This dissertation project seeks to explain why some revolutionary movements engage in a strategy of armed insurgency while others embrace nonviolent resistance as an alternative path to political change. The existing academic literature treats civil war and civil resistance as separate and unrelated phenomena. But real world events—from the end of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe to the Arab Spring—expose the limits of this fragmented approach. They reveal that violence and nonviolence are related, alternative strategies that movements can utilize to challenge a regime. The high cost of violent insurgencies to global and human security makes understanding why movements choose this strategy over the nonviolent alternative necessary and urgent.
To fill this need, my research develops a theory of revolutionary behavior based on the composition and breadth of a movement’s network of supporters. I show that the greater the degree to which members of the revolutionary movement share familial, tribal, ethnic, religious, or class ties with members of the regime and the broader population, the greater the likelihood that the movement will be able to embrace and maintain a strategy of nonviolent civil resistance. I identify mechanisms related to the tactical advantages of popular support and the effects of regime repression through which the extent of “social overlap” between revolutionaries, regime, and the rest of society mediates a movement’s strategic path. The project employs a quantitative analysis of state-level data on strategies used by revolutionary movements as well as an in-depth case study of movements in Nepal that have alternated between violent and nonviolent strategies over the past 25 years.