Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 7, Nº. 1 (May-October 2016), pp. 3-18
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
Associate Professor of International Relations and Foreign Policy at the Federal University of Rio
de Janeiro (Brazil). Doctor of International Relations, International Politics and Conflict
Resolution, University of Coimbra. His research interests are concentrated in the area of Peace
and Conflict Studies and Critical Security Studies, with particular emphasis on the following
themes: peace operations, criticism of liberal peace, conflict transformation, political economy of
"new wars", strategic non-violent action, theory of securitisation, critical theory of international
relations, civil conflict in Somalia, links between foreign policy, security and defence in Brazil.
This article explores pragmatic pacifist approaches to conflict resolution, i.e. the aspects that
justify pacifist norms based on its strategic effectiveness and not on actors’ belief systems.
The article initially proposes a conceptualisation of pacifism and non-violence, seeking to
show how these concepts interrelate and how they integrate in the field of conflict
resolution. From this conceptual basis, the article focuses on the examination of pragmatic
pacifist approaches, highlighting their theoretical base, their techniques and methods of
action, as well as the major future challenges of research agendas on the theme.
Non-violence, Pragmatic pacifism, People power, Pacifist conflict resolution
How to cite this article
Oliveira, Gilberto Carvalho (2016). "Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of
pragmatic pacifism". JANUS.NET e-journal of International Relations, Vol. 7, Nº. 1, May-
October 2016. Consulted [online] on the date of last consultation,
Article received on 26 January 2016 and accepted for publication on 15 February 2016
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 7, Nº. 1 (May-October 2016), pp. 3-18
Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of pragmatic pacifism
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
It can be said that pacifism is defined by an essential norm: before inter-personal inter-
community or inter-State antagonisms, adopt non-violent social behaviour.2 For a long
time, academic interest in pacifist norm remained practically restricted to a small niche
of Peace Studies. The recent spate of non-violent campaigns such as the peaceful
revolutions of the so-called "Arab spring" has renewed interest in normative and
theoretical bases and practices involved in these demonstrations of "people power"3.
This has placed pacifism and non-violence in the spotlight of academics from different
disciplinary fields such as Political Science, International Relations and Public Policy
Studies (Hallward and Norman, 2015: 3-4). While this renewed interest brings positive
consequences for the expansion of reflection and more productive involvement of
students, academics, activists and policymakers with this particular type of peaceful
mobilisation, several issues continue to challenge those who seek an understanding
compatible with the complexity and nuances surrounding the theme, such as: how to
conceptualise pacifism and non-violence? How do these two concepts interrelate? How
are these concepts integrated into the field of conflict resolution? What is its theoretical
basis, working logic, techniques and method of application? What are its possibilities
and limitations?
The purpose of this article is to explore these issues of pacifism, seeking to justify non-
violent action based on its strategic effectiveness and not on its spiritual and moral
principles that shape the beliefs and convictions of actors. With this purpose in mind,
the first section of this article examines pacifism within a broad spectrum of positions,
ranging from a pole based on principles to a more pragmatic view, which will place
pacifist approaches within the field of conflict resolution. Thereafter, the article focuses
1 The translation of this article was funded by national funds through FCT - Fundação para a Ciência e
a Tecnologia - as part of OBSERVARE project with the reference UID/CPO/04155/2013. Text translated by
Thomas Rickard.
2 For a more elaborate discussion of this pacifist norm from a sociological point of view, see Galtung
3 "People power", was the term originally used to describe the mass mobilisation of the civilian population
in the process that led to the fall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986. Since then,
this expression came to be generally used to label the activism of the civil population in non-violent
political actions (Ackerman and Kruegler, 1994: i).
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
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Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of pragmatic pacifism
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
on the pragmatic pole of the spectrum by examining the theoretical background that
supports pragmatic pacifism (second section), typifying the technique of non-violent
action and the main methods by which it can be applied (third section). The paper will
move on to examine the latest developments and key future challenges of this research
agenda (fourth section).
