Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Distinguished Professor, Department of Sociology, The University of New Mexico
Sharon Erickson Nepstad is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico, where she has also served as Director of Religious Studies. Professor Nepstad’s research interests include religion, social movements, political sociology, and Nonviolence/Civil Resistance Studies/Peace Studies.
She is the author of the following books:
- Catholic Social Activism Progressive Movements in the United States
- Nonviolent Struggle: Theories, Strategies, and Dynamics
- Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late Twentieth Century
- Religion and War Resistance in the Plowshares Movement
- Convictions of the Soul: Religion, Culture and Agency in the Central America Solidarity Movement
What business leaders can learn from nonviolent resistance (and sociology), Season 6, Episode 4
Professor Sharon Nepstad’s research covers topics including social movements, and nonviolence and civil resistance studies. She notes that business leaders play important activist roles in communicating societal values and promoting change in areas such as gun control, immigration, and climate actions. She discusses the concept of leadership capital and its impact on leading change in business and society. Business leaders often have resources for social change that grass roots activists lack.
Listen to more: Activate World
What business leaders can learn from nonviolent resistance (and sociology)
Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Distinguished Professor, Department of Sociology, The University of New Mexico
Jon Mertz: 00:02 Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought.
Jon Mertz: 00:20 Today, we’re joined by Dr. Sharon Erickson Nepstad, a distinguished professor and the chair of the Sociology Department at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Nepstad, your research and books cover a wide range of topics including religion, social movements, political sociology, and nonviolence and civil resistance studies. We’re looking forward to talking with you about social movements and what business leaders can learn from sociology. So, welcome to Activate World, Dr. Nepstad.
Sharon Nepstad: 00:46 Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here today.
Jon Mertz: 00:49 Tell us about your background and what led to your interest in social movements.
Sharon Nepstad: 00:53 I first became interested in this topic when I was a freshman in college, and I took a course to fulfill a philosophy requirement on the ethics of war and peace. And I was 18 at the time. And I, for the first time in my life, saw footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after we had dropped nuclear weapons on those cities. And I was profoundly affected by that. I’d never seen footage of it. I just heard the accounts and its importance in our historical victory in World War II. But to me, seeing the human suffering, seeing the long-term consequences, seeing the destructive capacity of those weapons, I left that class thinking this can’t be an acceptable way to deal with international conflicts. This cannot be a solution. We have to find other ways. And I didn’t have a lot of answers to what those alternatives would be, but it started me on a process. If we’re not going to use nuclear weapons or for that matter any kind of destructive weapons as a way to solve conflicts, what are the alternatives?
Sharon Nepstad: 01:55 Not really knowing where to start, I began with Gandhi because he was the only one I really knew about and Martin Luther King Jr., and began just reading their ideas about nonviolence and how they developed the strategy as an alternative to violent resolution of conflict. And the more I read, the more intrigued I became. And if you read Gandhi and you read King, then you also end up reading Henry David Thoreau and you read Tolstoy and you read a whole variety of thinkers. And it was very compelling to me. It seemed like they had discovered a way to fight injustice, but to do it without resorting to violence. But it was also the mid-1980s, when the world was filled with all sorts of wars. We had a war going on in Central America that we were involved in through low intensity conflict of measures.
Sharon Nepstad: 02:45 There were wars going on for liberation. And of course, there was the Cold War. And I was really struggling with how would this work in contemporary situations? And then in February of 1986, we saw the Philippine people power revolution happening in which the Philippine people rose up against a dictator who had been in power for 20 years, who seemed to be ruthless, had no qualms about using torture, had a terrible human rights record. And this was the kind of person that did not seem like a likely target for nonviolent action, but they had been mobilizing, they had been training people. And when he stole a presidential election, they were ready and they launched a civil resistance campaign that within four days had won over the military, had basically brought the city of Manila to a standstill. And
Ferdinand Marcos really realized that there were no forms of power left to him, and he fled the country.
