AJCR 2019/2

A case for theory building in peace and conflict sensitivity

Dr Demola Akinyoade is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria. He has researched the nexus between conflict, development and peace for about 15 years. His works focus on the conceptual, theoretical, and practical dimensions of assessing the impact of interventions in conflict prone settings.


For about a decade, numerous activities involving practitioners, policy-makers, researchers, and scholars in peace and conflict sensitivity (PCS) have led to an appreciable volume of scientific knowledge on the nature, dynamics and the implications of the interactions of interventions and their contexts. Thus, there is a relatively high level of development in the practice of PCS, but the level of development of theory for PCS is significantly low. This paper argues that the building blocks for developing theories of PCS abound. But disincentives also abound, and these may be found in the conditions that informed the emergence of the field, the inherited orientation and normative commitment of PCS, stakeholders’ justifiable preference for practice, and the epistemological contention between and among social science methodologies. Despite these encumbrances, there is a need to bridge the gap between theory and practice. This will require a concerted effort, employing both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, to construct and build context-specific and generalisable theories in PCS.


…[T]he area of [peace and conflict] impact assessment is least theorized and tends to be left to the so called practitioners who often do not do much beyond ‘ticking the boxes’… The fact that this area of study is left mainly for the so called practitioners … has often ended in production of rather too much untheorized literature on impact assessment (Anonymous commentator, 2014).

The realisation of the nexus between conflict, development and peace in the eighties led to numerous activities among development practitioners, donors, and scholars to develop practices, approaches, and frameworks to ensure that development interventions, especially in conflict-prone settings, contribute positively rather than negatively to the conflict situation. Consequently, the Peace and Development subfield was born (McCandless 2007b:47). Individuals, governmental and non-governmental agencies working in development-related contexts came up with several frameworks to assess the impacts of interventions on the contexts (that is, the locales and/or the situations in which the development initiatives are meant to be or being implemented), and of the contexts on interventions. Some of the most influential approaches were Kenneth Bush’s Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment (PCIA) 1996; Mary Anderson’s Do no Harm/Local Capacities for Peace (DnH/LCP) Project 1999/2001, and the United Nations System Staff College’s Early Warning and Preventive Measures (EWPM) 1999. Other organisations and projects that may be mentioned in this regard are: the United Kingdom Department for International Development’s Strategic Conflict Analysis (SCA) 2002; the German Technical Cooperation Agency’s Conflict Analysis for Project Planning and Implementation (2002); the World Bank’s Conflict Analysis Framework (CAF) 2002; the United States Agency for International Development’s Conflict Assessment Framework (CAF) 2003; World Vision’s Making Sense of Turbulent Contexts (MSTC) 2003; and the Africa Peace Forum, Centre for Conflict Resolution, Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, Forum on Early Warning and Early Response, International Alert, and Saferworld’s Conflict Sensitive Approaches (CSA) 2004. These initiatives eventually culminated in the specialised area of impact assessment within the Peace and Development sub-field of Peace Studies.

Arguably, Bush’s Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment (PCIA) and Mary Anderson’s DnH/LCP, were the two most influential of these approaches. The nomenclature PCIA, inspired by the Environmental Impact Assessment movement, was probably the one that best tells, at a glance, what the activity is about ‒ to assess/evaluate the impact of an intervention on peace and conflict structures, processes, and dynamics. The DnH/LCP nomenclature best shows the intention of the activity ‒ to do no harm but only good through the intervention on one hand, and also to recognise the existence of local capacities for peace in the locale of intervention. This new approach to intervention has now evolved into a specialised area ‒ (peace and) conflict sensitivity. Having undergone a process of development, the main focus of the area has now become the minimisation of negative impacts (peace undermining and conflict exacerbating) and the maximisation of positive impacts (peacebuilding and violence reducing) of interventions. At some point during the above-mentioned period, PCIA was becoming an umbrella name for this specialised area; however, ‘conflict sensitivity’ seems to be the preferred term now. Nonetheless, in this article, I chose to use the term ‘peace and conflict sensitivity’1 (PCS) instead of conflict sensitivity (CS), in order, in the very minimum, to give more visibility to the term ‘peace’ in naming this impact assessment activity. But much more, to sensitise users to the need to be sensitive to identifying local capacities for building peace.

