A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Dr. Erica Chenoweth: Global thinker, peace researcher

Growing up, START Researcher Erica Chenoweth, Ph.D., was a self-proclaimed history buff. “While other kids were reading teen fiction, I was reading nonfiction or historical fiction about World War I,” Chenoweth said. One book in particular, a diary of a girl living in Sarajevo during the siege, inspired a 13-year-old Chenoweth to pursue a career in international affairs with the goal of addressing political violence.

Fast forward to the summer of 2006. Chenoweth attends a workshop about civil resistance by happenstance, and sets out to study the phenomenon. Chenoweth had doubts about the purported effectiveness of civil resistance given the limited set of historical cases commonly discussed, and she aimed to compare civil resistance and violent resistance over a wider range of cases.

Chenoweth is currently an associate professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and an associate senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO), in addition to serving as a START investigator.

Jump“START”ing her research

Chenoweth first interacted with START as a pre-doctoral fellow through the Terrorism Research Award program. During her time at START, she completed fieldwork that helped her finish her doctoral dissertation and went on to become a lead investigator.

“Nowhere else have I found such an engaging and skilled group of researchers dedicated to studying political violence in ways that matter to the general public,” Chenoweth said.

Despite Chenoweth’s quantitative research orientation, she is a staunch believer in the value of fieldwork.  Chenoweth’s interactions with activists validate this belief, as they serve as a reminder that research translates into real life.

“I have learned so much more about my topic from talking with people on the ground than I could ever learn from observational data,” Chenoweth said. “As researchers, we need to think deeply and responsibly about how our findings will affect other people. For many, this is life or death,” Chenoweth said. 

Gaining recognition for groundbreaking work

Today, Chenoweth is considered an expert on political violence, and her research is recognized internationally. Foreign Policy ranked Chenoweth among the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2013 for her research in nonviolent civil resistance. Chenoweth was also presented with the 2014 Karl Deutsch Award from the International Studies Association (ISA) for making significant contributions to the study of international relations and peace research.

“I’m drawn to urgent questions and puzzles, so there is a contemporary relevance to a lot of the questions I study,” said Chenoweth, who also cites the Arab Spring and the subsequent period of global tumult as having generated an interest in understanding how and why civil resistance works.

Chenoweth is also collaborating on the Government Actions in Terror Environments (GATE) research project with Laura Dugan, START researcher and director of graduate studies in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland. The research aims to understand the effects of how governments behave towards terrorists and their constituencies.

The two researchers are progressing in leaps and bounds; they are coding U.S. data and plan to expand coding efforts to 12 other countries. Additionally, the researchers received funding from Public Safety Canada to collect similar data in the Canadian context.

Future books, research projects

In addition to completing numerous research projects, Chenoweth has authored or edited three books and shows no signs of slowing. In the next year, she plans to complete another book, titled “Why Democracy Encourages Terrorism,” which will explore the underlying reasons why terrorism is so common in democratic countries. That will be followed by a textbook on terrorism for Oxford University Press.

Despite her numerous projects, Chenoweth’s passion for international politics keeps her engaged and her research wish list full. “The world is incredibly dynamic. Every day, I look at the news and see a new challenge,” Chenoweth said.

So what is next for the busy researcher?

“I would like to study how, if at all, civilians can rely on nonviolent action to accelerate the termination of a civil war,” Chenoweth said.

Check out Dr. Erica Chenoweth’s website for more information about her research.