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Why Resistance Works:
The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict

Original Article By: Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth
International Security Summer 2008 vol 33 no 1
Major Topic: Politics
Minor Topic: Sociology


         It has been assumed that violence is more effective than non-violence in achieving political changes, yet there have been many successful non-violent campaigns. This article compares the struggles of 323 non-violent and violent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 against states by non-state entities.

         The results are that non-violent strategies were successful 53% of the time and violent strategies 26% of the time. Two reasons for these results are: 1) Non-violent methods are perceived to be more legitimate and 2) a violent state backlash often backfires. It seem, therefore, that non-violent strategies are usually a better option than violent strategies against both democratic and totalitarian states.

         The definition of non-violent resistance is: “A civilian-based method used to wage conflict through social, psychological, economic and political means without the treat or use of violence.” This method is to be differentiated from lobbying, electioneering and legislating which are not-violent political processes and not resistance.

         Non-violent resistance can also be classified into principled (as in the cases of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.) or strategic. It seems most movements are strategic.

         There are two reasons why non-violence is more strategic than violence. First, the political and economic cost of suppressing non-violent campaigns is higher than suppressing violent campaigns. The suppression of non-violent campaigns often results in converting many people in the state and general population to the cause of the non-violent campaign. Additionally foreign stigmatizations and the reduction of aid and/or support adds pressure to the targeted state. Second, non-violent campaigns are more likely to negotiate thereby increasing signaling of intentions.

         Correspondent inference theory makes two points in favor of non-violence: 1) the public feels less threatened by non-violence therefore it finds non-violence more supportable. 2) Violence tends to harden attitudes thereby reducing the number of participants.

         There were three research goals: 1) to learn which is more successful at reaching goals: violent or non-violent campaigns. 2) to learn which variables contribute the most to the success of a campaign. And 3) to learn whether structural factors have any influence.

         A resistance campaign is defined as: a series of observable, continuous tactics in pursuit of a political objective. Attaching the adjective “non-violent” is a little more difficult. This study labeled resistance campaigns as non-violent if a list of experts believed them to be non-violent.

         A successful campaign is defined as having brought about its objectives within 2 years of its conclusion and to clearly be the causal factor. Limited success is defined as a campaign having obtained some of its objectives. A campaign that did not achieve any of its significant demands was declared a failure.

         The following resultant statistics are derived from the comparison of 234 non-violent campaigns out of a data set of 323 campaigns between 1900 and 2006.


         1) After a violent state suppression, non-violent campaigns were 6 times more likely to be successful than violent ones.

         2) After a violent state suppression, non-violent campaigns were 12 times more likely to get limited success than violent campaigns.

         3) If there were defections from the state the resistive campaign was 4 times more likely to be successful.

         4) If the resistance campaign had external state support it was 3 times more likely to succeed.

         5) International sanctions against the targeted state did not have any effect on the success or failure of a resistance campaign.

         6) When the target state was a democracy, there was a tiny advantage in achieving success.

         7) There did not seem to be any correlation between the time length of the campaign and full success.

         8) Longer campaigns had a slightly greater chance of achieving limited success.

         9) The Cold War had a dampening effect on resistance campaigns.

         9a) 3 times as many campaigns achieved success outside the Cold War.

         9b) 7 times as many campaigns achieved limited success outside the Cold War.

         10) Strangely, non-violent methods did not seem to have a great effect on defections.

         11) Considering only successful campaigns, 32% of violent campaigns and 52% of non-violent campaigns had meaningful levels of defections.

         12) If defections did occur, non-violent campaigns were 46 times more likely to be successful.

         13) For violent campaigns defections did not seem to predict success.

         14) Foreign state support did not have any significant effect on the success of non-violent campaigns.

         15) Foreign state support tripled a violent campaign's chances of achieving success.

         16) Sanctions against the suppressing state had similar results: no effect for non-violent campaigns and twice the probability of success for violent campaigns.

         17) Foreign assistance to the suppressing state did not help or hinder non-violent or violent campaigns.

         18) If the target was a democracy, non-violent campaigns were 23% more likely to be successful.

         19) If the target was a democracy, violent campaigns were 7% more likely to be successful.

         20) Violent state suppression ultimately helped non-violent campaigns.


         Concerning which type of campaign is more likely to succeed: non-violent campaigns.

         Concerning which variables contribute the most to a successful campaign: defections and external state support.

         Concerning structural influences, they seem to have had marginal influence.


         Conclusions and Implications

         Non-violence is more likely to achieve political goals than violence. Based on this study, the authors can claim: 1) Defections among security forces seems to be the most important factor facilitating the success of a resistance movement. 2) Without wide spread support defections are unlikely.

         For the sake of Policy, the authors claim: 1) Non-violence is more effective than violence, ceteris paribus. 2) Facilitating independent sources of media is a good way to support non-violent resistance. 3) educational material on non-violent movements will help non-violent campaigns.

Added on: 2009-04-16 22:12:23
Précis by: James Jeff McLaren
© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren