Discovering the Unexpected Power of Nonviolence

Erica Chenoweth found that from 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns were twice as effective as violent ones in achieving their goals. And when nonviolent movements overthrow unjust regimes, they are far more likely to establish democracies and protect human rights, and less likely to lapse into civil war than violent movements.

by Terry Messman


In a groundbreaking effort to systematically study and compare success rates of violent and nonviolent social-change movements, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan carefully researched 323 social-change campaigns from 1900 to 2006. Chenoweth and Stephan’s startling finding is that campaigns of nonviolent resistance are nearly twice as likely to succeed as violent uprisings.

In their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, the authors found that far greater numbers of people from more diverse parts of society joined nonviolent campaigns than violent ones. This greater level of participation translates into more people who can demonstrate for change, and withdraw their cooperation from an unjust regime.

Chenoweth and Stephan also found that when nonviolent movements overthrow unjust regimes, the victorious resistance groups are far more likely to establish democracies and protect human rights, and far less likely to lapse into civil war than their violent counterparts.

Their innovative research may be making heads spin in the circles of international security studies and military analysts, but it was also a dramatic surprise to one of the authors, Erica Chenoweth.

When Chenoweth first attended a workshop on nonviolent resistance held by Maria Stephan, she did so as a “complete skeptic,” in her own words. “I was the one in the back of the room who was really irritating everyone else,” she said. “I was such a devil’s advocate for armed uprisings.”

Chenoweth had never fully paid attention to such arcane subjects as nonviolent movements or “people power.” She was more well-versed in its diametric opposite — the uses of military power.

Chenoweth is an Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, and teaches courses on international security, terrorism, civil war and contemporary warfare. In an interview with Street Spirit, she said, “I would call myself a traditional guns-and-bombs scholar, following the tradition of people like Tom Schelling.”

Stephan, on the other hand, was an expert in the study of nonviolent movements as an educational coordinator for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. She was teaching a workshop called “People Power and Pedagogy” to introduce the topic of nonviolent resistance to scholars in the field of security studies.

When Stephan discussed cases in the Philippines and Serbia where nonviolent resistance had achieved what years of armed uprising had been unable to accomplish, Chenoweth expressed such strong skepticism about nonviolent movements that people suggested she do a systematic comparison of the two kinds of struggles.

So Chenoweth and Stephan joined together to compare hundreds of nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns. The two scholars made an odd couple, given their widely divergent belief systems.

Chenoweth said, “Maria was an expert in nonviolent conflicts when we met and I was an expert in armed insurgency and terrorism. So our meeting was somewhat accidental. I was going to be the one to show that nonviolent resistance didn’t have a superior record to armed conflict.”

Chenoweth had a Ph.D. in terrorism studies and had come to believe that armed insurgency only happens because people found it is the best way to achieve their aims. Yet, her research into hundreds of movements challenged what she now calls her “typical, structure-based, politically biased assumptions” about the greater effectiveness of armed struggles. “I did the research and I’m shocked,” she said.

“Teach Them Well And Let Them Lead The Way.” Art by Christy C. Road.


“I think there are a lot of assumptions in our field that drive us to conclude that nonviolent resistance is ineffective or that it can’t be effective in certain circumstances.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary testimony to the deeply insightful — almost clairvoyant — conclusions of the authors is that they completed their book before the grass-roots rebellions of the Arab Spring toppled one dictator after another. That seemed beyond imagining when this book was written, yet the movements that arose in the Arab Spring vindicated the authors’ analysis of nonviolent insurrections.

Their research had convinced them that nonviolent resistance was “perfectly viable as a strategy for removing authoritarian regimes and achieving self-determination almost anywhere in the world.”

Nevertheless, they could not have expected the lightning-fast wave of nonviolent movements that toppled authoritarian regimes in the Middle East in the first months of 2011. The events of the Arab Spring seem to vindicate nearly all the hopes raised by the two women’s momentous study of nonviolent movements.

The epilogue of Why Civil Resistance Works speaks powerfully of those hopes: “If these last several months have taught us anything, it is that nonviolent resistance can be a near-unstoppable force for change in our world, even in the most unlikely circumstances.”

The word zeitgeist is translated as “the spirit of the times.” At certain providential moments, it becomes possible to see the spirit of the times flow through the massive movements of people power in Egypt and Tunisia. The same spirit appeared to be on the march in the Occupy movement in the United States. The same spirit of the times also is present in the scrupulous research of two highly original scholars who had the audacity to challenge generations of military analysis and security studies. In doing so, they have given us all the gift of new hope in the power of the people.

As I interviewed Erica Chenoweth about her research into social-change movements, her insights leaped out with great clarity, enthusiasm and intensity.


To read the Street Spirit interview with Erica Chenoweth, click HERE.




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