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Beyond Globalization:
Why Creating Transnational Social Movements is so Hard and When is it Most Likely to Happen

Sidney Tarrow, Departments of Government and Sociology, Cornell University

"For two exceptional centuries," declares Charles Tilly,  European states and their extensions elsewhere succeeded remarkably in circumscribing and controlling the resources within their perimeters... But in our least in Europe, the era of strong states is now ending (1993:3).  Well, maybe. Tilly happily admits that his declaration is informed by a "series of speculations, conjectures, and hypotheses". But let us, at least for the moment, assume that his instinct is right; that the strong, consolidated national state formed since the seventeenth century really is in decline. The obvious question to ask next is; "are non-state agents taking its place?" Or less boldly: "are non-territorial mechanisms emerging that function alongside of states with their traditional supports of force and sovereignty?"

Before tackling this impossible question, it won't hurt to remind ourselves that states remain strong in most areas of policy -- for example, in maintaining domestic security -- even if they have become weaker in their ability to control capital flows. And although global airwaves and cheap international travel give citizens unprecedented exposure to others' miseries and struggles, states still control their borders and exercise legal dominion within them (Krasner 1995). Citizens cross state borders more easily than they did; they can form networks beyond borders (Keck and Sikkink 1998); and they occasionally construct norms of global governance (Khagram, Riker and Sikkink, 2000). But they still live in states and -- in democratic states, at least -- have available to them the opportunities and repertoires of national polities. That is a resource that the supposed new world of "global civil society" cannot easily match. 

States too profit from the opportunity to reach beyond their borders -- notably by signing international agreements, interfering in the internal lives of [usually weaker] states, and by building international institutions. Although these institutions are intended to serve state purposes (Moravcsek 1998), in mediating between the interests of various states and reflecting collective goods, they can provide space and resources for non-state actors. More than international travel, e-mail, or the internet, international institutions can have the unintended result of encouraging the development of networks, identities and opportunities of citizens across borders. That is the argument I will advance in this paper.

I. A Social Movement Perspective

Some have claimed much more than this as the reesult of increased interdependency beyond the state level -- they see a "global civil society" or a "world polity", in which non-state actors connect to one another and become empowered to confront once-powerful states (Boli and Thomas, eds., 1999; Meyer, Boli, Thomas and Ramirez 1997; Wapner 1995, 1996). Some even see a "rebundling"of citizenship around non-territorial lines (di Palma 1999). Others do not like what they see: for them, globalization occurs at the cost of non-state actors†rights -- with little to take the place of the citizenship rights acquired over the centuries. In this "strong" perspective, the modern world of states gives way to a world of dispersed forms of governance. In its extreme form, even when these actors never place a toe in transnational waters, the fact that their societies and their market exchanges are affected by globalization makes their domestic actions part of global civil society. The much-overused imperative to "think globally; Act locally!" expresses this elison. 

Over the last decade, a new tradition of "transnational relations" has developed which turns its attention from that old standby, the multinational corporation, to other kinds of non-state actors -- NGO's, principled issue networks, transnational activists, and professional and business networks. This is a refreshing move, but much of the work in this field is innocent of systematic attention to contentious politics -- and with good reason, as the latter field †with rare exceptions -- has been cordially indifferent to what happens beyond the water's edge until quite recently. 

Some of these authors have begun to posit the development of a whole new spectrum of transnational social movements (della Porta, Kriesi and Rucht, eds., 1999; Smith, Chatfield and Pagnucco, eds. 1997); others have focussed on one particular movement family -- like human rights, the environment, or the concerns of indigenous peoples (Risse, Ropp and Sikkink, 1999; Young, ed. 1997; Brysk 1998); still others focus on cultural forms, deducing from the collapse of extinct metanarratives a groping across borders towards new cultural codes and connections (Appadurai 1990, Robertson 1992). 

In contrast to the "strong" thesis -- which proclaimed a transnational civil society developing willy-nilly across national borders -- empirical work in this tradition is beginning to focus on beyond-border activism on the part of actors whose interests continue to be framed by domestic political opportunities and constraints (Imig and Tarrow 1999a and b; Marks and McAdam 1996, McAdam 1998, Tarrow 1998a, Yashar 1998). Others see domestic actors seeking the help of external allies in a triangular "boomerang effect" that depends very much on enlisting the power of third party states (Keck and Sikkink 1998 and international institutions (Klotz 1996). While the strong thesis posited a world moving towards the unbundling of territorial states, this approach leads to a focus on the transnational activities of states and international institutions as well as non-state actors. 

