As an example of what I'm talking about, here's what's happening in Myanmar:

  1. Since some professors in our medical universities did not join the civil disobedience movement, surgeons, dentists and doctors posted on Facebook that they will not buy medical equipment and materials from sellers (shops) who sell to all those (professors) who do not join the civil disobedience movement.

  2. People in Myanmar no longer support or buy products from commercial enterprises related to or owned by military families.

Looking at these two cases, what kind of "power" are these kinds of things an example of?

Hard Power is defined as:

Hard power is the use of military and economic means to influence the behavior or interests of other political bodies

So, since this is a kind of economic pressure, can I say that hurting businesses or boycotting is hard power? Or is it better described as soft power? Why?

  • 1
    What do you mean by "hard power"? Is there an objective definition? Apr 20 at 14:12
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    There are political terms: Soft Power, Hard Power and Smart Power.
    – Eoop Xoeno
    Apr 20 at 14:14
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    You've tagged this as [myanmar], but it sounds like you're asking a general question about the definition of "hard-power" and just using the protests in Myanmar as an example. Is this accurate? Or are you looking for a Myanmar specific answer?
    – divibisan
    Apr 20 at 14:39
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    It is bad practice to immediately checkmark an answer and instead is better to wait a couple days to see what answers come along.
    – eps
    Apr 20 at 14:51
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    @eps it is also bad practice to criticizing accepting an answer on a question you plan on answering.
    – Joe W
    Apr 20 at 16:24

No. I can see why one might think so, since Hard Power is often defined as using "military or economic means to influence/coerce an entity," but there are two other important elements to hard power: it must be a formal power, that is to say it must be codified in law somehow; and it must be a positive power - it must be an action taken.

Economic sanctions, which are the legal version of a boycott, are a form of hard power, because they are formal (they're actions of law), they are positive (they do something, in this case establish mandates to enforce prohibitions), and they are economic (and sometimes military when it comes down to it).

A Boycott, however, while economic in nature, is neither formal - it's choices made by private citizens, not entities of law; nor is it positive - it's not doing something, it's not doing something. Refraining from something, a negative act, is always going to be Soft Power (in the Hard/Soft duality).

Boycotts aren't even properly thought of as 'hurting' a business, because such an understanding presupposes that businesses are entitled to your custom and thus you are acting against their property rights by refusing to transact with them. In actuality, no such duty to transact exists - this is a definitive hallmark of Soft Power: it involves social forces.

Boycotts are more akin to not inviting someone to your birthday party, because they're an asshole than they are to economic sanctions. Virtually all diffuse, citizen actions fall into Soft Power for the same reasons.

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    Boycotts can certainly involve coercion and coersive actors, but it wouldn't probably be called hard or soft power simply because those words are usually reserved for state actors engaging in international diplomacy and even then the terms aren't very rigorous.
    – eps
    Apr 20 at 14:56
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    The term "Soft Power" gets used to describe political power exercised by non-state actors all the time, though. It's often used to scoop up what Baumer and Van Horn termed "Boardroom Politics" or "Living Room Politics" and so on. There's major players in the processes of state actions that don't have formal powers. All of which merely reinforces your point that these terms aren't very rigorous. Apr 20 at 15:07
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    In "pure" economics, a business actually is entitled to your custom, if they are the best bidder. - If you start to factor politics into economics, it stops being economics, doesn't it? - So, if you chose to not take the best offer, because of non-economic reasons, you are hurting a business. Not much, but if enough people do it, there should be a non-negligible effect on the business. - I think that your distinction between "active" and "passive" is arbitrary. Apr 21 at 12:21
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    @JacquesGaudin "pure" economics is the pseudoscience that assumes the existance of a homo economicus... ;) Apr 21 at 12:51
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    Although it occurs to me that the real difference between a sanction and a boycott is whether or not it is coercive. A sanction coerces others to not do business. A boycott is voluntary. Apr 21 at 18:51

Frame challenge: hard and soft power are largely outdated cold war era terms used for state actors and international diplomacy and has no real relevance today. I have never heard of internal politics being talked about in "hard" and "soft" power terms, it's just not a useful way to frame things.

For example someone might argue the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Israel) is soft power, another might say it uses coercion and "hard" power but the real answer is who cares, it's pointless semantics.

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