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September 20th, 2012 at 11:30 am

Erica Chenoweth: Why civil resistance trumps violent uprisings

“Nonviolent resistance of some sort is almost always possible, and armed uprisings are never inevitable. Instead, violence may be a method people choose because they don’t know there is a realistic alternative.”–Erica Chenoweth
Erica Chenoweth, Why Civil Resistance Works

With a variety of protest movements erupting in the past couple of years, both violent and nonviolent, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict could not be more timely.

In a recent essay for CNN’s Global Public Square, Erica Chenoweth summarizes many of the findings in their book and argues that civil, nonviolent resistance is far more successful than violent uprisings. Chenoweth and Stephan reached their conclusion after analyzing 323 different social campaigns from 1900-2006 ranging from the Indian independence movement of the 1930s and 40s to to the Serbian movement to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. In analyzing their findings, Chenoweth and Stephan concluded:

Countries experiencing nonviolent uprisings are much more likely to emerge from the conflicts democratic and with a lower risk of civil war relapse compared to places where insurgencies were violent. And we suspect that in most cases where violent insurgency has succeeded, a well-executed nonviolent campaign may have been equally successful.

Of course not all non-violent campaigns succeed, often the result of relying to heavily on one particular tactic. Then, what explains the comparative success of non-violent campaigns. Chenoweth writes:

Nonviolent movements have a major participation advantage over violent ones. In terms of active participants, nonviolent campaigns tend to be about four times larger than the average violent insurgency. Diversity is just as important as quantity. Because of the diverse methods of resistance available to nonviolent movements – anything from high-risk protests, sit-ins, and occupations to lower-risk stay-at-home and go-slow demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes – they can attract a far more diverse following. The more segments of a society involved in a resistance movement, the more likely it is to succeed. It may be dangerous, for example, to pin the hopes of a movement solely on the young. Revolutions tend to succeed when the elderly, too, are on board….Successful campaigns tend to sequence their tactics in ways that maximize participation and pressure while minimizing exposure to repression.


  1. Gary L. Francione says:

    I regard the Chenoweth/Stephan book to be one of the most important books I have read in the past 10 years. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

    Gary L. Francione
    Professor, Rutgers University

  2. What SUP from Your Favorite University Presses, September 21, 2012 | Yale Press Log says:

    [...] another argument in favor of peaceful campaigns, turn to Columbia University Press for their post explaining why civil resistance is preferable to violent uprisings, in light of all [...]

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