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Understanding Varieties of Nonviolent Civil Resistance

Understanding Varieties of Nonviolent Civil Resistance

Photo credit: roya ann miller

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Cunningham, K. G., Dahl, M. & Frugé, A. (2017). Strategies of resistance: Diversification and diffusion. American Journal of Political Science, 6, 591-605.

Talking Points

  • Tactical choices made by organizations in movements for self-determination are interdependent.
  • Nonviolent tactics have varying resource needs, and organizations have varying capabilities and resources.
  • Organizations are incentivized to diversify their nonviolent tactics when other organizations are active in the same movement.


This study is another important contribution to the expanding scholarly inquiry into nonviolent civil resistance. In this article, the authors examine not only why organizations choose nonviolence but also why they use specific nonviolent tactics. Like many others, this study examines nonviolent resistance aimed at high-stakes goals, in this case movements for greater national self-determination. The two main questions guiding this study are: 1) Why do organizations choose nonviolence in a movement? And 2) Why do they choose specific tactics? Arguing that current research on nonviolent campaigns focuses on mass nonviolent action, the authors of this study introduce new data on the variety of resistance choices—including smaller-scale nonviolent action—applied by organizations. The authors’ principal point is that interdependence of organizations in movements reveals itself not only through copying the tactics of others (diffusion), but through the use of different tactics (diversification). The main reasons for this diversification are organizational capacity (resource needs and constraints) and competition among organizations within a movement. When organizations in a movement face resource limitation and perceive competition, they chose low-resource tactics over high-resource tactics.  High-resource tactics, for example, require the involvement of many people (protest or electoral boycotts), low-resource tactics can be carried out effectively with few people (e.g. hunger strikes or blockades). Importantly, within a movement the different use of organizational tactics can complement what others are doing as well as differentiate and organization from others.

The authors advance four hypotheses: there is 1) there is a higher probability of an organization using a tactic when other organizations in a movement use the same one; 2)  a decreased probability of an organization using a high-resource tactic when other organizations in a movement use the same one; 3)  an increased probability of an organization using a low-resource tactic when other organizations in a movement use high-resource tactics; and 4) an increased probability of an organization using a low-resource tactic when other organizations in a movement use low-resource tactics. The hypotheses have been developed to examine how different tactical choices might affect other organizations’ calculus. The hypotheses are tested through data on violent and nonviolent strategies of all organizations (a total of 1,124) active in movements for self-determination (138 movements in 77 countries) from 1960 to 2005.[1] The dataset has three unique features: 1) organizations are the unit of analysis; 2) several types of nonviolent tactics are examined; and 3) nonviolent tactics are examined in different contexts (e.g., periods of peace, civil war, or mass nonviolent campaigns). The authors distinguish five types of nonviolent tactics:

Tactic Resource-need Example
Economic noncooperation High Strikes, tax refusals, or consumer boycotts
Protest and demonstration High Rallies, protest, or demonstrations
Nonviolent intervention Low Sit-ins, occupations, or blockades
Social noncooperation Low Hunger strikes, self-immolation, or other self-harm
Political noncooperation High and low Organizational boycotts of elections or withdrawals from political office or coalition in the government

The authors found that there was a high variety of tactics used by organizations and that more organizations used nonviolence (36%) than violence (about 25%) over the study period. The authors find clear evidence of diversification of nonviolent tactics based on resource needs. All hypotheses find some support. For example, when some organizations mobilize larger numbers of people in a movement for protest (high-resource), it will be harder for others to do the same and, consequently, they are more likely to adopt a low-resource tactic. While this might sound contradictory, this underlines the authors’ claim that interdependence of organizations in a movement manifests itself through both diffusion and diversification of tactics.

A key finding of this study is that movement organizations’ choice of nonviolent tactics is interdependent with other organizations in the movement. Nonviolent tactics have varying resource needs, and organizations have varying capabilities and resources. Organizations are incentivized to diversify their nonviolent tactics when other organizations are active in the same movement. However, the use of the same tactics among organizations in the same movement (diffusion) does still take place sometimes. In addition, a significant insight is that only a few self-determination movements engage in mass nonviolent campaigns, yet more than 75% use nonviolent tactics. This insight, according to the authors, advances our understanding of nonviolent struggle as more than rebellion and mass nonviolent campaigns. Furthermore, movements for self-determination are often labeled as violent when they do not predominantly use nonviolent tactics. As the authors point out, their finding that nonviolence is used in over 75% of the self-determination movements sheds new light on understanding the dynamics of self-determination movements. The authors consider that a too narrow focus leads to a mischaracterization of movements. Nonviolent resistance must be understood as much more than mass nonviolent campaigns, and the effectiveness of different strategies is determined by the number of participants. The authors encourage scholars and practitioners to think more rigorously about the interdependence of tactics and consider movements by examining all tactics instead of characterizing them as inherently violent.

Contemporary Relevance

Contemporary scholarly and public attention to nonviolence is high. The so-called Arab Spring and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s seminal study Why Civil Resistance Works (2011) elevated the topic, inspiring continued research on and inspired continued research on and informed engagement in nonviolent action. The contemporary relevance of providing new insights to researchers and practitioners of nonviolence cannot be overstated. The more knowledge that exists on the efficacy—but also on the limitations—of nonviolent action, the fewer incentives there are for movements with high-stakes goals to adopt violent tactics. This study has made the case that movements must not be mischaracterized as only rebellions or only mass nonviolent campaigns but instead seen through the lens of the various interdependent tactics organizations employ. If both violent and nonviolent tactics are used, the former tend to determine the movement’s public image, while the latter might have more transformative power.

Practical Implications

Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of nonviolent action—outlined in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973)—are well known by scholars and practitioners of nonviolent civil resistance. That “arsenal of nonviolent weapons” is classified into the three broad categories of nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation (social, economic, and political), and nonviolent intervention. The authors of this study built their own categorizations on Sharp’s. Despite the recognition of the multifaceted nature of nonviolence, there is a tendency in public discourse to limit nonviolence to the very visible public manifestations such as mass protest. This study helps organizations in movements situate their own approach within the overarching goal of the movement and consider different tactics that are compatible with their capabilities and needs. Organizations and activists in movements can better understand their competition and acknowledge the mutual long-term goal they share (e.g., national self-determination in this study but also democratization, human rights, and so on in other movements) while pursuing proximate goals. Organizations can even coordinate with one another, building relationships where previously they may have perceived competition and creating a stronger movement in the process. By allowing movement organizations to coordinate their diversity of nonviolent tactics based on their capabilities and proximate goals, competition over “slices of the pie” can be transformed into synergy, strengthening the entire movement.

Continued Reading

198 Methods of Nonviolent Action By Gene Sharp, Albert Einstein Institution.

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict By Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Peace Science Digest Special Issue: Nonviolent Resistance. By War Prevention Initiative. June 2017.

Diversification and Diffusion By Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, Marianne Dahl, and Anna Frugé. PRIO Policy Brief 20/2016.

Keywords: nonviolence, civil resistance, tactical choices, self-determination

[1] The authors define a movement as the collective mobilization around the same cause within a population. Organizations are described as actors in organized entities who mobilize on behalf of the movement.


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