The Pacifist Spectrum and Conflict Resolution: A Conceptual
Pacifism, as mentioned above in Galtung's suggestions (1959), defines an essential
norm: before interpersonal, inter-community or inter-State antagonisms, adopt non-
violent social behaviour. From this perspective, non-violent social behaviour or non-
violence constitutes the conceptual core of pacifism. But what does non-violence
mean? Although the debate on non-violence produces a multitude of viewpoints, only
some definitions are deployed here in order to reach a conceptual demarcation that
serves the analytical purposes of this article. Gene Sharp, for example, advises against
the use of the term "non-violence" because it is vague, ambiguous and carries a heavy
passivity that does not sit well with the active nature of what he prefers to call non-
violent "action" or "struggle". Accordingly, Sharp offers the following definition:
Non-violent action is a generic term that covers a variety of
methods of protest, non-cooperation and intervention. In all of
these methods, those placing themselves in a position of
resistance leading to conflict, executing or failing to perform
certain acts, using various means except physical violence. (…) In
every form, the technique of non-violent action is passive. An
action that is not violent. (Sharp, 2005: 39, 41)
Kurt Schock provides a definition with similar elements but emphasises the institutional
character of non-violent action, arguing that it operates outside of the official
institutionalised political channels (2003: 6). Other authors like Randle (1994),
Stephan and Chenoweth (2008) and Roberts (2009), follow the same line of thought,
articulating the concept of non-violent action with the concept of civil resistance to
highlight its civilian (and thus non-institutional) nature. From this perspective, non-
violent action is characterised as occuring outside of conventional political organisations
and structures of the State (Randle, 1994: 9-10), as non-military or non-violent in
character and centred on civil society in the coordination and conduct of actions
(Stephan and Chenoweth, 2008: 7, 9; Roberts, 2009: 2). Similarly, Atack (2012: 7-8)
notes that non-violent action acts as a collective political action conducted by ordinary
citizens and organised directly through civil society groups or social movements.
What can be noted, on the basis of the work of these authors, that there is a clear
effort to give conceptual autonomy to non-violence. They seek not only to emphasise
the strategic-pragmatic character of non-violent action, but also unlink its particular
perspectives from spiritual and moral bases of the so-called principled pacifism that
characterises the movements of non-violent Christians and activism of Mahatma Gandhi
and Martin Luther King, which are its most iconic illustrations. There are authors,
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 7, Nº. 1 (May-October 2016), pp. 3-18
Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of pragmatic pacifism
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
however, who question these attempts to establish strict boundaries between non-
violent action and pacifism, claiming that both terms belong to a single continuous
spectrum of positions that range from that based on principles to more pragmatic ones.
From this perspective, pacifism and non-violent action does not differ substantially and
should be seen within the same tradition of thought. Cady (2010: 79-92), for example,
believes that the pragmatic concern of non-violent action is one of the poles of the
pacifist spectrum that offers valuable guidance for pacifist activism when it misses
something: a clear vision of peace. From this point of view, instead of being attached to
the negative pole of this spectrum, where ideological considerations keep pacifist
activism stuck to the mere denial of war, pacifism must approach its positions more
pragmatically and find more positive alternatives to military means and the use of
force. A positive view of pacifism, according to Cady, "has to offer a general ideal to
guide actions and goals and, at the same time, the particular methods through which
ideals can be implemented" (2010: 83). In this way, continues Cady, the wide range of
non-violent methods identified by Gene Sharp all capable of being adopted by civil
society and able to confront local, national and international instances of power can
make the abolition of war, oppression and the social injustices that feed the tradition of
pacifism realistic.
An important consequence of this spectral vision of pacifism, according to Cady, is that
it admits a plurality of positions. Therefore, if one can defend life as a supreme value
and reject violence based on principles of right or wrong, the pacifist spectrum shows
that it is also possible of making choices on a pragmatic basis, taking into account not
what is absolutely right or wrong, but what is better or worse in certain circumstances
(2010: 83-84). Howes presents a similar argument that considers the current success
of the debate about non-violence instead of breaking with pacifism, offering an
important way to revamp pacifism's pragmatic aspects in a way that takes into account
a realistic understanding of the historical record of cases of non-violent action as an
alternative to the use of military force and war (2013: 434-435).
