March 2019

The Lasting Power of Nonviolent Resistance—Part 2

Political scientist Erica Chenoweth discusses recent trends in nonviolent resistance, the flip side of social media, and how successful terrorism really is.

Image of graffiti with the message the revolution will not be tweeted

By Michelle Nicholasen

This is the second of a three-part series with Erica Chenoweth about her work on nonviolent resistance. Read the first part here

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. 

Q: The main argument of Why Civil Resistance Works is that nonviolent campaigns have a higher rate of success than violent ones. The data in your book start in 1900 and end in the early 2000s. Is this trend still holding up?

A: I have some preliminary data that run through 2017, and it's still the case that nonviolent resistance campaigns of a maximalist nature like the ones in the book are lots more successful than violent ones. However, they're not as absolutely successful as they were in the period that we looked at in our book. The average rate of success over that century was about 50 percent. And in the past eight years it's dropped down to 33 percent. However, the average success rate for violent campaigns dropped from 27 to 10 percent. It’s actually surprising because in absolute terms both types of resistance have become less effective this decade, but nonviolent resistance is now three times more effective than violent resistance. Therefore, the relative gap between effectiveness has increased.... Read more about The Lasting Power of Nonviolent Resistance—Part 2