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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

The Global Justice Movement: How Far Does the Classic Social Movement Agenda Go in Explaining Transnational Contention?

This paper analyses the new form of contention represented by the global justice movement (GJM) through the lenses of the classic social movement agenda for explaining contentious politics. The paper takes up each of the three core components of the classic agenda (political opportunities, mobilizing structures and framing processes) in order to ascertain their relevance for explaining transnational episodes of popular contention. To what extent is the emergence and development of the GJM dependent on political opportunities that are created at a level located beyond the state, rather than being nationally bounded? To what extent does the movement rely on transnational organizations and networks, rather than national ones? And to what extent does it convey broader collective action frames that allow for cross-national coalitions to be set up, rather than country-specific frames? These are some of the questions whose answers require a systematic analysis of the conditions under which the mobilization of the GJM takes place, and of the mechanisms through which it occurs.

Underlying many analyses of the GJM and transnational contention is the idea of the emergence of a global civil society. Thus, a certain number of scholars argue that the new (transnational) “protest cycle” attests to the emergence of a “movement of movements”, and reflects a decline of nationally based forms of contention and the emergence of a global civil society. The authors of this paper are quite sceptical of this kind of argument. In their view, it overlooks the crucial impact of a number of domestic factors and overstates the idea of an emerging transnational civil society. In particular, they assert, every protest cycle rests on previous mobilizing structures and episodes of contention. Nothing is reinvented from scratch. To a large extent, protest activities that occur at the transnational level, such as those carried by the GJM, rely on networks of actors that are embedded within national arenas of contention.

After a brief historical overview of the emergence and mobilization of the GJM, the bulk of the paper is devoted to an analysis of the GJM following the classic agenda and its core explanatory factors—political opportunities, mobilizing structures and framing processes (including a discussion of the concept of democracy put forward by the GJM). This analysis makes use of empirical evidence drawn from existing studies as well as from an original dataset on participants in two protest events that occurred in Switzerland in 2004. The authors examine the role of political opportunities, mobilizing structures and framing processes for this movement in an attempt to show that the national context remains crucial even for transnational forms of contention, such as those staged by the GJM. They argue that the GJM acts within a multilevel political opportunity structure in which national contexts still impinge in important ways on its mobilization. Country-specific contextual aspects, such as the degree of openness of the political system, the configuration of political alignments, the presence of powerful allies, the prevailing strategies of the authorities toward the movement, but also the presence of pre-existing social networks in which movement participants are embedded, explain why the characteristics and mobilization of the GJM may vary from one country to another. At the same time, the creation of common ways of framing the issue makes the gathering of a variety of different organizations, groups and networks possible.

In the light of the discussion, the authors argue, the classic social movement agenda goes quite far in explaining transnational contention. Of course, it must be adapted to some extent, for example, by taking into account supranational political opportunities in addition to national ones. At present, however, the imprint of the national context and characteristics seems so strong, after centuries of state formation, that even a genuinely transnational movement such as the GJM remains partly imprisoned in the cage built by the nation-state. It is perhaps a semi-freedom status of imprisonment, but still a status of imprisonment.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jun 2006
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD