Meaning of Nonviolence and Pacifism

  • Daniel M. MaytonII
Part of the Peace Psychology Book Series book series (PPBS)


Nonviolence is a deceptively complex concept. It has been written about for well over two millennia and, as would be expected, it is very nuanced. If fully understood and routinely applied within human interaction, it has the potential to transform our communities and the greater society in profound and positive ways. The challenge of understanding nonviolence is the focus of this book.

When nonviolence is mentioned in conversation, one might be referring to a religious virtue or belief (e.g. Sharma, 1965), a philosophy (e.g. Bondurant, 1965; Gandhi, 1951), or a political behavior or strategy (e.g. Gandhi, 1957/19731927; King, 1963; Sharp, 1973). Major texts on nonviolence, including those by Gandhi (1957/1927), Sharp (1973), Pelton (1974), Harak (2000), Hare and Blumberg (1968), Holmes and Gan (2005), Kool (1990, 1993a, 2008), Sponsel and Gregor (1994), and Ackerman and Kruegler (1994), have approached the topic from anthropological, historical, psychological, political scientific, sociological, strategic, and pragmatic perspectives.

As is the case for many concepts, the words used in many languages to represent the concept of nonviolence are not totally reflective of the meaning. As I clarify the nature of nonviolence and before I begin to trace its recent history, I want to discuss the similarities and differences with a range of related terms and concepts by answering the following questions. What do aggression and violence mean? How does nonviolence compare to aggression and violence? How are nonviolence and pacifism similar and different from one another?


Moral Belief Structural Violence Direct Violence Collective Violence Instrumental Aggression 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Recommended Readings

  1. Ackerman, P., & Kruegler, C. (1994). Strategic nonviolent conflict: The dynamics of people power in the twentieth century. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.Google Scholar
  2. Ackerman and Kreugler present a comprehensive interpretation of nonviolence as political strategy. The authors describe six historical episodes including the Russian Revolution of 1904–1906, the Ruhrkampf in 1923 Germany, the 1930–1931 Indian independence movement, Denmark’s resistance to Nazi occupation, the 1944 civil strike in El Salvador, and the Polish Solidarity Movement in 1980–1981.Google Scholar
  3. Bondurant, J. V. (1965). Conquest of violence: The Gandhian philosophy of conflict (Rev. Ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  4. This is a classic text summarizing the philosophy and the political strategy of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Bondurant’s analysis is based on her travel to India to meet with Gandhi and to discuss his work first hand. Excellent discussion of the components of a satyagraha in general and of the Salt Satyagraha specifically.Google Scholar
  5. Holmes, R. L. & Gan, B. L. (Eds.) (2005). Nonviolence in theory and practice (2nd ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.Google Scholar
  6. This is the revised edition of a book of readings that addresses the origins of pacifism and nonviolence from secular and nonsecular perspectives. Holmes and Gan carefully examine the work of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King and the impact of women in the field of nonviolence.Google Scholar
  7. Sharp, G. (1973). The politics of nonviolent action. Boston, MA: Porter Sargent Books.Google Scholar
  8. This book by Gene Sharp is the classic treatise on nonviolence and a must read for anyone interested in nonviolence. Sharp provides a careful analysis of power and relates this discussion to nonviolent actions. He also outlines a taxonomic view of nonviolent action. His account is peppered with a myriad of detailed historical examples of nonviolence.Google Scholar
  9. Smock, D. R. (Ed.) (1995). Perspectives on pacifism: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim views on nonviolence and international conflict. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press.Google Scholar
  10. Smock summarizes highlights of the presentations and discussions at a one-day symposium on religious perspectives on pacifism under the auspices of the Unites States Institute of Peace. Religious leaders from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim persuasions provide a sense of the nuanced views of pacifism in the world today.Google Scholar
  11. Yoder, J.H. (1992). Nevertheless: Varieties of religious pacifism. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press.Google Scholar
  12. This book summarizes over two dozen views of pacifism. Yoder’s approach to study pacifism is primarily from a religious perspective and his typology or taxonomy of pacifism clearly shows the breadth to pacifistic positions from absolute pacifism through a myriad of nuanced options.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel M. MaytonII
    • 1
  1. 1.Lewis-Clark State CollegeLewistonUSA

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