Information Asymmetries and Pragmatic Nonviolence


I first learned about information asymmetries in the 2001 when I read a newspaper article about George Akerlof, Michael Spence, and Joseph Stiglitz winning a Nobel prize for their work on the subject. At the time the idea angered me, that one party might use another party’s lack of information against them. Not only did it seem pretty obvious; it confirmed, for me, an idea that I had that the Nobel Prize in economics was handed to researchers whose work best protected the status quo.

Though I was aware that information asymmetries existed over the next several years, I did not have much use for them. I almost forgot about them. Then, while I was taking the capstone course for my bachelors degree in Public Administration, we were given an assignment to write a twenty-page paper on the subject of our choice.

I chose to write about Mohamed Bouazizi and the Arab Spring. Bouazizi is the Tunisian man who set himself aflame in December of 2010 who is credited with starting the Tunisian revolution and touching off the larger Arab Spring movement that led to numerous protests and the overthrowing of several governments. I was interested in the Arab Spring because I understood that many of its large-scale actions were coordinated by text messages and social media applications. Bouazizi’s story only got out of Tunisia because the Al-Jazeera news network found it on Facebook. Not only did I find the entire story fascinating, the implications for public administrators were obvious.

Originally my idea was that technology, in the form of smart phones (which are essentially hand-held computers), text messaging, and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) would allow citizens to overcome information asymmetries that exist because governments and large institutional powers typically held a monopoly on the transmission of information because of their ability to broadcast. These technologies essentially put the power to broadcast a message in the hands of anybody with a phone.

I wrote my report, got my grade, and kept on researching the subject. I started a blog to write about it in March of 2012. I rediscovered information asymmetries and found the ideas of adverse selection, structural violence, and information warfare. Along the way I decided that, for my purposes, information asymmetries are tantamount to power asymmetries.

Berghof Article

I read Véronique Dudouet’s (2011) Nonviolent resistance in power asymmetries. I was drawn to this particular article for a couple of reasons. I had been doing a lot of reading about nonviolence once I began my graduate studies. Also, learning how to overcome power asymmetries was an objective of the research I was doing.

I believe that nonviolence is a strategy of paramount importance in any movement that hopes to bring change to society. I do not think it is an appropriate tactic in all situations. I also understand the efficacy of violence. There are few things that work better in the short run than violence. However, I know that no matter how good any entity is at using violence to obtain its objectives, it will always encounter someone or something better at waging violence. This, of course, will lead to defeat and the collapse of whatever it is that has been built to that point.

I was pleasantly surprised that Dudouet (2011) wrote, “In extremely asymmetrical situations, particularly acute in ethnic conflicts, nonviolent strategies might not have sufficient leverage to bring about necessary changes (p. 253).”  The subtext of this is that there are certain adversaries who are more than willing to use violence against a group of nonviolent protestors, despite the consequences of any such action. I think this supports my position that nonviolence does not work in all situations.

Another reason I enjoyed reading this article is that Dudouet (2011) breaks down nonviolence into two camps: principled, or Gandhian, nonviolence which she defines as nonviolence “by conviction rather than expediency (p 242),” and practical, or Sharpian, nonviolence; she writes, “… Gene Sharp embodies the pragmatic, strategic, or technique-oriented approach to [nonviolent resistance]… (p 243).” Most of the material I have read sits squarely in the principled camp of nonviolence. I found it comforting that it is possible to view nonviolence as a tactic to be used when appropriate rather than an ideological panacea.

I like that Dudouet (2011) works not just as a treatise on nonviolence, but on a policy level as well. Dudouet, in defining NVR (nonviolent resistance), writes:

… the authority of any ruler rests on the continued voluntary obedience of its subjects. Therefore, the essence of NVR rests on withdrawing this consent through non-cooperation or civil disobedience towards unjust laws (e.g. boycott, strikes, tax resistance), so that governments can no longer operate (p. 240).

Most of what I have read about nonviolence has focused on the spiritual and philosophical reasons for adopting nonviolence. Essentially, the idea that we should adopt nonviolence because it is the right thing to do. Dudouet (2011) (and by extension, Gene Sharp) provides the idea that nonviolence might be adopted because it is a practical thing to do:

According to the pragmatic school of nonviolent action, empirical evidence shows that in most registered cases of NVR in recent history, the protagonists were not motivated by a principled commitment to the avoidance of bloodshed. Instead, they selected this strategy in order to defeat a particular opponent with the most effective and least costly means at hand, or for the lack of better alternatives, because a viable military option was not available (p 243).

Before I read this article I was growing bored with the idea of nonviolence. It was not that I failed to see the value of nonviolence; I was turned off by the preachiness of some (many) of its practitioners. I had heard of Gene Sharp prior to reading the Dudouet (2011) article, but I had no idea of his real significance until Dudouet pointed it out to me. In at least this aspect, reading this article was a great benefit to me. It gave me new avenues to explore, within the realm of nonviolence, more in line with my pragmatism.


Dudouet, V. (2011). Nonviolent resistance in power asymmetries. In B. Austin, M. Fishcer, H.J. Giessmann (eds.). Advancing conflict transformation: The berghof handbook II. Opladen/Framington Hills: Barbara Budrich Publishers.

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