Peace and Conflict Sensitivity (PCS) is a relatively young area in which there is a conspicuous need for theory development. One of the issues authors, scholars, researchers, and practitioners in PCS have grappled with is whether theory building should be a priority in the area (Schmelzle 2005:1–9). This was one of the recurrent issues in Berghof’s dialogue series on PCIA2 in 2003 and 2005. In New trends in Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment (PCIA) (Berghof Research Center 2005), Bush (2005:34) argued that ‘…in war zones, theory is either useful or useless … there is rarely the luxury of time or space to mull over and contemplate abstractions, however, erudite, parsimonious or elegant’. According to Schmelzle (2005:7), Barbolet and others (2005:10–26) argued that ‘no one theory would be able to explain all relevant aspects of a peace process in its complexity’, and Paffenholz (2005b:50–52) explained that there are enough theories in related fields to make theory building in impact assessment a non-priority at the time. These views represent a cross-section of arguments for paying little attention to theory building in PCS. Schmelzle noted that contributors generally shared the view that theory building was not to be a priority at that time. She, however, pointed out that findings from the Utstein study and INCORE reports contradicted this view (Schmelzle 2005:7). Interestingly, in the same publication, Bush (2005:35) made a very remarkable statement:

Perhaps sometime in the distant future – when whatever will work, has worked – university-based academics will wade in to excavate theories. But for now, the distance between the academy and the field suggests that it may be a long while before we see useful theory.

The late Kenneth Bush said this 14 years ago! Using Bush’s metaphor, maybe between then and now some things have worked. Maybe the distance between the academia and the field has closed enough and the time is ripe for university-based academics to wade in and excavate theories of impact assessment. This is the thrust of my argument in this paper. I argue that we have all the building blocks of theory development and the time is ripe for academics, as primary stakeholders in theory construction, to start ‘excavating’ theories on impact assessment. To excavate implies the pre-existence of something, but buried, which must be dug out or exhumed wholly or in parts, fixed and made useful for those interested. And that is exactly the crux of my argument in this paper. That the components are already in existence, all we need to do is to uncover their components and put them together as theories for our use.

Peace and Conflict Sensitivity refers to the notion: that interventions have the potential for negative and positive impacts in the conflict situation. Hence, interventions should be programmed in a manner that could minimise their negative and maximise their positive impacts. Also, interventions should be assessed (a priori) or evaluated (a posteriori) for their possible and actual contributions within their specific contexts. The various tools, approaches, methodologies and frameworks, therefore, may serve as means to sensitise, mainstream, assess, or evaluate interventions for peace and conflict sensitivity. Literature on these has indeed become part of PCS, which has emerged as a specialised area at the intersection of Peace and Conflict Studies, Development Studies, and International Studies. It is with this understanding that the paper discusses the need for theory building in this specialised area.

Theory and theorising in Peace and Conflict Sensitivity

Theory, basically an explanation of observed regularities, is a midway area in scientific enterprise that starts with investigation and ends with control of phenomena for the betterment of human life. Social scientists seek to investigate the world in order to understand, predict and control it and probably improve human experience in life. They demonstrate their understanding by describing and explaining the phenomena of interest. Description concerns itself with the ‘what’ of phenomena, in quantitative and/or qualitative terms. Explanations, however, combine the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the thing(s) being investigated. Explanations may later be formally structured with their own assumptions, concepts, and propositions. For instance, in the original rendition of the Frustration-Aggression (FA) Theory, we have the assumptions that all frustration leads to aggression, and all aggression is traceable to some form of frustration in the goals of actor(s) (Dollard et al. 1939). In this theory, such concepts as frustration, aggression, additivity of aggression, displacement of aggression, impulse to attack, and catharsis are utilised. Categorical but falsifiable propositions are then made about the nature and relationships of the concepts. For example, the notion that aggression can grow in a cumulative way during a series of frustrations explains the concept of additivity of aggression. This is a scientific proposition that is testable. Assumptions, concepts and scientific propositions – the three elements of a theory – are usually easily identifiable in structured or formal theories. Availability of such theories in a field or discipline is one of the hallmarks of its maturity.

There have been repeated calls to build more theories to understand and explain contemporary social issues (Punch 1998; King and Sall 2007a). With relatively few theories developed in the discipline, Peace Studies has far fewer discipline-developed theories than older disciplines such as Political Science, Sociology and Psychology. Although as a multidisciplinary field, it may find many theories in other fields useful in explaining the core distinctive issues of the field, the complexity and dynamism of its phenomena of interest require new theories to understand, explain, predict and probably control its realities. In Introduction: Research and education fundamental to peace and security, King and Sall (2007b:28) contend that the field of Peace Studies is ‘… open to a spectrum of conceptualisations, hypotheses, and theories’. They argue further (2007a:75) about the need, particularly for African Peace scholars, to develop ‘… endogenous and alternative theories, methodologies, and analyses forged in the crucible of the epistemological, social-political, cultural, and economic conditions of African realities’. Hence, the need for theory building is pressing in Peace Studies, especially in Africa.

