Book Review: Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan.

By Juan Masullo J. - 29 November 2013
Book Review: Why Civil Resistance Works

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, 320 pp, £20.50 hardcover, 978-0-231-15682-0; £15 paperback, 978-0-231-15683-7

In 2008, International Security published Chenoweth and Stephan’s article “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict”. With over 2000 downloads, the article remains today one of the fifteen most frequently downloaded articles from the journal’s website. In 2011, in a book of the same title, the authors further developed their central argument, which, in summary, states that nonviolent campaigns are more effective than violent ones in achieving their stated goals. This holds for resistance campaigns in both democratic and repressive regimes, and for both anti-regime and anti-occupation campaigns. The exception is secessionist campaigns, where both violent and nonviolent campaigns appear highly unlikely to succeed.

Until the publication of Why Civil Resistance Works, very few scholars had attempted to empirically examine the relative effectiveness of violent and nonviolent campaigns by systematically comparing their outcomes in a historical perspective. In fact, Chenoweth and Stephan are the first to develop a unique global dataset (comprised of 323 campaigns spanning an entire century, 1900–2006) to compare and test the outcomes of these two strategic choices over time. Moreover, they further refine and validate their argument, as well as consider in more detail the determinants of campaign success and failure, with qualitative evidence from four case studies, all of which included periods of both violent and nonviolent resistance, with different degrees of success: the Iranian revolution (1977-79), the Philippine people power movement (1983-86), the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1992) and the Burmese civil resistance (1988-1990).

The authors observed that the frequency of nonviolent campaigns has increased over time and that the trends between violent and nonviolent campaigns are divergent in terms of effectiveness: while the former decrease, the latter increase (see Figures in pp.7–10). Simply put, nonviolent campaigns have historically outperformed violent ones when it comes to achieving their goals. In light of this rather counterintuitive finding, they aim to account for why nonviolent campaigns often succeed relative to violent ones. In order to provide a convincing explanation, the authors do exactly what good social science tells us to do: identify a crucial attribute that systematically distinguishes nonviolent campaigns from violent ones and that is plausibly associated with campaign outcomes. They argue that the key is the active and observable engagement of individuals in collective action: in one word, participation. Once identified, they proceed to empirically test the association and to explain its mechanisms.

Premised on the idea that people are more willing to participate in nonviolent campaigns than in violent ones, the authors argue that nonviolent campaigns have a participatory advantage over their violent counterparts. They show that the average nonviolent campaign has about 150,000 more active participants than the average violent campaign (see Tables 2.1 and 2.2. pp.33-34). This is because, they further argue, moral, commitment, physical, and informational barriers to participation are much lower for nonviolent campaigns (e.g. while killing others is a moral consideration that is absent when the camping is nonviolent, it is very likely to deter many from joining when it is violent). The authors’ data unequivocally corroborates the importance of participation: a single unit increase in active participation increases the likelihood of success by nearly 10% (see Figure 2.1, p.40).

The authors rightly highlight, however, that participation is not merely about sheer numbers. Diversity of participants proves to be as critical in explaining the outcomes of campaigns. Nonviolent campaigns are likelier to attract a more diverse group of participants, including children and elders, thanks to the wide menu of tactics and activities available (e.g. sit-ins, stay-aways, consumer boycotts, lockdowns). Diversity means that people with different life experiences and from different backgrounds bring their knowledge and skills to the campaign, allowing for tactical innovation and enhancing the campaign’s adaptability and maneuverability. Moreover, participation of people from different age cohorts, genders, classes, occupations and political affiliations increases the odds of defections and loyalty shifts among regime’s elites as it renders more likely that friends and/or family of regime insiders will be among the campaigners.

Along with tactical innovation and loyalty shifts, the authors discuss other mechanisms that help explain the success advantage: nonviolent campaigns are more resilient when facing oppression and attempts at co-optation; they attract more international diplomatic support; and they are more likely to stimulate backfiring effects in the wake of violent repression. Therefore, it is through the activation of these mechanisms that nonviolent resistance imposes costs on regimes and pulls away some of their critical pillars of support. Overall, nonviolent resistance in Chenoweth and Stephan’s work, far from being a form of submission or avoidance of conflict, is contentious politics at its best.

The argument is convincing and amply supported by reliable evidence. The statistical analysis is sound and easy to follow. The case studies, allowing for both within-case and cross-case comparisons, further illuminate the patterns previously identified. The Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes dataset, now available in an improved version (NAVCO 2.0 dataset), is unique of its kind and offers unprecedented opportunities to understand the causes, dynamics and outcomes of nonviolent campaigns. In terms of approach, the authors successfully redirect our attention from structures to strategic choices, a move that allows them to account for success when political opportunities seemed inauspicious and for failure when they seemed favorable. Furthermore, it reinvigorates the study of nonviolent action by focusing on pragmatic and strategic aspects, while putting aside moral and principled reasons for the use of nonviolence.

To be sure, the authors’ effort to quantify such a phenomenon is not free of problems. The reader may well feel that the data are too aggregated, making it virtually impossible to get to some of the complexities, or that there are shortcomings in the measurement and coding of crucial aspects of the argument. For example, deciding whether a campaign is a success or a failure is anything but easy, especially when we know that in many cases stated goals are only partially achieved (something captured to some extent by their ‘partial success’ category) or else suffer significant transformations with the ebb and flow of events. The same applies to deciding whether a campaign is violent or nonviolent, when on the ground we see both strategies coexisting and combining in several ways, as well as shifts from one to the other (variables to better capture this were included in NAVCO 2.0). However, given the detailed definition and operationalization of the key concepts, the strict coding criteria, and the thorough process of data validation carried out by the authors, one can be reasonably confident that these difficulties do not generate any systematic distortion of the findings. Still, one might be left with the impression that a more detailed discussion on potential interactive or additive effects of nonviolent and violent campaigns is missing, especially when one knows that several cases feature periods of both strategies of resistance.

All in all, be they scholars, policy-makers or activists, readers should not put this book back on the shelf without taking with them the central message underlying the authors’ argument: rather than military or economic capacity, power depends on the consent of the civilian population –consent that, far from being fixed, can be withdrawn and reassigned through collective action. Moreover, this book provides enough evidence to be confident that when it comes to bringing about social and political change, strategies other than violence are more than capable of carrying the day.


Juan Masullo J. is a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute, where he works on the intersections between social movement's and civil war's research. His dissertation explores civilian agency in civil war settings, with an especial emphasis on civilians strategies of non-cooperation with armed groups and non-violent collective action.

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