Violence

The Lasting Power of Nonviolent Resistance

A Harvard professor challenges a long-held assumption about political revolution.

Graffiti graphic of a red fist with a heart in the middle

By Michelle Nicholasen

This is the first of a two-part interview with Erica Chenoweth about her work on nonviolent resistance. 

When she started her predoctoral fellowship at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in 2006, Erica Chenoweth believed in the strategic logic of armed resistance. She had studied terrorism, civil war, and major revolutions—Russian, French, Algerian, and American—and suspected that only violent force had achieved major social and political change. So, when a workshop challenged her to prove that violent resistance was more successful than nonviolent resistance, she thought: of course. The question had never been addressed systematically, so she and her colleague Maria J. Stephan turned it into a research project.

For the next two years, Chenoweth and Stephan collected data on all violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 that resulted in the overthrow of a government or territorial liberation. They created a dataset of 323 mass actions, and, leaving no angle unexamined, Chenoweth analyzed and regressed nearly 160 different variables related to success criteria, categories of participants, state capacity, and more. The results turned Chenoweth’s long-held paradigm on its head—in the aggregate, nonviolent civil resistance campaigns were far more successful in effecting change than violent ones. 

The Weatherhead Center sat down with Chenoweth, a new Faculty Associate who recently returned to Harvard Kennedy School this year as a professor of public policy, and asked her to explain her findings and share her goals for future research.... Read more about The Lasting Power of Nonviolent Resistance