For a Relational Approach to Contentious Strategies, or “It Takes Two to Tango”

By Jeff Goodwin

Political violence and terrorism (violence against noncombatants) have received considerable attention from scholars of social movements and contentious politics since the events of 9/11. Several important books and dozens of articles have been published by such scholars on these topics. I recently had the privilege of editing a special issue of the journal Mobilization (March 2012) on political violence, and the recent essay dialogue on terrorism at the Mobilizing Ideas website continues this important conversation.

At the same time, we should not forget, scholars have also devoted growing attention to nonviolent civil resistance, exemplified by recent studies by Sharon Erickson Nepstad (2011) and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (2011). In fact, strategies and tactics of various types have received renewed attention from scholars of contentious politics in recent years in an effort to understand better their causes and efficacy (e.g., Jasper 2004, Amenta 2006, Ganz 2009, Maney et al. 2012). The recent scholarship on violent and nonviolent strategies promises to enrich this more general discussion of strategy (although strategies may of course be differentiated on many other analytic dimensions).

The recent turn toward strategy among movement scholars has resulted in considerable illumination. The study of terrorism, for example, has for too long been overly influenced by “security”-oriented scholars, mindful of the needs of (if not actively involved in) counterterrorism. And much of the literature on civil resistance has been written by good-hearted proselytizers with strong normative commitments. Some fine scholarship has certainly come out of each camp, but movement scholars have undoubtedly brought to these fields sharper analytic and methodological skills as well as a greater range of substantive concerns. Especially helpful, in my view, has been the work of scholars—following in the footsteps of McAdam, Tilly, and Tarrow (2001)—who have sought both the roots and efficacy of strategies in the interactions and interdependencies of connected collective actors. According to these scholars, the nature of these dynamic interactions is the key to understanding why one or more set of actors might choose violence or terror as a strategy of contention with another actor.

Alas, far too many scholars still do not take these fields of interaction as their unit of analysis. Rather, their work employs a single-actor perspective, typically a movement-centric approach that takes movements or social movement organizations (SMOs) as the unit of analysis. From this perspective, the key to strategic choice is allegedly found in the properties of movements or SMOs—usually their goals, grievances, ideologies, “extremism” (or lack thereof), size and resources, etc. But as Doug McAdam (1999, xiv) reminds us,

If it takes two to tango it takes at least two to “contend.” That is, contentious politics always involves the mobilization of at least two groups of actors. We should be equally concerned with the processes and settings within which both sets of actors mobilize and especially interested in the unfolding patters of interaction between the various parties to contention.

The relational or interactionist perspective that McAdam advocates here emphasizes that the strategies of collective political actors—as well as their goals, grievances, ideologies, etc.—do not arise solely from these actors’ internal conversations, but are powerfully shaped by their manifold and shifting interactions with authorities, opponents, allies, and publics.

In fact, a fundamental problem with movement-centric scholarship, including movement-centric studies of both violent and nonviolent contention, is that it tends to push the opponents (and targets) of social movements—typically states and elites—into the background. States and elites thus become part of the context or “political opportunity structure” in which strategic choices are made by movements. This is odd if only because states and elites are typically the most powerful actors and the main perpetrators of violence in any given conflict. Treating states and elites as the context for the movement strategies is like treating fish as the context for water. In fact, movement strategies are typically a response to state violence or elite oppression; this is as true of nonviolent strategies as of violent ones. At the very least, movement strategies are temporally entangled in complex ways with the strategies of states and elites.

In sum, one cannot understand movement strategies apart from the strategies of states, elites, and other collective actors. So gathering data on movements or SMOs alone will not get us very far. Alas, this still seems to be the analytic strategy of a number of scholars, including the researchers behind the Global Terrorism Database, as described by Erin Miller and Gary LaFree. As strategic choices go, it leaves something to be desired.


Amenta, Edwin. 2006. When Movements Matter: The Townsend Plan and the Rise of Social Security. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J. Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ganz, Marshall. 2009. Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jasper, James M. 2004. “A Strategic Approach to Collective Action: Looking for Agency in Social-Movement Choices.” Mobilization 9:1-16.

Nepstad, Sharon Erickson. 2011. Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Maney, Gregory M., Rachel V. Kutz-Flamenbaum, Deana A. Rohlinger, and Jeff Goodwin, editors. 2012. Strategies for Social Change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McAdam, Doug. 1999. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. Second edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McAdam, Doug, Charles Tilly, and Sidney Tarrow. 2001. Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Is Terrorism a Form of Activism?

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