Johan Vincent Galtung (1930-2024): A great and controversial personality

By Werner Wintersteiner and Wilfried Graf*

A founding generation steps down: In the space of just a few years, international peace research has lost key figures who were at the forefront of founding the discipline. Herbert C. Kelman, one of its earliest representatives, died in March 2022. The Viennese-born American social psychologist had already founded an association and a journal in 1951 whose task was to conduct scientific research into “Conflict Resolution”. However, calling the endeavor by its real name, “Peace Research”, was unthinkable in the heated climate of the McCarthy era. At the beginning of November 2023, Betty A. Reardon, long-time professor at Columbia University in New York, a founder of feminist peace research (see for instance her book “Sexism and the War System”) and an outstanding figure in peace education (see for instance her book “Comprehensive Peace Education”) passed away. In February 2024, the Norwegian mathematician and sociologist Johan Galtung, probably the best-known, most dazzling and most influential, but also most controversial figure in early peace research, who also made a great contribution to peace education, passed away. In the following, we will attempt to outline Galtung’s significance for peace research without denying his contradictions.

1. On the way to “rauhantutkimus”

Johan Vincent Galtung, born in Oslo in 1930, was to a certain extent born into peace research. At least that is the conclusion one can come to if one goes by his own statements and stories. The Second World War, during which Norway was occupied by Nazi Germany, played a central role in Galtung’s early life. His father, deputy mayor of Oslo, was thrown into prison by the Nazis. After every action of the Norwegian resistance, some prison inmates were executed. So the family lived in constant fear for his father and the young Johan understood the “madness of war”, as he himself put it. He was all the more highly impressed by the pacifist revolutionary Gandhi, whose assassination in 1948 was deeply mourned by the then 17-year-old: “Gandhi’s message was that there is an alternative.”

As a young student of both mathematics and sociology, Galtung received a scholarship to Finland, where he asked a librarian to find him books on rauhantutkimus (the Finnish word for peace research) – in vain at the time. Back in Norway, he refused military service and decided to devote his life to peace research from then on. With his characteristic tenacity, he demanded that he be allowed to use the six months that his civilian service lasted longer than his military service for peace work. When this was not granted, he was prepared to spend this time in prison. There he studied Gandhi’s writings on non-violence – the basis for a book that he wrote together with his mentor, the philosopher Arne Naess, whose assistant he was from 1953 to 1957 (Galtung/Naess 1955). From 1956 to 1957, he was in Sicily at the invitation of Danilo Dolci, the “Italian Gandhi” (Aldo Capitini). Non-violent defense was a field of research for Galtung from the very beginning.

After completing his doctorate in sociology and an interlude as an assistant professor at Columbia University in New York, he succeeded in founding the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in 1959 together with his first wife Ingrid Eide (who later became a minister in a social democratic cabinet). It is the oldest peace research institute in existence. In 1964, as part of PRIO, Galtung established the first specialist journal for peace studies, the Journal of Peace Research, which still exists today. In the same year, 1964, he was involved in the founding of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA), the professional association of peace researchers. In 1969, he gave up the directorship of PRIO to become Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at the University of Oslo, a position he held until 1978.

During this time, Galtung developed many of his most fundamental theories and concepts, which have established his reputation as the most influential peace researcher to this day. He advocated transdisciplinarity across all scientific disciplines. He did this with such verve and zeal that Kenneth Boulding, the highly respected social scientist and economist, felt compelled to make the following statement (Boulding 1977): “There are some people like Picasso whose output is so large and so varied that it is hard to believe that it comes from only one person. Johan Galtung falls into this category.”  

Johan Galtung (photo: Werner Wintersteiner)

2. A driving force in peace research

The electrifying and inspiring power of his theoretical output is unique and has quickly made Galtung world-famous and influential. His concepts, especially that of structural violence, have often become so popular that many do not even know who their author is.

Negative and positive peace

With his first concepts, Galtung answered the question of whether peace research should adopt a narrow concept of peace (understood as the opposite of war) or a broad concept of peace, which understands peace not (only) as the opposite of war, but also of violence and injustice. Galtung advocated the broad concept of peace and proposed the very catchy, but in our opinion somewhat too dualistic terminology of negative peace versus positive peace (Galtung 1969). With negative peace, he describes the state of peace as the absence of war. He also defines positive peace as the existence of social justice. This provided an analytical tool for criticizing societies that do not wage war. In this way, it was possible to demonstrate how much “hidden” or low-threshold violence also exists in so-called peaceful societies. However, the choice of a broad concept of peace is not without its problems. It runs the risk of using peace as a synonym for “good life” and thus making it conceptually incomprehensible. In the late phase of his work, Galtung therefore specified and expanded the concept of positive peace to include four dimensions: Trauma management, conflict mediation, social justice (or equity), cultural harmony (of unity and difference).

