Readings in Nonviolence: Practical wisdom in peacebuilding


Theorising civil society peacebuilding – The practical wisdom of local peace practitioners in Northern Ireland, 1965-2015 by Emily E. Stanton. Routledge, 219 pages.

Reviewed by Stefania Gualberti

In this book Stanton explores whose knowledge and what kind of knowledge is considered valuable within peacebuilding theory and practice. The author reviewed academic literature focusing on peacebuilding theory development within bottom up, grassroot and civil society approaches.

Looking at peacebuilding and civil society, she asks the questions: who is a peacebuilder? and what knowledge do they need to have to build peace?

Theory and practice can operate in silos. Peacebuilding practitioners are not seen as valued knowledge makers but more often as people in need to receive knowledge. The author using Aristotle’s concept of phronesis, practical wisdom, makes the argument that peacebuilding practitioners have a valid and valuable kind of knowledge, unique in the peacebuilding knowledge creation.

Stanton brings to the academic attention a form of knowledge which would otherwise be overlooked. It is not an easy read for its academic language, but a thorough study of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland, a true and needed celebration and recognition of the value of interventions and the lesson learnt from the grassroot and civil society in those troubled fifty years.

The eBook and paperback options are now available at around £30 making the book more accessible from the previous only hardback copy (£130).

The reader learns to recognize the lost concept of phronesis.

Aristotle defined three different kinds of knowledge:

episteme – scientific logical knowledge,

techne – skill based, artistic knowledge and

phronesis – practical based knowledge, wisdom.

In modern language we find the first two kinds of knowledge while the last has disappeared.

Aristotle thought all three kinds of knowledge are useful (episteme, techne and phronesis). Phronesis is knowledge gained through experience over time, it is always context dependent and cannot be considered scientific or theorized, that might explain why it was lost as part of creating knowledge. Enlightenment also gave a lot of importance to episteme.

Phronesis, practical wisdom, is knowledge needed for judgement and decision making in action and it is aimed at a good life for individual and the collective.

Phronesis is used by the local peacebuilding practitioner to read the context and navigate its complexity.

When situations are “swampy lowland-confusing messes”, phronesis is vital as practitioners know what to do “learning from experience, trial and error, intuition and muddling through”. In conflict the sense of uncertainty requires phronesis. To do the right thing at the right time practitioners need to understand the general context and the specific situation, decide what’s needed to be done by themselves and others and implement it. Judgement on what to do are drawn by recognition of patterns on context. Peacebuilding practitioners use this knowing-in-action judgements even when they can’t tell why.

Phronesis is conceptualized by the author as an embodied wisdom with five dimensions:

– gained by experience,

– embodied – intuition gut instinct bodily sensation,

– organically developed through experimentation- awareness that outcomes are nonlinear, and that value of intervention is difficult to measure,

– uses tacit recognition of context patterns- at first, they might appear invisible, but they can be drawn with reflection,

– demonstrate context relational judgement- what to do is decided based on experience and it is very context dependent.

Reintroducing phronesis in peacebuilding means being able to name and make visible the practical wisdom.

Stanton uses the phronesis framework to review the history of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. She divides in six the period between 1965 and 2015. Each period is described according to the stage of conflict, phase of peacebuilding and she narrates examples of activities that civil society organized.

In this part of the book, she gives voice to the peacebuilder practitioners and the lessons learnt.

She interviewed forty reflective practitioners with experience in peace and conflict transformation. To ensure representation each practitioner was mapped for the sector they were involved in (Education and research, Economics, Justice and equality, Community Relations, Community development, Culture: media, arts and sport, Contested and Shared spaces, Dealing with the past, Gender, Former combatants, Funders, Faith based, Victims; their gender; their background (PUL, CNR, Other); their geography; their years in practice (<10 years- 10 to 17 years; 18 + years).

Those lessons learnt in the 50 years of peacebuilding are summarized in three points:

  1. Close attention to process is necessary, it may require invisibility at times.

  2. Relationships are crucial but paradoxical, they both extend and limit agency.

  3. Peacebuilding in short term appears ephemeral, it can create social change in the long term.

Peacebuiding practitioners use phronesis to bring change in their context. She highlighted the importance of trust and outlined the four phronetic dimensions of trust: personal, proxy, process and pragmatic trust. The increased professionalization of peacebuilding is a challenge to make phronetic knowledge important. Another challenge to peacebuilding is the community gatekeepers.

Stanton doesn’t negate the importance of theory or technical skill, but in peacebuilding, she argues, those form of knowledge are incomplete without phronesis, which brings contextual relevancy. Phronesis is the primary source of knowledge used in peacebuilding, the analysis of the context will inform which methodologies and skills needs to be used in the intervention. Phronesis becomes a set of lenses through which the context is read to then determine how to intervene. The phronesis lenses look at four elements: relationship, place/spaces, time/timing, fault lines. All those elements are influenced by local identity construction, cultural norm, and world view.

Grassroot and civil society peacebuilders hold a valuable knowledge for peace, they are uniquely positioned as they are in between challenges and possibilities for change.

Integrated peacebuilding gives importance to the middle level leadership as it has the possibility to connect to both the grassroot and political level. That middle position has potential as well as challenge to be mistrusted (Whose side? Whose agenda are they operating for?).

Professionalisation of peacebuilding increased in Northern Ireland by European funding and their request for bureaucracy and technocratic skills which have subordinated local grassroot practitioner knowledge, taking away the focus to being responsive to the context.

Looking at phronesis means gaining a lens to look at everyday peacebuilding in conflict situations to analyse, adapt and innovate. This form of knowledge is used by practitioners to make judgement on what to do to create change; when valued it is hoped to be retransferred to both practitioners and theorists of peacebuilding. Phronesis in peacebuilding includes long term thinking, and the impact of intervention might be seen in decades and practitioners in the research referred as two steps forward and one step back to indicate the slow pace of social change.

Practitioners interviewed were aware of the importance of the phronetic knowledge while funders, evaluators and monitors seems to prefer theoretical and paradigm knowledge, not taking into consideration the fluid dynamic and organic relational processes of everyday peacebuilding. When peace is seen as product, avoiding the cost to invest in it for the risk of failure, this decreases space for learning and flexibility.

We could recommend this book to all peacebuilders, hoping it will bring awareness on the important contributions of grassroot and civil society in Northern Ireland and the need to connect the different kinds of knowledge and wisdom for a combined and cooperative effort towards peace.

Ed. note: Information on Emily Stanton’s Troubles peace trail for Belfast, “Untold stories of Belfast peacemaking” is available at and the entry beside that.