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Are Social Movements "Restructuring World Politics"?


Transnational advocacy groups contribute to restructuring world politics by altering the norm structure of global governance. So argue the editors of this volume who claim that the capacity of nonstate actors to contribute to restructuring world politics relies on the persuasiveness of information and communication. Case studies look at the roles of such actors in three areas: influencing human rights discourses, policy and practice; promoting development, environmental protection and governance; and organising labour. The material is wide-ranging, including studies of discourses of human rights in US foreign policy; the role of the Jubilee 2000 coalition; campaigns around large dams in India; and an interesting historical piece on Marx and Engels as transnational actors.

The strongest part of the book is its clear introduction. It brings together a wide range of existing literature, usefully highlighting differences and similarities between concepts and language used in the "myopically state-centric" international relations literature and "myopically domestic" social movement theory. In particular, it suggests that debates about norms and ideas in international relations could benefit from engagement with older debates over framing and collective beliefs in the social movements literature. The introduction also usefully categorises transnational collective action into four types: international (transnational) nongovernmental organisations; transnational advocacy networks; transnational coalitions and transnational social movements.

However the weaknesses of the book are several. The first is acknowledged by the editors - while there is much material on international NGOs, transnational advocacy networks and transnational coalitions, there is very little of substance on transnational social movements (distinguished from coalitions by their capacity to generate coordinated and sustained social mobilisation). Although there are many examples of domestic social movements that link up to transnational networks and coalitions, there are few examples of fully-fledged transnational social movements. Material on an 'international women's movement' and a workers' movement spawned by Marx and Engels provide exceptions. In this context, the editors ask interesting questions about why transnational social movements may not emerge, why and how "non-homogeneous people" do or do not engage in transnational collective action, and whether there are examples of "truly transnational collective identities". However, and in this lies the book's second (and more serious) failing, they fail to interrogate sufficiently their extensive array of case material to answer these questions. Furthermore, they do not analyse their concepts of 'world politics' or 'global governance' sufficiently to allow them to make claims about the impact of transnational collective action in these arenas. Thus, from a promising start, it soon becomes clear that the book is another in the growing collection of edited volumes on similar themes which fail to provide either rigorous comparative analysis or conceptual innovation.

The central tenet of the book - that social movements are contributing to the 'restructuring of world politics' by altering norm structures - is not convincingly argued, mainly because it is not adequately addressed throughout the book. Some authors give scant (or no) attention to this hypothesis. Nonetheless, the individual case studies may be of interest to policy-makers and activists (although some have been available in similar forms elsewhere for several years). It is also refreshing to see three essays on organising around labour, a topic frequently excluded from discussions of 'civil society'.

Perhaps the most important point to emerge is one for researchers: the lack of good empirical material on transnational social movements and their effects on politics, both national and global. Many authors in this volume (as elsewhere) rely heavily on eminently-researchable international NGOs and their networks as sources of data, and our knowledge about transnational social mobilisation and its impact remains limited.

Source: Khagram, S., Riker, J.V., Sikkink, K. 2002. "Restructuring World Politics: Transnational Social Movements, Networks and Norms". University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

Keywords: social movements, civil society, collective action, global governance

Commentator: Sarah Lister, IDS, (September 2002)

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