Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 2.1

Images of Conflict and Peace


Saliba Sarsar & John Raby

"We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war." Martin Luther King, Jr.

"The only guarantees of peace are compatible self-images." Kenneth E. Boulding

If we invited you to imagine in your mind the meaning of conflict and peace, what would you see? If you were to draw pictures of conflict and peace, could you do it? What would you visualize as conflict and what would you visualize as peace? Could those visualizations drawn from a group of people become a valid source, perhaps even the foundation, for teaching greater understanding of these issues? Is the ability to clearly visualize conflict and peace something that is limited only to those persons with a special gift for imagery, or is it something that all of us possess?

This article offers an investigation of images of conflict and peace. A central argument is that people can normally visualize and draw pictures of conflict and peace at the intuitive level. While generally connected to the main theme of conflict or peace or both, their images tend to vary in content, complexity, and abstraction, and also differ with age, formal education, and personal experience. If properly understood, such images may serve as important vehicles for educating about conflict and peace and might ultimately contribute to peace building. In other words, drawing is a useful technique to uncover existing images of conflict and peace and to explore new possibilities. As Betty Edwards instructs, "Drawing on the capabilities of the right side of your brain, develop your ability to see ever more deeply into the nature of things. As you look at people and objects in your world, imagine that you are drawing them, and then you will see differently. You will see with an awakened eye, with the eye of the artist within you."(1)

Our main argument strongly suggests that people's intuitions, while independent of any reasoning or reflective thinking process, does not exist in a vacuum. They are influenced by experience. These underlie "our images of meaning, which include, among others, our images of truth, belonging, and choosing."(2)

While no argument is made that image always precedes action, it is held that if people's values and images are made visible and examined, the journey to constructive social change and to a more peaceful world can be made easier. Moving from present view to envision a preferred future would require reflection upon our images of reality, since such images are equally if not more important than reality itself.

Our argument grows from our own experience learning about and teaching issues of conflict and peace. It is explicated by two exercises, the first relating to a series of filmstrip scenes that we have presented to our students, and the second consisting of a series of 264 drawings by children, youths, and adults, which we have collected for this article.

Exercises and Analyis

Consider the two exercises, explained below, as a starting point toward developing a meaningful dialogue for learning about conflict and peace, and hopefully, working toward peace.

They provide a vehicle for a participatory approach, one that invites reflection on personal experiences, which are used to discover elements in our students' and participants' modes of thinking and consciousness that propel them to behave in one way as opposed to another. The exercises are meant to enable students to develop their own critical capacities and to make informed judgments on issues of conflict and peace.

Exercise 1

In our Conflict Resolution course, we conducted an initial exercise in which we presented a series of filmstrip scenes to our students, and asked them to identify those that represented conflict and those that represented peace. Scenes included battlefields, athletic competitions, courtroom deliberations, marital situations, and even an ad for Ambassador Scotch. A lively dialogue ensued, in which students clearly and energetically explained how they could tell conflict and peace; defined both terms, on their own; developed schemes of classifying conflict, both by type and order of magnitude; and discussed whether conflict and peace could exist simultaneously.

In nine years of teaching the course, striking consistent results emerged. The definitions and analyses were always the students' own; we were present only to pose questions for clarification, to facilitate their conversation, and to assist in sharpening the students' ability to think creatively about defining and resolving conflict. Sometimes students agreed unanimously that certain images represent conflict. Among the scenes that resulted in agreement was one depicting a boy standing at a barbed wire fence in the middle meadow. Other scenes eliciting agreement depicted creatures in the wild engaged in fights for survival, a mugger's knife pointed at a victim's neck, soldiers in combat, full-scale battles from wars dating back to Norman invasion of England in 1066, and refugees fleeing an advancing army. The refugee scene, which included women and children, was especially poignant, and consistently led students to ask empathetically whether there can be any limits to human brutality in warfare.

There were cases over which students disagreed. One scene that consistently led to an exchange of views was a photograph of a man meditating on a beach while the rising tide encroached. Another depicted the United Nations General Assembly. A third showed a mixed race couple, backs toward the viewer and so of uncertain gender, walking hand in hand. Several more showed competitive sports events, and in all of those cases, students expressed varying points of view as to whether the events on view depicted conflict or peace.

As the exercise unfolded, the students' responses, which were largely spontaneous, became more sophisticated and sharply analytical. Students noticed different orders of magnitude in the scenes they saw, since they observed situations ranging from family quarrels to full-scale international warfare, and they began to speculate on whether there are instances in which conflict and peace exist simultaneously. Every scene of a sports event led to this discussion, along with the scenes of the United Nations General Assembly and the man meditating on the beach.

It is important here to note that the student discussion described immediately above, which rapidly grew more and more complex and sophisticated, always occurred at the start of our courses in conflict and conflict resolution. Reflecting on this experience, we began to ask ourselves whether students might begin their study of conflict and peace with images they produce on their own. Thus we moved to the second exercise, which focuses on drawings.(3)

Exercise 2

In order to test our belief that people can clearly visualize conflict and peace, between 1992 and 1996, we collected a convenience sample of 264 drawings by people in New Jersey ranging in age from 10 to 60. Our participants came from seven different groups: 6th grade students, 8th grade students, high school rising seniors, secondary school guidance counselors at public and private schools, college freshman through seniors, college faculty, and college administrators. (See Table 1) We asked them to draw their own conceptions of conflict in a period not exceeding 15 minutes. Some obliged by drawing peace as well. This unexpected response led us to start asking participants to draw their own conceptions of conflict and peace. No artistic competence was expected, only honesty of expression.


Table 1: A Convenience Sample of Drawings, 1992-96
Group Age of Group Number of Drawings
6th Graders 10-11 24
8th Graders 13-14 47
High School Rising Seniors 16-17 90
College Freshmen-Seniors 19-24 61
Secondary School Guidance Counselors 30s-50s 22
College Faculty 30s-50s 8
College Administrators 30s-50s 12
Total: 264

The 264 drawings were varied and rich in their messages. One pair of drawings by a 6th grader depicted a battlefield split in the middle by a barbed-wire fence. Opposing armies of infantry, supported by machine guns and tanks, fire on one another across the divide. The second drawing in the pair showed a world marked by a peace sign lifted into the air by a group of people.

Drawings by 8th graders began to become abstract and symbolic, Conflict was frequently represented by guns and explosions, while peace appeared as the well-known peace sign. As with the 6th grade drawings, the 8th grade drawings often introduced an outside agent or power like the sun nourishing or establishing peace. Also, 8th grade drawings began to include immediate and personal issues such as family distress over bad grades or problems in both social and physical environments such as threats from gangs.

The drawings by the high school rising seniors presented the same themes as those of the 8th graders. There were still guns and explosions depicting conflict and peace signs and handshakes representing peace. In some cases, peace continued to be influenced by some outside force. As with the 6th and 8th grade drawings, most of the situations depicted are external to the students' personal lives. However, the symbolic representation of both conflict and peace became much more fluent, subtle, and varied. While guns and explosions continued to represent conflict, there were also depictions of a broken planet, mushroom clouds, shields and swords, and bombs with fuses. While peace signs still frequently appeared, we also saw rainbows, fields, gardens, flowers, guitars, doves, and lots of hearts.

Post-high school drawings carried on many of the same themes, but showed a striking shift of emphasis. The issues became more personal and direct. Instances of outside forces affecting peace declined sharply in number and by the time we reached people in their post-college years, they disappeared almost altogether. Even when an outside agent offered assistance in resolving a conflict, the people involved remain the chief active agents in its resolution.

Drawings by college students listed a series of synonyms for conflict (for example, separation, mistrust, hate, violence, and the end of the world). Accompanying the list of words was a series of stick figures. In one, a living person stood over a corpse, declaring: "This is mine." In another illustration, one person said to his companion: "I hate you simply for what you are or represent." In the third, a lone figure asked: "Rules of War?" In the last, a mother stood over the grave, saying: "My son is dead." On the tombstone was the inscription: "Rest In Peace."

A series of drawings by the secondary school guidance counselors at public and private schools was more abstract. The predominant theme was that of opposing forces, with arrows pointed at each other as the most frequently used symbol. Depicted in separate drawings were symbols of money, walls, and endless cycles of conflict.

Equally abstract were drawings by college faculty. Sometimes stick figures appeared, and sometimes list of words, but in almost every case, there were explicit references to opposing forces of winners and losers. One four-panel drawing showed a bomb with a lit fuse in the first panel and the bomb exploding in the second panel. In the third panel, one stick figure throws a spear at another, and in the last panel the intended victim lies dead at the spear-thrower's feet.

An especially varied series of drawings came from college administrators. Most depicted both conflict and peace. One drawing showed two vibrant yellow tulips on either side of a drooping red one. A second introduced us to an angry computer user with a baseball bat ready to smash a computer as a computer technician offers help, saying: "We can help you use this tool. It's really a helpful instrument." In a third drawing, an arrow crashed into a wall. A smiling face was on the other side of the wall.