Within the approximately two decades of its existence, PCS as an area within the intersection of peacebuilding and development studies has witnessed much attention from researchers, scholars, practitioners and policy makers. The approaches were different in their process of analysis, understanding of impacts, level of intervention, perceived purpose of PCS, and level of actors addressed (Paffenholz 2006). Also, Barbolet and others (2005:12) observe that ‘… all users and promoters of the various concepts and terminologies3 have their own opinions’ and probably biases as well. In spite of these differences, however, there are cross-cutting issues, assumptions, ideas, concepts, propositions and explanations common to these methodologies. In the words of Paffenholz (2005b:51), ‘[a]ll PCIA4 approaches do have in common the thorough analysis of the conflict situation and the formulation of recommendations for coping with the situation, e.g. for reducing possible negative effects of an intervention on violent conflict and for enhancing its contribution to peacebuilding’. A basic shared purpose, therefore, is that interventions should build rather than weaken or destroy peace; and reduce rather than exacerbate violence.

In addition to the shared purpose, there are shared assumptions behind the logic of these PCS approaches. Some of the most obvious ones are that intervention in conflict settings is never neutral. An intervention in a conflict setting has measurable impacts on the structures and dynamics of the peace and conflict context, and the structures and dynamics of the peace and conflict context also have measurable impacts on the intervention. These impacts can either be negative, conflict exacerbating or peace undermining impacts; or positive, conflict reducing or peacebuilding impacts. Also, there are capacities and infrastructures for peace in various contexts, which could be recognised and exploited for peacebuilding. A second assumption is that actors perceive an intervention as a resource, and that this perception drives the conflict further as they contend to control the intervention. Also, another assumption is that there is need for sensitivity to peace and conflict issues ‒ structures, dynamics, and processes. Finally, the capacity of the intervening agency for peace and conflict sensitivity (in its programmes) has implications for the overall impacts that the intervention will accordingly have on the conflict situation. These might be considered as constituting the core assumptions of PCS.

Beyond these shared assumptions, there are shared concepts which are being used across PCS methodologies. They include those from the broader field of peace and conflict studies, such as conflict, conflict setting and conflict exacerbation, and peace and peacebuilding. Also, there are those from other areas such as interventions and interactions, outcomes and effects, positive and negative impacts, impact assessment and evaluation, and, as an overall approach, peace and conflict sensitivity.

From these assumptions and concepts, testable propositions have emerged. Arguably, therefore, all the necessary materials for theory building are available in peace and conflict sensitivity theory and practice. With the availability of these materials for theory building, we need to turn our attention to the process of theorising in peace and conflict sensitivity. Asking some critical questions may guide us here: What is theorising in PCS? How should we go about theorising? What should be the criteria for assessing theories of impact assessment?

Theorising in PCS would mean making theoretical contributions and building theories. It will involve describing, explaining or accounting for observed regularities about the phenomena germane to PCS, and summarising existing knowledge in the area. It might also involve prescience in the sense of anticipating, conceptualising and influencing future problem domains in the area. Moreover, it will involve making incremental theoretical contributions to some of its aspects. These theoretical contributions would involve advancing our understanding of the nature and implications of intervention–context interactions by challenging and extending existing knowledge in the area. Theorising in PCS could be considered as a continuum having the layman’s experienced-based theories and the academic’s research-based theories as its two ends. At the left end of the continuum are the non-academic theories that anthropologists refer to as folk theories. That is, people’s explanation of how their world works ‒ an explanation of events or phenomena using local, context-specific terms to describe their experiences/realities. The people’s explanation of how their world works will obviously influence the success or failure of an intervention. Hence, there is need for us to be aware of such explanations and their implications for our interventions. On the right end of the continuum is theorising in its strictest academic sense, which involves using factors (variables, constructs and concepts) and underlying dynamics (psychological, social, economic and political) to explain phenomena of interest by showing the interrelatedness of factors and dynamics (Whetton 2001). Theory in this sense is an academic knowledge of the world ‒ from small to large scale. One of its important functions can precisely be to show how locally devised theory may lead to generally applicable PCS theory.

Much needs to be done by academics in the area of conceptual clarification in PCS. Across approaches, there have been a multiplicity of concepts to explain similar ideas. Works that bring together such concepts, clarify them, and provide us with a set of concepts (while jettisoning others) to describe and logically explain peace and conflict impacts as realities will qualify as sound theoretical contributions. Also, more work still needs to be done to examine existing PCIA approaches/frameworks, their claims, and analyse data of documented cases of intervention in conflict contexts. This will involve critiquing the various PCIA approaches/methodologies to identify (cross-cutting) assumptions, concepts and propositions in them in order to describe and explain aspects of or phenomena in PCS. It may also involve identifying and accounting for patterns and trends in the nature and implications of intervention and context interactions by using emergent themes in conceptualisations, and developing propositions to describe and explain observed regularities as done in the case of the three scholars earlier presented.