The authors themselves, who prefer the term non-violence to pacifism, recognise some
aspects that converge with the interpretations above. In their study of non-violence,
Hallward and Norman (2015: 5) recognise that people engaging in non-violent action
do not make their choices based exclusively on strategic reasons, but rather through
blending principle and pragmatism, which makes it preferable to avoid reductionisms
and adopt a comprehensive and diversified approach that considers non-violence
within its various forms and contexts. Atack (2012: 8-10), while exploring non-violence
in political theory, points out that the main icons of pacifism in the 20th century,
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King led their non-violent campaigns through
pragmatic choices, even although they were heavily influenced by their spiritual and
ethical traditions. If this overlap is found in pacifist activism, it must also occur among
those trying to defend the autonomy of non-violent action. According to Atack (2012:
159), although Sharp emphasises the pragmatic character of non-violent action,
seeking to keep away from the idealistic charge contained in pacifism, a "residual
pacifism" remains present in his works that sustains a "moral preference” for non-
violent political action. According to Atack, it is difficult to understand the commitment
to non-violence and the centrality of this concern in pragmatic theorists' research
agenda on non-violent action exclusively in terms of power relations, without also
taking into account the underlying moral impetus of non-violence provided by pacifist
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
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Vol. 7, Nº. 1 (May-October 2016), pp. 3-18
Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of pragmatic pacifism
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
idealism. Atack’s observation is important because it indicates that the research agenda
on non-violence does not cease to be anchored in a normative preference derived from
the pacifist tradition.
One can take from this discussion two important indicators for the conceptual
delimitation sought in this section. The first is that, although there is a growing
movement of conceptual independence of non-violence by unlinking it from the
tradition of pacifism. There are also arguments that allow one to keep non-violent
action under the general label of pacifism, accommodating more idealistic perspectives
and more pragmatic ones in a continuum of positions that either approach, move away
or overlap on a single conceptual spectrum. This implies recognising that, although
pragmatic perspectives offer important insights into power relations involved in non-
violent action, it does not cease to be part of a broader context where non-violence can
be interpreted and practised for religious or ethical reasons, and, more importantly, for
reasons that mix all these motivations. This line of argument allows for a more
comprehensive, integrated and subtle shading between pacifism and non-violent action,
which justifies the adoption of the expression "pacifist approaches" as a general label
that integrates all the conceptual spectrum examined here.
The second important point in this discussion concerns the individualising of pacifist
approaches within the field of conflict resolution. In this sense, the central issue is to
understand how pacifist approaches differ from approaches traditionally associated with
the field of conflict resolution. It is not just the character of non-violent pacifist
approaches that matters; although this defining element is essential to differentiate
pacifist approaches and approaches that admit the use of force, it is important to note
that other approaches to conflict resolution also define themselves as non-violent. For
example, the tools of conflict prevention and peacemaking in diplomatic alternatives
that are non-violent in nature can resolve disputes (preventive diplomacy) and
facilitate dialogue before they result in violence. This is done through mediation or
intervention of third parties when conducting negotiations which can lead to peace
agreements. Thus, although non-violence is a defining element of pacifist approaches,
it is not enough for their individualising within the field of conflict resolution as a whole,
as other approaches may also be defined as non-violent. We must therefore search in
the above conceptual discussion for other elements that make it possible to refine this
Two aspects seem to be crucial in this regard. The first is the institutional character of
the pacifist approaches. The tactics of pacifist approaches that demonstrate the
previously examined definitions are born out of civil society and are conducted in the
form of social movements that are outside of conventional policy and institutionalised
channels of the State, distinguishing itself, therefore, from official or diplomatic
procedures of conflict management. The second aspect has to do with the tensions and
confrontations that characterise the "direct action" of pacifist approaches. As argued by
McCarthy and Sharp (2010: 640), more traditional techniques and institutionalised
conflict resolution, such as negotiation, mediation, the intervention of third-parties, as
well as the methods that contribute to the effective functioning of these techniques,
usually avoid confrontation, sanctions, pressures and direct action that characterise the
activism of non-violent action. Although some specific pressures can be applied during
official negoitation processes, traditional methods of conflict resolution, as a general
rule, are oriented to the convergence and production of a peace agreement and not at
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Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of pragmatic pacifism
