The Gap Between Nonviolence & Social Sciences


I was introduced to nonviolence and sciences in a university setting.

During undergraduate studies, I was a student and later a teaching assistant for a course on the philosophy and theory of nonviolence (textbook for the course). I also learned from Dr. Michael Nagler’s PACS 164-A, B, & C courses. I was familiar with various peace studies programs that considered nonviolence (e.g., Tromso; University of Peace; and the Kroc Institute) and organizations that engaged in thoughtful nonviolence work (e.g., Metta Center for Nonviolence; M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence; and the Albert Einstein Institution). Taken together, these examples suggest that a lot of folks are interested in shining thoughtfully about nonviolence and making connections with social and nature science evidence where appropriate (e.g., the Metta Center for Nonviolence Science of Nonviolence).

Yet, throughout my visit to numerous academic conferences, participating in and teaching numerous classes, and reading many articles as I progress through my doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University, I continue to notice that nonviolence isn’t as present as it could possibly be. In other words, I perceive that it isn’t employed in as many spaces as I perceive it to be useful. Perhaps one could make the same statement about much of our society.

So, why is there this gap?

Nonviolence offers a somewhat different way of thinking to much of social science research.

As I mention in my previous post “nonviolence offers a particular set of assumptions (ontological-, axiological-, epistemological-, and logic-type assumptions for you philosopher types out there) about people, their capabilities, love, and social arrangements that differ somewhat from more normative assumptions often made in scientific enterprises.” That is, all of social sciences rest on assumptions and how one relates to these assumptions determines how they frame research questions (i.e., the focus of their research), conduct analyses, and interpret results. To help explain these gaps, I will explore some of these assumptions as they relate to restorative practices in schools paying particular attention to behavior management.

Ontological-type assumptions are concerned with what is. Put differently, they are assumptions about what a phenomena is, what constitutes it, and other sorts of characteristics that are important for it exist. For example, when we think about behavior management in schools many practitioners and social scientists tend to think about behavior management as responses to problem behaviors that include consequences that are designed to deter future similar behaviors. A decisive majority of schools use exclusionary discipline practices like detention, suspension, and expulsion where students are removed from the classroom. Alternatively, many other social scientists and researchers employ alternative means to influence behavior – like making social environments and school cultures more supportive and engaging for students. However, my reading of Gandhi’s approach on managing behaviors in education (from Gandhi, 1962) foremost focuses on making education as relevant to the conditions of human life as possible so that behaviors naturally fall in line with learning. That is, the content of education is relevant for managing behaviors. Although several behavior management techniques have emerged over the past decades that make similar assumptions (e.g., Kaplan and Carter’s Cognitive Behavioral approaches). However, unlike many of these more modern programs that have emerged out of social science work, Gandhi’s education work also assumes that behavior management emerges from clearly linking behaviors and associated consequences to broader social responsibility, human progress, moral regeneration, institutional equilibrium, and moral coherence. In other words, behavior management represents something distinct from many approaches to behavior management for Gandhian nonviolence. Because of differences like this, much relevant social science research focuses on material that doesn’t necessarily align with ways of thinking that have emerged from nonviolence.

Epistemological assumptions are concerned with ways of knowing what is. In much of traditional and normative science, the empirical method is lauded as a primary means of discerning what is. And, often it can be employed to discover meaningful results. Given it’s perceived legitimacy, and by extension of evidence that emerges from the process, many behavior management programs are implemented in schools in ways that are proscribed by social scientists and program designers. That is, given legitimacy of often well-done social scientific research (e.g., Durlak et al., 2011) associated with a particular program, programs are implemented based on instruction provided by outsiders. More novel social science epistemological work highlights the utility of including many other voices in constructing a way of knowing what is best (e.g., post-colonial and hermeneutic approaches). Nonviolence epistemological approaches tend to align with valuing all of these ways of knowing. Gandhian approaches to education imply that it is the obligation of school stakeholders to critically analyze the values, beliefs, and ontological assumptions of what others find to work well for them (Gandhi, 1962). Given these emerging ways of thinking in social sciences, I think that there are numerous connections to be made between thought from nonviolence and social science perspectives.

Axiological assumptions are more concerned with values and ethics. Some of traditional approaches to social sciences tend to assume that the human being is relatively ethically neutral and will respond to incentives in a given environment (e.g., I read a lot of social choice theory work, a seminal economics approach to modeling the consequences of behaviors, to align with this perspective. A dominant wave of psychological thinking, called “humanist psychology”,  in the second half of the 20th century held that humans inherently motivated to develop and behave in ways that are aligned with realizing their potential and creativity that sign with general social and psychological goodness. This approach clarifies what is “right” and “good” for human beings. I find that nonviolence approaches to assigning value and worth to psychosocial phenomena to be typically well aligned with those from humanist psychology.

I know less about logics, or the systematic understanding and representation of making knowledge claims. But, my understanding of this is that well-thought out arguments tend to be more effective in both social sciences and nonviolence.

Taken together, I have intended to demonstrate some primary ways in which nonviolence and social science assumptions about behavior management in schools differ. I contend that these differences contribute to some of why nonviolence doesn’t tend to appear in academic spaces and work as much as they potentially could. However, I readily recognize that both the nonviolence social science knowledge building enterprises (i.e., all the work and thinking that people across the globe are doing) is vast and there are many numerous ways in which the two have possibility to overlap.