This perspective -- one that I share -- assumes that -- at least for the present -- states and institutions remain the prime targets and fulcra of political exchange. Social actors have to overcome a number of obstacles in order to evade states' grasp and create mechanisms to develop and forward their claims. Habitual alliances, familiar repertoires, and domestic routines constrain their actions unless -- and this "unless" needs to be specified on a case-by-case basis -- they can develop the networks, construct the identities, and access opportunities that give them leverage outside the state. And even when they do, the result will only rarely consist of transnational social movements: 

mobilized groups recruiting across borders engaged in sustained contentious interaction with powerholders in which at least one state is either a target or a participant.  In this paper, I develop this perspective further. In the next section, I define a set of terms that are central in the developing field of transnational contention. In Part Three I investigate the main obstacles I see to transnational collective action. In Part Four, I lay out a set of mechanisms that domestic actors can use to overcome these obstacles. In Part Five, I will argue that international institutions are most likely to serve as a fulcrum for transnational contention and point to some mechanisms through which these can empower resource-poor actors. 

The major hypothesis that will be advanced is that precisely because of the combination of national inducements and transnational obstacles facing domestic actors, the incentives and opportunities for transnational collective action are most likely to be found in relations forged within and around international institutions. But because of the constraining and coopting nature of these institutions, cooperation is more likely to take forms less contentious than transnational social movements.

II. Clearing Global Underbrush

This hypothesis requires us to distinguish analytically among a number of features of transnational politics that are often congealed in a kind of "globalspeak" †interdependence, nonstate actors, international institutions and norms, transnational activist networks and transnational social movements.

A. Interdependence 

Why make "interdependence" the independent variable of choice? Why not "globalization" or "transnational civil society"? In short, I argue, because globalization is too broad and transnational civil society is what may or may not emerge at the end of a long and highly complex process that needs to be the object of concerted study. 

The term "globalization" has come to have so many meanings that it is ceasing to have any meaning at all; it is used indifferently to refer to economic links between producers, workers and consumers across borders; to the political changes that have emerged since the end of the Cold War; to the transnational spread of resources and networks; and to the globalization of cultural norms. A sure sign of its conceptual degeneration: the term "globalization" has begun to give rise to a family of semantic neologisms, like "glocalization". 

While globalization is too broad a concept to help us identify causal relations, "transnational civil society" is a teleological concept that assumes what needs to be demonstrated. As in domestic affairs, the term "civil society" will lose all analytical bite if it is taken to mean all relations of non-state actors across national boundaries. It also elides the crucial question of the links between nonstate actors and third party states in temporary coalition. Such relations would need to be relatively autonomous, continuous, and multivalent for them to resemble "civil society" as the term has grown up over the past two centuries. 

"Interdependence" may at first seem too narrow a term. Its proponents in the 1970s were interested in inter-state relations, during a period in which sheer realism was under attack, but when the diffusion of governance that is at issue today was not yet on the horizon. Today's analysts of international relations are more likely to ask whether and with what consequences changes in lateral relations outside of states are producing new vertical structures of governance and new norms and identities across boundaries. By interdependence, therefore, I will mean 

the creation of increased institutional communication, coordination, and constraint below the interstate level among nonstate actors and between them and third party states and international institutions. B. Non-state Actors

Interdependence leads to an increase in communication, coordination and constraint as states and non-state actors respond to challenges and opportunities beyond their boundaries, reduce transaction costs through contractual arrangements, and create institutions to mediate conflicts. The 1970s brought a new attention to the international relations of non-state actors. Spurred by the oil crisis and the expansion of trade, sub-contracting, and branch-plant development across national boundaries, the "old" field of transnational relations featured mainly economic actors and, in particular, the "multinational corporation", which was seen sweeping national sovereignties before it as it conquered new economic spaces. 

MNC's are still very much with us today, but the 1980s made it clear that international finance was both more mobile and less controllable by host states than the capital-heavy monoliths of iron and steel. Attention to the transnational relations of non-state actors broadened in the 1990s (Risse- Kappen, ed., 1995), but the actors who caught scholars' attention in this decade lack both fixed and mobile capital: they are a plethora of NGO's, human rights groups, environmental and women's movements and even public actors acting internationally outside of states (Cameron 1995). 

So diverse is the spectrum of "non-state actors" considered in the new transnationalism that two observers seem close to despair. "Some analysts," they write

conflate inter-governmental organizations ...such as the WTO, IMF, WB, EBRD and the like, with NGOs such as Greenpeace, MNCs such as motorola and TNCs such as Phillips....Yet their objectives, institutional structures and modus operandi, remain largely undifferentiated. The end product of this lack of differentiation is an obfuscation of the changing nature of authority in a rapidly evolving international system of governance (Higgott and Reich 1998:25-6). Higgott and Reich actually understate the problem: in much of the globalization literature, even domestic actors who attach their claims rhetorically to globalization but never act beyond their borders are often clothed in global garb. But the inspiration of domestic actors with transnational symbols, endowing their claims with broader meanings, has been true for centuries and doesn't depend on the recent wave of internationalization (Keck and Sikkink 1998: ch. 2; Tarrow 1998a: ch.11). Merely claiming inspiration from non-national sources does not make a domestic group "transnational"; at least the direct opponents -- if not the actual sites of contention -- of non-state actors must be external for the term "transnational collective action" to have any use.

