Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.
The Time’s choice of The Protestor as Person of the Year for 2011 testifies to the socio-political upheaval gripping our world today; in a hopeful future we may also see this as the year that nonviolent conflict came of age. From long-term efforts at political reform in countries such as Burma, to the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East and Northern Africa, to the Occupy movement in hundreds if not thousands of cities across the US people have been challenging their governments for greater democratic freedom. Most of these civil resistance movements have used nonviolent methods to pursue their goals, and almost all of them have been countered with some degree of violence by the State’s security forces. This form of political expression is known my many names, including people power, civil resistance, nonviolent struggle, resistance or revolution, and what may best describe the process when successful, strategic nonviolent conflict.
Research on the tactics and success of civil resistance has increased in the last two decades and today we better understand the power unique to this form of conflict. But we have also found that it requires as much planning, organization, and luck as outright war: there are many variables to success, there are no guarantees, and we still have to learn how to maintain our freedoms once achieved. Resisting those who abuse their power is a continual process and learning to do so without violence paves the way for a more peaceful world.
One of the largest and most recent studies comparing violent insurgencies with nonviolent resistance was published this year by Erica Chenoweth, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and Maria J. Stephan, a strategic planner at the U.S. Department of State in, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Chenoweth is a past fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a visiting fellow at the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies, while Stephan has served as director of policy and research at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, as an adjunct professor at Georgetown and American Universities, and as a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Why Civil Resistance Works is an important informational tool for people directing policy and future research. Chenoweth and Stephan’s prose is clear, direct, and concise; the authors explain their methodology and findings in language accessible to the informed public and those who are leading nonviolent struggles around the world. The authors integrate their experience and explore why some nonviolent campaigns succeed where violence has not (such as the People Power movement that ousted Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in the mid 1980’s), and why some efforts fail at one point in time but then reignite to succeed decades later (such as the eventual success of the South African anti-apartheid movement in the 1990’s, which occurred over four decades after the failure of the initial Defiance Campaign in the early 1950’s). These questions fall under their more general inquiry into why nonviolent resistance has been more successful than violent insurgencies, and what factors determine the success of those efforts. But while the research on nonviolent conflict increasingly demonstrates its effectiveness, Chenoweth and Stephan explain that many researchers still make the assumption that physical violence is the ultimate sanction of last resort.
Chenoweth and Stephan limit their research to campaigns with goals that are “maximalist in nature: regime change, anti-occupation, and secession” (p. 69), which if achieved would result in fundamental changes to the country’s political order. Covering the period from 1900-2006, they analyze 323 violent and nonviolent resistance movements in their Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) data set. Chenoweth and Stephan’s research hinges on whether a campaign’s goals have been met and they classify these movements as being either successful, partially successful, or a failure. In this way they are able to show not only the relative success of nonviolent methods over violence, but also the relationship existing between the movement’s goal and the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance to achieve it. For example, their research shows that even when accounting for variables such the type of regime or its level of oppression that nonviolent struggles have increased in number and rates of success over the last 100 years, while the success of violent insurgencies over that period has decreased. But, this relationship changes when the goal of the movement is also considered in the analysis. While nonviolent methods have a strong advantage in anti-regime campaigns and a slight advantage when the goal is anti-occupation or self-determination, they are not more successful than violent insurgencies when secession is the goal. But, Chenoweth and Stephan’s research also shows that violence has only been successful in less than 10% of those cases, indicating that secession is seldom successful regardless of method.
By tying the success or failure of the movement’s goals to the elements related to that outcome they are stating that the means and the end influence one another, which their findings seem to support. This approach and the author’s willingness to combine their fields of knowledge demonstrate complex thought and a degree of transdisciplinary inquiry. Alfonso Montuori describes these concepts in his forward to Edgar Morin’s (2008), On Complexity, as the opposite of simplistic thought and discipline driven research that deconstructs reality within disciplinary agendas. Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s research design does not conform to the positivist assumption that defines reality in linear terms of cause and effect, but rather implies that there is a recursive dynamic existing between those potentials that defines the whole. And, similar to how Montuori describes Morin’s approach as an attempt to find the knowledge necessary to understand our “lived experience” (p. xii), Chenoweth and Stephan seem to recognize that the complexity of nonviolent campaigns precludes any one discipline claiming its territory.
