Transnational Social Movements Essay

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Transnational social movements are movements whose members, organizations, or actions involve more than one nation. Some examples of contemporary transnational social movements are the global justice movement, the women’s movements, the human rights movement, and the indigenous people’s movements. Many social movement scholars link the emergence of transnational social movements to the contemporary processes of globalization, in particular the spread of information and communication technologies that enable people, ideas, finance, corporations, and organizations to move across borders with great ease. Transnational social movements actually hark back to the 19th century and even earlier. Anti-abolitionist, women’s suffrage, anti-colonial, and socialist movements are some earlier examples.

Four different kinds of transnational movements exist. The first are those that spread through diffusion as movement ideas, frames, and issues move from one country to another. Second are transnational movements resulting from external issues playing out on the domestic level, such as protests in specific European countries against European Union policies. Another type involves supra-national bodies responding to local issues, such as trying former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the International Criminal Court as he could not be tried in his own country. The fourth type is collective actions, such as simultaneously staged protests in different countries, for example, the protest marches that took place in many countries against the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003. In all four kinds of transnational movements, local states and political opportunity structures, as well as local activists and their local networks, are equally important. In addition, international bodies and resources can facilitate the spread of transnational social movements, such as the UN World conferences in the 1990s.

What is characteristic of contemporary transnational social movements is that even social movements based in one nation (local movements) are aware of how their issues, identities, strategies, methods, targets of protest, and worldviews can become transnational and how other transnational movements shape their own agenda. Thus, in contemporary transnational social movements, the identities, networks, and communities are as likely to be global as local and global dynamics and audiences constrain and facilitate movements.

The dominant organizational form of transnational social movements is the network or coalition of groups from several different countries. Often, these networks do not have a physical presence but exist solely in cyberspace. Members of networks might meet face to face at international protest events or conferences, but they accomplish most of their work through the Internet. Hence, the dominant protest repertoire of transnational social movements includes education and mobilization, symbolic framing, and strategic use of information. Advocacy, lobbying, support, and direct action are secondary, though increasingly becoming more important. Furthermore, the major targets of most transnational movements are policy mechanisms of local, national, regional, and multilateral international institutions. Such strategies favor educated, middle-class activists or “knowledge experts.”

While there are transnational grassroots social movements as well, such as the Slum and Shack Dwellers International or Women in the Informal Economy Globalizing and Organizing, middle-class knowledge experts comprise most transnational social movements. This has led to transnational social movement skeptics who focus on the uneven geography of such movements. For example, in most transnational social movements, activists and organizations of northern countries are over-represented, with few collaborative relationships among social movements across geographic divides. In addition to geographic unevenness, most southern movements are financially dependent on northern movements. Furthermore, education is a necessary cultural capital and this sometimes leads to friction between those with formal education and those without, reproducing other inequalities within and across countries. Finally, working in transnational social movements sometimes takes away from local organizing and issues, thus creating fragmentation between those who are funded by global agencies and can work transnationally and those who work locally with local resources.

In contrast to these skeptics are transnational social movement boosters who focus on the advantages of transnational organizing. These include international attention to issues, pooling of resources and expertise across nations, and transnational solidarity, which makes a stronger, wider opposition to injustices that are global in scale. The boosters also focus on how the flow of information and resources is no longer just from the privileged North to the underprivileged South, but from South to North as well as from South to South, as activists work across many different borders. Transnational social movement boosters also point to the increasing transnational collective action and its potential for global-level changes.

Many scholars today see transnational social movements as permanent, but the past teaches us that transnational movements are neither inevitable nor irreversible. For example, the international labor movement had its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but received major setbacks after World War II. Also, while the global and local shape each other, tensions between local needs and international concerns are often difficult to reconcile. Despite their uncertain future, contemporary transnational social movements have been successful in multiple ways. For example, the transnational women’s movement led to legislative and policy changes for gender justice in many countries, including a global gender equality regime via the United Nations. Similarly, the transnational environmental movements succeeded in bringing world attention to global warming and through the UN system to pass the Kyoto Protocol. The global justice movement highlighted the contradictions of corporate globalization and the growing inequalities that resulted from it and the need for alternatives, as epitomized by the World Social Forum motto: “Another World Is Possible.”


  1. Della Porta, Donatella and Sidney Tarrow, eds. 2004. Transnational Protest and Global Activism: People, Passions, and Power. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  2. Keck, Margaret and Kathryn Sikkink, eds. 1998. Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  3. Naples, Nancy and Manisha Desai, eds. 2002. Women’s Activism and Globalization: Linking Local Struggles to Transnational Politics. New York: Routledge.

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