Personal, structural and cultural violence

In close connection with the distinction between negative and positive peace, Galtung also differentiated the concept of violence. In his essay Violence, Peace and Peace Research (Galtung 1969), he postulated a dichotomy between direct or personal and structural violence. Structural violence refers to violence for which there are no clearly defined “perpetrators”, but rather unjust social conditions that cause people to die earlier than they should by nature, or unjust laws that “legally” restrict people’s democratic scope. For the early Galtung saw violence “as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is” (Galtung 1969, 168; emphasis in original), while he later defined violence much more concretely as a violation of basic human needs. If, for example, people die of diseases for which there is a cure, but social conditions do not allow treatment for a large part of the population, this also constitutes violence.

Due to this clear distinction, economic exploitation and political oppression also came into the focus of peace research as potential conditions or causes of physical violence and various forms of social protest could be legitimized as just resistance against structural violence, which had previously been criticized exclusively as illegitimate violence.

In 1990, Galtung expanded his binary distinction to include the concept of cultural violence and thus developed a triangle of violence. He regarded as cultural violence those justifications of violence (e.g. racist theories) that legitimize existing acts or relationships of violence or even make them invisible (Galtung 1990).

Conflict management: diagnosis, prognosis, therapy

Galtung’s conflict theory has also become very influential. He sees conflict as an unavoidable social phenomenon that is not only negative, but also positive – as a motor for overcoming unjust conditions. However, the aim is to deal with conflict constructively rather than destructively. He developed the conflict triangle as an analytical tool for this. At the apex of the triangle (and therefore the only visible component) is the behavior of the conflict parties, while the attitudes, i.e. the (often culturally anchored) assumptions, thought patterns and the underlying actual contradiction do not have to be conscious to the actors at first. It is now a matter of identifying and overcoming obstructive attitudes in a thorough dialog process in order to find a creative result for both sides in the actual conflict. However, according to Galtung, we must be aware that conflict cannot be “resolved”, i.e. finally eliminated, but that it is a matter of transforming it, whereby not only the substantive contradiction but also the relationships between the conflict actors are constructively changed. In this conflict transformation, Galtung, who comes from a family of doctors, uses terminology borrowed from medicine: diagnosis, prognosis, therapy.

Development theory

Galtung’s development theory began with the analysis of structural violence in the world system and led to a structural theory of imperialism (Galtung 1973 and 1996, Part III) – it is one of his most cited texts. This is because these considerations fitted in with the anti-colonial zeitgeist of the 1970s and offered tools for criticizing the continued effects of colonial dependency relations. They also made it possible to criticize post-capitalist relations of domination as they emerged in the countries of bureaucratic socialism or in the sphere of influence of Soviet “social imperialism”. As an advisor to various UN organizations, Galtung was able to effectively anchor his understanding of human development beyond economic growth and of social justice and sustainability.

3. Peace mediation, peace education, peace journalism, peace policy

In 1993, Galtung and his second wife, Fumiko Nishimura, founded Transcend International, a global network for peace, development and the environment, which worked towards a more just and less violent world through conflict transformation and mediation. In this context, Galtung also further developed a range of peace practices – peace mediation, peace education, peace journalism, peace policy.

Peace education was an important concern for Galtung throughout his life. Not only did his concepts of negative and positive peace and his theory of violence and conflict provide numerous impulses for peace education, he was also personally very committed to peace education. This is evidenced by his numerous relevant publications and his presence at events, seminars and workshops (e.g. Galtung 1974, 1975, 1983, 2008). His way of presenting and fascinating and involving his audience was itself a visual lesson in peace education.

Galtung was active as a speaker and consultant practically all over the world and held visiting professorships at many universities, including Santiago (Chile), the United Nations University in Geneva, Columbia University, Princeton University and the University of Hawaii. He was Director General of the International University Center in Dubrovnik and helped found and lead the World Future Studies Federation. In 2014, he was appointed the first Tun Mahathir Professor of Global Peace at the International Islamic University in Malaysia. His influence on peace research, peace movements and civil society on a global scale can hardly be overestimated. He has also had an eminent influence on peace science and peace practice in Austria and throughout the German-speaking world, as well as on the two authors of this article. Galtung has received numerous national and international awards and honors, including the alternative Nobel Prize Right Livelihood Award in 1987.

