by Hardy MerrimanMay 21, 2018
In my previous blog post, I shared a definition of the term “movement” and discussed some distinguishing aspects of movements—such as how they are different from organizations, and the functions that they perform in a society.
This leads to the next question: how do movements make change?
There are a wide variety of actions that movements can take and these actions can be either constructive or counterproductive, depending on the context. This variability is why, as human rights funders and as organizations that engage in programming to support movements, it’s important that we clarify our understanding of the processes (or models) by which movements make an impact. While we may defer to the wisdom of our grantees and partners about what support they need and how they might apply it in their local context, there is no substitute for us having a solid understanding of movement-centered change as well.
At the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), we focus on movements that are struggling for rights, freedom, and justice through civil resistance. Civil resistance is not the only way that movements can make change, but it is a very powerful one. Drawing on the work of the scholar Gene Sharp, we define this term as follows:
Civil resistance is a way for people (often ordinary people with no special title, status, or privilege) to wield power without using or threatening physical violence. It consists of:
a. acts of commission – in which people do things they’re not supposed to do, not expected to do, or forbidden from doing;
b. acts of omission – in which people don’t do things that they’re supposed to do, expected to do, or required to do; or
c. a combination of both acts of commission and omission1
As stated in my prior blog post, when people think of a movement mobilizing, they often envision people engaging in a protest, which is an act of civil resistance. However, a protest demonstration is just one of a large number of available tactics—here are some others:
Acts of commission include:
Acts of omission include:
Combinations of both include the development of alternative institutions, such as:
These are just a sample of civil resistance tactics, which span a range from directly confronting the status quo to constructing alternatives.
Notably, civil resistance movements can also be very creative and adaptive to opportunities and constraints in their particular context. Because there are a large number of actions that people are expected to perform every day, there are a large number of potential creative opportunities to shift behavior patterns in unexpected ways. Even in oppressive and authoritarian environments, an oppressor is not able to control all the people, all the time, everywhere, and therefore populations may be able to change their social, economic, or political behavior in low- or high-risk ways that can have an impact. Hundreds of different tactics of civil resistance have been documented in the past, and movements continually create their own new methods to suit their circumstances.
One thing that is immediately apparent in our definition and examples of civil resistance is that it is different than “conventional” or “traditional” means of making change, such as elections, the legal system, or negotiations. In fact, civil resistance movements often arise when conventional means, by themselves, are failing to prevent or address situations of human rights abuse, such as when a system of oppression is deeply entrenched, or highly corrupt, or when a minority is being oppressed by a majority.
To make change then, civil resistance movements need to build and exercise power through the nonviolent actions of ordinary people. Accordingly, the premise of this model of struggle is that power ultimately comes from the obedience and cooperation of people in society. If large numbers of people shift their obedience patterns in strategic, organized, and sustained ways, then they can make an oppressive status quo very costly and unsustainable for powerholders, and change the balance of power in society.
For example, if workers work slowly or refuse to work, then a factory may have to make concessions to those workers. If trucks, trains, public transport and port employees stop working, a region or country can rapidly come to a standstill. If telecommunications employees stop doing their jobs, modern economies halt. And if people in government institutions—whether the bureaucracy, judiciary, or security forces—drag their feet or refuse orders, their capabilities are denied to an abusive ruler. If some or all of these groups all disobey at the same time, they may have coercive potential against a powerful and even potentially brutal adversary.
This is just one hypothetical example. There are many variations. Think about the movements you know that have succeeded—whether a local labor struggle, or a national struggle against a government—and consider how these movements were able to create and wield power through the participation of many people. It also bears mention that while civil resistance is distinct from more “traditional” or “conventional” means of making change, in practice it is often used alongside these methods. So while a movement may engage in civil resistance, it may also engage in some form of electoral campaign activity and lawsuits or negotiations, as a way of initiating multiple forms of pressure.
Much more can be said on this topic—for example, what kinds of strategies are effective?, what are some of the dynamics that these movements set into motion?, what does research tell us about movement success rates?, how can a movement’s gains be consolidated?—and I may address these issues in subsequent posts (you can also see this page for some suggested readings now).
However, the goal of this blog series is to focus on movement-centered support models for human rights organizations and funders, and so the purpose of discussing “movements” and “civil resistance” here is to provide a foundation on which we can further examine this issue. Clarity on both our definition of movement and how we think movements make change allows us to engage in focused internal conversations, and more constructive engagement with our grantees, partners, and stakeholders on the ground.
When you talk with your colleagues about movements, do you feel there is a shared view of what a movement is, and also a shared understanding of how movements will make change? If not, it can be a real challenge to figure out how best to support them.
In my next post, I will share some aspects of ICNC's movement-centered support model.
1 This definition is based closely on the definition offered by the scholar Gene Sharp. Sharp uses the term “nonviolent action” and we use the term “civil resistance”, but the two terms can be used almost interchangeably. You can find Sharp’s definition here: Gene Sharp, Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 193.
Hardy Merriman is a Senior Advisor to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), and led ICNC as President & CEO from 2015 until 2021. He has worked in the field of civil resistance for over 18 years, presenting at workshops for activists and organizers; speaking widely to scholars, journalists, and members of international organizations; and developing educational resources.Read More