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Erica Chenoweth: Confronting the myth of the rational insurgent

By Erica Chenoweth, Ph.D

Lambert here: Occupy's public discussions on "diversity of tactics" have often lacked historical perspective; discussions, at least online, have tended to degenerate to "Ghandi!" "No, ANC!" Now, however, Erica Chenoweth has developed a dataset and analyzed the historical record. Below the fold are slides summarizing the results of her study of 323? non-violent and violent campaigns ?from? 1900?2006. (There are twenty slides, so anybody with a slow connection may prefer to download a zipped file of the original PDF). Here's one key slide:

I'm sure, readers, that like any study, Chenoweth's work is open to challenge on any number of grounds. That said, surely looking to the historical record to see what's worked isn't such a bad thing?

* * *

Why not do what works? Is that so wrong?

NOTE Lambert here once again. The paper that these slides summarize will be delivered by Professor Chenoweth at this year's International Studies Association Annual Meeting at a special workshop in advance of the proceedings not yet listed in the program.

NOTE Originally posted at Naked Capitalism.

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Submitted by jcasey on

I would love to hear her presentation, but doubt I can make it to SD in April. Maybe we can entice a fellow Correntian in the vicinity to report.

propertius's picture
Submitted by propertius on

They're very pretty, but there are some fundamental questions that she leaves unanswered:

1) What constitutes a "campaign"?
2) What are the selection criteria for including a "campaign" in her statistics?
3) What makes her think that the 20th Century (which is essentially what she's talking about) is representative of human history or that it's applicable to the 21st Century?
4) Most of the insurgencies of the 20th Century were assisted by one or more of the contemporary great powers. Do the relative odds for success between violent and nonviolent campaigns change if outside powers are not involved? What about the odds of a democratic result?

I think she's conflating too many phenomena to be able to reach any definitive conclusions.

Not saying she's wrong, or that we should all arm ourselves to the teeth - just saying that hr study is uncontrolled and may be subject to both confirmation bias and selection bias.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

is here [PDF], which, admittedly, is not the same as Chenoweth and Stephan’s full-length book. The paper refers to a “campaign” as “a series of repetitive, durable, organized, and observable events directed at a certain target to achieve a goal.”

The article and the book might (or might not) address some of the issues.

Submitted by lambert on

... so that NV advocates could propagate them easily.

ChePasa's picture
Submitted by ChePasa on

FFS, this sort of context and detail free statistical presentation is almost completely meaningless.

The correct response to this sort of thing is, "So?"

Numbers cited without a single mention of who they refer to, when, where and under what circumstances the campaign was conducted, and without any proof of outcome (because we have no idea what is being referred to) are useless in formulating a plan for action.

All that can be said for this presentation is that Chenoweth is marketing her campaign on behalf of what she conceives of as the superiority of nonviolent conflict.

Conflict is not adaptable to purity demands nor does it take place in a vacuum; there is no such thing as a purely "nonviolent" conflict in any case or a purely "violent" conflict; definitions vary and violence and nonviolence are generally taking place at the same time throughout large scale social conflict situations. I'm sure the Good Doctor knows this, but she's not marketing that idea, so...

As for "what works..." this presentation proves nothing. At all.

Thanks to Jeff W for linking to something a little more substantive.

Submitted by lambert on

The research material, if you care to look is available on Chenoweth's research site, and Jeff's link to earlier material which I'm sure would repay examination.

As I remarked over at Yves Place, in regard to the demands for the (available) dataset and (available) methodology:

In a weird kind of way, the violence advocates on this thread are doing exactly what they also advocate in the real world: Attacking their enemy’s position of strength. Heh heh. I’m sure Professor Chenoweth and those who read the slides with an open mind will be happy to “fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer.”

Of course, Chenoweth's work is provoking a lot of cognitive dissonance. The idea the violence is normal, rational, always there to resort to is deeply embedded in our culture, from Obama all the way to the black bloc. And for some reason, there's never the slightest hint of a suggestion that those who advocate killing their political opponents -- which is what, stripped of historical references and mush mouth verbiage like "diversity of tactics" -- should ever have to provide statistics for their point of view.

ChePasa's picture
Submitted by ChePasa on

infesting the threads?

If they existed, I'm sure you could point them out and name them.

You presented a series of slides that are essentially worthless without context and/or supporting documentation. That's a poor way to market Chenoweth's ideas because it makes her seem like an idiot or a fraud and her ideas claptrap. I figure she's not an idiot, so I can only assume she either didn't think through presenting the slides in isolation or she didn't know you were going to do it. Unfortunately, this approach has not done her any favors.