C. International Institutions

A key question in the burgeoning literature on transnational relations regards the role of international institutions. Early scholars were impressed with how such institutions -- especially the two big multilateral lending agencies -- weakened domestic actors by enforcing strict austerity policies on their governments (Kowalewski 1989; Walton 1989). But these observers wrote mainly to address the domestic impacts of internationalization -- what I will call "domestication"; they left unexamined how international institutions affect the formation and mobilization of transnational activism. As international regimes, treaties, contacts and exchanges crisscross the planet, a wider range of institutions is developing; how these interact with domestic social actors is a rich potential field for the analysis of transnational activism.

By international institutions I intend 

established and routinized relations among states and non-state actors in the international system whose competence in recognized sectors of activity is governed by agreed-upon norms and regulations.  Although it is clear that some international institutions (Interpol, Euratom) are less then welcoming to the claims of nonstate actors, we can imagine a hierarchy of international institutions: at the lowest level are occasional contacts between states, succeeded by conventions, treaties, and regimes, and capped by sustained international institutions. Although transactions occur constantly at all levels of the hierarchy (and some at lower levels -- like the Treaty of Rome -- they are profoundly important for establishing more permanent institutions), international institutions are the most concrete sites for establishing transnational connections when arrangements made to mediate between the interests of their constituted states can be employed for leverage or opportunities by non-state actors. International institutions are not only the targets of national actors -- state and non-state; they are the fulcrum around which they may turn their attention and their activities.

D. Norms and Institutions

Recently, a new generation of international relations theorists have discovered -- or rather rediscovered -- the power of norms in international relations. Norms are usually defined as "a standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity" (P. Katzenstein 1996: 5; also see Khagram and Sikkink 2000). Norms which cohere in a "relatively stable collection of practices and rules defining appropriate behavior for specific groups of actors in specific situations" produce a normative definition of institutions (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998:891). From this perspective, institutions become defined as bundles of norms.

Much creative work has grown out of this new concern with norms in the international system. But there are problems with reducing institutions to bundles of norms. First, we need to ask who defines the standards of appropriate behavior within or in contact with institutions, and under what conditions other actors will accept these norms. Second, as Finnemore and Sikkink point out, institutions are a mix of rules and practices; the particular mix can vary over time - both with the personnel who manage them and as a result of the policy problems they face (ibid.) and the relations between underlying norms and actual practice varies. Third, once in existence for certified sets of actors, institutions become available as targets and resources to actors who may share their norms only partially or not at all. Defining institutions in terms of the norms they embody elides their interactions with key players both within and outside of the institution and the variety of uses that access to the institution allows these players.

International institutions†norms may be more or less congruent with the norms and organizational forms found in different national settings (Eckstein 1966). John Meyer and his associates have done pathbreaking work looking at the universality of the "state norm" across the international system (Meyer, et al, 1997a; Boli and Thomas 1999) and at modern legal systems as expressions of universal norms (Boyle and Meyer 1998). They have demonstrated the co-occurrence in the growth in international and national activities and institutions around the environment and derived this from a normative perspective (Meyer et al 1997b). But there is little or no attention to the relations between norms and practice in the work of this school. 

Nevertheless, we cannot proceed very far without interrogating the norms that nonstate actors array in transnational settings. If the norms, practices and organizational forms that domestic actors find in international institutions are congruent with their own, they are more likely to interact with them successfully. Wishing to profit from access to international institutions, domestic groups may shape even their norms, practices and institutions around these modular forms (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998:893-4; Hovey 1997).But how to mesh the development and diffusion of norms with the strategic actions of nonstate actors remains beyond the reach of the normative perspective.

E. Transnational Activist Networks

As Keck and Sikkink define it, 

a transnational advocacy network includes those relevant actors working internationally on an issue, who are bound together by shared values, a common discourse, and dense exchanges of information and services (1998:2).  For Keck and Sikkink, through a "boomerang effect", resource-poor domestic actors can gain leverage in their own societies against oppressive states by enlisting the aid of resource-richer non-state actors outside their boundaries. The latter -- working through either their own states, international institutions, or both -- activate a transnational network to put pressure against the target state (see the diagram on p. 13). 

The "boomerang effect" is a nice metaphor for the triangular relations that crop up continuously among domestic groups, their governments, and transnational activist networks. Such networks, continue Keck and Sikkink, "are most prevalent in issue areas characterized by high value content and informational uncertainty" (ibid: p.2). A notable aspect of these networks is that they can include both state and international institutional actors. This has implications for both their resources and their potential repertoire of action. For example, activist networks with state representatives among their members can profit from accessing resources of powerful governments and international institutions but they are unlikely to attack the headquarters of the World Trade Organization. Their composite nature provides them with both opportunities and constraints.

To the extent that many such networks continue to appear, we can expect to see more boomerangs whizzing across transnational space. But it is as yet unclear how they relate to the existing state system, to international organizations, or to domestic social actors in their "target" states: Do they depend indirectly on the power of the states they come from? It cannot be unimportant that the majority of those who make them work come from the wealthy states of the North. Do they depend on the support of international institutions? If so, how far beyond the policies of these institutions can their campaigns go? Are they occasional interlopers in the relations between states and their citizens or are they becoming core links in the formation of transnational social movements among these citizens?

