Transnational Social Movements and Sovereignties in Transition: Charting New Interfaces of Power at the U.S.-Mexico Border

By Cunningham, Hilary | Anthropologica, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Transnational Social Movements and Sovereignties in Transition: Charting New Interfaces of Power at the U.S.-Mexico Border


Cunningham, Hilary, Anthropologica


Keywords: Social movements, transnationalism, undocumented migration, American Southwest

Introduction: The Nation-State, Its "Withering Away" and the Study of Social Movements

[W]hat is the role of the state in all of this? Modern states developed in a strategic dialogue with social movements, ceding to them the autonomy and opportunity to organize when they had to and reclaiming that territory whenever these movements faded or became too dangerous. Why would states be any more supine today when faced by transnational diffusion, exchange, advocacy networks, or even social movements than they were against domestic movements in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century?

--Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement; 1998: 194.

One of the central debates characterizing discussions of globalization has been the future and fate of the nation-state. Some proponents of globalization have predicted the increasing irrelevance of state boundaries, particularly in light of the unprecedented crossborder flows of goods, ideas and persons in a globalizing world (Albrow, 1996; Appadurai, 1996). Others have underscored the declining powers of the nation state owing to the transnationalization of production and trade, as well as the increasing role of international financial and legal regimes (Ohmae 1990, 1995; Strange, 1996). As a result, in a growing literature, globalization has often been framed in terms of state attenuation.(1)

Although such perspectives have generated provocative discussions about globalization, they also reflect a tendency to bypass the state in their analyses and in some cases, to treat the nation-state as an already moribund entity. Another literature on globalization, however, eschews such an assumption and in stead explores states as transitioning actors vis-a-vis a globalizing world--as transforming rather than declining institutions in the context of transnational processes (Castells, 1996; Giddens, 1990, Held, 1991; Mann, 1996; Rosenau, 1997; Scholte, 1993; Tilly, 1992; Verdery, 1996). This second position handily avoids forcing a choice between a strong and weak state (Sassen, 2000), but perhaps more importantly, reintroduces states into contemporary discussions about power and its exercise in a global context.(2)

The notion of a transforming rather than declining state is a relevant one for scholars of contemporary social movements--a field in which the nation-state is also frequently treated as passe. Part of this treatment is perhaps owing to a recent theoretical dis-privleging of the state as a focus for study of collective action--something that has developed largely vis-a-vis the popularity of new social movements (NSM) scholarship and its decided turn away from class as foundational to social movement formation (Magnusson, 1992, 1997). This dis-privleging has reflected a broader shift to a more postmodern understanding of power as decentralized, or web-like, and hence incapable of being localized in an institution such as the nation-state (Foucault, 1980; Rose and Miller, 1992). For social movement scholars adopting a post-Marxist political framework, then, the reduced role of the state has been linked to a critique of first, models which posit "class" as a privileged site for an understanding how social power works (Alvarez et. al., 1998; Laclau and Mouffe, 1985; Warren, 1998), and second, models which have assumed states as fixed referents of power.

The neglect of the nation state as a significant actor in social movement literature, however, is also linked to a growing interest in transnational social movements which often seem, by definition, to exclude states as central players in contemporary relations of protest. Both scholars and activists alike often claim that transnational movements, coalitions and networks are those which transcend the traditional contours of the nation-state and, in so doing, represent a distinctive form of transnational politics. …

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