In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Civil Resistance

  • Introduction
  • General Overview: Origins of Inquiry
  • Power and People: The Consent-Based View of Political Power
  • Cases of Civil Resistance
  • The Record of Civil Resistance
  • Structure, Agency, and Civil Resistance Movements
  • Strategic Choice in Civil Resistance
  • Tactics of Civil Resistance
  • Practitioners’ Toolkits
  • Repression, Backfire, and Defections
  • Failed Nonviolent Movements and Violent Flanks
  • External Actors in Civil Resistance
  • External Actors, Civil Resistance, and International Law
  • Civil Resistance, Negotiations, Democratization, and Political Transitions
  • Civil Resistance against Extreme Violence and Violent Nonstate Actors
  • Civilian-Based Defense against Foreign Invasion and Coups d’État
  • Other Key Subjects and Types of Civil Resistance Struggles
  • Data Sources
  • Educational and Multimedia Resources

International Relations Civil Resistance
Maciej Bartkowski, Hardy Merriman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0194


Civil resistance (also referred to as “nonviolent action,” “nonviolent struggle,” “nonviolent conflict,” and “people power,” among other terms) is a technique for waging conflict for political, economic, and/or social objectives without threats or use of physical violence. The most enduring definition for this phenomenon comes from the work of Gene Sharp (see Sharp 1973, cited under General Overview: Origins of Inquiry). Sharp states that nonviolent action involves the following: acts of commission, whereby people do what they are not supposed to do, not expected to do, or forbidden by law from doing; acts of omission, whereby people do not do what they are supposed to do, are expected to do, or are required by law to do; or a combination of acts of commission and omission. By this definition, civil resistance is a technique of struggle employing methods outside traditional institutional channels for making change in a society. Many civil resisters, however, engage in both institutional processes for making change while also waging civil resistance to bring exogenous pressure on a political, economic, or social system. Civil resisters use a wide range of tactics, some of which may be visible or invisible, high risk or low risk, and economic, political, or social in nature. These tactics often include marches, demonstrations, strikes, various forms of noncooperation, boycotts, civil disobedience, and constructive actions, such as building parallel social, economic, cultural, or political institutions as an alternative to the existing repressive structures. As of the mid-2010s, over 200 methods of civil resistance have been identified and documented. Civil resistance is most effective when practiced collectively, systematically, and strategically. Therefore, many scholars focus primarily on the use of civil resistance by popular campaigns and movements of people in a society. Civil resistance scholarship recognizes that in some cases of oppression, conflicts must be waged in order ultimately to be resolved and that the impact of such conflict can, in fact, be positive. This sharp differentiation between nonviolent and violent means of contention distinguishes this field from other studies of social movements and contentious politics that do not always draw such firm distinctions. This, in turn, enables civil resistance scholars to study the dynamics unique to this form of highly asymmetric conflict, in which an unarmed and nonviolent mass confronts an opponent that nearly always has greater capacity for violent repression. Furthermore, civil resistance scholarship has often placed greater emphasis on understanding the role of agency, skills, and strategic choice in shaping movement emergence, trajectories, and outcomes, as opposed to the role of structural conditions. Civil resistance is an applied discipline that takes stock of the lessons from both successful and failed nonviolent movements and campaigns in order to understand better how people, often those with no special status or privilege, are able to unify, self-organize, mobilize, and overcome oppression.

General Overview: Origins of Inquiry

Gregg 1959 and Bondurant 1958 were Gandhi’s contemporaries who lived in India and met him. They were fascinated by his nonviolent campaign for Indian independence and were quick to notice that Gandhi, in addition to being pious and moral, was foremost a strategist. Both grasped the importance of the strategic approach to nonviolent struggle that Gandhi embedded in his campaigns. Gregg’s and Bondurant’s insights were fundamental to the development of scholarship about strategy and civil resistance and influenced those in the US civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., and other leaders. Sharp 1973 is widely regarded as the intellectual founder of the academic discipline of civil resistance. Researching a variety of cases, ranging from the Indian independence movement to labor struggles and a variety of other cases around the world, Sharp sought to study nonviolent struggle as a social science, decoupling it from any religious or ethical underpinnings and comparing numerous cases to build theory and identify dynamics of nonviolent struggle. Through the process of documenting the use of 198 different methods of nonviolent action, Sharp revealed the ubiquitous practice of nonviolent resistance across historical times, geographies, cultures, and political systems. To a certain degree, Gregg, Bondurant, and Sharp complemented each other in terms of their insights into two core, applied dimensions of civil resistance: strategies and tactics. More recently, Schock 2003, Schock 2005, Schock 2013, and Chenoweth and Stephan 2011 (also cited under Record of Civil Resistance and Structure, Agency, and Civil Resistance Movements) further developed civil resistance studies as a self-standing (albeit highly interdisciplinary) field of scholarly inquiry, distinct from studies of social movements, revolutions, or conflict resolution. These scholars addressed a number of myths about what civil resistance is and why it is effective. Chenoweth and Stephan’s research also made an invaluable breakthrough in the quantitative assessment of the effectiveness of civil resistance against state actors compared to violent methods. This very selective list of sources will be useful for those who want to understand the origins of strategic thinking about civil resistance and how the discipline of civil resistance studies has evolved.

  • Bondurant, Joan. Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.

    Bondurant presents Gandhi’s approach to nonviolent struggle and identifies Gandhi’s nine steps for waging a nonviolent campaign: negotiation, a communications campaign, an ultimatum, nonviolent strikes, boycotts, noncooperation, civil disobedience, appropriation of government institutions and services, and, finally, creation of parallel governance structures to make resistance self-reliant and autonomous. A revised edition was published in 1965 by the University of California Press.

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

    A comprehensive comparison of violent and nonviolent strategies for challenging repressive governments. Drawing on quantitative research, this book explains the dynamics of nonviolent struggle and why civil resistance campaigns historically are more effective and successful at achieving their objectives than violent campaigns.

  • Gregg, Richard B. The Power of Nonviolence. 2d rev. ed. New York: Schocken, 1959.

    Based on Gregg’s experience in India and his following of the nonviolent struggle of the Indian independence movement, this book explains the dynamics of nonviolent resistance, emphasizing the importance of nonviolent discipline to bring about moral jiu-jitsu (casting violence against unarmed protesters in a very negative light, a phenomenon that is commonly referred to in civil resistance literature as “backfire” [see also Repression, Backfire, Defections], strategic preparation, and organization needed to conduct the kind of effective mass-based civil resistance that Gandhi practiced. The book was reprinted in 1960 with a foreword by Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Schock, Kurt. “Nonviolent Action and Its Misconceptions: Insights for Social Scientists.” Political Science and Politics 36.4 (2003): 705–712.

    A comprehensive list of misconceptions about the field of civil resistance. It deconstructs each of the misconceptions and offers counterarguments.

  • Schock, Kurt. Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

    Bridges the analytical gap between the social movement and civil resistance literature. Also provides in-depth analysis of six case studies of successful and failed nonviolent movements against authoritarian regimes by looking at the diversity and intensity of nonviolent methods, levels of public participation, backfire in cases of repression, and elite divisions as a result of nonviolent challenges. Available in English and Spanish.

  • Schock, Kurt. “The Practice and Study of Civil Resistance.” Journal of Peace Research 50.3 (2013): 277–290.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022343313476530

    A very useful introduction to the field of civil resistance. Provides a historical overview of the emergence of mass-based nonviolent campaigns and analysis of crucial aspects of civil resistance such as mobilization, resilience, and leverage. Offers insightful analytical and empirical distinctions about what makes civil resistance scholarship different from traditional studies of social movements and revolutions.

  • Sharp, Gene. The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973.

    A seminal, three-volume study that introduces the consent-based understanding of political power, setting the stage for a detailed analysis of historical examples of nonviolent action. Through empirical cases, the book identifies 198 methods of nonviolent struggle and categorizes them into three broad classes: protest and persuasion, noncooperation (subclasses are political, economic, and social), and nonviolent intervention.

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