On whether non-violence works

Maria J. Stephan dives into the data to find out what makes a campaign against injustice or oppression successful.



Maria J. Stephan dives into the data to find out what makes a campaign against injustice or oppression successful.


So I’m able to say that non-violent resistance actually does work. And we now know, thanks to a lot of evidence and data, that it works far more effectively than violence.
But it might be helpful just to offer a brief definition of what we’re talking about with non-violent resistance. So we’re talking about a method of struggle that involves ordinary people using non-violent direct-action tactics like boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience, non-cooperation, vigils – lots of different non-violent tactics in order to challenge injustices and oppression.

A few years ago, I came together with a fellow political scientist, her name is Erica Chenoweth, and we decided to study a basic fundamental question: which form of resistance, violent or non-violent, has been more effective historically against the most formidable of opponents, the toughest opponents? Because we had been hearing often, “oh, non-violence can work in democracies or against benign opponents, but against the tough brutal dictators, it doesn’t stand a chance”, or “violence must be more effective than non-violent action in these particular environments”. So we fundamentally tested that proposition. And Erica and I collected data on 330 violent and non-violent campaigns from 1900 to 2006. And these were campaigns that were challenging authoritarian regimes, that were challenging foreign military occupiers, and that were challenging or that were vying for self-determination or territorial independence.

And we came up with a very surprising finding to many, that the non-violent campaigns had been twice as effective as their violent counterparts in challenging these formidable opponents. So the non-violent campaigns succeeded 53 per cent of the time, compared to 26 per cent of the time for the violent campaigns – which was a shocking and counterintuitive finding for many people.

Interviewer: What does it mean to be successful in that situation?

Success is defined very clearly and straightforwardly in the book, which is called Why Civil Resistance Works: success basically means that the campaign achieved its stated objective. So it resulted in the removal of an incumbent regime, it resulted in the withdrawal of the foreign military occupation, or it achieved territorial independence – that was the definition of success. And we had success, we had failure, and we had partial success. So if a campaign achieved some of its goals but not the full maximalist goal, it was considered a partial success.

Interviewer: It is surprising. What’s people’s response been to that research?

Yeah, I mean like I said, it was surprising for many folks, especially political scientists, security studies individuals, and a lot of people were sceptical, dubious, “How is it possible that the non-violent resistance was more effective?” Others were like, “Of course it’s got to be that case, it’s got to be that way”. So there have been varying reactions, but it was a counterintuitive finding for many people. Which is good, because it’s caused people to ask fundamental questions about efficacy, and where does power come from in society, and how can you wage struggle effectively without violence? And at least this research provided solid evidence that you can do it non-violently and win.