Good Fences: The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Peaceful Coexistence

Cite as:

A. Rutherford, D. Harmon, J. Werfel, S. Bar-Yam, A.S. Gard-Murray, A. Gros, Y. Bar-Yam, Good Fences: The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Peaceful Coexistence. PLoS ONE 9(5): e95660 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095660 (May 21, 2014); arXiv:1110.1409 (October 7, 2011).


We consider the conditions of peace and violence among ethnic groups, testing a theory designed to predict the locations of violence and interventions that can promote peace. Characterizing the model’s success in predicting peace requires examples where peace prevails despite diversity. Switzerland is recognized as a country of peace, stability and prosperity. This is surprising because of its linguistic and religious diversity that in other parts of the world lead to conflict and violence. Here we analyze how peaceful stability is maintained. Our analysis shows that peace does not depend on integrated coexistence, but rather on well defined topographical and political boundaries separating groups. Mountains and lakes are an important part of the boundaries between sharply defined linguistic areas. Political canton and circle (sub-canton) boundaries often separate religious groups. Where such boundaries do not appear to be sufficient, we find that specific aspects of the population distribution either guarantee sufficient separation or sufficient mixing to inhibit intergroup violence according to the quantitative theory of conflict. In exactly one region, a porous mountain range does not adequately separate linguistic groups and violent conflict has led to the recent creation of the canton of Jura. Our analysis supports the hypothesis that violence between groups can be inhibited by physical and political boundaries. A similar analysis of the area of the former Yugoslavia shows that during widespread ethnic violence existing political boundaries did not coincide with the boundaries of distinct groups, but peace prevailed in specific areas where they did coincide. The success of peace in Switzerland may serve as a model to resolve conflict in other ethnically diverse countries and regions of the world.

Full Integration or Full Separation: The Science of Peace.

CAMBRIDGE (May 21st, 2014) – What if we could use science to understand, accurately predict, and ultimately avoid, ethnic violence? A new study published in PLOS ONE does just that. The key to peace, the theory argues, is to either completely integrate or completely separate people based on cultural, linguistic, and ethnical differences.

Researchers at New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) analyzed two countries that both have boundaries separating cultural and linguistic groups, and found that the violence in both cases matched the theory’s predictions, but in very different ways. Switzerland, a model of success when it comes to peace, contains boundaries within it that align with people ethnicities, and has almost no violence. In fact, the only area of violence occurs in Jura, precisely where NECSI’s theory predicts that the boundaries between groups are insufficient. In Yugoslavia on the other hand, the boundaries do not actually align with people’s differences and, as predicted, there is violence at the points of friction. This shows that there are right ways and there are wrong ways to set up boundaries to achieve peace within a country. Knowing that can help us make informed decisions and design for peace.

"We’ve seen that the ways borders and boundaries between groups are arranged really can prevent violence. When I think of the suffering and the lives lost, and I see those results, the findings just can’t be ignored," said Andreas Gros, one of the authors. "Conflicts rooted in ethnic strife are tearing countries apart today," said Bar-Yam. "Scientists who focus on predictive models cannot help but raise the question: 'What, if any, conditions are identifiable for peaceful coexistence among multiple groups with linguistic and religious differences?’" The paper shows that Switzerland can be used as a model for many places in the world that are diverse and struggle with maintaining peace. This study shows that it is not necessary to create separate countries; groups with boundaries that delineate local autonomy will live peacefully together. The theory and the data also show that people who are in fully integrated societies will also successfully live in peace.

Maps of Switzerland showing the 2000 census proportion of (A) linguistic groups, (B) Catholics and Protestants (Mercantor Projection). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095660.g001
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