Resistance Studies Can Nonviolent Civil Resistance be More Effective?

Dr. Stellan Vinthagen, Professor of Sociology and a scholar-activist, joined a Tuesday Dialogue to share his ideas on how academic study of civil resistance has the potential to help activists be more successful in Stellan Vinthagenachieving their goals. 


The field of Resistance Studies, although not new, has relatively little research or documentation according to Dr. Vinthagen. He argued that by studying successful social mobilization events that we could learn lessons on strategy and tactics which could benefit other activists.  If the military and police carefully study and practice ways to address potential situations, then why can’t we apply the same logic to social activism?  Why shouldn’t activists have access to knowledge of what approaches were more likely to be successful, rather than each movement trying to create their own knowledge from scratch?


What research there is reveals some important and surprising findings. In recent decades there have been numerous examples of nonviolent movements successfully overthrowing dictators or oppressive governments. In the comparable time period successful revolutions by armed movements are rare. He cited numerous cases where nonviolent movements were successful in producing structural change.  Violent acts sometimes occur during nonviolent movements, but these outbreaks are not part of the strategy of the movement.  Other studies show that nonviolent overthrow of government is much more likely to lead to a democratic structure than is violent overthrow.  He reasoned that nonviolent movements must build alliances and collaborate in order to be strong, and these alliances can form the foundation of a more democratic society when they take over.


In answering a question about how he became a scholar-activist, Dr. Vinthagen talked about being raised by activist parents and attending a Swedish folk high school where the curriculum emphasized critical thought and practice.  Since then he has participated in more than 30 nonviolent civil disobedience actions and been jailed more than once. He believes that there is much to be gained by combining street knowledge with academic knowledge about social movements.


Discussing the link between civil resistance and education, Dr. Vinthagen noted the tension in all education systems between power and resistance – schools socializing students into the existing social structure, which may be oppressive, or serving as a venue where students learn to question and resist oppressive structures.  Education needs to be connected to activism and social movements so they inform each other – again the linkage between street knowledge and academic knowledge.