Gene Sharp, three time nominee for the Nobel Peace Price, is known for his writings on non-violent action and is widely seen as the one to have created a consistent theory around it. His writings have inspired many advocacy and grass-roots groups, recently he has become popular across the Middle East: Egypt, Tunisia and even Iran.
Certainly not that common for an academic to have that kind of impact on the world, so lets look at his theory starting with some basics.
What is the Structure-Agency Debate?
Basically it is about where we think power lies in society and where change originates. The term sounds rather abstract, but really this debate is fundamental to how we think about change and worth engaging with. Whenever we take part in political debates we usually make assumptions about it.
Many people use overarching phenomena like, states, structures in world politics (anarchy), capitalism, patriarchy etc. to explain why things happen, why certain thing change or remain stable. These “structures” consist of patterns of behavior which are practiced all the time and are thus believed to have a power of their own. Karl Marx was a big structuralist, because he thought that the economic system determines the way society works, not a single individual. Kenneth Waltz is a structuralist because he believes the international system is the most important factor determining how states behave, not the individual states themselves. Anyway, you get the point (if not leave a comment).
Others thing that really doesn’t allow enough room for movement because if we all hang in these systems like puppets, how does anything ever change, and besides who would like to think of themselves as a puppet? Most of them (all I’ve ever heard of) believe that the individual (the agent) has some measure of impact.
Gene Sharps Contribution
Sharp came up with a powerful theory about why agency mattered, specifically in the context of non-violent grass-roots action. He argues societies are divided in rulers and subjects, rulers have power only as a result of the subjects’ consent. Non-violent action is a way of withdrawing consent and leads to ruler’s power collapsing. Simple enough.
He does argue that power is pluralistic, it is placed in many “loci of power” across society, meaning, big businesses, civil society groups etc. also have power and counteract the ruler.
Because consent is so important for rule Sharp also thinks about why people consent to be ruled. He suggests out of habit, fear of sanctions, moral obligation, self-interest, psychological identification with the ruler, indifference, absence of self-confidence etc. Some of these factors are linked to structures. For example, it has been argued that socialist dictatorships in Eastern Europe used to systematically dis-empower their people to the degree that they did not have the self-confidence etc. to confront injustices (check out The Authoritarian Personality). Equally if a ruler sets up a system in which it is in peoples’ economic interest to obey, that also is a way to bringing structure back in. In a way structure is a different kind of consent, or means of generating or securing consent.
At any rate Sharps theory may be simplistic, but the overall message is that individuals matter and can effect change. Not by sitting around and disagreeing with politicians, like doubtless most of us do, but by taking action (non-violently) against these “rulers” of ours.
Let me know how it works out for you guys!
Martin, B. (1989). Gene Sharp’s Theory of Power. Journal of Peace Research, 26(2), 213-222.
Sharp, G. (1973). The Politics of Non-viloent Action. Boston: Porter Sargent.
Sharp, G. (1980). Social Power and Political Freedom. Boston: Porter Sargent.
Adorno, T., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levison, D., & Sanford, N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row.