Cite as:

Alex Rutherford, Dion Harmon, Justin Werfel, Alexander S. Gard-Murray, Shlomiya Bar-Yam, Andreas Gros, Ramon Xulvi-Brunet, and Yaneer Bar-Yam, Good Fences: The importance of setting boundaries for peaceful coexistence, PLoS ONE 9(5): e95660 (May 21, 2014).


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.

Scientists show how to make peace

If you want to make peace you have to know what it looks like.

CAMBRIDGE (October 3, 2011)--Can science predict peace? Can scientific modeling help to end crises in today’s war-torn regions? New research from the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) says yes.

A new paper published by NECSI, "Good Fences: The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Peaceful Coexistence," carries important implications for policy makers in understanding the fragile present and immediate future in the world today.

In short, fences are due for a re-think.

Oftentimes peace depends on boundaries—well chosen, not arbitrarily set—that separate groups. This is an important turnaround to a frequently held notion that boundaries are negative barriers to harmony. Science, says NECSI, proves otherwise. Where boundaries are properly chosen, peace prevails. As world leaders struggle to understand the conditions triggering ethnic conflict and civil war, quantitative studies of geographical and other boundaries yield important answers.

"Trying to get people to ignore cultural, religious and ethinc differences is often counterproductive. There is an alternative that allows an active role for diversity," said Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, who heads NECSI and is a co-author of the paper. "Boundaries that give groups some amount of autonomy can serve to mitigate conflict where people naturally seek to live near others of their own group."

The paper considers both a country of peace and a country of conflict, comparing how their internal boundaries relate to peace and conflict. Remarkably, the country of peace, Switzerland, has one area of violence in Jura precisely where NECSI's analysis shows boundaries are not adequate to separate distinct groups. The country of violence, the former Yugoslavia, has two areas of peace where the boundaries separate distinct groups.

According to the theory, well mixed or well separated groups don't engage in violence. Groups of a particular size next to each other interfere with each other leading to conflict and violence. However, a well placed topographical or political boundary allows each group to establish its own domain and tensions are relieved.

Switzerland and Yugoslavia both have separated cultural, linguistic and religious groups; they are not integrated well-mixed societies. Surprisingly, the main difference between them seems to be whether the boundaries are in the right place or not. Both countries have conflict where the boundaries don't match the population groups. Both countries have peace where they do.

The prescription for peace is confirmed again and again in different ways in each of the two countries.

"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, another author.

"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?’"