Sharon Nepstad: 03:37 And I went to graduate school just as then the Soviet Union was collapsing and people said, “Oh, don’t go into this field. Peace studies is going to die. The Soviet Union’s collapsing, the Cold War is over.” And I found that a little bit unusual because those weren’t the only conflicts in the world. There were conflicts all over. If you look North, South enough, just East, West, it was clear that a conflict was still with us and that this is a part of human existence. We’ll never be in a situation where there aren’t conflicts. So, we need to find ways to deal with those conflicts constructively rather than destructively. So, that was the start of my academic interest and it’s what I’ve been studying for the last 25 years or so.
Jon Mertz: 04:19 So throughout all your research on nonviolent techniques, what sticks out to you the most? And especially when it comes to your book, Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century?
Sharon Nepstad: 04:29 There are several things that I think are important points that come up over and over again. One is just our basic conception of political power. So that book that I wrote was largely drawing off the theories of Gene Sharp, and Gene Sharp built his ideas off of Gandhi’s movement for independence in India. Gene Sharp tries to get us to think differently instead of viewing power as residing in the elites and that we’re dependent on those elites to look out for our interests. He says it’s the exact opposite. These leaders depend on us and citizens have a variety of different kinds of power that they can choose to either give in support of a system or to withhold. So, Sharp says all of us have the capacity and the power to decide if we’re going to cooperate with laws. If we don’t believe they’re just, we can choose to not cooperate with them.
Sharon Nepstad: 05:20 We have the power to decide what we’re going to do with our material resources. Are we going to spend our money to purchase goods from a company that has policies that we don’t agree in? As was the case in the Montgomery bus boycott. And one of the great things that the study of nonviolence has done is revealed that there’s actually a really rich history of civil resistance that most people are not aware of. And I think this is because most history books are essentially chronicling one war after another, one violent conflict after another. And so, we don’t actually tell these stories and pass them down. And therefore, it’s not that well known. But there are lots of stories of people even in the midst of highly repressive violent circumstances taking their power as citizens and using it in a way that resists. So, let me just give you a few examples.
Sharon Nepstad: 06:14 One of my favorite stories is actually of citizens in Prague who tried to figure out what they could do when they suddenly found themselves under Soviet occupation. It happened quickly. They didn’t have time to prepare. They were under Soviet occupation. From a realistic assessment, there was no way they could defeat the Soviet troops that were there. But they said we can make it as difficult as possible for them to control our city. So on the first night of occupation, a bunch of activists said what we’re going to do is go out into the city and we’re going to change all the streets signs. So if you lived in the city, you knew your way around from landmarks, but they changed the name of the street to something completely different so that the Soviet troops could not figure out how to get around the city.
Sharon Nepstad: 06:58 Their maps didn’t correspond with the street signs and it took them, for example, several days to turn on the electricity. The electric company turned off the power and they couldn’t even find their way to the power companies to reactivate the power lines. So, that’s an example of someone saying maybe I can’t defeat the occupying troops here, but we can make it difficult for them. One of the things that I think I have learned from studying nonviolent movements throughout history is that people are creative in figuring out what power they have and how they can use it either to support something they believe in or to refuse to cooperate with some system or set of practices that they find oppressive.
Sharon Nepstad: 07:38 And I think the last point that I would underscore is that there’s so many misconceptions about nonviolence. I teach courses at on nonviolence. And often students will say things like it’s a nice idea, but I just don’t think it’s very effective or it takes too long. It could never be used except for in a democracy. It couldn’t be used against the dictatorship. And in fact, when we look at the empirical evidence, those things just are not true.
Sharon Nepstad: 08:04 So for example, people tend to think that nonviolence is not effective compared to violence. But a number of years ago, two political scientists put out a book called the Strategy of Civil Resistance. And Erica Chenowith and Maria Stephan collected data on violent and nonviolent campaigns starting in 1900, all the way up into the beginning of the 21st century. And they compared them to say, well, let’s take a look at their records, which category of struggles seems to be more effective. And in their database, they found that about 52% of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded in attaining their goals, but only about 26% of the violent campaigns did. So from that historical perspective, this idea that violence is more effective just isn’t accurate.