Besides, academics could embark on theory-building research projects, using appropriate methodologies. They may select a particular case or multiple cases of intervention in a conflict context, and investigate and account for the data using context-specific conceptualisations grounded in the data. In this way they may build a theory to explain the what, how, why, and when-where-who in that particular context, using appropriate methodology ‒ qualitative, quantitative, or a mixed method. This is building context-specific emergent theories to account for the experiences of stakeholders in a particular case of intervention and interactions. Such activity will most likely be in the tradition of qualitative research, especially grounded theory research strategy, which has an explicit orientation towards developing theory grounded in the data collected from the field ‒ people’s experience/interpretation of their realities. Theorising in this sense will involve an in-depth understanding of the case(s), be context-specific, and grounded in data (that is, in realities of peoples’ experiences). Hence, building grounded theory in PCS may simultaneously be a case study design. For instance, a case of intervention in Mindanao will be studied to understand, explain and document how and why the intervention and its context interacted and what the implications of these interactions were for the peace and conflict dynamics in the community. By developing conceptualisations and propositions from such analysis of data, academics could generalise (transfer) their findings to other similar settings, where these propositions could be further tested. This back-and-forth process of theory building and theory testing could continue until they are able to describe and explain the nature and implications of the interactions of interventions and contexts.

In addition, theorising will include the realm of prescience, which involves anticipating, conceptualising and influencing future problem domains in PCS. Corley and Gioia (2011:13) define prescience ‘… as the process of discerning or anticipating what we need to know and, equally important, of influencing the intellectual framing and dialogue about what we need to know’. They further posit that ‘[a]n orientation toward prescience holds some promise for advancing our craft of theory development, as well as enhancing the receptivity of the audiences for our developing theories beyond the academy and, therefore, conferring a greater potential for influencing the organizations and societies we study’. Prescience is therefore essentially futuristic and proactive in theory and practice, and in consonance with constructive peace studies (Galtung 1996).

In concluding this section, considering the fact that the essentials of theory development are available, and the need for theorising in PCS exists, the natural questions that follow will probably include: Why don’t we have theories in/of PCS? Why and how should we build theories in PCS? The article attempts to address these questions in the subsequent sections.

Why don’t we have theories of peace and conflict sensitivity?

Few suggestions as to the reasons behind the paucity of theory in PCS lend themselves to reason. The first is about the orientation of the parent (and/or the grandparent) fields. The second is that the emergence of the area itself engendered a subtle tension between theory and practice, and seemed to imperceptibly suggest that to do one is to ignore the other. And finally, a reason is sought in the methodological contentions on what research approach is appropriate to build theories of PCS. However, let me make my stance clear from the outset: whatever reasons we put together as scholars/researchers, or as practitioners (forgivably) of PCS, to excuse or justify our not ‘tinkering’ with theory building, given the current state of knowledge in the field, are detrimental to our praxis, self-limiting and counterintuitive. Let me interrogate these issues one after the other.

First, the area of PCS is a nexus of two applied fields – Peace Studies and Development Studies – where emphasis on practice-orientation and a normative commitment towards policy are relevant. Peace Studies is particularly notorious for suffering from a dearth of theory (McCandless 2007a). This ‘disability’ is essentially resultant from the nature of the field as both an applied and a critical science – contending with ‘wicked problems’ having gruesome consequences for societies. Hence, solving the problems ordinarily has a higher priority than building a formal explanation of the problem – its causes, logic and consequences. Also, the rate of emergence, the dynamism and the diversity of the problems demand so much attention that little or no time is left for theory generation. Similar, though less dramatic, arguments can be made for Development Studies. From its parent fields, therefore, PCS appears to have inherited a dominant theory-dearth gene that invariably determined its normative preference for practice. However, Peace Studies appears to be evolving as it slowly wakes up to pay attention to theory development and to ‘excavate’ theories such as those of Democratic and Liberal Peace. We are also seeing other examples of interesting critical peace theory building, of which this paper is arguably a part.

