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

Toward a Typology of Civil Society Actors: The Case of the Movement to Change International Trade Rules and Barriers



This paper proposes a typology of civil society actors based on organizational attributes and worldviews. It then applies the typology to the movement to change international trade rules and barriers. In so doing, it aims to contribute to current debates about the increasing autonomy and influence of civil society, and the growing diversity of civil society actors in the context of globalization.

The paper begins by sketching the current sociohistorical situation. The author argues, from a social evolution perspective, that the age of globalization is characterized by the emergence of a new social form, the “network”. This new social form is giving way to the proliferation of non-state actors and is transforming the nature of social conflict. The author further maintains that under these conditions, civil society actors are gaining leverage, and the sphere of civil society is gaining greater autonomy and is increasingly becoming the locus of social conflict.

Against this sociohistorical context, the paper next proposes a typology of civil society actors. This typology consists of four categories: (i) the formally structured, hierarchical and rationalized non-governmental organizations (NGOs); (ii) the amorphous and spontaneous, horizontal, charismatic, cathectic and increasingly reticular social movements; (iii) the segmented, flexible, polycentric, synergistic, information-generating networks of civil society actors; and (iv) the geographically fixed and temporally discrete, iterative, rhizomatic plateaus of civil society actors.

In order to historically situate and socially concretize the typology, the author applies it to the case of the movement to change international trade rules and barriers. Toward this end, four moments of this movement, which correspond to the four categories of the typology, are analysed. As an example of the NGO moment, the author considers Focus on the Global South. For the social movement–type, he analyses the Latin American mobilizations against the free trade areas (FTAs). As an example of a network of civil society organizations, he looks at the Trade Justice Movement. And for an example of a plateau of civil society groups, the author considers the World Social Forum, and specifically how the objective of changing trade rules and barriers has been present in this forum.

The author concludes by elaborating his central normative argument: the process of rationalization desired by civil society actors in order to achieve greater influence has, paradoxically, undercut their legitimacy and emancipatory potential. Thus, for example, the economic and juridical ties weaved by NGOs in order to influence “worldly institutions”—the economy, politics and academia—serve to perpetuate the worldly institutions and are at times instrumentalized by these same institutions in order to legitimize themselves.
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  • Pub. Date: 3 Oct 2007
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD