Published: Dec. 1, 2013 By


Some of the world's most successful political movements have brought about change without violence, says Erica Chenoweth. 

The sharp sound of clanging pots and pans broke the eerily quiet Egyptian night air last summer. In defiance of the military-imposed evening curfew, citizens across the country were making their presence known in the darkness. 

The pan-banging movement started after the ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi. It attracted people who did not support the military-backed Egyptian government or the Muslim Brotherhood. Each clang in the movement, known in Arabic as simply “be heard,” was a form of protest without anyone having to venture into the violent city streets. 

Erica Chenoweth

Erica Chenoweth (MPolSci’04, PhD’07)

“Every day more people joined and the noise got louder, demonstrating to people that their numbers were growing,” says Erica Chenoweth (MPolSci’04, PhD’07), an associate professor in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. “Skillful, nonviolent campaigns like these can be used to minimize the risk of repression.”

Demonstrations like the ones in Egypt reveal the power of nonviolent protests to build support for a particular movement, says Chenoweth, who spent two years collecting and evaluating the outcomes of all known nonviolent and violent mass movements in the world from 1900 to 2006. Her unprecedented research was compiled at Harvard University during her pre- and post-doctoral fellowships there. She and Maria J. Stephan, a foreign affairs officer for the U.S. Department of State, published a book in 2011, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. 

“The data shows that there are few — if any — situations in which violence actually gets you further than a well-planned, well-executed nonviolent campaign,” says Chenoweth who does not consider herself a pacifist.

Take, for instance, Syria. Civilian demonstrations against the government began in March 2011 as an organic, grassroots, nonviolent campaign that lasted through July of that year, Chenoweth explains. 

“It was incredible to watch the discipline in those first few months,” she says. “People were being shot in the streets, and they weren’t reacting with violence.”

The nonviolent campaigns didn’t have enough time to mature or gain participation, however. When other countries such as Turkey, several Gulf countries, the United Kingdom and the United States got involved, violence ensued. More than 110,000 people have been killed in 2.5 years, with up to 5,000 killed every month. Comparatively, approximately 5,000 were killed during the initial phase in 2011, Chenoweth says.

The reason that we’re doing this research is because this is literally life and death for some people.

“Killings accelerate so much when you put armed rebellion into the mix,” she says. “What is amazing is that through all of the civil war and the brutality of this conflict, there are still thousands of people using nonviolent resistance on the ground.”

Chenoweth’s complete list of nonviolent and violent campaigns was gathered from archives, historical documents and government records. 

“The rigorous empirical work she’s done to support the argument that nonviolent, civil resistance is strategically superior to armed struggle — even against highly repressive opponents — has helped even skeptics in the academic, policy, media and activist worlds take this method of struggle seriously,” Stephan says.

A nonviolent campaign had to meet two conditions to be considered a success in the study — it had to achieve its original goal within one year of its peak activities, and the final outcome had to be a direct result of the campaign’s actions. 

“We found that the nonviolent campaigns were outperforming the violent campaigns two-to-one,” Chenoweth says. 

We found that the nonviolent campaigns were outperforming the violent campaigns two-to-one

Why? It’s often easier for people to participate in nonviolent action as it is less risky and much less costly — a nonviolent campaign is four times larger than a violent campaign on average, she says. 

“It allows people of any type of physical ability to participate, which means you get the elderly, youth, people with disabilities — minorities in the country,” Chenoweth says. “What happens as a result is that the campaign is able to reach out and influence people in the society who actually matter to the outcome.”

Yet, without strong organization and great amounts of participation, the researchers found nonviolent movements fizzled out or were overrun by violence. 

Violent conflicts have killed millions worldwide. Millions of Jews were killed in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, 2 million Cambodians were killed from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot’s regime and more than 6,700 American service members have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, among many more instances of violent conflict.  

“The reason that we’re doing this research is because this is literally life and death for some people,” says Chenoweth whose work and commentary has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist and The Boston Globe.

When discussing her book worldwide, some critics ask how nonviolent resistance possibly could have worked against Hitler, for instance. Few tactics — including armed resistance — worked against him, she explains, but Hitler felt vexed by nonviolent resistance, as demonstrated in a recorded conversation between Hitler and influential Nazi member Alfred Rosenberg in May 1943.

“One cannot rule by force alone,” Hitler said two years before committing suicide in Berlin. “For, in the long run, government systems are not held together by the pressure of force, but rather by the belief in the quality and the truthfulness with which they represent and promote the interests of the people.” 

In the United States, nonviolent campaigns, such as the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s, ushered in monumental changes in human rights. In February 1960, four black college students in downtown Greensboro, N.C., resolutely sat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter reserved for whites only. After waiting for someone to take their lunch order, they left at closing time. Fifteen people joined them at the counter the following day and 300 the next. Their peaceful demonstration sparked a national sit-in movement that led to the desegregation of public facilities across the country, including the Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter on July 25, 1960.

“The campaigns that succeed actually have a strategy for creating divisions within a regime,” Chenoweth says. 

In the classroom, she aspires to teach her students that they can effect change through their actions rather than remain mere observers of historic moments. Colleagues like Susan Clarke, a political science professor, emphasize the importance of her work in shaping public policy far beyond the walls of academia.   

“Erica’s research with her collaborators can improve the ways decisions are made by emphasizing a broader range of viable solutions,” Clarke says. “To me, it creates a moral obligation to do so.”

Chenoweth took her own teachings to heart this fall when President Obama was weighing military action against Syria after chemical attacks were launched against citizens. She wrote to political leaders explaining the potential consequences if the U.S. took military action. 

“When these opportunities come you have to participate and make your voice known,” she says.