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Tarrow: Transnational political contention and institutions in international politics

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Tarrow. 2001. Transnational political contention and institutions in international politics. American Review of Political Science 4: 1-20.


"Recent scholars have broadened the study of transnational relations, once limited to political economy, to include contentious international politics. This is a refreshing trend, but most of them leap directly from globalization or some other such process to transnational social movements and thence to a global civil society. In addition, they have so far failed to distinguish among movements, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and transnational networks and do not adequately specify their relations with states and international institutions. In particular, few mechanisms are proposed to link domestic actors to transnational ones and to states and international institutions. This paper argues that mass-based transnational social movements are hard to construct, are difficult to maintain, and have very different relations to states and international institutions than more routinized international NGOs or activist networks. These latter forms may be encouraged both by states and international institutions and by the growth of a cosmopolitan class of transnational activists. Rather than being the antipodes of transnational contention, international institutions offer resources, opportunities, and incentives for the formation of actors in transnational politics. If transnational social movements form, it will be through a second-stage process of domestication of international conflict."


As IR scholars and social movements scholars have merged their study to produce the study of transnational movements, much conceptual confusion has resulted, for example from adopting terms like "globalization" for studies of social movements without fully specifying what they mean. Also, the concept of "social movement" has been stretched considerably, with people calling transnational lobbying, service, and communication a transnational "movement"--even though they wouldn't call the same activities a "social movement" if they occurred only domestically (10).

In attempt to reduce some of this confusion, Tarrow reviews some of the main forms of transnational action:

Transnational social movements:

They must be identified "not by their goals, which they share with many non´┐Żsocial movements, but by the kind of actions in which they routinely engage," namely "contentious politics" (11), which Tarrow defines as (following McAdam) "episodic, collective interaction among makers of claims and their objects when a) at least one government is a claimant, an object of claims, or a party to the claims and b) the claims would, if realized, affect the interests of at least one of the claimants" (11). Social movements, therefore, are (again, following McAdam) "a particularly congealed form of contention within this universe which I define as 'socially mobilized groups engaged in sustained contentious interaction with powerholders in which at least one actor is either a target or a participant'" (11). A TRANSNATIONAL SOCIAL MOVEMENT is, therefore, "socially mobilized groups with constituents in at least two states, engaged in sustained contentious interaction with powerholders in at least one state other than their own, or against an international institution, or a multinational economic actor."


"International nongovernmental organizations are organizations that operate independently of governments, are composed of members from two or more countries, and are organized to advance their members' international goals and provide services to citizens of other states through routine transactions with states, private actors, and international institutions." (12)

Thus, INGO vs Transnational social movement: "Although both may have social change goals, transnational social movements engage in sustained contentious interaction with states, multinational actors, or international institutions, whereas INGOs engage in routine transactions with the same kinds of actors and provide services to citizens of other states."


"As Keck & Sikkink define it (1998:2), "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." Such networks "are most prevalent in issue areas characterized by high value content and informational uncertainty" (Keck & Sikkink 1998:2)" (13). Thus, a TAN can include both INGOs and Transnational social movements.

  • Tarrow gives several criticisms of Keck and Sikkink here.