Cate Malek

Based on a longer essay on Nonviolence, written by Máire Dugan for the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project

Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess


"The means are the ends in embryo." -- Mohandas K. Gandhi


A carefully planned and disciplined strategy that uses other means besides violence to either persuade or force opponents to change.


Non-violent direct action can be used by anyone who wishes to resolve a conflict without violence. It is especially useful for those who are physically weaker than their opponents.


If asked for an example of nonviolent action, one is likely to mention Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr., and maybe Rosa Parks. Such well-known cases notwithstanding, most of us tend to think of nonviolence as ineffectual--the weapon of the weak. We stand with Mao in presuming that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun." The source of the problem lies partly in the way the words are structured -- defining the concepts in terms of what they are not. Nonviolent action seems to mean "not violent action." It is easy to presume it is everything violent action is not. And, since the latter is associated with strength, the former must be the absence of strength. The situation is further complicated by a confusion of terms -- nonviolence (as a philosophy or lifestyle) and nonviolent action.

Nonviolence as Philosophy and Lifestyle

Absolute pacifism proposes that all forms of violence, war, and/or killing are unconditionally wrong. In conditional pacifism, nonviolence is still the ideal, but violence may be justified under certain, extreme circumstances. The world's religions share a central value -- that life is precious and that it is not the right of any person to take the life of another. The focus of religious nonviolence can be one's spiritual well being or it can be work to end war and other forms of violence. In some faith traditions, nonviolent action becomes a moral imperative in the face of rampant social injustice. Through it, believers avoid becoming what they consider "accomplices of injustice" by refusing the status quo; yet retain their own human dignity by refraining from violence. The opponent is caught off guard by their refusal to initiate violence or even to reciprocate violence, and may come to question his/her own behavior or stance. While it may seem fanciful to think that one's commitment to nonviolence can have this impact, many case studies have shown that this can happen, particularly when the commitment is constant over time.

Nonviolent Action as a Political Strategy

While faith- or philosophy-based nonviolence often leads to political change, one can also look at nonviolence from a strategic lens. By combining nonviolent discipline with solidarity and persistence in struggle, the nonviolent actionists cause the violence of the opponent's repression to be exposed in the worst possible light. Non-violent action acts in three ways to change opponents' behavior: conversion, accommodation and coercion. Conversion involves a change of heart in the opponent. At the other extreme, coercion, the opponent acquiesces to the demands of the protestors because s/he feels forced to. In between is accommodation, in which the opponent agrees to grant the demands of the nonviolent actionists without having changed his or her mind about the issues involved. Gene Sharp, the leading scholar of strategic nonviolence,  distinguishes between three major categories of nonviolent action:

  • Protest and persuasion. These highlight the issue in contention. Specific methods include petitions, picketing and marches.
  • Non-cooperation. Protestors may refuse to participate in the behavior to which they object. Specific methods include boycotts and civil disobedience.
  • Nonviolent intervention. This category includes techniques in which protestors actively interfere with the activity to which they are objecting. Specific methods include sit-ins and overloading of facilities.

When planning nonviolent action, it is particularly important to consider the audience. A rally may serve to inspire the already committed, but is not likely to change minds; a boycott is likely to produce resentment. Nonviolent actionists would do well to imitate their military counterparts in careful planning and discipline of their participants. With that, nonviolence may be just as likely to be successful in a conflict as violence--often, actually, much more so, and it is much less likely to cause much increased hostility, escalation, and backlash.


During the 1960s civil rights struggle, a young man named Eddie Dickerson joined a group of others attacking a group of CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) protestors who were attempting to integrate lunch counters in Maryland. Returning home afterwards, he found himself haunted by the nonviolent response of those whom he had beaten. He went to the church at which the CORE volunteers were staying to ask, "Why didn't you hit back?" Their answers caused him to question both his violent behavior and segregation. In time he joined CORE himself.


Nonviolent action can be used in any situation in which a group wants to exert power or influence on another group. It is especially useful for groups who control less physical power, and hence are unlikely to prevail by violent means. But it is also preferred to violence for other reasons, most notably the diminished likelihood of a violent response, backlash, or resentment that is typically caused by the use of violence. Further, research shows it is often more effective in persuading others to change their behavior than violence is.

Links to Related Articles:

Nonviolent Sanctions and Incentives