F. Transnational Social Movements

The non-state actors that have attracted the most attention in the globalization literature are often referred to as "transnational social movements" (Smith, Chatfield and Pagnucco 1997), and are reflected in transnational movement organizations (TSMOs). These authors define TSMOs as "a subset of social movement organizations operating in more than two states" (1997:43). They see TSMOs as collectivities working to "change some elements of the social structure and/or reward distribution of society" (p. 12).

The problem with this definition is that its parameters are so broad that they comprehend groups as varied as the Fourth International, the World Wildlife Federation and the International Red Cross and take no account of the types of activities in which organizations engage. A danger arising from this broad definition is conflating transnational social movements with NGOs and transnational advocacy networks. Social movements may have connections with such networks and organizations; they may evolve into them as they move into transnational activities; but we should take care to distinguish analytically between the two categories -- if only to allow us to understand their relationships and dynamics over time. 

I begin from a more action-oriented perspective, drawn from the political process approach to social movements. From this perspective social movements are 

mobilized groups engaged in sustained contentious interaction with powerholders in which at least one state is either a target or a participant. To be transnational, a social movement ought to have social and political bases outside its target state or society; but to be a social movement, it ought to be clearly seen to be rooted within domestic social networks and engage in contentious politics in which at least ne state is a party to the interaction. Such a definition sets transnational social movements off from the larger universe of international non-governmental organizations and elite transnational activist networks (Khagram and Sikkink 2000). It also allows us to zero in on the set of obstacles they face in engaging in transnational activism.

III. Obstacles to Transnational Collective Action

Scholars of social movements once believed in an automatism of social causation, through which it was sufficient for groups, classes, or political actors to have an objective interest in common for them to produce a social movement. This gave rise to the so-called "hearts and minds" approach to collective action (McAdam 1982: ch. 1). The past three decades of social movement research have taught us to be more cautious about the conditions in which people will mobilize; an entire funnel of causal conduits must be in place to translate structural strain into collective action (Klandermans 1997). That is: it is not only when macrostructural or cultural conditions are conducive to mobilization, but where indigenous social networks, collective identities, and political opportunities come together that concerted collective action is mobilized (Klandermans, Kriesi and Tarrow 1988; McAdam, McCarthy and Zald 1996). If this has been found to be true in the relatively proximate world of national politics, how much mode difficult it must be to mobilize across national boundaries? 

A. Social Networks

Social movements are most likely to take root among pre-existing social networks in which relations of trust, reciprocity, and cultural learning are stored. This is the thesis that Tilly developed when he placed "organization" in a triangular relationship with interest and collective action in his "mobilization model" (1978: p. 57). In examining what kinds of groups are likely to mobilize, Tilly paid attention to both the categories of people who recognize their common characteristics, and to networks of people who are linked to each other by a specific interpersonal bond, than to formal organization (p. 62). The resulting idea of "catnets" stressed a group's inclusiveness as "the main aspect of group structure which affects the ability to mobilize" (p. 64).

McAdam advanced a similar idea when he showed how the recruitment of Freedom Summer volunteers grew out of their participation in pre-existing social networks (1988). Aldon Morris found a similar role for the African American church in the civil rights movement (1984). So did Roger Gould for neighborhood insurgents in successive Parisian revolutions (1995). Social networks provide the interpersonal trust, the collective identities and the social communication of opportunities that galvanize individuals into collective action and to coordinate their actions against significant others in a social movement. 

The key role of interpersonal networks in movement aggregation and mobilization has obvious implications for the likelihood that social movements can form across transnational space. Even if "objective conditions" (eg., economic interdependence, cultural integration or hegemony, or institutional diffusion) produce the preconditions for the appearance of similar movements in a variety of countries, the transaction costs of linking them into integrated networks would be difficult for any social movement to accomplish in the absence of activists whose ties cross national boundaries on a regular basis and exhibit the mutual trust and reciprocity of domestic social networks. Cheap international transportation, electronic communication and lobbying, and international subcontracting provide resources for various kinds of social networks to form across national boundaries (Bob 1997; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Wellman and Giulia 1998). But the same mechanisms work in the opposite direction; for example, international subcontracting can as easily produce economic nationalism as cooperation.

B. Collective Identities

In the social movement field, just as macro-structural causal arguments have given way to social network ones, pure interest-borne models have been challenged by identity arguments (Melucci 1988, 1996).The two categories actually reinforce one another: where networks can both form out of the social relations of everyday life and be built around purposive goals, collective identities are either "embedded" in the relations of everyday life or "detached" from them for purposive goals (McAdam, Tarrow, Tilly 2000: ch. 2). 

Many of the political identities that emerge in contentious politics are the familiar ones of family, friendship group, neighborhood or work group. But others are detached from the structures of everyday life. Movements often strive to construct new detached identities -- as Zionism fought to discard the Eastern European image of the Jew as urban, mercantile, and shrinking from conflict for one that would be rural, productive, and courageous; or as African Americans worked to create a new and more positive image of blackness, in a community in which lightness of skin color had once been a sign of high status. This makes it plausible to think of transnational identities developing around parallel claims in widely differing sites of conflict.