The second issue that might have discouraged theory building in PCS are the concerns that led to and surrounded its emergence as an area of practice and theory. Two factors readily come to mind. First is the nature of the exigencies that led to the emergence of PCS. This refers to the realisation that aids intended for good could do harm in conflict settings. This understanding obliged practitioners to seize the reins of the development of PCS and to play their part in midwifing and christening pioneering approaches of peace and conflict sensitivity – PCIA, Do no Harm, Conflict Sensitivity, Aid for Peace and several others. Practitioners at the individual and organisational levels rather than scholars/researchers have been most active in the formative years of PCS. They therefore developed it in a way that was most useful for them – practice-oriented. They did not have the luxury to devote time to theory development. Rather the exigencies of their works demanded concentration on practice – on what works in the midst of life and death situations.

The third factor that might have discouraged theory development is the competition or in-fighting amongst proponents of various versions of PCS frameworks that heralded its development in its early days. The attempts by organisations such as the Berghof Center of Constructive Conflict Resolution to bring together various scholars and practitioners working on PCS to chart the waters of the emergent area culminated in in-fighting or competition among them. Reading through Berghof resources on PCIA,5 one gets the idea that proponents are more desirous to present and defend their own versions of PCIA jealously than to focus on theory building (see the first paragraph of this article). Consequently, many efforts were devoted to defending derivatives, which generated a contentious atmosphere unfavourable and detrimental to theory building ‒ in spite of frequent reference to the need for theory building in their discussions. Hence, conditions surrounding the emergence of PCS favoured practice rather than theory building. PCS, thus, while inherently making adequate provisions for frameworks for data collection, makes grossly inadequate provision for academic theory building or testing exercises. While these numerous frameworks do explicitly direct us to what and where to look for appropriate data on impact assessment (through indicators), a conducive atmosphere and incentives to build theories from these data or to provide explicit theories to explain them were not provided. However, now that the dusts appear to have settled in the arena, the atmosphere is conducive for building theory in PCS.

In addition, strong arguments against theory building in impact assessment, insisted upon by some practice-oriented scholar-practitioners, are also detrimental to theory building. One is that PCS theories must be context-specific and people-centred, and must protect the integrity of each context in accounting for its realities. As such, however, no single theory can/should attempt to explain the diversity of realities across myriads of contexts of conflict. Another argument is that the ever-changing nature and dynamics of conflict environments are not susceptible to theorising. Methodological contention about the appropriate approach for building theory in PCS is yet another argument. (This might be traceable to the old contention between positivism and interpretivism – the two dominant paradigms in the social sciences). The contention is between building context-specific, organic theories grounded in the realities of each context, following the flexible, naturalistic tradition of qualitative methodology, and building generalisable theory, following the rigid hypothetico-deductive tradition of quantitative methodology.one gets the idea that proponents are more desirous to present and defend their own versions of PCIA jealously than to focus on theory building (see the first paragraph of this article). Consequently, many efforts were devoted to defending derivatives, which generated a contentious atmosphere unfavourable and detrimental to theory building ‒ in spite of frequent reference to the need for theory building in their discussions. Hence, conditions surrounding the emergence of PCS favoured practice rather than theory building. PCS, thus, while inherently making adequate provisions for frameworks for data collection, makes grossly inadequate provision for academic theory building or testing exercises. While these numerous frameworks do explicitly direct us to what and where to look for appropriate data on impact assessment (through indicators), a conducive atmosphere and incentives to build theories from these data or to provide explicit theories to explain them were not provided. However, now that the dusts appear to have settled in the arena, the atmosphere is conducive for building theory in PCS.

Why should we build theories in PCS?

‘Nothing is quite so practical as a good theory’ (Lewin 1945 cited in Van de Ven 1989:486). Building theory will not only advance knowledge and guide research but also help us bridge the gap between theory and practice in PCS. According to Van de Ven, ‘Good theory is practical precisely because it advances knowledge in a scientific discipline, guides research toward crucial questions, and enlightens the profession …’ (Van de Ven 1989:486). Thus, good theories are not abstract, but are indeed practice-oriented. Ross (2003) in his chapter ‘PCIA as a Peacebuilding Tool’, arguing the need for explicit theory in PCS, submits that theory is crucial to practice because people generally have some theories of how the world works, which may partly determine the success or failures of interventions. And theories are crucial because they make explicit how an intervention is expected to impact on its context and vice versa. In his words, ‘theory can play a crucial role in priority setting and resource allocation when it identifies sequences, points of maximum impact, and connections among domains’ (Ross 2000 cited in Ross 2003:79). Hence, by informing practice, theory can contribute significantly to the success or failure of interventions.

Moreover, we need to build theories in PCS because we have sufficient materials for it. The four essentials of theory building – ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘why’, and ‘who, where and when’ – (Whetton 2001) are currently available in the various PCS approaches and frameworks. In these four essentials of a good theory are embedded the three components ‒ assumptions, concepts, and propositions ‒ of social theory. This is a good starting point for theory development in PCS.