4. The shadow over his life’s work

However, this account of Johan Galtung’s life and work cannot end as a heroic narrative. Regrettably, there were also many negative aspects to his life. He often displayed arrogant and disrespectful behavior towards those around him. The Italian peace researcher Valentina Bartolucci even felt compelled to describe him as follows:

“Over the years, his public interventions became increasingly polemical and earned him a great deal of criticism. In professional circles, he is remembered not only for his fundamental contributions to peace research, but also for his pronounced ego (he often reminded his interlocutors that he was a genius, which he probably was, and he is probably the most quoted author in the world![1]) He was gifted with a biting irony. [He] could not take criticism well and was reluctant to admit his mistakes.” (Bartolucci 2024)

But much worse are some of Galtung’s statements that could be perceived as anti-Semitic. This became particularly blatant in connection with his statements on the occasion of the terrorist attacks by Anders Breivik in Oslo and Utøya in 2011.[2] Since the accusations are serious and his opponents are often accused of ideological motives, a source that must be taken seriously is quoted here – the statement by the then director of PRIO, the institute founded by Galtung himself, Kristian Berg Harpviken. The latter wrote in 2012:

“Johan Galtung’s comments regarding the terror attacks by Anders Behring Breivik on 22 July 2011 have stirred strong reactions in many parts of the world. Through his own writing and in media comments, Galtung indicates that Israel, and freemasonry, may have been implicated in the 22 July terror, and he discusses the alleged Jewish domination of world media, American universities, and international finance. His unsubstantiated statements are of a kind that contribute to stereotyping one particular group, the Jews. A quote he attributes to Norman Podhoretz, which can be found on numerous racist and anti-semitic sites on the web, serves to imply that all Jews are under the obligation to defend Israel in public debates. Galtung also lends credibility to dubious publications, including speculative works on freemasonry and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I find these statements irreconcilable with the ethos of peace research, a field to which Galtung made substantial contributions.”[3]

Johan Galtung himself has categorically rejected all accusations and dismissed them as slander, recalling his undeniable earlier merits in researching prejudice, racism and anti-Semitism.  For the most part, however, he did not respond very specifically to the accusations.[4] In his perception, what others saw as anti-Semitism was the breaking of taboos.

Galtung’s attitude raises a number of questions. Why did the peace researcher move in this negative direction? Was this a break with his earlier views or is there also a hidden continuity here? Why does the peace research community pay so little attention to this issue and why is it so little discussed?

We (the authors of this paper) had already become aware of the problem of generalized criticism of Galtung’s cultural ideas about Judaism – beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli policy – earlier. In particular, we had publicly distanced ourselves from his culturalist interpretation of the Jewish notion of chosenness as cultural violence (Graf 2009). With his statements from 2011, however, Galtung has clearly gone a step too far. The fact that the peace research community does so little to address this shadowy aspect of Galtung’s work calls for a self-critical reappraisal. It is by no means helpful for our guild.

5. Peace research as a search for peace

Galtung’s aberrations can in no way be excused by his undoubtedly epochal achievements, but his epochal achievements are not devalued by his aberrations either. What remains is a work so great and magnificent that not even the mistakes of its creator are capable of destroying it. It is up to us to continue to be inspired by it and at the same time to receive it with a critical eye. The visionary orientation of peace research remains the guiding principle, as formulated by Galtung in the first editorial of the Journal of Peace Research in 1964: “Peace research should not be limited to an evaluation of existing policies. It should also be peace search, an audacious application of science in order to generate visions of new worlds.”


  • Bartolucci, Valentina: Johan Vincent Galtung: A Trailblazer of Peace and Hope. EuPRA, February 27, 2024. [5. 4. 2024]
  • Boulding, Kenneth E. (1977): Twelve Friendly Quarrels with Johan Galtung. Journal of Peace Research. 14(1), 75-86.
  • Galtung, Johan (1969): Violence, peace, and peace research. Journal of Peace Research 6(3), 167-191.
  • Galtung, Johan (1973): Eine strukturelle Theorie des Imperialismus. In: Dieter Senghaas (Hg.): Imperialismus und strukturelle Gewalt. Analysen über abhängige Reproduktion. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 29-104.
  • Galtung, Johan (1974): On Peace Education. In: Christoph Wulf (Ed.): Handbook on Peace Education. Frankfurt/Oslo: IPRA, 153-171.
  • Galtung, Johan (1975): Peace: Research, education, action. Essays in peace research, Volume I. Copenhagen: Christian Ejlers, 317-333.
  • Galtung, Johan (1983): Peace education: Learning to hate war, love peace, and to do something about it. International Review of Education 29(3), 281-287. DOI: 10.1007/BF00597972.
  • Galtung, Johan (1990): Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3), 291-305.
  • Galtung, Johan (1996): Peace by peaceful means. Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization. Oslo/London: PRIO/Sage.
  • Galtung, Johan (2008): Conceptual Perspectives in Peace Education. In: Monisha Bajaj (ed.): Encyclopedia of Peace Education. Charlotte: Information Age Publishing.
  • Johan Galtung/Dietrich Fischer (2013): Johan Galtung. Pioneer of Peace Research. Heidelberg: Springer.
  • Galtung, Johan/Naess, Arne (1955): Gandhis politiske etikk. Oslo: Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag.
  • Graf, Wilfried (2009): Kultur, Struktur und das Unbewusste. In: Utta Isop/Viktorija Ratković/Werner Wintersteiner (Hrsg.): Spielregeln der Gewalt. Kulturwissenschaftliche Beiträge zur Friedens- und Geschlechterforschung. Bielefeld: transcript, 27-66.

*The authors

Professor (retired) Werner Wintersteiner, Ph. D., was the founding director of the “Centre for Peace Research and Peace Education” at Klagenfurt University, Austria. He is a member of the team of the Master’s programme Global Citizenship Education (GCED) at Klagenfurt University, Austria as well as a board member of the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict Transformation, Vienna/Jerusalem. His main research fields include peace education; global citizenship education; peace research with a focus on culture and peace and on the Alps-Adriatic region; literature and peace and literature education.

Dr. Wilfried Graf is co-founder and director of the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict Transformation, Vienna/Jerusalem. He received his PhD in Sociology from Vienna University. Between 1983 and 2005, he was a researcher at the ASPR–Austrian Study Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. He was then a senior researcher at the Institute for the Sociology of Law and Criminology until 2009. He has been engaged as a conflict transformation consultant for various initiatives in Central Asia, South Caucasus, South East Europe, Sri Lanka and Israel/Palestine. He lectured at the University of Vienna, University of Graz, University of Klagenfurt and the OSCE Academy in Central Asia.


[1] Obviously, she means “in the world of peace research” (See Galtung/Fischer 2013, p. 4).

[2] [5. 4. 2024]

[3] Intolerable Comments, Wednesday, 23 May 2012. [6. 4. 2024]

[4] [15. 4. 2024]

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2 thoughts on “Johan Vincent Galtung (1930-2024): A great and controversial personality”

  1. Recently an Austrian peace researcher has tried to measure what Galtung called “cultural violence”: Franz Jedlicka developed a “Culture of Violence Scale” containing items like child corporal punishment, violence against women, the death penalty .. (a lack of laws protecting people from violence in different societal sectors) in the countries of the world. Interesting!


  2. Daisuke Nojima

    Thanks for the interesting post. I am not young enough to know that anyone has good/bad aspects in one’s life, even of famous persons; however I am still feel some parts of this article might be based on misunderstood reputation.
    I was just watching that discussion on the email mailing list of PJSA at that time, that Galtung is/isn’t anti-semitic, which was started by an enthusiastic scholar. There had been pros and cons, but I thought he was far from ant-semistic, even he criticized PARTIALLY Israel government’s policies, including its deep culture, not ALL of them. Facing that reputation, he and his colleague scholars were hurt very much, and made efforts to straighten the misunderstandings, even he should have known more that it was a very adventurous and dangerous criticism. His theory of deep culture, collective unconsciousness, which is embedded behind the conflict, points out not some thought, religion, ideology etc. itself, of its entire bodies, and any human beings’ deep culture always contains both of peace/unpeace factors. For example, Galtung even admired Jew’s culture of its peaceful aspects, strong sense of thinking, history of creating new ideas, custom of deep discussion, and praised some Jewish persons, who have contributed to enrich human beings’ civilization, on the other hand. He just criticized any PART of deep cultures in the world, of its violent phases, and was much severer to other ones than Jews. I asked one of the top scholars of political thoughts, who has been studying of political thoughts, and he denied Galtung was anti-semitic, while he was just afraid of Galtung’s adventurous criticism against many of sensitive matters, sometimes.
    His personality, I didn’t know about the incident described above, however, he is basically very humanistic; angry, arrogant, despair, laugh, stubborn, sad, fair, upset, easygoing, pessimistic, etc., as well as other ordinal persons. I have been experienced as scolded, praised, criticized, helped, and so on, have met with many of his emotional phases. At a workshop, he even came to me that he made a mistake, apologized, and thanked for my criticism. It might not be very fair to judge one’s whole character from picking up a single phenomena among one’s total behaviors. However, I believe he is definitely INDIVIDUALISTIC very much, than persons from other cultures, as well as other Norwegian giants like Nansen, Amundsen, Brundtland, and so on. This finding is agreed by a scholar, who is majoring Northern Europe history, and Galtung himself knew it very much, as criticized by academic societies. However, I don’t think peace studies has such developed as of today’s, if he is not individualistic at all, at least in its dawn period, 1960’s.
    I have learned from Galtung, as well as other many peace scholars’ theries, and I have some different ideas from his ones, from my arrogance; isn’t this more important for us to discuss with peace educators friends in the world?

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