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
creating tensions, confrontations, demonstrations, blockades, non-cooperation and
resistance that are part of the conflict resolution mechanisms defended by non-violent
One could say, anyway, that the set of elements examined in this section − the activist
commitment to non-violence and the abdication of the use of military force, the
mobilisation of civil society, the non-institutional character, the use of non-conventional
channels of political action and the logic of direct action as a mechanism for pressure
and resistance delimits the conceptual point of view of pacifist approach, giving them
a distinctive character that allows their treatment inside a certain area of other conflict
resolution approaches. When it comes to pacifist approaches to conflict resolution,
however, one does not want to refer to a comprehensive debate on peace, institutional
models and organisations for peacekeeping or structural mechanisms of peace-building
and conflict prevention, but rather the particular type of approach derived from
activism and the tradition thought of pacifism and non-violence.
Conceptual basis of Pragmatic Pacifism: The Theory of Consent
As argued in the previous section, pacifist approaches form a continuous spectrum of
positions that admit not just absolute viewpoints, but also more nuanced, flexible and
merged positions. Thus, while this article is structured around references and central
issues of pragmatic traditions, this does not signify that the means advocated in each
approach should be seen as isolated and independent. In fact, there is a porosity
between principled pacifism and pragmatic pacifism, which means that techniques and
conflict resolution methods are often overlapping or partially complementary. When
discussing pragmatic approaches, the reasons evoked to justify the pacifist norm and
strategies defended for its application alter. To characterise this differentiation,
pragmatic approaches use political arguments and theory of power sources to
understand the logic and effectiveness of non-violence.
Sharp (1973; 2005: 23-35) and other authors such as Boulding (1999), for example,
depart from the fact that the consent of the people conditions the way power operates
in societies. This challenges, according to Atack (2012: 109), the more traditional
perspectives that view the heavy coercive power in the form of military force or
institutionalised violence, and material power in the form of economic wealth or the
accumulation of resources, as the maximum expression and single power that really
matters. Even if one adopts a pluralist perspective, recognising that various forms of
power operate in society, proponents of pragmatic non-violence think that the
relationship of consent constitutes a significant base for popular power that is capable
of challenging all other sources of power, whether they originated in the authority or
legitimacy of the rulers, in human resources at the disposal of governments, in skills
and knowledge, in intangible factors such as beliefs and norms, in material resources or
in the coercive apparatus of the State (Sharp, 2005: 29-30).
In a similar sense, Boulding argued that power is complex and multidimensional, and
may assume at least "three faces". The more conventional face is "threat power", which
is the ability to apply coercion through the imposition of internal mechanisms of the law
or of the military apparatus against external aggressions. The second takes the form of
"economic power"; from this angle, power is a function of the distribution of wealth
between rich and poor and is defined in terms of "production and trade". The third face,
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Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of pragmatic pacifism
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
which Boulding calls "integrative power", is the "power of persuasion, legitimacy,
fairness, community, etc." (1999: 10-11). What seems particularly relevant to
Boulding, converging in some way with Sharp's point of view, is that power cannot be
considered solely based on violence and coercion or economic capabilities, but should
be seen mainly as a function of the ability that people and social groups have to join
and establish mutual ties of loyalty. From this perspective, argues the author, "threat
power and economic power are difficult to exercise if they are not supported by
inrtegrative power, that is if they are not seen as legitimate" (1999: 11). What is
important to understand, therefore, is that these three faces coexist and fall − although
in different proportions within a framework of forces that integrates and affects the
operation of power systems in societies. Within this framework, threat power does not
only depend on the force of the author of the threat, but also on the threatened
subject's response, which can be expressed in several ways: submission, challenge,
counter-threat or through what Boulding calls "disarming behaviour", i.e. the
incorporation of the threat's author within the community of threatened subjects by
undoing the relationship of enmity. This latter type of response is, according to the
author, one of the key elements of the theory of non-violence as it opens an important
avenue for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Economic power also depends on the
interaction between parties, being not only the function of the behaviour of the "seller"
as one can agree or refuse to sell but also the response of the "buyer", who can
also evaluate the benefits of buying or rejecting. Finally, integrative power can sustain
the other forms of power or, in the opposite direction (and therein lies another crucial
aspect to the theory of non-violence), cause the power system to break down by
denying it loyalty, questioning its legitimacy or retracting support and cooperation
(1999: 10-12).