In addition, and more explicitly, we need to build theories in PCS to justify or strengthen its status as a scientific enterprise. Considering the centrality of data–theory interaction in scientific knowledge generation, and the data, theory and value relationship in the epistemology of Peace Studies expounded by Galtung (1996), reluctance or failure to build theories in PCS is tantamount to repudiating the validity of the specialised area as a field to be scientifically explored. Theory is a tool for constructing and explaining reality. It is essentially an attempt to explain the phenomenon being studied using terms more abstract than the terms commonly used to describe the phenomenon. Scientific inquiry usually starts or ends with theory. In other words, the scientific process of knowledge construction or deconstruction involves testing or building theory. This is a fundamental principle in the production of scientific knowledge. The issue is central to social science research and cannot be wished away in PCS. Hence, for academic researchers, theory is non-negotiable in scholarly or research activities. Theory either begins or emerges from research. Theory ‘at the beginning’ of research is to test theory, while theory emerging ‘at the end’ of research is to build theory. No social science area is complete without these two activities going hand in hand. It goes without saying that to test theory, we must first build it; and once built, we have to keep testing it to see whether it fits in with new empirical reality or whether we have to modify the theory in favour of new data. This is the scientific enterprise. Therefore, no matter how much we try, we cannot wish this reality away in our claim of PCS as a scientific area. This is not to disparage the inestimable value of previous brilliant practice-oriented works (of practitioners, researchers, policymakers and scholars) at describing and generating context-specific explanations of realities of aid impacts in conflict context. However, this is a call to scholars: to wake up to the responsibility and challenge them to build useful scientific theory in impact assessment.

Furthermore, we need to build theories in PCS because theory development is an indication of maturation of a scientific area, field/discipline. Hence, by building theories of PCS, we demonstrate its maturation as an academic area. And now is the time to do so because of the amount of interest currently taken in the impact assessment issue. Not doing so now might miss the opportunity to improve our scholarship and practice of PCS. Practitioners and practice-oriented scholars have done their fair share of documenting the realities of the intervention-context interactions. It is time for university-based academics and other interested stakeholders to ‘wade in to excavate theories’ (Bush 2005:35) to map, explain, predict and account for the patterns and relationships of phenomena in the area.

How should we build theories in PCS?

Starting with Whetton’s framework, the what elements within the context of PCS include factors, that is, variables, constructs, and concepts that are logically considered as part of explanations of PCS. These include conflict, peace, peacebuilding, impacts, negative impacts, positive impacts, interactions, intervention, conflict sensitivity, effect, and many others that have been employed in mapping the conceptual landscape of PCS ‒ leading to proliferation of methodologies, approaches, tools and frameworks. While some have condemned this proliferation for various reasons, maybe it is a positive indication for theory building, after all. However, from our long list, we need to balance the virtues of parsimony and comprehensiveness in selecting those factors that will make the final list in our theory-building efforts. According to Whetton (2001:490), having ‘too many factors’ is in tandem with good practices in theory development. This, according to him, is because ‘… recognizing that over time their ideas will be refined, it is generally easier to delete unnecessary or invalid factors than it is to justify additions’.

Building theories goes beyond merely listing the factors, but also includes showing how these factors relate to one another. This is the how element and it involves showing linkages among the factors in the form of conceptual frameworks. This brings conceptual clarification by delineating patterns and introducing relationships. Luckily, all our PCS approaches have been able to show linkages between most of the what elements. For instance, how intervention impacts its context and vice versa, and how it leads to negative or positive impacts. Conceptual frameworks, constituting the how element of theory building, are indeed abundant in PCS.

The what and how elements, according to Whetton, constitute the domain of a theory. But we should move beyond this to the ‘why’ element, which constitutes the underlying dynamics – psychological, social, economic, political – that justify the selection of the factors and the exploring of their proposed causal relationships. These dynamics include a theory’s assumptions and propositions, and provide the basis for trusting a particular representation of the aspect being theorised. The soundness of the logic of these assumptions and propositions provide the basis for judging the reasonableness of the proposed conceptualisation. This is probably where most PCS frameworks fall short. They fail to make explicit the logic underlying their models. And this is probably because of their normative orientation to practice, with little or no consideration for academics or intellectualism. Logic, rather than data is the basis for evaluation (Whetton 2001) in the theory-building process. Hence, building PCS theory will involve extending the whats and hows in PCS frameworks to include the why element – the hopefully sound logic behind the whats and the hows, and the possible explanations of relationships between whats and hows that will have to be tested to be useful for research.

