|English | Español||December 21, 2014 | Issue #67|
Professor’s Work Shows People Power Trumps Violence
Erica Chenoweth’s Research Is Taking the Bang out of Armed Struggles
By Jenny Gustafsson
Professor Erica Chenoweth discussed her recently published, groundbreaking book on civil resistance at the 2012 School of Authentic Journalism, held in late March in Mexico.DR 2012 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky, Narco News.
Then, in 2006, something happened. Chenoweth went to a conference in Colorado called People Power and Pedagogy. The event, organized by the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), was about strategic nonviolent action and how it can be a tool for political action.
“I was really bothered at that conference,” Chenoweth says. “They were saying that nonviolence works, which was a new claim to me. There was no comparative study saying that. In my field, the current was that the more violent and bloody it is, the more likely it is to succeed. That’s pretty contradictory to what the ICNC people were saying.”
Long-time nonviolent action scholar Stephen Zunes is one of ICNC’s board members, and was a speaker at the Colorado conference.
“I met Erica for the first time at that conference,” he says. “She comes from a totally different point of view. Most of us in the field come out of the Left or of different social movements.”
“But not Chenoweth,” Zunes continues. “She’s very mainstream, with a conventional education. To study nonviolence was an idea that came accidentally to her.”
Case after case was brought up at the conference highlighting how nonviolence had succeeded over violent action, Chenoweth says she “was really annoying for about a week after that conference.”
She was approached by some of the speakers.
“They told me that, ‘If you’re so concerned with the issue, why don’t you do the study?’” Chenoweth recalls.
Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (2012, Columbia University Press) is the book by Chenoweth and co-author Maria Stephan that measures the success or failure of more than 300 struggles over the past century.
So, she took on the challenge. “I wanted to do something that wasn’t easy in the way that my previous work researching terrorism was.”
“I didn’t have to go through internal struggles doing that,” Chenoweth says. “There was no moral dilemma.”
Together with Maria J. Stephan, Chenoweth started researching civic resistance movements between 1900 and 2006, comparing them to their violent counterparts. A book, called Why Civil Resistance Works, based on that research came out in August 2011 and presents the findings — quite groundbreaking ones — that nonviolent tactics are twice as effective as violent ones.
For someone who spent her whole academic career studying the logic of violence, working with this research meant questioning many old-established assumptions.
“In the beginning, I was very skeptical,” Chenoweth says. “Now, it has totally changed how I look at my field. I realize that many of those who are committed to violence are doing so for the wrong reasons. They think that it works.”
Ivan Marovic, who worked with nonviolent campaigns for years as one of the leaders of Serbia’s civil resistance movement that removed Slobodan Milosevic from power in 2000, is also surprised at Chenoweth’s transformation.
“When I first met Erica,” Marovic says, “she was very dismissive and skeptical — which I found refreshing. She was someone who would say, ‘I don’t buy this.’”
“I wasn’t in touch with her for a few years,” Marovic continues, “and then she shows up with this article explaining why civil resistance works. I was like: What happened? Was she abducted by aliens and replaced by someone else?”
Nonviolent campaigners — although having known for a long time that civil resistance can be effective — were previously lacking the systematic, comprehensive figures that Chenoweth and Stephan had presented.
“It’s huge to have Chenoweth,” Zunes says. “She has a quantitative approach, not a qualitative one like most nonviolence researchers have. That gives her more credibility in the mainstream. The empirical evidence that she put forward is more than anyone has ever done in our field.”
Jack DuVall, the president of ICNC, has studied and written about civil resistance for a long time. “Erica’s work is very important for several reasons,” he says. “First of all, it’s the first study of nonviolent movements under such a long period of time. It’s visionary, solid, peer reviewed.
“Then, it’s made by two women — young women,” DuVall adds. “This is important because in academia, we haven’t yet emerged from when young women were patted on the head and told to be quiet.”
DuVall continues: “There are still many alpha male activists in the world who have a romanticized idea about violence. And they really don’t like this book. It’s as if someone has rained on their parade. But it’s incidentally; she’s not trying to rain on their parade. She’s not attracted to the area because it’s cool, but because it has great explanatory power to it.”
Chenoweth explains it much the same way: “One thing that I cannot stand is when conventional wisdoms are wrong and people believe in them anyway.”
She is also cautious, she says, to always clarify that she is not motivated by ideological reasons: “I’m not a pacifist and I don’t have a dog in that fight.”
Rather, her interest is finding out what strategies work. Looking at 323 violent and nonviolent struggles in the book, she found that one factor is crucial to any campaign.
“Participation. That’s the single most important element for any successful campaign,” Chenoweth says. “For a movement to succeed, mass mobilization is required. And nonviolent movements have fewer obstacles for people to get involved. Violent campaigns are neither large enough nor diverse enough.”
As Chenoweth and Stephan were nearing the end of their work with the book, Chenoweth got a message from a colleague who told her to keep an eye on Tunisia. This was in late December 2010. A few weeks later, the president, Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted.
“When January 14 happened, my mind was absolutely blown,” Chenoweth says. “But I never thought at that point that it would spread. Now, I’m very encouraged by the Arab Spring. It shows that nonviolence works because people stopped obeying authorities.”
Her research has had a big impact already, only six months after the release of the book. Chenoweth has made 50 speeches all over the world, and the book was sold out in its two first rounds. The timing — right in the revolutionary year of 2011 — is certainly one contributing factor, but the more important one is that her work is unprecedented.
Says ICNC’s DuVall: “This idea that nonviolent resistance should change behavior — it has nothing to do with that. It’s not about sentiment; it’s about acquiring strength. Chenoweth has documented how to do that. That’s big. Nobody has done that before.”
But Chenoweth’s work also has caused dispute, both among scholars and outside of academia. “I expected it to be controversial in my field. I wasn’t expecting people to be happy,” Chenoweth says. “Then, I also get lots of emails — at least one a day from a person who wants to argue with me. And some are just really crazy.”
“Sometimes,” she quips, “I wish emails weren’t invented.”
Besides providing new perspectives for those who are studying and practicing civil resistance, Chenoweth’s research has had a personal impact as well.
“Sure I’ve changed during this process. I’ve found myself having more compassion during these last years,” Chenoweth says. “I’m still grappling with what my role should be in the future.
“I think I’ll do the best service just continuing with my research.” Chenoweth adds. “Now, my ideas matter to people. Most academics don’t get that chance to change people’s lives.”
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism