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In societies ravaged by conflict, younger generations are often invoked as critical to building peace. Policies and programs, drawing on research, tend to focus on external factors and interventions associated with prosocial or violent outcomes. Less attention has been paid to young people’s psychological processes in these settings, and specifically how they interpret, make meaning, and respond to norms, discourses, and expectations. In this dissertation, I outline a framework for the development of identities as peace builders and then demonstrate its utility with an investigation of Colombian adolescents. The scant research on young people’s ideas about peace lacks a clear framework situating meaning making within broader identity development. Yet, meaning making—how individuals, embedded in social ecologies, interpret and process key conceptual ideas—is linked to identities and actions as citizens, which in turn influence societal trajectories. This connection guides the development of a new theoretical concept: conceptualized peace. Conceptualized peace draws on Moscovici’s Social Representations Theory (SRT) and Spencer’s Phenomenological Variant of the Ecological Systems Theory (PVEST) to frame how individuals’ meaning making relates to identity-based outcomes as members of communities and societies. Using this foundation, conceptualized peace delineates developmental processes in individuals’ understandings of peace, the possibility of a peaceful future, and their own role in peace building. Each person draws on social discourse and personal experiences to conceptualize what peace is and how they can contribute (or not) to it. This framework is applied to Colombian adolescents. The country has recently undergone a peace process to end over fifty years of internal warfare. These efforts have included a focus on promoting young people’s agency as peacebuilders. Within this context, the study asks, what are the official discourses about youth and peace that are being broadcasted to adolescents by the Colombian government; how do Colombian adolescents understand peace amid this broader societal transition; how do they relate these discussions of peace to themselves, their futures, and their roles as peace builder? To answer these questions, I use three complementary datasets: 42 speeches, press releases, and curricular documents, 328 interviews with 15 to 18-year old secondary students across Colombia, and 1,492 questionnaires administered to adolescents from 40 schools. Discourse analysis is used with the first data set to identify the government’s presentation of how young people should be oriented toward peace. This analysis deconstructs part of social ecological context—the government’s influential discourse—in which young Colombians are embedded. Interviews and questionnaires are analyzed using thematic approaches to identify elements in ideas about peace, what it means in participants’ lives, and how they envision their roles in peacebuilding. The multiple analyses are triangulated to understand Colombian adolescents’ conceptualized peace. Findings highlight that the Colombian government and these participants tended to present peace as beginning in individuals’ internal states and attitudes. Constructing a peaceful society was the responsibility of each person by fostering inner peace and enacting it through interpersonal relations. This focus on individual, rather than structural, factors was also related to expressed feelings of self-efficacy and active participation as peace builders. In describing possible roles in peace, these adolescents tended to draw on opportunities presented to them in schools or generally through how they treated others. Importantly, these results demonstrate that understandings of society and social relations related to expressed beliefs in the possibility of peace and one’s ability to actually contribute to it. These themes can be interpreted as related to developmental concerns and, specifically, the processing of salient societal discourses. Overall, the study highlights that prosocial and engaged conceptualized peace could be more effectively supported by promoting efficacy and concrete pathways for youth to support peace. Furthermore, the development and further study of conceptualized peace could provide important insights for policy and practice. I extend the implications to efforts to harness educational settings to promote youth development as active peace builders and citizens. These programs must consider underlying meaning making as young people think about ideas like peace and begin to form concrete identities in relation to it. By focusing on structural issues and local social ecologies, critical peace education offers an effective path to promoting engagement and efficacious conceptualized peace in young people.


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