Peace Science Made Accessible, Understandable, and Useful.

Nonviolent Conflict Escalation

Nonviolent Conflict Escalation

Photo credit: Steve Kaiser

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Sørensen, M. J., & Johansen, J. (2016). Nonviolent Conflict Escalation. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 34(1), 83-108.

Talking Points

  • The great nonviolent success stories all displayed clear levels of nonviolent conflict escalation.
  • Nonviolent conflict escalation is achieved quantitatively or through innovation, dilemma creation, provocation, and persistence.
  • Nonviolent conflict escalation can contribute to social change.


Borrowing from the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights, the authors argue all conflicts are equal with the same right to recognition and resolution, although many remain unknown to the broader public and ultimately unresolved. In many cases, the process of escalating a conflict or grievance into public discourse is regarded as problematic or undesirable due to the negative connotation conflict escalation holds in the media, political, and academic communities. This article seeks to alter the understanding of the term by suggesting conflict escalation is a positive shift towards a necessary form of human and social development—if the escalation remains nonviolent.

A major challenge in separating the negative association of conflict with violence is the lack of understanding of effective methods and procedures of nonviolent resistance. There is a long and successful history of nonviolent campaigns against injustice and oppression and the promotion of human rights and social values. These campaigns began at a local level and were escalated to the global stage by the power and social awareness that accompanies nonviolent tactics, especially when nonviolent campaigns are waged against violent opponents.

A common way to define escalation is when participants switch from one method of nonviolence to another—from a low-risk method such as boycotting to a higher risk method like civil disobedience. To further this thinking, the authors in this study identified five aspects of nonviolent conflict escalation based on past research, their own experience, and the analysis of case studies of nonviolent struggle and civil resistance. The first and most common aspect is method escalation is quantitative. Here, methods change from the number of participants, how long the participants are engaged, the number of different social groups participants come from, area/s of protest, and other steps measurable by numbers. Examining those makes it relatively easy to identify when and how escalation has taken place. The other four aspects of conflict escalation are more concerned with quantitative elements: innovation of a new method, dilemma creation for the opponent, provocation, and persistence.

The authors’ analysis of case studies on nonviolent conflict escalation found that conflicts often persist at a certain level without being recognized or reaching any form of resolution. When nonviolent campaigns succeeded in achieving their goals, escalation was often necessary to transform the underlining conflict to a level or methods that force one party’s ‘victory’. Whether the escalation or ‘victory’ is viewed as good/bad is up to the individual. The authors use the example of the U.S. civil rights movement: those in the white community who supported and practiced segregation found the escalation that King and others used undesirable, but for those against segregation, the escalation was a necessary step for their success in achieving equal rights. This polarity of opinions is also true in the examples found in campaigns to overthrow dictators, slavery, and the struggle for women’s right to vote—these campaigns were unlikely to succeed without a prolonged nonviolent protest with clear levels of escalation.

Contemporary Relevance

The various levels and aspects of nonviolent conflict escalation are exemplified in the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). There are thousands of solidarity protests around the world that act through lower-risk methods such as information sharing and fundraising, supporting the high-risk methods of the water protectors, Native elders, and others on the ground in North Dakota. This demonstrates the notion many experts on nonviolent struggle support: nonviolence is alive and well. In other words, nonviolence is a widespread pro-active form of conflict transformation, not a concept found in some unique historical circumstances that allowed for Gandhi, Mandela, or King to succeed.

Practical Implications

With the growing use of nonviolent forms of protest and the attention these methods are getting in academia and the media, it is important to better understand the roles and effects of nonviolent escalations. This research adds to that understanding, and through the analysis of past campaigns, shows that escalation is an important and often necessary step for nonviolent movements to fulfill their goals. Organizations like the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict not only examine struggles going on worldwide, but also create training for activists and organizers based on insights from practice and research. Studies like these add to the toolbox of waging nonviolent conflict and ultimately contribute to the reduction of violence and war.

Continued Reading

History Didn’t Bring Down the Berlin Wall—Activists Did by Mark Engler and Paul Engler (

Civil Resistance and Conflict Transformation: Transition From Armed to Nonviolent Struggle by René Wadlow

Resource Library by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (

Keywords: civil disobedience, conflict escalation, nonviolence

The above analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 6, of the Peace Science Digest.


Next article Police Militarization: Domestic Consequences of Foreign Policy
Previous article International Influence on U.S. Public Support for Drone Strikes