Jon Mertz: 08:52 It seems like there’s an interesting combination of and courage that is necessary for nonviolent action to work.
Sharon Nepstad: 08:59 Absolutely. Yeah. And I think that’s one of the other misconceptions that people assume that nonviolence is about passivity, and maybe this comes from people’s misunderstanding of the term pacifism. Nonviolent action is a set of techniques and tools. It’s not the same as pacifism. In fact, most people who use nonviolence are not pacifists. With passivism being the moral belief that the use of violence is wrong. There are lots of people who would not consider themselves pacifist, but they say these techniques, these strategies seem to be effective, and so we will use them in this set of circumstances. But that notion, that misconception that it’s about passivity, it’s not only inaccurate, but I think it leads to this belief that it’s kind of a cowardly way to deal with conflict. Nothing could be further from the truth, that it takes a great deal of courage to stand up against injustice in a way that’s unarmed.
Jon Mertz: 09:55 This is all making me think of Venezuela, where we’re seeing protests and certain nonviolent actions being taken by citizens. How do you see that change unfolding? Are there things that you’re seeing that are working or things that you wish they would do differently?
Sharon Nepstad: 10:08 Interestingly enough, these kinds of nonviolent techniques have been used more often in authoritarian settings. We also see them in democracies. Of course, the United farm workers under the leadership of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King’s use of nonviolence for civil rights. But we see it being used very often in authoritarian settings precisely for the reason that people don’t have institutional forms of power to use to bring about political change. So if you’re in a dictatorship, while voting may not be free and fair or the people who are holding that office are not looking out for the interests of their citizen population. And so, if you can’t bring about change within institutional forms of democratic processes, then people resort to nonviolence, which is a way of bringing about pressure on leaders, withholding the power, cutting it out from underneath them.
Sharon Nepstad: 10:59 I think in Venezuela, one of the things that we can learn from past research is that the role of the military matters a great deal. So we know for example, that if the military and the security forces uphold the state, keep in place the president. It’s very difficult, not impossible, but it’s much more difficult for a movement to actually succeed. In places like Tunisia, once the military sides with the movement or even in Egypt, which of course was the democratic revolution that failed to really consolidate democracy. But the change, the ability to get leaders out of office, incumbent leaders, dictators removed, is when the security forces withdraw and say we’re not going to crack down on the population. We’re not going to follow orders to arrest protestors or to support the president. And that hasn’t happened in Venezuela.
Sharon Nepstad: 11:50 We see most of the security forces still remaining loyal to the state, although there’s plenty of evidence that there are divisions among military leaders and military troops. It’s very complex. We’re still starting to try to understand the international communities as well. So, lots of factors involved. Not an easy solution. And certainly Venezuela has a lot of courageous people, but there are other factors, including global dynamics that are at play there too.
Jon Mertz: 12:20 To shift gears a bit, what can businesses learn from social movements and social activism, or what can CEOs learn from non-violent change? I know in some of your writings you’ve talked about how conditions and strategy matter and how people revolt, not structures.
Sharon Nepstad: 12:34 There is a debate within the field about what matters more. Is it more important to have the right political conditions in place or can the actions of people actually bring about favorable circumstances that can lead to change? I think many of us say both of those things matter, right? It’s not just having the right circumstances, because those circumstances alone cannot lead to action. But there’s something valuable in activists or in CEO saying, “Let’s take a look at the broader political conditions to figure out what the best timing is for us to take a stand on it.” And I think part of the reason you see people taking a stand now is that this is, of course, part of our national conversation that’s going on. We see it being debated at the presidential nominee debates. And people are concerned about gun control. Now of course, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is just,” but you’re more likely to actually be able to achieve your goals or to impact a broader population if you time it when conditions are favorable.
Jon Mertz: 13:37 So, with the activism around gun control, it seems to have started with the Parkland students and polls show citizens support for changes in how guns are purchased. When the CEOs jumped in, maybe it wasn’t so much about moral courage, but more about adding an emphasis to ensure that the change happens.
