3rd Module - Power and Consent

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The theory of power that most nonviolent groups refer to can be attributed to the nonviolence theorist, Gene Sharp. Sharp has developed a theory of power that can serve as a framework for understanding how nonviolence works. Essentially, it states that the members of a society can be divided into rulers and subjects. The rulers’ power is dependent on the goodwill, decisions and support of the subjects – thus political power is pluralistic and fragile. Withdrawal of consent by the subjects is a way to challenge political power and let hidden, structural conflicts surface.


  • Sharp, Gene, The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Power and Struggle (Vol. 1), Boston: Porter Sargent, 2000 (1973).


Here Gene Sharp provides a very clear, straight-to-the-point illustration of his theory of power. The content included here is perfect for use in a workshop format.

In this essay Sharp thinks carefully about “the most effective ways in which dictatorships could be successfully disintegrated with the least possible cost in suffering and lives”. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 are particularly relevant for illustrating Sharp’s theory of power.

Activities you can use when working on this section include:

  • Countering Obedience. Groups of three are asked to work on Sharp’s motivations for people to obey rulers. Their task is to brainstorm and identify ways to counter motivations for obedience. The activity is quite easy to organise and facilitate, but it can provide useful insights and stimulate an in-depth discussion. It should be used with care when participants are asked to focus on their specific situation/government.
  • Pillars of Oppression. A popular activity among nonviolent groups throughout the world. It is designed to illustrate Sharp’s theory of power, by specifically focusing on the power-consent relationship. Participants are asked to think about which forms of nonviolent struggle can deprive “the ruler” of specific sources of power. It involves some physical activity and can be energising for participants.
  • Countering Sources of Power. This activity is more appropriate when working with participants from the same country/context. Participants are requested to investigate and discuss political power and its sources in their specific situation. Be aware that the emerging issues might be disturbing for some participants, and that conflicting views may arise. Centring the discussion on the participants’ situation can generate a lot of energy for the workshop and encourage true disclosure.
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