About the Author

Erica Chenoweth is the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard Kennedy School and a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Chenoweths research focuses on political violence and its alternatives. Chenoweth was ranked among the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2013 by Foreign Policy magazine and also won the 2014 Karl Deutsch Award, given annually by the International Studies Association to the scholar under 40 who has made the most significant impact on the field of international politics or peace research. Chenoweths forthcoming book, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2021), explores in an accessible and conversational style what civil resistance is, how it works, why it sometimes fails, how violence and repression affect it, and the long-term impacts of such resistance. Chenoweths next book, with Zoe Marks, explores the impact of women’s participation on the outcomes of mass movements. In addition to exploring why women’s participation makes movements more likely to succeed, Marks and Chenoweth explore how frontline women’s participation leads to progress in women’s empowerment in some cases and reversals in others, as well as how gender-inclusive movements impact the quality of egalitarian democracy more generally.

Professor Chenoweth’s other books include The Role of External Support in Nonviolent Campaigns: Poisoned Chalice or Holy Grail? (ICNC, 2021) with Maria J. Stephan; Civil Action and the Dynamics of Violence (Oxford, 2019) with Deborah Avant, Marie Berry, Rachel Epstein, Cullen Hendrix, Oliver Kaplan, and Timothy Sisk; The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism (Oxford, 2019) with Richard English, Andreas Gofas, and Stathis N. Kalyvas; The Politics of Terror (Oxford, 2018) with Pauline Moore; Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2011) with Maria J. Stephan; Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict (MIT, 2010) with Adria Lawrence; and Political Violence (Sage, 2013). Why Civil Resistance Works won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order and the 2012 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award, the American Political Science Association's best book award.

Professor Chenoweths research has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The Economist, The Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, BBC, NPR’s Morning Edition, TEDxBoulder, and elsewhere. Along with Jeremy Pressman, Chenoweth co-directs the Crowd Counting Consortium, a public interest project that documents political mobilization in the U.S. during the Trump Administration. Chenoweth also co-hosts the award-winning blog Political Violence @ a Glance.

At Harvard, Professor Chenoweth is a faculty affiliate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and the Women in Public Policy Program. Chenoweth is also a Faculty Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, where Chenoweth and Zoe Marks co-chair the Political Violence Workshop. Before coming to HKS, Chenoweth taught at the University of Denver and Wesleyan University. Chenoweth holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. in political science from the University of Colorado and a B.A. in political science and German from the University of Dayton. 

Book Description

Civil resistance is a method of conflict through which unarmed civilians use a variety of coordinated methods (strikes, protests, demonstrations, boycotts, and many other tactics) to prosecute a conflict without directly harming or threatening to harm an opponent. Sometimes called nonviolent resistance, unarmed struggle, or nonviolent action, this form of political action is now a mainstay across the globe. It was a central form of resistance in postwar anti-colonial movements, the 1989 revolutions, and the Arab Awakenings, and people are practicing civil resistance at higher rates than ever before around the world, including in the United States. If we want to understand the manifold protest movements emerging around the globe, we need a thorough understanding of civil resistance and its many dynamics and manifestations.

In Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know, Erica Chenoweth–one of the world’s leading scholars on the topic–explains what civil resistance is, how it works, why it sometimes fails, how violence and repression affect it, and the long-term impacts of such resistance. Featuring both historical cases of civil resistance and more contemporary examples such as the Arab Awakenings and various ongoing movements in the United States, this book provides a comprehensive yet pithy overview of this enormously important subject.

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Alessandra Seiter: We are living in an age of mass political participation. Two-thirds of eligible us voters cast a ballot in the 2020 election, as much as 10% of the us population participated in demonstrations over the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans during the summer of 2020 according to polls. In 2018, nearly 500,000 workers were involved in strikes and other work stoppages, the highest figure since 1986. Beyond the US, mass movements in Sudan and Algeria even overthrew standing dictators in recent years and secured access to reproductive healthcare in both Argentina and Ireland.

Since the early 2000s, Erica Chenoweth, Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard Kennedy School, has systematically and empirically assessed historical and contemporary mass movements, hocusing on the efficacy of nonviolent campaigns. The latest in Professor Chenoweth's extensive work on the topic is shaped by both the questions they fielded about civil resistance, as well as the lessons they've learned from activists over the course of their own participation in nonviolent movements in the US. On this episode of Behind the Book, we speak with Professor Chenoweth about their new book, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Professor Chenoweth's goal was to synthesize and analyze the robust scholarship on civil resistance, to make it more accessible for practical use. They start by laying out what civil resistance is...