Sharon Nepstad: 13:54 I think our notion of social movements has really expanded. I think a lot of people have this visualization of the 1960s movements, but today you can see that a lot of people are thinking about social change beyond just those types of sixties movements. There’s a lot of consumer interest in buying products that reflect the policies that people want to promote. So, a lot of people are willing to pay more for fair trade coffee. A lot of people are willing to pay more for products that are not genetically modified. I think you could say that people are understanding social action to not just be about going into the streets and protesting, but really even the way we live and the way we spend our money and the kinds of companies we support. So again, in terms of favorable conditions, this is a time when I think business leaders really do have some capacity to promote issues that are meaningful to the population. And I think they’ll see that there are a lot of people who are willing to stand behind companies that have those kinds of policy commitments.
Jon Mertz: 14:55 Yeah, and on the other side, we’re seeing employees stand up to their CEOs on certain decisions. What advice would you give to employees that are wanting to take on some change within their company in terms of business and society?
Sharon Nepstad: 15:06 What we know from research into civil resistance or nonviolence studies our packets tend to be more effective when you’ve got a cross class coalition of people, a larger group of people, who are willing to be involved in it. So for example, a boycott is far more effective if you can get a huge portion of the population to refuse to buy those services or goods, than if it’s just a small number of people. It’s not going to have that much of an impact on profit. But the same is true with these kinds of employee actions. If one person takes a stand, it’s easy for that individual to be targeted for perhaps being fired or not given promotions. But when you can build a large number of employees as the examples you gave did do, when you get a good portion of your workforce to walk out, it’s more powerful in a number of ways.
Sharon Nepstad: 15:56 First of all, you’re much more likely to get media coverage of it. If one person walks out, it’s not really a new story for many agencies. They wouldn’t cover one person walking out, but they’d cover an entire industry of workers walking out. It’s also more likely to have an impact because if you have different levels of people involved in that, you have different connections to the leadership in that business. So, one of the things we know is in like cross class or cross group types of movements, you’re more likely to impact people who have political power or economic power or leadership ability in these companies.
Jon Mertz: 16:36 I know in your writing and research you talk about the role of community and social change and movements, and so it seems like it plays an important part in driving that change. Is that correct?
Sharon Nepstad: 16:45 Yes. And I guess just to add onto the last point, Gandhi talked about two essential parts of nonviolence. He said on the one hand is civil resistance, but Gandhi also talked about what he called the constructive program. And what he meant by that was building new institutions and new practices that do reflect the values and the vision that you have. So, I think part of what employees can do is not just protest and resist those practices that they find harmful, but to say how do we begin to build a new culture in this company? And of course, that’s not simple. That’s a long-term process of change. But fundamentally that’s a really important part of the change process. It’s not just removing what you don’t like, but building what you do want. And community is part of that. Community is important in a variety of ways.
Sharon Nepstad: 17:33 And one of the downsides I think of people’s reflections on social movements is we have a tendency to think of important moments in time and to imagine that that just galvanized public support and rapidly brought out the social change. So can think about moments like Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus and how that then led to this outpouring of moral outrage at segregation and people willing to take a stand, but that’s not an accurate picture. So of course, everybody knows about Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. But as soon as that happened, there was a great deal of organizing and people realized if we’re going to ask for a boycott, then so many people in the African American community in Montgomery don’t have other means of transportation. We have to come up with a transportation system for them.
Sharon Nepstad: 18:21 So, there was a whole network of people who started organizing carpools. Well, this is drawing on community. Community matters because you need not only the human labor to make these things happen, but a variety of resources. So working through the black churches, basically they found people who are willing to serve as carpool drivers. They set up routes. And of course, when the local government found ways to try and thwart that by saying it was illegal, they had to come up with alternative plans. And the other important part of community is when you’re involved in a longer-term struggle. And even though this was a year, it’s hard to sustain motivation for a year.
Sharon Nepstad: 18:59 If you’re walking 10 miles to your job every day, it’s hard to sustain motivation. You need community to provide that motivation. You need that community to ensure that you don’t feel alone, that when you’re ready to give up, somebody else is there to help encourage you to continue on. Community, with what’s important and providing the human resources, the material resources, the emotional support that is needed to sustain these kinds of actions over time.