But that identities can be "imagined" does not make the imagining automatic or necessarily effective. We can summarize the main problems surrounding transnational identity formation in three brief points: 

First, identities embedded in the relations of everyday life are often the basis of aggregation in social movements, and this is an obvious obstacle to building movements across national boundaries. The task of creating detached identities that will "travel" is difficult but it is not inherently impossible, as the example of militant fundamentalist Islam shows.

Second, social movements require solidarity to act collectively and consistently; creating common identities around their claims is only the first step in doing so. Thus, feminists seeking concrete local gains identify themselves with woman's oppression since the dawn of time; environmentalists seeking a stop to solid waste disposal in their communities construct themselves as the representatives of most of humanity; and well-paid, skilled "aristocrats of labor" present themselves as the vanguard of the suffering proletariat. But such detached identities are in constant struggle with the embedded identities that everyday life is built upon and constantly reinforce. As a result of these dualities, most social movements remain far more contingent and volatile than their constructed identities allow. If this is true for movements operating in national space, how much more difficult must it be to fashion enduring detached identities out of the varied materials of social life in a variety of cultures?

Third, building a movement around strong ties of collective identity -- whether inherited or constructed -- does much of the work that would normally fall to organization; but it cannot do the work of mobilization -- which depends on framing identities so that they will lead to collective action, alliance formation, and conflictual interaction with opponents. In fact, in the name of broad, categorical identities, identity politics often produces insular, sectarian, and divisive movements incapable of expanding membership, broadening appeals, and negotiating with prospective allies. 

Moreover, research on social movements shows that identities are negotiated among people who know one another, meet frequently, and work together on common projects -- in other words, identities are dependent on networks. This makes it particularly difficult to construct new identities among people who live far apart, speak different languages, have varied social and ethnic backgrounds, and face different opponents, in the presence of different structures of opportunity and constraint. 

C. Political Opportunity Structure

Like much else in contemporary social movement theorizing, the concept of political opportunity dates from the last major social upheaval in the West -- the 1960s. In both Western Europe and the United States, many were struck with how changes in modern society were expanding the incentives for ordinary citizens to engage in contentious politics. By the concept of political opportunity, I mean consistent -- but not necessarily formal or permanent -- dimensions of the political environment that provide incentives for collective action by affecting peoples' expectations for success or failure. Compared with theorists of resource mobilization, with whom they are often confused, writers in the political opportunity tradition emphasize the mobilization of resources external to the group. They also, for the most part, emphasize elements of opportunity that are perceived by insurgents -- for structural changes that are not experienced can hardly be expected to affect people's behavior, except indirectly.

Most political opportunity theorists specify the mechanisms of opportunity in local, regional or national terms: the electoral realignments that produced greater receptivity to African American claims in the U.S. South in the 1950s (Piven and Cloward 1977); the features of institutional access that offered more opportunities for protest in mayor-council cities than in city manager ones (Eisinger 1973); the availability of influential allies who offered help to American farm workers in the 1960s, but were not present in the 1940s (Jenkins and Perrow 1977); the uncertainty and weakness of repression that encourages insurgents to take action (Mcadam 1996). 

These dimensions of opportunity are cast in intra-national terms. But there is no inherent reason why opportunity structure must be limited to national or local politics (Khagram and Sikkink 2000). For example, Mcadam argues that Cold War foreign policy goals influenced a change in the Eisenhower administration's racial policies and in that way provided incentives for the civil rights movement (1998). That was an indirect causal linkage; more direct mechanisms can be observed in the response of Mexican immigrants to the United States to the growing strength of opposition parties in Mexico, which encouraged them to campaign in favor of their right to absentee ballots (Perez Godoy 1998). Marks and McAdam argue that the consultative opportunity structure of the European Commission induces social actors to shift from contentious forms of action to lobbying when they shift their actions from their national settings to Brussels (1996). 

IV. Overcoming the Obstacles

What mechanisms are necessary to connect domestic social actors with others in sustained contention in international contexts in a way that can overcome these obstacles? Under what conditions can they knit together the social networks, construct the collective identities, and identify opportunities to create transnational social movements? The arguments outlined above would tend to argue: "not many and not often!" It is not that there are no opportunities for transnational networks to intervene in domestic political contexts; or that such "top down" intervention on behalf of human rights, the environment, or indigenous people does not do a lot of good for rights-and-resource-poor actors (see, for example, Risse, Ropp and Sikkink 1999). What seems more difficult is for such domestic actors to "unbundle" territoriality with sufficient resources to forge long-term ties outside their familiar surroundings. To do that, special settings and resources are necessary which combine social network formation, collective identity construction, and the political opportunities to bring grassroots activists together around common interests. 

Putting ourselves in the shoes of such domestic actors, when are they likely to access the international system and through which mechanisms?

