Taking Part: Social Movements, INGOs, and Global Change

Article excerpt

Can social movements make a difference in global politics? That question is, ultimately, one that only the historical practice of transnational social movements will answer. But is that answer likely to be heard or understood by analysts, even if it were to ring in the air around them? We think not, unless there is a fundamental shift in the way the transformative agency of social movements is conceptualized. In this article we try to substantiate this claim through a critique of existing approaches to the study of transnational social movements. We argue that the attention given to transnational social movements across several different academic disciplines has failed to generate the intellectual and disciplinary synthesis needed to understand their potential. On the contrary, the limitations of each discipline have simply been replicated by others, leaving the field cluttered with incommensurable or overlapping analyses, concepts, and jargon.

Investigation of the relationship between social movements and global change is relatively new. Only in the last decade or so has a distinct literature on this topic emerged. Debates in the theory of international relations about the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and movements have clustered around the notions of global civil society and global governance. At the same time, a more unified body of work has emerged from politics and sociology that attempts to globalize existing approaches to social movements. These two branches of enquiry frequently focus on similar kinds of movement activism and organization. They have both been influenced by arguments about globalization and been given increasing impetus in the last few years by the wave of high-profile activism opposed to processes and institutions associated with neoliberal aspects of economic globalization.

For the most part, cross-disciplinary engagement on globalization and social movements remains limited. Yet some of the most significant problems with existing academic work traverses disciplinary divides. These problems include a simplified and simplistic conceptualization of movements and organizations; the privileging of either instrumental or expressive dimensions of movement activism; an assumption of a hierarchical relationship between global and local domains of politics; an underdeveloped awareness of the dangers of bureaucratization and oligarchy in movement organization and, conversely, of the potentialities of movement-based contributions to democratic praxis. In responding to these problems, the ultimate aim of this article is to point toward a more holistic, complex and critical understanding of movement activism and its potentially transformative role in global politics.

There are certain things that this article--constructed as it is as a critique of contemporary academic literature in IR, politics, and sociology--does not try to do. It offers neither an empirical case-study of movement activism nor a detailed interrogation of activist representations of the movements of which they are a part. This is not because we see such analyses as unimportant. We draw briefly on some activist texts and depictions of movements to help make our argument and, indeed, believe that activist representations of themselves and the world are a vital source of knowledge that can have constitutive power. However, what we offer here is an immanent critique of the concepts used in academic literature. Further, much of our discussion is concerned with how to conceptualize social-movement activism in terms of geographical space, and we do not attend to the historical, diachronic dimension of such activism. Again, this is not because we deem it unimportant. As Alejandro Colas argues, movement agency needs to be evaluated in the context of "changes and continuities in the structures and processes of social life through time." (1) However, our focus here on contemporary literature, and its difficulties in conceptualizing movement organization across borders, encourages a largely synchronic analysis. …