What is crucial for these authors constituting the basic political assumption of their
perspectives on the peaceful resolution of conflicts, is the notion that the flow of
soruces of power can be restricted or blocked by the population (without needing to
resort to violence) by denying opponents consent or cooperation. If oppressed groups
repudiate the authority of the opponent, removing its support, refusing to cooperate
and persisting in disobedience, it would represent a great challenge and a major blow
to any authoritarian and oppressive social group or hierarchical system that depends on
support, acceptance or the subjection of subordinate groups to survive (Sharp, 2005:
29, 40; Boulding, 1999: 11). In addition, it is important to note that this type of non-
violent action tends to discourage violent reactions, causing the opponent to think twice
about the consequences of repression that would use disproportionate coercion,
especially the use of physical force. Stephan and Chenoweth (2008: 11-12) note that
some dynamics favour this action's strategic logic. First, the repression of non-violent
movements through the use of force usually backfires because it leads to a loss of
popular support, as well as internal and external condemnation of those who resort to
violence. This repression leads to changes in power relations as it increases domestic
support and solidarity for the cause of the non-violent actors, creates dissent against
violent opponents and increases external support for non-violent actors. Violent
repression of non-violent groups demonstrates that physical force is not always the
most efficient weapon for powerful groups. Stephan and Chenoweth (2008: 12)
observe a second dynamic resulting from non-violent action: the opening of channels of
negotiation. Although the pressures imposed by non-violent activism challenge
opponents and question their source of power, the possible negative impact of a violent
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Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of pragmatic pacifism
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
reaction against civilians when publicly taking on a non-violent behaviour can
discourage the use of force and show the opponent that negotiation offers the best
alternative when seeking solutions to a conflict.
There is, in short, a pragmatic logic of peaceful conflict resolution that depends more
on strategic interactions between social groups that coexist within a given power
system than the principles that underlie its religious and moral beliefs. The key point
for the pragmatic aspect of pacifist approaches, therefore, is the idea that the practice
of non-violent action is possible and can be successful in resolving conflict between
oppressors and the oppressed, not because their religious and ethical foundations are
legitimised, but because the "operationalisation of this technique is compatible with the
nature of political power and the vulnerability of all hierarchical systems" that depend
ultimately on the consent and collaboration "of the people, groups and institutions
subordinate to the supply of the necessary sources of power" (Sharp, 2005: 23). This
means, in other words, that the effectiveness of non-violent action is the result of a
relatively simple strategic logic: deny or block without the use of physical violence
the necessary sources of an opponent's power in order to strengthen one’s own position
of power through peaceful groups of resistance.