What follows are some random examples of each mechanism, chosen only to illustrate their different channels and not intended to be exhaustive. In contrast to the "strong thesis" †which tended to bundle all forms of transnational contention together, I stress the differences because they are bound to lead to different levels and types of transnational interaction. While "domestication" and "resource borrowing" may rhetorically be linked to "transnational collective action, they actually take place on home ground and are subject to the constraints and incentives of domestic polities; and while "externalization" takes social actors outside their borders, it does so in a vertical form, in seeking sponsorship from elite actors and networks. Of the four, only "internationalization" †which is most likely to take place in the framework of international institutions †is structurally likely to produce transnational cooperation among non-elite actors. 


The simplest -- and most indirect -- of these forms is making claims within domestic space against external actors who are seen to impinge on actors' own interests or their compatriots'. It is "simple" because actors can use the same repertoire of contention and depend on the same resources and alliance structures they have available in domestic contention; it is "indirect" because it takes place in domestic political space and has no implications for reducing the power of states.

Research on the first wave of transnational protests -- the anti-World Bank protests of the 1980s -- dealt mainly with domestication (Kowaleski 1989; Walton 1989). These protests took traditional forms, created no substantial transnational ties, and left very little behind when they were over, though they may have made international lending agencies less cavalier in demanding that governments slash spending to meet their international debt obligations. 

Domestic protest against foreign capital is also mainly traditional in the form it takes. It may be somewhat easier to mobilize workers against factory closures when the firm is foreign-owned than domestic. And aspects of foreign capital -- for example, its more willing acceptance of organized labor in South Africa than domestic capital (Seidman 1994) -- can make it an easier target. But neither of these are central to the structure of the relationship. As textile workers in Central America are discovering, capital with low fixed costs is far more mobile than labor and may respond to claims for worker rights by moving to another country (Anner 1998).

Resource Borrowing:

Workers can sometimes profit from their relations with workers in other countries when each of these has something to gain from the relationship and enjoys proximity and affinities that can help to cross boundaries. For example, the Vilvorde case in 1997 brought French and Belgian workers out on strike together against the Renault company, which was laying off workers in its Belgian plant (Imig and Tarrow 1997). However, this rare "Eurostrike" depended at least in part on the existence of transnational organizations in the form of Renault's European Works Council and in the intervention of officials of the European Union (Lagneau and Lefebure 1999; Lillie 1999a).

Such borrowing of resources is often short-circuited by the longterm differences among social actors in different countries; for example, American trade unionists helping textile workers to organize in Central America do so at least in part to level the costs of their products in the United States (Anner 1998). Resource borrowing is also unstable because it is frequently based on the intersection of different kinds of claims -- as when American environmental activists on the Mexican border help Mexican workers who primarily seek higher wages (Williams 1997). These relations are often based on pyramiding different kinds of resources -- for example, as when American unionists used their political clout with the American media against Kathy Lee Gifford's textile firm to complement the strike actions of Latin American workers (Anner 1999), or when environmental groups pyramided their political clout in Washington on the direct actions of Brazilian rubber tappers (Keck 1995). Because of these disjunctions in types of claims and resources, or because they are based on short-term grievances, these campaigns seldom ripen into permanent transnational relationships. 

Professional advocacy organizations and networks increasingly offer their resources to weak domestic actors (Keck and Sikkink 1998). But the activities of these external activists are organized by "campaign", rather than through long-term involvement in the claims of their allies; only where their domestic allies are able to forge longterm external ties is there a sustained transnationalization of their claims.


What I call externalization is a somewhat more open-ended mechanism than the first two. When domestic actors seek outside help, they go beyond national boundaries and opportunity structures. This exposes them to new norms, new forms of organization, and enables them to gain sympathy and support from international organizations. The Liverpool dockers who were fired by the Merseyside Port Authority in 1996 managed to trigger dock strikes in a variety of countries through their international contacts. More recently, flight attendants working for airlines that have combined into international alliances have engaged in solidarity actions (Lillie 1999b). In both cases, however, the transnational structure of the industry has provided the incentives for labor to combine across borders. 

Externalization can also emerge from episodes of resource borrowing when domestic actors who have seen the role played by transnational advocacy networks learn to seek that help from these or other agencies. The history of struggle against dam projects financed by the World Bank shows how the initial borrowing of resources from international environmental groups can produce externalization, as activists learn to use international contacts and organizations to defend their lands from inundation (Khagram 1999, 2000). 

But externalization poses its own dangers -- that activists whose activities have become transnational will lose touch with their base in domestic social networks. For example, growing out of anti-dam campaigns, a cosmopolitan cadre of activists developed, dividing its time between grassroots struggles at home and the representation of their movements' interests abroad (Kothari 2000). The same danger has been observed in the Russian women's movement, in which privileged activists who receive western financial assistance are given advantages that are deeply resented by others who fail to enjoy such support (Richter 1999). 