As with the filmstrip exercise, the drawing was followed by an open dialogue that allowed people to volunteer and explain their own drawings or offer comments on the drawings of their peers or those by other groups.(4) This exercise then led to a discussion of people's reactions and responses and a more focused analysis of where and how people receive their images of conflict and peace and of how this source or sources can assist them in learning about and addressing the subject.

A number of issues emerged during the dialogue, starting with the distinction between inner and outer conflict and the intensity and magnitude of conflict. As the discussion progressed, the focus shifted to addressing problems associated with inequality of power, money, and disintegration of communication. The conversation then evolved into a revelation of personal fears, which allowed participants to share with others their explicit concerns. As they talked, several people explained their initial hesitancy to divulge their inner thoughts and become vulnerable in front of others. The participants concluded that more personal openness, sensitivity to others, and better communication are needed to move toward agreement. As Mahatma Gandhi taught, one must "cast off fear" to reconcile with others.

An initial analysis of the drawings indicates that many people can clearly visualize conflict and peace. Interestingly, they can also draw pictures and verbalize their images of conflict and peace, before beginning a formal study of the two.(5) This ability appears to be largely intuitive. In expressing themselves, people create images that vary in content, complexity, and abstraction. The images differ with age, formal education, and personal experience. For example, drawings by children are pictorial, concrete, and focused on issues outside their immediate situations. They visualize more as observers than do adults, who are more inclined to visualize as participants.(6) The adult visualizations are both more abstract and more connected to their daily lives, with people caught in cross-pressures from home, work, and school, or competition with others at work. It is interesting to note that the college faculty in our study, more than any other group, seems to emphasize a zero-sum world. If one wins, another must lose. Among the college administrators, however, many participants drew their depictions of conflict spontaneously with peace, without being asked. They appeared to be more interested in suggesting ways to cope with conflict.


What implication does our study have for teaching and learning about issues of conflict and peace? Based on our preliminary evidence, we propose that understanding how people internalize, interpret, and create images of conflict and peace can serve as a foundation for teaching and leaning about analysis and resolution of conflict. The variety of images to which people are exposed can increase and enrich their own ability to visualize and analyze issues of conflict and peace, and might assist them in coping with and eventually resolving conflict.

An important element in the aforementioned exercises is the process of moving from personal and individual reflection to group visualization of collective images in the drawings, and then on to group dialogue. As Elise Boulding suggests, "The interaction between individual imaging and small-group discussion in which each person describes her own imagery and addresses questions to others about their images gradually brings out more and more details about what the future is like. Eventually, a working group develops shared imagery."(7) As Robin J. Crews also writes, "good solutions represent the truth we collectively seek, which in turn is the result of our ability to visualize the perceptions, identify the needs, and respect the rights of others."(8) It is here that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kenneth E. Boulding, at the beginning of this article, take on new meaning.

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1. Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee, 1989), 224.

2. Robin J. Crews, "A Values-Based Approach to Peace Studies," in Peace and World Order Studies: A Curriculum Guide, eds. Daniel C. Thomas & Michael T. Klare (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989), 29.

3. The way we draw our shapes and sit ate our marks is greatly influenced by what we know, what we see, and what we experience, and these, in turn, are based on our understanding of the past, our relationship to the present, and our expectations in the future. Drawings or pictorial representations, if not art, have been used as a medium through which people can express themselves on subjects they have difficulty in conveying verbally.

4. Due to time limitation, 8th graders and rising high school seniors submitted drawings without follow-up discussions. Nonetheless, we decided to include their drawings in our sample because we wanted to see how young people of varied ages and levels of development could depict conflict and peace.

5. We can conjure images of conflict and peace perhaps because these are universal vectors in our construction of reality. Carl G. Jung's concept of the archetype as the content of the collective unconscious seems to fit in with our central argument. See Carl G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1963). The collective unconscious must be viewed as ?containing those patterns of symbolism that occur in the psyches of individuals, not because of their individuality and not because they are members of particular groups, but because they are human beings. See Ira Progoff, The Dynamics of Hope: Perspectives of Process in Anxiety and Creativity, Imagery and Dreams (New York: Dialogue House Library, 1985).

6. Edmund Burke Feldman explains the difference between the art of children and that of adults. He writes: "The art of children, of course, is more truly spontaneous. They have had less experience of the world than adults and accordingly they are less inclined to hesitate in their artistic execution. For this reason, the self-expression of children is regarded as revealing more truly reflective of their inner selves than the self-expression of adults--adults who have learned to dissimulate. To say that child art is revealing of the self is not to imply that it is also expressive of the self." (Emphasis is in the original.) See Becoming Human Through Art (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1970), p.43.

7. Elise Boulding, Building a Global Civic Culture (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 110.

8. Robin Crews, op. cit., p.37.