Jon Mertz: 19:25 And it seems along with them, there’s a need for a strong dose of discipline. Right?
Sharon Nepstad: 19:30 Yeah. And again, this is the value of reading about these movements in history is we have sentimentalized nostalgic notions of movements like the US civil rights movement. But if you read about it, King said one of the things he had to deal with is people in his own church community’s saying nonviolence is effective, but perhaps we need to resort to violence so that they know we’re serious. And one of the things that King pointed out was we’re not going to win with violence. At the time African-Americans, in the country, were about 12% of the population. And he said we’re just not able to go up and win against a community that’s got the backing of the US military behind it. It’s not a level playing field.
Sharon Nepstad: 20:13 So he said from a very practical perspective, nonviolence is our only capacity to really win this way. And one of the things that makes nonviolence effective is remaining disciplined. So, different writers have come up with these ideas of moral jujitsu or political jujitsu. And the idea here is coming from the martial arts tradition that you don’t have to attack your opponents. And in fact, the idea of jujitsu as a particular form of martial arts is when someone attacks you, you use their own power, their own energy that they exert, to redirect it to their own downfall. You don’t have to counter-attack them. When they punch you, you step away or you shift their attacks so that it causes their own demise. And that is part of the idea of discipline in the nonviolent movement, that when people see unarmed individuals standing up for a cause they believe in and being attacked without retaliating, the idea is that third party observers will be sympathetic to those unarmed individuals.
Sharon Nepstad: 21:17 Now, the other side of it is we know that when people start to use violence back, it’s often a justification for the state to crack down. So when a peaceful demonstration then becomes unruly or people start writing, it’s very easy then for the media, for the state, to depict those people as delinquents, as people who are disrupting law and order, or people who are not constructive in society. And it justifies then the use of force to bring them into a control, that they deserved to be treated that way.
Sharon Nepstad: 21:49 If you don’t resort to violence and the state cracks down or counter protesters start attacking activists, then in fact what it does is it exposes the injustice of that system or the brutality of a system. So, discipline is important in the sense that it protects activists. It gives them a little bit of security because it makes it difficult to justify a crackdown, but it also helps to solicit the support and the attention and the compassion of third party observers who are forced to think about whether in fact these kinds of injustices should be part of a democratic society.
Jon Mertz: 22:30 I want to switch to a different type of protests that you’ve done some research on, which is the NFL kneeling protests. What have you learned as far as what was or wasn’t effective?
Sharon Nepstad: 22:40 This is a very interesting case and obviously a very complicated case, but one that’s really evoke strong emotions on people who both support the kneeling protests and those who are opposed to it. This type of action is what we call a symbolic moral action or symbolic moral witness action. It’s symbolic, right? There’s nothing more to it then a symbolic gesture. But that symbolism obviously was very powerful and the purpose of these kinds of tactics is to draw attention to a moral issue. So, I believe Colin Kaepernick was kneeling to draw attention to the issue of brutality and violence against African Americans in this country.
Sharon Nepstad: 23:23 What’s interesting is that symbols are powerful because they tap into our values, they tap into our beliefs, but they’re also subject to interpretation. And that’s really I think the controversy over NFL protests. is about what symbolically the kneeling protests really were trying to address.
Sharon Nepstad: 23:41 So, Kaepernick and the other NFL players who we’re involved in the kneeling protests were very clear. The meaning behind it for them was to say this is like during a military conflict or after a military conflict, soldiers will kneel at the grave of a fallen soldier to show respect. And they were trying to kneel symbolically to show respect for African Americans who’d been killed by violence, either at the hands of police or others. And yet that kneeling, which was intended to be a sign of respect, was interpreted as a sign of disrespect. So, what went on with the NFL protests was really a debate about what’s the meaning? It was a legitimate nation battle between the people who were trying to draw attention to concerns for African American safety and violence in these communities and people who said this is not respectful, this is disrespecting the flag, this is disrespecting veterans.
Sharon Nepstad: 24:37 And if the purpose of these tactics is to highlight a moral issue, to have people debate and think about it, one could argue that the NFL protests were highly successful. They’re not successful in the traditional sense that we think of they achieve policy change or brought about dropping rates of violence against African Americans. But that’s not the purpose of a moral witness action like this. It’s to say there’s a moral issue that’s happening and we’re trying to witness it and have people stop and reflect on it.
Jon Mertz: 25:08 Before we close out, I want to talk about the concept of leadership capital. Could you describe that for us and how it applies to business leaders trying to lead social change?
Sharon Nepstad: 25:18 Yeah. Leadership capital entails a variety of things, but it refers to resources and ties and networks and abilities. And some people tend to think only about leadership, especially in terms of social change and movements, as charismatic leadership. And of course, charismatic leaders have a lot of these skills. They’re able to frame issues in a way that resonates with broad audiences. That’s one of the things we know about leaders is they can speak to more than just their own constituents. They know how to make these issues relevant and of interest and compatible with the values of people from a wide array of backgrounds.
Sharon Nepstad: 25:56 And this is one of the reasons that King was so brilliant. If you think about his I have a dream speech. He was talking about civil rights, particularly civil rights for African Americans, but he framed it in the context of democracy, that this is about democracy and anyone who believes in democracy will value civil rights.
Sharon Nepstad: 26:14 So, he knew how to speak beyond just his constituents of African Americans and by framing it that way, he brought in all American citizens who believe in democracy. So, it’s being able to frame it in a way that resonates. So, business leaders can do the same thing. Talking about gun control, it’s not just speaking to a certain population. It’s talking about more broadly, what are the values of our society and how can we as business leaders be promoting those values? Part of it is being able to think strategically.
Sharon Nepstad: 26:48 That’s a very important asset. And I think sometimes we have this misconception that social change movements are supposed to happen organically and people just stand up for the convictions and it unfolds and calls out the good in all people, which you can do that, but it also has to have strategy involved. So, I think a good set of leadership skills would entail an ability to think about what’s our plan?
Sharon Nepstad: 27:09 We would never send troops off to battle without having some overarching plan and assessing who are our opponents, if you will, or who are the targets here? What other sources of power really mattered to them? What sources of power do we have? What strategies could we use that would involve the largest number of people? What strategies should we shift to when this one seems to be stalling? So, thinking strategically is another source of leadership capital.
Sharon Nepstad: 27:38 Being able to read changing conditions. Maybe the time is right to stop one campaign and start another. Maybe the time is right to change the way you frame the issues. And I think leaders also have the emotional skills to be able to understand emotions such as anger, resignation, fear, and to find a way to transform them. And not a lot of people have those skills, but in fact those are things that we can cultivate and the really fine leaders are not necessarily the charismatic ones. The problem with charismatic leadership is those people become easy targets. And when they’re arrested or in the case of Gandhi or King or Malcolm X, if they’re assassinated, movements often flounder after they’re removed from leadership. So, business leaders can be those who may not necessarily be the most charismatic, but they’ve got those skills and they know how to move these issues forward and build the support that is needed to make those changes happen.
Jon Mertz: 28:34 Any final suggestions for business leaders to consider, especially what insights from sociology may help them in navigating this social change world?
Sharon Nepstad: 28:42 I do want to underscore the fact that when we look at movements using nonviolence, particularly in authoritarian contexts, the role of business leaders is really important. And that’s not something that often gets depicted in accounts of protests, but in fact we see that they’re very important. They can provide resources. They can provide context that a lot of grassroots networks don’t have. And increasingly, I think people are recognizing that businesses can take important moral stances. And when they do, there will be people who will support those businesses.
Jon Mertz: 29:16 Absolutely. Dr. Nepstad, thank you so much. I think you’ve really driven home the point of how business leaders have a platform they can leverage for social change. We are grateful for your research, your work, and your insights.
Sharon Nepstad: 29:28 Thank you too.
Jon Mertz: 29:36 Activators, let’s continue the conversation in our Activate World LinkedIn group. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives.
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Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.