Chenoweth and Stephan’s approach is different than that of more traditional social scientists such as Sharon Erickson Nepstad (2011), who also presented research on nonviolent conflict this year in Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century. Nepstad is a Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico, and her research design follows Morin’s idea of simplistic thought. For her methodology Nepstad used John Stewart Mills’ method of difference, which is a test to determine a factor’s causal role in an event when all else is held constant. She limits her research to the point of the regime’s fall with no concern about the subsequent political system; she claims she is targeting political not social revolutions. Nepstad is firm in her position that research should not mix the means with the end, which in this case means the factors related to the overthrow of a dictator should be kept separate from efforts to build the subsequent government. She states that, “When researchers conflate these processes, we lose analytic clarity and obfuscate causal dynamics” (p. xiv).
I side with Chenoweth and Stephan’s approach for three reasons. First, the vision people have of their future influences to some degree their actions today, and that dynamic includes factors that are not present if the means is separated from the end. For example, David Lake and Donald Rothchild (1996) explain in their article, “Containing Fear: the Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflict” that the often cited reasons for ethnic strife such as ancient feuds, religious differences, or suddenly being able to express pent-up frustrations paint an inaccurate picture of ethnic battles. Instead, they argue that ethnic conflict arises from “collective fears of the future” and that “as groups begin to fear for their safety, dangerous and difficult-to-resolve strategic dilemmas arise that contain within them the potential for tremendous violence” (p. 41). In other words, future potentialities affect how people and groups act in the present moment and an event cannot be understood by looking at either in isolation. This is an important consideration when designing the master strategy for an opposition campaign: If civil resistors hope for eventual reconciliation and a unified democratic society after overthrowing a dictatorship, then leadership needs to paint that vision of their future from the beginning of the movement.
The second reason I side with Chenoweth and Stephan’s methodology is because I see reality as a continuous dynamic interplay between first, second, and third person perspectives; isolating any one of these elements perverts our perception of the whole. In other words, in an ultimate sense there is no us, it, or me but only the dynamic that arises when we, it, and I interact; like pixels in a digital picture these points of intersection illuminate the creative matrix of which we are members, and no perspective alone presents a clear picture of an event. Finally, I know from experience that any goal I attempt is conditioned by the process to achieve it and that process—constantly engaging the recursive loops linking us, it, and me to the future—is for me the purpose of life. Any effort to separate the goal from the process and to not allow the knowledge acquired in that process to influence the goal is an attempt to freeze the evolution of the kosmos at some arbitrary point in time: it is an arrogant stance claiming more knowledge and control than we have. Obviously, these views counter a rational scientific approach to research and some people in those communities still discount the validity of nonlinear dynamics. But I am, like everyone else, a person with beliefs and my ideas of reality and future potentials condition how I act today, just like they will the members of a civil resistance movement.
Chenoweth and Stephan present their case in three sections. Part One, “Why Civil Resistance Works,” begins with the chapter titled “The Success of Nonviolent Resistance Campaigns.” The authors describe the purpose of their research, the questions they are pursuing, the data set they developed for their analysis, and some of the findings that arose. Their primary argument is that nonviolent campaigns are more successful because they generate greater participation than violent insurgencies. They put their research in context with that of others, and address the importance of comparing violent and nonviolent methods for academic purposes and designing public policy. The first chapter concludes with a concise breakdown of the rest of the book.
In Chapter Two, “The Primacy of Participation in Nonviolent Resistance,” Chenoweth and Stephan present their argument that nonviolent campaigns are more successful because they have a participation advantage and that the diversity associated with larger sections of society increases the ability to promote massive noncooperation throughout the country’s economic and socio-political institutions. They begin by explaining their definition of participation and how they estimated the number of participants in the campaigns included in the NAVCO data set. Then they discuss how mass mobilization occurs and the informational difficulties, commitment problems, and physical and moral barriers related to participation. Chenoweth and Stephan explain how massive participation enhances mechanisms such as coercion, loyalty shifts in the regime’s troops, the concept of backfire (where excessive oppression by the regime backfires and works to turn past supporters against them), international sanctions and external support, tactical diversity and innovation, and the resilience movements need to weather the course of a campaign. The authors then present those factors they feel are the most important to success, and the key outliers that arise in the data set when violent campaigns do succeed.
