What can a university course actually teach us about resistance?

Many scholars debate theories of civil resistance. But a new course of study shows that power and intersectionality are the most important concepts to understand how resistance works.

The concept of resistance has been highly debated by scholars across disciplines. Does resistance need to be confrontational? Is resistance always a political act? Is resistance always done on purpose, or can individuals engage in resistance unintentionally?

While taking a course on “Civil Resistance and the Everyday” through the Resistance Studies Initiative at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, we had open discussions tackling these questions from different disciplinary perspectives. The readings and discussions held during this course revealed a range of important lessons for critically understanding resistance.

Among all of these, there are two lessons that provide crucial take-aways for scholars of resistance.

First, resistance and power are inherently intertwined. No study of resistance is complete without a discussion of power. These two concepts exist in relationship with one another, making them interconnected rather than opposing.

Exercises of power define the contexts in which resistance takes place, and power is constantly changing over time in reaction to resistance. Neither power nor resistance are ahistorical. It is these contexts that determine how people engage in resistance, as well as what they resist against. Acts of resistance are committed by people in a subordinated position within a power structure; these acts themselves undermine power.

Power is constantly changing over time in reaction to resistance

However, the interactive dynamic between power and resistance means that acts of resistance can lead to an increase of power, or the creation of new forms of power. For example, workplace rules and regulations may become more strict over time as management seeks to supress worker resistance to authority.

The second important lesson relates to the intersectional nature of resistance and power. Intersectionality is an analytical approach that allows us to understand social positions across multiple systems of oppression. Resistance is in constant relationship with numerous power structures, each of which contain their own hierarchies and logic. While power defines the structures that resistance must navigate at any point in history, it is not solely the power-holders that wield influence. All spaces are subjected to the influence of power structures based on race, gender, class and sexuality, among others.

No single act of resistance can undermine all aspects of power within a particular space and time. An act of resistance can undermine one or several power structures, but may actually reinforce a different power structure at the same time.

For example, a black male worker may disobey an order from a white female supervisor within the workplace. While this act of resistance undermines class-based and racial power structures in the workplace, it also reinforces gendered power dynamics. All subjects exist within the intersections of multiple power structures. Their positions within these varied hierarchies must be critically examined to understand the dynamic between resistance and power.

An act of resistance can undermine one or several power structures, but may actually reinforce a different power structure at the same time.

While the definition of resistance – and what counts as resistance – remains largely contested, these two lessons provide an important starting point for those engaging in resistance studies. However one chooses to define it, resistance is always enacted in relation to power. Both power and resistance are constantly influencing each other, making the two of these intertwined. No analysis of resistance is complete without an analysis of power, and the dynamic between resistance and power is always intersectional. Different power structures operate at the same time, and all subjects hold a different position within these hierarchies. This is important to remember, as any singular act of resistance rarely undermines all forms of power within a particular space and time.

These lessons provide some key analytical tools for those researching or studying resistance, and I encourage those interested in resistance studies to partake in all the resources the Resistance Studies Initiative has to offer.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies


Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.