Externalization works most successfully when there is a permanent venue for bringing together domestic activists, transnational organizations, and third party states. To some extent, western advocacy groups can serve this function. For example, a good deal of the activity of groups like Amnesty International in London or the World Wildlife Federation in Washington consists of investigating cases for possible adoption abroad. Such organizations will frequently take on a case due to the activities of talented and well-connected activists able to travel and make their case articulately (Bob 1997). Conversely, however, domestic groups whose needs may be equally great -- but lack these resources -- will be unable to externalize their struggles. 


Sustained cooperation with actors from other countries against the actions of one or another state or international institution is the most pregnant possibility for unbundling territorial limits. When domestic activists interact routinely with others with similar claims, they can form transnational networks and identities and take advantage of international opportunities to advance these claims.

The Vilvorde conflict illustrates an important aspect of internationalization: the capacity of domestic groups to utilize the resources of international organizations and institutions. As part of plans to Europeanize industrial relations, the European Union required that firms of a certain size doing business in more than one member-state create European Works Councils. Renault's EWC was active in encouraging and coordinating the transnational strike and protest activities of the firm's French and Belgian workers against the planned plant closure in Belgium (Lillie 1999). The council helped these workers (many of whom spoke three different languages and came from ideologically-distinct union movements) to form social networks, at least temporarily frame their grievances in common terms, and turn the threatened plant closing into an opportunity for transnational cooperation. 

This takes me to my final topic and boldest claim: that it is when domestic actors can access international institutions that they most easily overcome the obstacles to transnational contention and gain longterm resources to support their claims. 

V. Institutional Opportunities for Contentious Politics There are three possible routes that we can imagine for the formation of transnational social movements: first, a "grassroots" hypothesis: transnational movements are constructed out of pre-existing domestic social movements whose activists find one another across national boundaries; 

second, an "elitist" hypothesis: transnational activist networks, born as elite organizations in one set of (usually "northern") countries, identify subject populations to help in other (usually "southern") ones;

third, an "institutional" hypothesis: transnational social movements form as grassroots movement activists and activist networks encounter one another and develop lateral links around the opportunity structure afforded by international organizations, regimes and institutions. 

Though the first and second hypotheses find some empirical support in various sectors of transnational activity, they pose several problems:

Scholars who entertain the "grassroots" hypothesis have had a hard time specifying the mechanisms through which resource-poor grassroots activists "find" one another across transnational space. Normally, as we see from the examples above, a particular social actors will seek support from a cosmopolitan activist network for its own short-term claims; 

it does not follow that links with similarly-placed domestic actors from other countries will follow.

Scholars who focus on transnational elite networks have not paid much attention to how they solder their links to domestic social actors in a variety of states. On the contrary, evidence is accumulating that their activities are organized around short-term campaigns, their assistance is selective, and they may even trigger a competitive process among resource-poor actors seeking help from external sources.

The third hypothesis provides at least a hypothetical linkage: that international institutions provide mechanisms of brokerage, certification, modeling, and social appropriation through which the "grassroots" and the "elitist" functions can operate. 

These terms need some elementary definition:

By brokerage I mean making connections between otherwise unconnected domestic actors in a way that produces at least a temporary political identity that did not exist before;

by certification, I mean the recognition of the identities and legitimate public activity of either new actors or actors new to a particular cite of activity;

By modeling, I mean the adoption of norms, forms of collective action or organization in one venue that have been demonstrated in another;

By social appropriation, I mean the use of an institution's resources or reputation to serve the purposes of affiliated groups .

There is little question that the number and resources of international institutions have increased manyfold in the last decades. From the wave of mutual security arrangements of the Cold War to the enforceable treaties governing space, the sea, whaling, and disarmament negotiated in the 1970s and 1980s, to regional and international trade organizations that have mushroomed in the 1990s, states appear to be in a race to bind the globe in the grip of international institutions. Because they provide the most available venues for brokerage, certification, modeling and institutional appropriation, international institutions are the most likely venue in which resource-weak domestic groups can overcome the obstacles to transnational collective action.

While international institutions vary greatly on the dimensions of communication, coordination, and constraint, and the degree to which they encourage member-states to adopt transnational norms, they all share at least one benchmark characteristic: legitimating the access of non-state actors to decision-making levels beyond the nation-state. This facilitates the following processes: 

    • providing an authoritative venue in which they can call into question behaviors of their own and other governments;
    • exposing them to international norms and forms of action that may or may not correspond to accepted norms and behaviors in their own societies; 
    • placing them in contact with states and citizens of other states with whom they can jointly elaborate new norms and forms of action;
    • enabling the formation of transnational alliances where they can call into question behaviors of both their own and other governments; 
    • legitimating the intrusion of these transnational alliances within the domestic structures of states that support these institutions thus
    • facilitating the intrusion of transnational networks of activists into third-party states in loose alliance with resource-poor domestic actors in those states who cannot defend themselves (Keck and Sikkink 1998).



No single international institution is going to provide the mechanisms to facilitate all of these steps (indeed, most of them fall well short of that threshold and some are positively insulated against such infiltration and exploitation of their resources). But the list provided above can perhaps help us to ask how the degree of communication, coordination, and constraint that an international institution possesses will lead to a lower or a higher degree of facilitation for the transnational connections of non-state actors.

