New data offers insights into the dynamics of nonviolent resistance

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In a recent article for The Guardian, L.A. Kaufman argues that we are living in a “golden age” of protest. But, she cautions, protests are often not enough for movements to realize their desired outcomes. Applying more disruptive methods, like sit-ins or blockades, is a necessary next step for organizers who wish to effect transformative change.

Indeed, tactical innovation and the adoption of a broad range of nonviolent methods is a hallmark of successful resistance campaigns in the past. That said, little systematic research exists to help organizers understand when and how to use different methods of resistance. How can shifting between acts of omission and commission, concentration and dispersion, or protest, noncooperation and intervention advantage or disadvantage nonviolent movements? And how do their trajectories change depending on the national context, the political regime, or the actions of third parties?

Despite a growing literature on nonviolent resistance, many of these questions remain unresolved. In the absence of systematic study, the lessons of prominent nonviolent resistance movements can often be misinterpreted or misunderstood.

For example, in early 2011, the world watched as Cairo’s Tahrir Square filled with protesters refusing to leave until President Hosni Mubarak left power. The occupation of the square was a highly visible tactic that caught the attention of global media and easily spread across front pages and cable news broadcasts. When Mubarak fell in mid-February it was easy for spectators to conclude that mass protests and occupations in key symbolic spaces led directly to his demise.

Yet the occupation of Tahrir Square was not the only action of the 2011 Egyptian Uprising that influenced this outcome. In the days immediately preceding Mubarak stepping down, a wave of strikes also broke out across the country. Organized labor and professional groups walked out of their jobs. In many smaller cities out of sight of major media outlets, protesters also stormed police stations in revenge attacks for police repression.

Moreover, the uprising that swept across Egypt was only the latest iteration in years of popular contention there. Since the early 2000s, beginning with protests against Israel during the Second Intifada and the American invasion of Iraq, Egyptians had been using various techniques of nonviolent action to advocate for major political changes. The 2011 uprising built on the tactical successes and failures of a series of protests in 2008 for greater protection of human rights, which built on an earlier campaign, Kefaya (“Enough!”) that called for the expansion of electoral rights.

In other words, the 17 historic days in Tahrir Square were part of a broader series of contentious acts that followed many years of less visible organizing. To understand the outcome in Egypt and elsewhere, we must understand this complexity — both the intricate repertoire and sequence of tactics that make up nonviolent uprisings as well as the enduring, small-scale mobilization that often precedes them.

To contribute to greater scholarly and practical understandings of the ways in which the timing and sequencing of different tactics lead to different outcomes, and with generous support from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (as well as from the co-investigators’ universities), we introduce the latest version of the long-running Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes data project, NAVCO 3.0. The NAVCO 1.0 dataset contained aggregated information on violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns as a whole and played a crucial role in statistically demonstrating that higher effectiveness of nonviolent resistance relative to violent resistance. NAVCO 2.0 split up these campaigns into yearly observations, allowing for more detailed analysis of change in campaigns over time.

NAVCO 3.0 provides data at a much more granular level, with observations of individual violent and nonviolent tactics on specific days. This allows us to examine the whole complex set of actions and reactions by activists, governments and third parties during violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns. Unlike the previous versions of NAVCO, we also include actions from before and after resistance campaigns, allowing us to examine the dynamics of smaller-scale resistance that do and do not lead to major resistance campaigns, and the cumulative effects of different contentious actions over the long term.

Because of the labor-intensive nature of the data collection (these data are over six years in the making), 3.0 is limited to 21 countries from 1991 through 2012. Even limiting to these countries, the complete dataset contains information on over 120,000 events. We picked the countries in NAVCO 3.0 based on the existence of campaigns in these countries that would give us new insight into the dynamics of nonviolent action. Thus, the dataset includes every country that experienced a major Arab Spring uprising, as well as several additional countries that experienced major nonviolent resistance movements during the time period we were examining (such as Mexico and Kenya) and a few that didn’t have a major nonviolent resistance movement that can be useful to compare as a baseline.

Scholars of peace and conflict have created many amazing resources on events related to nonviolent resistance. In addition to NAVCO, those interested in broader movements around the world can find a wealth of information at the Swarthmore Global Nonviolent Action Database. And for those interested in data about protest events specifically, the ACLED and SCAD datasets contain information on contentious politics in Africa and some additional countries outside the continent. Where NAVCO 3.0 improves these existing resources is in building the theoretical insights of the nonviolent resistance literature directly into the data structure. So, for instance, NAVCO 3.0 includes information on whether events were acts of commission or omission, and what category of Gene Sharp’s division of nonviolent tactics an event falls into (protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention). NAVCO 3.0 also includes measures for whether an individual action sparked backlash, and if so what kind.

Finally, NAVCO 3.0 contains extensive resources for considering the rhetorical picture surrounding nonviolent resistance movements. We have detailed information not just on physical actions by activists like protests and strikes, or government actions like arrests or killings, but also what domestic and international actions said about a particular event — or how nonviolent action helped to change the narrative about a particular issue at home or abroad.

The amount of detail in the data means scholars, activists and other practitioners can use it to gain insight into many questions about nonviolent resistance. Early research has already used the data to look at the factors that lead to breakdowns in nonviolent discipline and gain new insight on how crowd size affects the likelihood that both nonviolent and violent resistance actions have faced repression.

The NAVCO data is freely available for download here. For more information on the structure and sourcing of the data, you can read our article in the Journal of Peace Research, currently available here.