The fourth component according to Whetton, the who, where, and when, are temporal and contextual factors that can delimit the generalisability of propositions. This fourth component constitutes the range of a theory. These factors situate a theory within a specific time and space. They force theorists to be sensitive to the context of their theories and be context-specific when discussing the generalisability of their theories. Generally, PCS frameworks have been classified as applicable to different generic contexts such as micro, meso, and macro. Some even lay a strong claim on moving beyond the generic contexts to documenting specific geographical locations (for instance, the Niger Delta and Mindanao) where they have been applied. So, to a large extent, we can say that, in a sense, contextualisation is already an established feature of PCS.

Beyond identifying the components, we must also consider the methodological approach. We must move past the inhibitive contention about the appropriate methodological approach, as earlier discussed, and instead use methodologies (qualitative, quantitative or mixed method) to suit our purpose. The qualitative methodology provides us with appropriate tools for context-specific, people-centred research and theorising. As such, it might suit some PCS theories that need not explain realities in multiple contexts. (We only try to theorise portions of realities anyway. In fact, one understanding of theory is as a representation, interpretation or construction of an aspect of reality). Also, the qualitative approach might be suitable for capturing the diversity and fluidity of phenomena in conflict situations, which has been stated (above) as one of the reasons for the impracticality of building impact assessment theory. However, we can identify similarities in diversity and discover patterns, even in chaos (since we scientists assume that the universe is ordered). In fact, science recognises the fluidity of certain realities and its limitations in theorising about them. This probably led to such ideas as the principle of uncertainty in quantum theory and the principle of irrationality in rational, strategic thinking (Schelling 1960). So, with the qualitative approach, we can build context-specific, people-oriented theories that protect the integrity of each context and explain phenomena or aspects of fluid realities of PCS.

Moreover, the qualitative methodology might also be favoured here because like PCS, it emphasises the lived experience and interpretations of the people within the context. That is, it shares the participatory, people-centred approach with impact assessment. In essence, they both share the core belief of mapping, understanding and accounting for realities from the perspectives of the subjects living in such realities. Another plus to the qualitative approach is that being closer to the natural way human beings investigate the world through inductive reasoning, it is, therefore, ordinarily less threatening and more attractive to practitioners. Little wonder many of them are rooting for the qualitative methodology. However, it is generally beyond the intent, interests and competences of practitioners to develop scientific theories. Hence, academics need not be confined by the preferences of practitioners. Building scientific theory is a rigorous exercise requiring special competences, which probably fall squarely within the purview of academics. It is their responsibility to take the various accounts by practitioners, identify factors, the relationships between them and the patterns of these relationships, and to explain and make testable propositions about these realities.

Nevertheless, scholars have convincingly argued the possibility of building generalisable theories using various context-bound methods such as case study (Eisenhardt 1989; Yin 1994; Punch 1998), grounded theory (Glaser 1992), and progressive case study (Steenhuis and De Bruijn 2006). Hence, from qualitatively generated, organic, context-specific, people-centred theories, we can build more generalisable theories that account for core/essential realities in each context. These theories could then be tested following the hypothetico-deductive tradition of quantitative methodology. Therefore, from the context-specific accounts of realities, similarities, categories, and trends could be identified from which generalisable theories can be developed. Obviously, therefore, there is no logical reason for the contention on which approach is appropriate for theory generation. In fact, the two methodologies can be complementary and mutually reinforcing in our attempts to develop theory. However, it is noteworthy that although the qualitative methodology favours theory building while quantitative methodology favours theory testing, either or both can be used to either build or test theory.

A case in point in developing generalisable theories from multiple context-specific realities

A commendable attempt at using practitioners’ accounts to churn out useful theory is exemplified in the article of Emiko Noma, Dee Aker, and Jennifer Freeman (2012), ‘Heeding women’s voices: Breaking cycles of conflict and deepening the concept of peacebuilding’. The authors drew from accounts of 35 women peacemakers from around the world and focused on three – Mary Ann Arnado of the Philippines, Luz Méndez of Guatemala and Zandile Nhlengetwa of South Africa. From these, they developed concepts and propositions that describe how women peacemakers emerge and engage in peacebuilding in conflict contexts. Some of the underlying assumptions were that ‘peacebuilding is a personal and context-specific endeavor’, and ‘women peacebuilders become involved when they are confronted with threats, risks, and challenges, assuming leadership roles and bringing forth unknown or untapped resources’ (Noma, Aker and Freeman 2012:9). Such concepts as ‘crossing lines of division’, ‘building parallel structures’, ‘creating and reclaiming space’, ‘listening, speaking, and seeing the big picture’ emerged from the narratives of women peacemakers.

