Promoting research on nonviolent action

Dear colleagues,

In 1986, Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos was toppled through mass civilian action - not armed struggle. In 1998, Indonesian dictator Suharto stood down, making way for the first elections in decades - again following mass civilian action. In 2000, authoritarian Serbian ruler Slobodan Milosevic lost power - yet again following mass civilian action.

For a long time, scholars have assumed that violence always triumphs over less violent methods. The cases of the Philippines, Indonesia, Serbia and many others show that unarmed civilians can pose an effective challenge to authoritarian regimes.

Civilian campaigners use numerous methods including petitions, leaflets, rallies, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and vigils. These are called methods of nonviolent action, because violence towards opponents is avoided. Recent research shows that nonviolent action is more effective than armed struggle in promoting transitions from autocracy to democracy.

Although nonviolent action can be powerful and has huge potential, there are not all that many researchers in the area. Defence departments fund massive projects for weapons and military strategy, whereas there is hardly any funding into understanding and improving nonviolent struggle.

Earlier this month, there was an opportunity to bring together a small group of top nonviolence researchers from around the world. The International Peace Research Association (IPRA) happened to hold its biennial conference in Sydney. For a modest cost, just a few thousand dollars, it was possible to bring eight nonviolence researchers, most of them from Europe and North America, to Wollongong for a three-day workshop.

The aim of the workshop was captured by a question: "What can we do to improve nonviolence research?" We discussed transitions from armed to nonviolent struggle, actions that create a dilemma for opponents (whatever the opponent does, the activists gain), responding to extreme left-wing critics of nonviolence, links between activism and research, and building peaceful societies after a conflict.

One important outcome was setting up of a nonviolent action research network. We have planned this to start small and gradually expand as teething problems are sorted out. Other outcomes were planning specific articles and edited collections and more generally targeting areas for research.

Most large conferences, like the IPRA conference, use a standard academic format, including plenary sessions and talks by individual scholars, all planned in advance. For the Wollongong workshop, we used an entirely different approach, called open space technology. There are detailed guidelines for running open space events. The basic idea is to set up a structure of times and, starting on the first day, to allow anyone to propose a session on any topic at any time. Participants can attend any session they like and can come and go as they please. It is a method for self-organising a meeting of people who have a common purpose.

For every session, there was a note-taker and at the end of each day we each obtained notes from all sessions. At the end of three days, we had 40 pages of workshop notes, including details of our personal commitments for future research and networking. Open space technology is more commonly used for groups of 50 to 500; it worked fine for us with just 10 people.

For some sessions, we invited local scholars and activists with relevant interests. This worked well because we kept the discussions in the interactive spirit of open space. There were no formal presentations.

Participants have gone back to their home countries and their usual rounds of research, teaching and action. Our agendas will be kept together by the research network, collaborative projects and perhaps a few memories of Wollongong in winter.

19 July 2010

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