Techniques and Methods of Pragmatic Approaches
Sharp classifies non-violent action as a technique that can be applied through a set of
methods of protest, non-cooperation and intervention (2005: 49). Based on the
comprehensive historical analysis, the author notes that this technique is not limited to
internal conflicts and democratic contexts, and that its effectiveness does not depend
on the "kindness" or "moderation" of opponents, which have already been widely used
against powerful governments, despotic regimes, foreign occupations, empires,
dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. Among the cases highlighted by Sharp are the
Chinese boycott of Japanese goods in 1908, 1915 and 1919; non-violent German
resistance against the French occupation of the Ruhr region and Belgium in 1923; non-
violent resistance of the Indians under the leadership of Gandhi against the British
Empire during the 1920s and 1930s; non-violent resistance against Nazi occupation
between 1940 and 1945 in countries such as Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands;
the overthrow of dictatorial regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1944 through a
brief non-violent campaign; non-violent campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s in the
United States against racial segregation; the non-violent struggle and the refusal to
cooperate with the Soviets in Czechoslovakia for eight months between 1968 and 1969
shortly after the invasion following the Warsaw Pact; the non-violent struggles for
freedom between 1953 and 1991 led by dissidents in communist countries, such as
East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; the Solidarity trade
union strikes initiated in 1980 in Poland which resulted in the end of the Polish
communist regime in 1989; non-violent protests and mass resistance movements
between 1950 and 1990 that contributed to weaken the regime of apartheid in South
Africa; the non-violent uprising of 1986 that overthrew the dictatorship of Ferdinand
Marcos in the Philippines; the non-violent struggles that led to the end of the
communist dictatorships in Europe from 1989; symbolic student protests against
corruption and oppression of the Chinese government in 1989 in hundreds of cities
around the country (including Tiananmen Square in Beijing); several non-violent
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Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of pragmatic pacifism
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
campaigns and refusal to cooperate in the context of the wars in the Balkans
throughout the 1990 (Sharp 2005, pp. 16-18). These cases clearly do not exhaust the
examples of non-violent action of the last century and, as Sharp emphasises, still occur
today. Enormous popular mobilisations, the discipline of non-violence, fearlessness and
velocity of events of 2011 that put an end to the lengthy dictatorships in Tunisia and
Egypt in what became known as the "Arab Spring", give a clear demonstration of the
currentness of the theme, contributing to a renewed academic interest in the study of
the techniques of non-violent action (Sharp, 2014).
Nevertheless, the techniques of non-violentaction, as Sharp stipulates, should not be
seen as "magic" (2005: 43). It depends on well-defined objectives and a well-
delineated strategy for their results to be effective. Sharp argues that, although some
non-violent mobilisations start spontaneously and are often conducted without a great
idenifiable leader, this does not mean that the actions do not require discipline and that
groups, even without outstanding individual leaders, do not require any organisation.
Good strategic planning can be decisive for the success of non-violent action.
Reproducing the military lexicon, Sharp sees four levels in the planning of actions: the
"grand strategy", which serves to coordinate and direct all resources towards achieving
the broader goals of the non-violent action; the "strategy", which applies to more
limited phases and the definition of specific objectives; "tactics", which refers to the
conduct of actions and involves the choice of the most appropriate methods for the
confrontation of opponents; and the "methods" itself, which refer to the procedures and
specific forms of non-violent action. Sharp also emphasises the importance of logistical
work aimed at supporting the conduct of non-violent action in terms of financial
arrangements, transport, communications and supplies. According to the author, this
set of concerns allows one to focus and direct actions towards desired goals, exploit
and exacerbate the weaknesses of the opponent, strengthen practitioners of non-
violent action, reduce victims and other costs and make the sacrifices involved in non-
violent action serve the main objectives of the action (Sharp, 2005: 444-446). In other
terms, strategic planning should be able to strengthen the weakest social groups,
weakening the oppressor and, with this, build power relations that lead to a more
balanced resolution to the conflict.
In order to achieve the best results in the application of the techniques of non-violent
action, Sharp believes that the choice of methods should not be made a priori, but
rather in the last stage of planning. For the author, each particular strategy requires
specific methods that should be chosen and applied in a skillful manner and contribute
to achieving the objectives set. Sharp identifies at least 198 specific methods that suit
the techniques of non-violent action (2005: 51-64) that shall not be exhausted here.
These methods are grouped by author in three main classes: protest and non-violent
persuasion; non-cooperation; and non-violent intervention (see examples in table 1).