I would disagree vehemently with her premise regarding "conventional wisdom" if I could believe that's what she's actually claiming IS the widely believed conventional wisdom, but from the evidence of the slide, I have nothing to go on. Chenoweth's "work" -- ie: the slides -- is provoking valid questions but that hardly amounts to cognitive dissonance.

As I say, thanks to Jeff W for linking to something substantive. I'll read it when I get a chance.

Your attempt at conflation of Obama and Black Bloc right through to conflating killing political opponents with diversity of tactics would be funny if it weren't so... obviously a deliberate attempt to inflame. That just makes it sad.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

In fact, Dr Chenoweth talks about what she is trying to do in a blog post which acknowledges lambert’s post on Naked Capitalism here.

The slides were from a presentation she delivered at Stanford last August called “Confronting the Myth of the Rational Insurgent.” When a link to the full set of slides was posted as a Quick Hit by affinis almost two weeks ago, I also had difficulty assessing them and found the article I provided the link to. (In that same Quick Hit, Alcuin linked to a relevant piece by Chenoweth in Foreign Policy.)

ChePasa's picture
Submitted by ChePasa on

to her argument, and that's too bad.

Thanks again for linking to Chenoweth's paper; if that had been done at the outset, much of the discredit that has accrued to the naked slides might have been avoided.

The slides in isolation are meaningless. In tandem with the paper, they are still problematical, but at least they're comprehensible in context.

Chenoweth and Stephan acknowledge that their methodology is sketchy and open to criticism. But statistical analysis is clearly the prop for their point, not the meat of it.

While it may be true in an academic context among political scientists that the "conventional wisdom" is what they state: "that the most effective means of waging political struggle entails violence," I'm skeptical of their broad brush. It's very close to a straw man argument that they don't really need to engage in.

Leaving aside state action -- the World Wars and the innumerable police actions of the 20th Century and the Ongoing Terror Wars of the 21st, -- it's self-evident that nonviolent resistance campaigns have been more effective overall in achieving certain social-political objectives than have violent insurgent campaigns. I don't know of any serious observer who disputes it.

Those who assert the effectiveness of violent insurgencies in the field as opposed to the Ivory Tower generally do so on the basis of necessity -- when nonviolent approaches fail, or in self-defense, or in a context of revenge for past atrocities.

By the definitions of "violent" and "nonviolent" resistance campaigns adopted by Chenoweth and Stephan, every aspect of the Occupy Movement, including Black Bloc, fits into the category of "nonviolent resistance." Every aspect. As they acknowledge, there is no purely "violent" or purely "nonviolent" resistance/insurgent campaign.

Those who try to make an absolute determination are bound to fail.

Taken as a whole, Chenoweth and Stephan offer some worthwhile observations about the overall efficacy of nonviolent resistance campaigns to achieve certain social/political objectives, and their conclusions are basically noncontroversial.

tom allen's picture
Submitted by tom allen on

I grant that I'm a doofus, I probably have no reason to talk here. I mean, it's not like I have PowerPoint slides or anything. *snort*

Seriously, who has been advocating violence? A little glitter-bombing, perhaps. Some mockery. And perhaps that is too violent. We can have that discussion.

*bangs head against desk* I think we're all on the same side. But if you need to argue against somebody -- well, hey, that's what I'm here for. :-P

Submitted by lambert on

If you've followed the discussion on NV/V over at Ian Welsh's, that is exactly the conflation that happened. Because where's the bright line on "diversity," anyhow? Injury is OK, but not death. Oh, accidental death is OK, but not intentional death. And on and on and on.

And it would be really, really nice if Occupy managed not to repeat the disasters of the Weather Underground and the Red Army Faction, eh? And that slide into madness and ineffectuality began with the same sorts of rhetoric and the same group dynamics of decreasing membership and increasing intensity that I'm starting to see here. So far, Occupy has managed to pull back from the brink, thank gawd, but who knows?

Whatever the defects in my presentation*, Chenoweth is calling very powerful bullshit on violence advocacy. Speaking generally (and not to you directly) it's amazing how many people experience severe cognitive dissonance when that's done.

NOTE * I really need to integrate Twitter, other blogs, the two blogs I post at... I was ahead of the curve in 2008 solely on discourse analysis and media critique, which is what I do, have done for years. (It was entirely possible to reason from the corrupt discourse of the Bush administration to its policies on torture or warrantless surveillance, for example.) The difference is that in 2008 there was essentially the press and two blog factions to track, and now there is the press, a number of blogs, twitter, reports I get via email, and of course vast quantities of email. Clearly I need to do a much better job integrating all of this; it really brings home to me how much the media landscape has changed. I only pray, or would pray if I could, that the alarm bells that are screaming in my head about this, as they did in 2008, are wrong in 2012.