They went further to make categorical statements to explain the nature or relationships of the concepts. For instance, in explaining ‘crossing lines of division’, they postulated that ‘… women seem predisposed to include multiple groups in their varied activities toward building peace’ (Noma, Aker and Freeman 2012:11). The authors were able to identify the overarching theme or the core category in the data (Noma, Aker and Freeman 2012:15). Consequently, therefore, through their assumptions, conceptualisations and propositions, the authors described and explained how and why women become peacemakers in conflict situations. This is a good case of building generalisable theories out of multiple case studies from diverse contexts. It also provides a good theoretical framework for scholars wishing to study women peacemakers or peacebuilders in other contexts, using either qualitative or quantitative methodology. Evidently, therefore, emergent, organic theory from qualitative research can inform hypothetico-deductive theory testing research in the quantitative tradition.

An important lesson for us here is that while appreciating the uniqueness of each context and trying to preserve the integrity of each case, stakeholders in PCS should also appreciate the similarities of experiences and dynamics across different cases. That is, although cases of interventions in the Niger Delta, southern Nigeria, and Mindanao, southern Philippines, may be different in their specifics, there will, necessarily, be similarities in their essentials. These similarities are the basis for building a second category of theories in PCS. In a more academic sense, insights/findings from each case could be generalised or transferred to account for similar experiences in similar contexts. This will be done through conceptualisations and development of propositions through academically rigorous processes. The questions now are: What experiences characterise the Mindanao contexts? Are they similar or dissimilar to the Niger Delta’s? Why? How? By comparing realities in different contexts, we distinguish between concepts that are generalisable (from which we may build generalisable theories) and those that are context-specific.


PCS as a specialised area of Peacebuilding and Development Studies has the basic building blocks of theory building. These include the factors ‒ variables, constructs, and concepts ‒ that are logically considered as part of the explanation of PCS; the linkages showing the relationships of these factors; and the underlying dynamics – psychological, social, economic, political – that justify the selection of the factors and their proposed relationships. There is no gainsaying the fact that most notable works on impact assessment, though done by practitioners and scholar-practitioners, are scientific in their approach; however, without explicit scientific theory, the scientific nature of PCS is not fully realised. Hence, theory building in PCS is a necessity. However, disincentives to theory building also abound in the conditions that informed the emergence of the field, the inherited orientation and normative commitment of PCS, stakeholders’ justifiable preference for practice, and the methodological contention about research methodology.

In spite of these encumbrances, there are enough incentives for theory building in PCS. For instance, the availability of raw materials for theory building, the place of theory in scientific enterprise, its role in confirming the scientific status and academic maturity of an area or discipline, and the need to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Although PCS is an uncompromisingly practice-oriented area, there is a huge amount of information available from the diverse arrays of practitioners around the globe. This constitutes a resource from which academics can draw to build theories. Also, theories play a central role in scientific enterprise, hence PCS theories will strengthen its claims to being scientific and mature as an area. There is a need to bridge the gap between theory and practice by making concerted efforts for building both context-specific and generalisable theories in the different domains of PCS. In this process, both qualitative and quantitative methodologies should be combined. Such theories will range from people’s non-academic explanations of how their world works to strict academic theorising. They will of necessity draw upon previous works in Peace and Conflict Impact Assessments, identifying cross-cutting assumptions, concepts, and propositions implicit or explicit in them. Moreover, the theories will be a theory of practice. That is, they will be informed by practice and will also inform practice in constant back and forth interactions between the two. In addition, our theories should be prescient by focusing on the possible future domains of PCS. This responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of academics, and the time is now.


  1. I first came across the term in Kenneth Bush’s (2005:27–48) field notes ‘Fighting commodification and disempowerment in the development industry: Things I learned about PCIA in Habarana and Mindanao’. Thania Paffenholz also used the term in her work Peace and conflict sensitivity in international cooperation: An introductory overview (2005a).
  2. Used then as an umbrella term for all approaches, frameworks, and methodologies as earlier discussed.
  3. Cf. Bush’s christened ‘PCIA-derivative labels’ (Barbolet et al. 2005:33).
  4. See endnote 2 above.
  5. Used in the sense of an umbrella term.


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This Issue


  • Jannie Malan

Communal conflict, communal peacemaking and governmental intervention in Nigeria

Lessons from the Ife-Modakeke crisis

  • Kazeem Oyedele Lamidi

The entanglement between peacekeeping and counterterrorism

With special reference to peacekeeping operations in Africa

  • Theo Neethling

Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria

Implications for national security and restorative justice

  • Benjamin Ikani Okolo
  • Aduku A. Akubo