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Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of pragmatic pacifism
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
Table 1: Examples of methods used in the technique of non-violent action
- Signed manifestos
- Petitions
- Slogans, cartoons,
- Banners, posters
- Brochures, pamphlets,
- radio, television
- Delegations
- Pressure groups
- Picketing
- Act of undressing in public
- Protest art
- Protest songs
- Offensive gestures
- Haunting or ridiculing
important people
- Vigils
- Satirical and theatrical
- Marches and rallies
- Political fight
- Mock funerals
- Withdraw from events in
- Renouncing of titles and
- Student strike
- Civil disobedience
- Search for asylum
- Collective emigration
- Consumer boycott
- Non-payment of rent
- Refusal to rent
- International boycott
- Workers’ strike
- General strike
- Inaffective work4
- Withdrawal of bank deposits
- Refusal to pay fees and taxes
- Refusal to pay debts and
- International trade embargo
Boycott elections
Boycott government jobs
- Refusal to cooperate with
agents of repression
- Non-compliance of military
- uprisings
- Non-compliance with
- Fasting
- Hunger strike
- Occupation of public places
- Occupation of means of
- Non-violent intervention
- Non-violent obstruction
- Oral intervention at events
Guerrilla theatre
- Creation of alternative social
- Creation of alternative
communication system
- Reverse strike (excess
- Occupation of land
- Defiance of blockades
- Creation of alternative
- Creation of alternative
- overloading of administrative
- Disclosure of identities of
undercover agents
- Seek imprisionment
- Dual sovereignty and parallel
Source: Sharp (2005: 51-64)
On the basis of this synthesis of the strategic-pragmatic perspective of Sharp, it is
noted that the methods of non-violent action do not differ substantially from the
methods employed in Christian resistance movements and pacifist campaigns led by
Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Although the effort of systematisation of Sharp should
be considered relevant, it is not the methods themselves that distinguish their
pragmatic approach but the concern with the strategic issues and the untraveling of
non-violent action of the spiritual and moral bases that are heavily present in principled
pacifism. Thus, if Gandhi and Martin Luther King remain the classical references and
inspiration when one thinks of pacifist approaches to conflict resolution, it is important
to note that the pragmatic concerns of Sharp and the growing efforts to give the non-
violent action greater effectiveness through the study of its strategic principles are the
aspects that have influenced more the current wave of interest in non-violence and
presented the greatest challenges for the future development of this research agenda.
4 Type of strike where the employees work slowly.
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Present State, Theoretical Challenges and Pathways to Future
Within the pragmatic tradition, it is important to note that the work inaugurated by
Sharp has been developed by a new generation of academics committed to the revival
of the study of non-violent action from a more empirical and objective point of view. As
Nepstad argues in the preface to his Non-violent Struggle: Theories, Strategies and
Dynamics (2015), the style of strategic analysis of Sharp and the first generation of
pragmatic non-violence scholars that followed was limited to documenting and
describing successful historical cases of non-violent movements and typify the
technique and methods of non-violent action. This work takes on, according to Nepstad,
a certain proselytising bias that seeks to convince readers that non-violence works
strategically in various historical cases without, however, worrying about the
documentation of unsuccessful cases or theories of non-violence. The author observes,
however, that developing comparative analyses, including successful and unsuccessful
cases, has begun in the last three decades, which has allowed the critical factors
involved in the results achieved by non-violent action to be identified.
In fact, a new generation of researchers has proposed the use of quantitative
techniques combined with case studies in the study of non-violence, which tries to
overcome not only the criticism usually directed to the idealism of the tradition based
on principles and its inability to significantly influence political science, but also the
proselytising character identified by Nepstad in the first generation of studies of non-
violent action. In this context, Sharp has realised the limitations of pragmatic pacifism
and called attention to the biggest challenges, which are to advance the empirical
studies, analyses, planning and practice of techniques of non-violent action in extreme
conditions. These conditions include severe inter-ethnic conflicts where it is difficult to
find compromises between rival groups, in regimes established by coups d' état, in
resistance to external aggression and prevention or resistance to genocide attempts
(Sharp, 2014). Although Sharp finds several historical examples of non-violent action in
situations like these, he believes that the successes were partial and often did not
reach their more comprehensive goals, due to a lack of strategic planning and
understanding of the power relations involved in the situation. Thus, the author
considers the need for further empirical study on what are the most effective non-
violent action in these situations to be crucial. Sharp does not always consider the
application of the technique of non-violent action to be appropriate against acts of
extreme repression. For the author, this technique should not be axiomatically assumed
to be superior in all situations and the feasibility of its implementation must be
strategically evaluated on a case-by-case basis, compared with the appropriateness of
the use of force and the potential problems raised by resistance through violent means.
