How to Sharpen a Nonviolent Movement

Issue Date January 2023
Volume 34
Issue 1
Page Numbers 110–25
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In the past three decades nonviolent social protest has become the most reliable path to democracy. However, not all nonviolent mobilization campaigns succeed. To examine why some nonviolent campaigns are more successful than others, we analyze the use of a particular type of activist campaign tactic, the “dilemma action.” The dilemma action is a nonviolent civil-disobedience tactic that provokes a “response dilemma” for the target. Collecting original data on dilemma actions during nonviolent activist campaigns, we find that roughly one-third of mass nonviolent campaigns in the past century deploy this strategy. We theorize four mechanisms linking dilemma actions to nonviolent activist campaign success: facilitating group formation, delegitimizing opponents, reducing fear, and generating sympathetic media coverage. Finally, we assess whether dilemma actions increase campaign success rates, finding that dilemma actions are associated with an increase of 11–16 percent in activist-campaign success.

About the Authors

Sophia McClennen

Sophia McClennen is professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Penn State University.

View all work by Sophia McClennen

Srdja Popovic

Srdja Popovic is founder of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies and lecturer at Colorado College and the University of Virginia. He is author of Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (2015). His Twitter handle is @SrdjaPopovic.

View all work by Srdja Popovic

Joseph Wright

Joseph Wright is professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University and codirector of the Global and International Studies Program.

View all work by Joseph Wright


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