Introducing the Historical Peace Index

Seshat: Global History Databank (Seshat) and the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) are teaming up to explore a critical issue facing all human societies, past and present: how can we achieve a stable, lasting peace?

Figure 1. 2017 country peacefulness rankings. Source: IEP’s Global Peace Index 2017 Report

Together, Seshat and IEP are working on developing a Historical Peace Index (HPI). The purpose of the HPI is to track long term trends in peace and conflict and to allow comparisons across regions over time. The HPI is modelled on the IEP’s Global Peace Index (GPI) reports (e.g. Figure 1), which has been ranking modern  independent states and territories according to their level of peacefulness since 2007. The GPI is the world’s leading measure of global peacefulness, using comprehensive data-driven analysis on trends in peace, its economic value, and how to develop peaceful societies

By bringing the ‘Seshat Approach‘ to this topic, we aim to add a deep historical dimension to the IEP’s measures of peacefulness in the modern world. In this way, we believe we will be able to better understand how, where, and why violence has increased or declined in different parts of the world over time. Linking the HPI and GPI together will offer unique insights into the deep structural dynamics that have led to the current state of world peacefulness, pointing the way for innovative, effective solutions to some of the seemingly intractable conflicts persisting around the globe today.

At a recent workshop held in Oxford University, researchers from the IEP and Seshat project got together to plan out building the HPI. It was apparent from the start that there is a lot of synergy between the two projects, and there is definitely a wealth of historical information on peacefulness, violence, and various measures of well-being waiting to be collected, structured, and systematically analyzed.

For instance, using data collected and stored as part of the Seshat project, we can get some preliminary impressions about the variability in the degree of militarization experienced by polities occupying the region of Elam/Susiana in the very long term (Figure 2). Although this data has not been fully vetted and checked, it is clear that there are peaks and troughs in the levels of militarization—likely both responding to as well as helping to foment periods of increasing violence—over the years. Note also a clear decline in militarization from the Medieval period leading to early modern times, when our data stops; we need, then, to explain when and why this trend reversed once more, leading to the more
recent rising of militarization in the region and throughout Southwest Asia.

Figure 2. Left: militarization rates in Elam/Susiana over time. Militarization Score is composite measure following GPI definition of militarization, calculated using historical data collected by Seshat: Global History Databank. Score is based on preliminary research, for illustrative purposes only. Right: map showing location of Elam/Susiana region in modern-day southwest Iran. Source: Wikipedia (CC By-SA 3.0)

Here’s what our directors have to say about the collaboration:

IEP’s Founder, Steve Killelea noted that:

IEP is very happy to partner with Oxford University. Peace is at the heart of the world’s future sustainability, because without a world that is basically peaceful, we will never have the levels of trust, co-operation or inclusiveness necessary to solve humanity’s global sustainability challenges. Peace is a prerequisite. The partnership between IEP and SESHAT will help to make this possible.

Seshat Co-founder Prof Harvey Whitehouse said:

Many have appealed to historical examples to support their views on current public policy but this has usually meant cherry picking while ignoring counter-examples. The Historical Peace Index will allow us to identify the precursors to peace worldwide over thousands of years and so provide a more objective way of learning from the past to plan better for the future.

Peter Turchin, Co-founder and Chair of the Seshat Board says of the project:

Has violence really declined over the past 10,000 years? In the last millennium? The last century? And if so, what explains this major improvement in the human condition? We designed Seshat: Global History Databank precisely to answer such Big Questions about human history. Thanks to our partnership with IEP and University of Oxford we will soon have a much better understanding of how violence has waned and waxed in the past—an understanding we hope will help build more peaceful societies for the future.

We have very high hopes for the HPI and for the long-term collaboration between Seshat and the IEP. Stay tuned in the coming months for reports on the project’s progress and to see what the data shows about the prospects for global peacefulness. 

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