In Chapter 3, “Exploring Alternative Explanations for the Success of Civil Resistance,” Chenoweth and Stephan address two critiques of their approach. The first is the predominate view among the social science and contentious politics communities that structural conditions are the most important factor in determining the success of nonviolent movements. The authors use multivariate analysis to support their case and look at various types of opponents and movement goals as well as different regions in the world and the historic time the campaign took place. Their findings continue to support the relationship between nonviolent methods and success even when structural and environmental factors are considered. The second potential critique of their research is that their findings are endogenous and that nonviolent methods are more a symptom than the cause of the high success of nonviolent campaigns. The concerns are that nonviolent movements are successful because they emerge after a regime has shown its vulnerability, and that violent campaigns are often unsuccessful because they only emerge in the worst situations and after nonviolent efforts have already failed. Chenoweth and Stephan’s statistics refute those concerns and their evidence continues to show that the reasons people choose to use violence do not affect the results of their research.
In the four chapters comprising Part 2, Chenoweth and Stephan compare and contrast the relative success of four case studies in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They chose these examples because they have various degrees of success, wide variation in their independent variables, both violent and nonviolent periods in the campaign (allowing for inter-case comparison), and because each of these cases pits nonviolent resistors against militarily superior forces in environments of extreme repression. Chenoweth and Stephan explain that the case studies are important to their argument because they allow them to test theory, identify other variables for future research, and consider alternatives to their argument. Chapters Four and Five look at two resistance movements that are current in the Middle East—Iran and the Palestinian Territories—and in Chapters Six and Seven the authors examine the People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos regime in the Philippines in the mid-1980’s, and the continuing failure of the prodemocracy movement being led by Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. In each of these cases Chenoweth and Stephan provide an historical accounting of the movement and use their research to support their discussion and analysis. Part Two concludes with a summary of the case studies and a comparison between nonviolent and violent campaigns and successful and unsuccessful nonviolent campaigns.
Part Three of Why Civil Resistance Works is titled “The Implications of Civil Resistance,” and includes one primary chapter and the book’s conclusion. In Chapter Eight, “After the Campaign: The Consequences of Violent and Nonviolent Resistance,”
Chenoweth and Stephan look at the relative effect violent or nonviolent methods have on the potential for subsequent democracy or eventual civil war after a successful change in a country’s political order. They discuss the requirements for civil peace and a democratic society, show how violent insurgencies can compromise democratic ideals, and discuss the implications of their research. Their findings suggest that nonviolent resistance campaigns, whether successful or not, work to encourage a subsequent transition to democracy while successful violent campaigns reduce the likelihood of a future democracy and increase the potential for post-conflict civil war.
In Chapter Nine, the conclusion, Chenoweth and Stephan review their presentation and discuss the significance of their findings for nonviolent insurgents and policy makers who want to support resistance movements working for democratic change. They conclude by countering the commonly held beliefs that violence is always the method of last resort, that violence is the only recourse against repressive regimes, or that there are some types of states where nonviolent efforts are ineffective. Their evidence refutes these claims and instead shows that nonviolent methods have a strategic advantage over violent insurgencies in almost all cases. According to Chenoweth and Stephan, nonviolent resistance is almost always a viable option to violence, it enhances the quality of the subsequent political order, and it strengthens the citizenship skills necessary to maintain a functioning democracy.
Why Civil Resistance Works is a strong and timely contribution to the study of nonviolent conflict; it offers empirical evidence that if confirmed will bring greater clarity to our understanding of democracy and it should help to increase the acceptance of nonviolent civil resistance around the world. The research presented in Why Civil Resistance Works is invaluable and supports my hope that we can find our way to a more fair, equitable, and compassionate world system where socio-political conflict is embraced without violence.
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Morin, E. (2008). On complexity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Nepstad, S. E. (2011). Nonviolent revolutions: Civil resistance in the late 20th century. New York: Oxford University Press.
Robert Allen Kezer