 150 conflicts between states and nations.

Here is more of Galtung’s story:

In 1940, when Johan Galtung was a young boy of nine, his homeland, Norway, was suddenly invaded and occupied by the Germans. His father, August Galtung, the deputy mayor of Oslo, was placed in a concentration camp by the Nazis.

“I was influenced by the violent madness that afflicted Norway in general and our own small family in particular during World War II. I wanted to find out how all that horror might have been averted; how to change the destiny of all of Europe.”…

Instead of becoming a doctor [like his father and grandfather] fighting the diseases of the human body, however, Johan Galtung became a doctor studying the diseases of war and violence that afflict the human race. He was a pioneer and a trailblazer. When he started his work, there were no “peace researchers” and there was no such field as “peace studies.”…

He is famous as the originator of the concept of “structural violence.” Structural violence is violence caused by the way society is structured, which gives rise to discrimination, oppression, poverty, starvation, exploitation and the violation of human rights. We can see examples of this at all levels, whether within the family or within the international community. There is also what Galtung terms “cultural violence,” the acceptance and legitimization of violence as a necessary or inevitable aspect of human society. Only when these broader types of violence are eliminated can we achieve a positive, active form of peace.

How come I’ve never heard of this sociologist? I realize that peace studies is often a separate department or program but this seems notable.

I’m not surprised that the first few programs began in Europe, a continent that had witnessed hundreds of years of religious and international wars, two major world wars that led to the deaths of tens of millions and vast destruction, and was on the front lines of the Cold War when the first program was founded. Would it seem right if an American or American school had the first peace program given the cultural stereotypes of American aggression, bellicosity, and violence?

Could the downturn in violence, both on an international level and more local level, be at least partly attributable to such academic programs? Studying a phenomenon is important but what causal impact have peace studies programs had on the occurrence of peace and violence?

If you want peace, you should head to Maine

The Institute for Economics and Peace has released its rankings of the most peaceful states in the United States and Maine tops the list. Here is some more information on this ranking:

The index, which defines peace as “the absence of violence,” looks at a set of five indicators, including homicide rates, violent crimes, percentage of the population in jail, number of police officers and availability of small arms (per 100,000 people) to rank the states. The data are drawn from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, FBI and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On that basis, the institute finds that peace in the USA improved by 8% from 1995 to 2009.

It notes a significant correlation between a state’s level of peace and its economic opportunity, education and health but finds peacefulness is politically neutral — neither Republican nor Democratic states have an advantage.

Maine was ranked first overall because it topped the list of states on three of the five USPI indicators: number of violent crimes, number of police officers and incarceration rate.

There is some interesting regional variation with the northeast generally being more peaceful and the south being less peaceful. I’m sure there are a number of commentators and sociologists who could comment on the these findings about the South.

But, like many such rankings (see a recent example here), I’m sure people would ask whether these measures actually get at the presence or absence of violence. The percentage of the population in jail could be related to violence but there are plenty of other ways to end up in jail. The number of police officers could be related to violence but it could also be linked to funding and perceptions about crime. In terms of the availability of small arms, does this necessarily lead to violence?

Using these measures seems linked to how this organization views peace. According to the full report (page 8 of the PDF), “The methodological framework was based on envisaging a society that is perfectly at peace; a society where there is no violence, no police and no one in jail.” Here is the explanation about using the measure of small arms (page 8 of the PDF): “Additionally, this logic also applies to small arms: “the USPI does not make judgments about appropriate levels of small arms in society but rather considers their prevalence a reflection of the need for self-defense and a potential to generate violence.”

I don’t study in this area so it is interesting to read about how some of these things can ever be measured. Regarding getting a measure of small arms availability (page 10 of the PDF):

Although the U.S. has excellent data for many statistics, there is no reliable data on small arms availability, small arms ownership, or small arms sales within the U.S. or within the states of the U.S. An accurate measure of gun prevalence cannot be calculated from administrative records alone. For this reason many studies on gun prevalence use a quantitative proxy. The proxy used in the USPI is: fi rearm suicides as a percentage of total suicides (FS/S). As this indicator varied significantly from year to year for some states, a five year moving average was used in order to smooth out the variance. For example, the fi gure used for Alabama for 2008 was an average of FS/S for 2003-2007. More detail on why this proxy was chosen is supplied in Appendix B to this report.

The availability of small arms also had the lowest weighting in the rankings.