Hence the final challenge presented by Sharp (2014): expand academic investigation
and strategic analysis of non-violent action in order to examine and refine the
applicability of these techniques in the conflicts generated by coups, civil defence in
place of military means (within what has been called the civilian-based defence) and on
other matters of national security.
With these concerns in mind, the pragmatic tradition has driven the study of pacifist
approaches in the direction of a more consistent empirical re-assessment on the
JANUS.NET, e-journal of International Relations
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 7, Nº. 1 (May-October 2016), pp. 3-18
Pacifist approaches to conflict resolution: an overview of pragmatic pacifism
Gilberto Carvalho de Oliveira
theories of non-violence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, as well as on new
understandings about how power and civil society mobilisation can be converted into a
tool of social and political change. This effort, as Howes highlights, provides "a new
basis and a robust set of reasons for pacifism" that complements and goes beyond its
traditional normative basis (2013: 438). To explore the explanatory dimension of non-
violence, the pragmatic tradition brings expectations of pacifist morality, which are
sometimes exaggerated, to a more realistic and compatible level that considers its
possibilities and limitations. In addition, this new generation contributes to the
construction and testing of theories of non-violent action from a more consistent
empirical basis (Nepstad, 2015: preface). These concerns have become increasingly
visible in the work of several authors, who have been fuelling the current research
agenda on non-violence.
Among these authors, Ackerman and Kruegler (1994) are highlighted for their dialogue
with the work of Sharp and trying to refine and test the hypothesis that adherence to a
few key strategic principles (for example, the definition of clear objectives, the
expansion of the repertoire of non-violent sanctions, the consolidation of the strategic
control of actions, the maintenance of non-violent discipline and exploitation of the
vulnerabilities of an opponent's power) strengthens the performance and impact of
resistance groups, whatever the social and political context of the action (1994: 318).
This type of comparative work on non-violent action in different contexts can also be
observed in the work of other authors. Nepstad (2011, 2013), for example, compares
several successful and unsuccessful cases of non-violent action, aiming to demonstrate
not only the impact of strategic variables on the achieved results, but also the influence
of structural variables beyond the direct control of the groups involved in non-violent
action, like the autonomy or the economic dependence of opponent regimes, the
degree of partisan institutionalisation and cohesion of elite rulers, alliances and
connections of the international system, the level of benefits received by the military
and security forces or perception that soldiers have about the strength or weakness of
their regime. In his research, the author shows that although the choice of strategic
non-violent action has a major impact on results, structural conditions also matter as
they demonstrate, for example, the greater or lesser vulnerability of opponents to the
blockades, embargoes and international sanctions, internal divisions or fidelity or
mutiny of the military class (2011: 6-9; 2013). Following the same line of comparative
analysis, Schock (2005) examines successful and unsuccessful cases of non-violent
action in the production of political transformations in non-democratic countries. With
this work, the author seeks to empirically support the argument that the characteristics
of peaceful movements cannot be isolated from characteristics of political contexts,
because the strategic choices and the contextual conditions interact to shape the
The joint work of Stephan and Chenoweth (2008, 2011) also fits in this area of
comparative analyses of non-violent demonstrations and seeks to identify their
successes and failures. They propose a comparison between the effectiveness of the
strategic use of violence and non-violent action in conflicts between State and non-
State actors, which is perhaps where their most original work resides. Through
systematic analysis of a database of more than 300 conflicts between 1900 and 2006
where violent and non-violent resistance were observed, the authors seek to not only
identify the causal mechanisms that lead to the achieved results, but also compare