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When Research Meets Conventional Wisdom; Non-violent Response More Effective Than Armed Response

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Nonviolent resistance is more than twice as successful as armed struggle, even in the face of brutal regime repression.  That's what two social scientists found when they examined 323 violent and nonviolent uprisings from around the world between the years 1900 and 2006.
               This is detailed in Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Its authors are Erica Chenoweth, assistant professor of international studies at the University of Denver, and Maria J. Stephan, a strategic planner in the U.S. State Department.  
               The authors also found that nations experiencing nonviolent uprisings were much more likely to emerge as democratic societies and with a lower risk of civil war relapse than nations undergoing violent insurgencies.
               Their book has been named a 2012 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award winner. This is a scholarly work and other scholars are, without question, its first intended audience.  The message is clearly accessible to any reader, however, and for people with an interest in the power of nonviolence to effect change, it is an important message indeed.  
The authors evidence no concern over whether peaceful protest is morally or spiritually superior to armed revolt.  Their question is practical.  Does it work better than violence?  Their answer, bolstered by careful statistical analysis, is yes.  
A main reason why nonviolent protest is superior, they found, is because nonviolent campaigns have a decided "participation advantage" over military struggle.  They tend to be about four times larger.  Because of the mixture of resistance tactics available to nonviolent movements--ranging from protests, sit-ins, and occupations to stay-at-home and go-slow demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes--they attract a broader following than armed rebellion.  Success tends to stem from using a variety of tactics to weaken a regime's "pillars of support" and finally make the status quo untenable.
The authors looked at the success rates of the toughest types of insurrections: anti-dictator, self-determination and anti-occupation movements. Their cases range from the famed Indian Independence movement of the 1930s and "40s to the Serbian movement to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, among many others.  
Of course, not all nonviolent campaigns succeed.  Tiananmen Square in China is an example.  There, insurgents relied too heavily on protests and demonstrations rather than a diversity of methods.  The authors look in depth at another failure: the Burmese Uprising of 1988-90.   Poorly managed campaigns can fall short.
They note that armed revolt does occasionally work but at a much lower success rate than nonviolent campaigns.  And the cost is high.  The Russian, Chinese, Algerian, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions--the best-known examples of successful armed revolt in the 20th century--each produced harsh results.  None of those countries emerged democratic.  
In addition to its statistical analysis of 323 uprisings, the book features four case studies: the Iranian Revolution of 1977-79, the First Palestinian Intifada of 1987-92 (nonviolent at the start and partially successful until succumbing to factionalism and violence), the Philippine People Power Movement of 1983-86, and the Burmese Uprising.
The overall results of their work were an admitted surprise to Chenoweth, a scholar of political violence.  And they clearly fly in the face of much conventional wisdom.  Perhaps that's why the authors spend considerable time anticipating arguments from those who would dispute their findings and then refuting them.  
Like all scholarly efforts, Why Civil Resistance Works is full of citations of previous research.  For those who understand the workings of regression analysis, all of the statistical investigation is there.  Fear not, however.  You don't need to be a social scientist to read this book.  The charts and graphs are clear and helpful.  The text is, for the most part, quite accessible, if sometimes a bit repetitive.  
This book is useful to anyone who values nonviolence in public policy.  It's good news for those who feel lonely in a world that seems to accept without question the notion that violence, or the threat of it, is always the practical way to solve problems.   
Title: Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.  Authors: Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan.  List price: $29.50.  Pages: 320.  Publisher: Columbia University Press, 2011, New York.
What others say: "This is social science at its best. Years of critical study culminate in a book on one dominating issue: how does nonviolent opposition compare with violence in removing a regime or achieving secession? The authors study successes and failures and alternative diagnoses of success and failure, reaching a balanced judgment meriting careful study.  -- Thomas C. Schelling, Harvard University, recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics.
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Dick Jones is a semi-retired public relations executive from Pennsylvania.
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