VI. Conclusions

Beginning from a cautious and skeptical perspective on "global civil society", in this essay I have argued that domestic social actors do not access the international system when they protest domestically against external agents; nor do they do so when they temporarily borrow the resources of external actors on their native soil -- though much good can come of this resource borrowing. 

More positive outcomes can result when domestic actors externalize their claims -- seeking the intervention of transnational advocacy groups, third-party states, or international institutions. But this mechanism is partial, selective and vertical, and can create a split between domestic and transnational activists. Internation- alization, in contrast, forges horizontal links among activists with similar claims and is most likely to produce transnational social movements. 

International institutions can thus play a facilitating role in all four processes but are particularly important as targets and fulcra for internationalization. This leads to the paradox that international institutions -- created by states, and usually by powerful ones -- can be the arenas in which transnational contention forms. I do not maintain that states create international institutions in order to encourage contention; states are more likely to delegate than to fuse sovereignty, (Moravcsek 1998). But because the norms and practices of international institutions mediate among the interests of competing states, they can provide political opportunities for weak domestic social actors, encouraging their connections with others like themselves and offering resources that can be used in intra-national and transnational conflict. 

Under what conditions is this process most likely to occur? I have argued that -- through brokerage, certification, modeling, and institutional appropriation -- international institutions provide the most likely venue for strengthening domestic groups stymied by their domestic power imbalance. Not only by targeting these institutions, but by encountering others like themselves in conflictual situations, social movement activists can fashion new collective action frames, supportive networks, and gain access to resources transferable to their national contexts. 

But there are inherent limits to these processes. International institutions are created by states, supported by states, and -- beyond a certain level of tolerance -- serve the interests of states. Many of them are clearly unreceptive to the claims of domestic social actors. Even those that provide venues for network formation, mobilization and collective action, they are not in the business of dissolving state authority structures. When domestic strategies of transnational activism intersect with targeting of their opponents by transnational activist networks, there is the greatest chance for the unbundling of territoriality. But as long as state authorities are the responsible parties for policy at the point of contact with citizens, contentious politics will remain mainly targeted at the national level.


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  1. By accessing the trope of global civil society, its advocates invite social actors to frame their own claims in terms of global imperatives -- a good social movement stratagem -- but not particularly helpful in distinguishing transnational activism from domestic social movements. 
  2. Major mileposts are Boli and Thomas, eds. (1999), della Porta, Kriesi and Rucht, eds. (1999), Finnemore (1996), Finnemore and Sikkink (1998), Guidry, Kennedy and Zald (in preparation), Keck and Sikkink (1998), Khagram, Riker and Sikkink, eds. (in preparation), Price (1997), Risse, Ropp and Sikkink,eds. (1999), Risse-Kappen, ed. (1995), Smith, Chatfield and Pagnucco, eds. (1997), Young, ed. (1997). For a bibliography that tries to keep up with the rapidly expanding literature on transnational contention, see Tarrow and Acostavalle 1999. 
  3. But see McAdam 1998, and the contributions to della Porta, Kriesi and Rucht 1999; Sikkink, Riker and Smith, in preparation; and Smith, Chatfield and Pagnucco, 1997.
  4. Columbia contentious politics participants and some others will recognize the derivation of this definition in ongoing work by notably by McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly (1997 and in preparation). 
  5. For an excellent survey of these four aspects of globalization theory, see Deborah J. Yashar, "Citizenship Claims in Latin America: Parsing out the Role of Globalization," presented to the conference on "Citizenship Claims", Harvard University Center for International Affairs, October 1998. My thanks to Professor Yashar for allowing me to cite her unpublished paper.
  6. For a review and some stimulating hypotheses, see Finnemore and Sikkink 1998 and the sources they describe. Of special interest are Finnemore 19996, P. Katzenstein 1996, Klotz 1995, Price 1997 and the contributions to Khagram, Riker and Sikkink, eds., 2000.
  7. Consider the Catholic Church. No one could doubt that it is a norms-based institution. Yet it harbors actors who share only some of its dominant norms (M. Katzenstein 1999; Tarrow 1988). Moreover, as an international institution, it has adapted its norms and practices to a wide variety of historical periods, cultural settings, and political regimes. Norms, to translate Thomas Risse-Kappen, "do not float freely" (1994). 
  8. For example, Vivien Schmidt argues that the Germans do as well as they do in the European Union in part because business is done in Brussels in a way that is highly congruent with the way they do business at home, through broad, prior consultation with interested parties (1997).
  9. Sikkink and Smith are aware of this problem when they write that "researchers have shown significant growth in international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), but many of these organizations are not social movements or networks". See Sikkink and Smith 2000; compare Smith, Chatfield and Pagnucco 1997.

  10. The main stages in the development of this perspective can be traced through its origin in Tilly 1978, to McAdam 1992; Tilly 1995, McAdam, McCarthy and Zald 1996; Tarrow 1998b, and McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2000.
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