Erica Chenoweth: Civil resistance is a technique of struggle where unarmed civilians use a wide variety of methods to actively confront an oppressive opponent without using violence or the threat of violence.

AS: ...and what civil resistance can look like.

EC: These methods can be protests, boycotts, strikes, go-slow, stay-aways, and various other forms of economic, social, and political non-cooperation. It can be the creation of illegal or transgressive alternative institutions like alternative constitutional conventions, or judicial systems, or schools, or alternative media. The idea is that when people use these types of techniques and sequences that increase their political pressure over time against the opponent, while also managing the risk for people for participating, that they can achieve extraordinary political, social, and economic breakthroughs. That kind of surprises observers who kind of maybe underestimated how powerful people power can actually be.

AS: Professor Chenoweth thinks that observers tend to be surprised at the success of civil resistance movements because they're organized by marginalized members of society - in other words, by those who have been barred from traditional positions of power. But civil resistance movements enact a different kind of power, one contingent on mass participation at the grassroots level.

EC: The theory of change is that there's no such thing as an opponent that is monolithic. And there's no such thing as an opponent that has total control of the population all the time. Instead, opponents rely on basically everybody in the society to just go along with things, and that when people actually stop cooperating, and stop going along, and stop thinking that it's in their own best interest to just play along with the power-holder - that's when you start seeing these openings where dramatic transformations can take place.

AS: Professor Chenoweth has seen a lot of variability in civil resistance movements. For example, in their leadership structures, their use of digital media and technology, and importantly, their origins.

EC: One of the most interesting things is how totally unpredictable they are. So there are very few factors that seem to systematically predict the onset of a mass uprising, but the most important relate to the capacity of the population to mobilize effectively because of a recent history of say, labor strikes or protests, because of a growing youth population, because of the distribution of cell phones, for example, which helped people to communicate. And then notably, the beginning of authoritarian backsliding.

AS: Professor Chenoweth is often asked whether nonviolent resistance is at all effective against an authoritarian regime or an overwhelming military power. Professor Chenoweth's research suggests that the answer is often yes.

Professor Chenoweth outlines four key things non-violent resistance campaigns do well that violent campaigns do not. The first is that nonviolent campaigns are much better at eliciting broad and diverse participation, which gives them more social power. The second thing is that nonviolent campaigns are more effective at causing defections, particularly among elites and security forces. These defections can lead to key moments of political crisis for those holding power. The third thing nonviolent campaigns do well is create a large and varied enough movement that they have a much wider set of available tactics to draw upon than do violent movements. Lastly, nonviolent campaigns maintain discipline in the face of escalating state repression more effectively than violent campaigns, allowing them to deter the worst kinds of state violence.

In fact, Professor Chenoweth has found that over half of the non-violent campaigns undertaken between 1900 and 2019 have succeeded. Only a quarter of the violent movements during the same period succeeded. Not only have civil resistance movements seen more success than armed uprisings, they've also suffered fewer fatalities at a ratio of 22:1.

But Professor Chenoweth is careful not to assign moral weight to nonviolent techniques over violent ones. They believe oppressed peoples around the world should use whatever strategies they think are most appropriate to protect themselves and their communities.

EC: What this book is trying to do is document and amplify the various different strategic pathways that people have used in those circumstances besides using violence, which is well-documented by many other people to good effect.

AS: Professor Chenoweth is also careful to highlight that bodily violence is used much more often in response to civilian uprisings rather than by them, and that state actors often try to strategically provoke participants of civil resistance into violent action.

EC: Regimes really do try to de-legitimize these movements using the various epithets, one of which is that they're terrorists or a coup-plotters or thugs. It's very informative what the state shows it's afraid of.

AS: Beyond their scholarly interest in the topic, Professor Chenoweth finds hope in the masses of people worldwide who continue to engage in innovative modes of civil resistance in order to overcome unthinkable circumstances.

EC: More people are using these techniques today than in any other period in recorded human history. That is an amazing fact, and it's an incredible kind of privilege to be alive during this time.

AS: The book is, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know, written by Erica Chenoweth, Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at Harvard Kennedy School. It's published by Oxford University Press. This has been Behind the Book, a production of Library and Knowledge Services at Harvard Kennedy School. Find past and future episodes of Behind the Book by subscribing to Harvard Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter at @hkslibrary, and visiting our website.