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The Importance of Social Movements in Global Politics

Throughout the years, transnational social movements have played a crucial role in global society – and they have adopted a number of strategies to promote global change. Black Lives Matter and climate change activist groups in the United States have become a prime example of using the power of social movements to influence public policy.

Social movements serve as a gateway to institutions – as actors in social movements tend to put pressure on political institutions and hold them accountable. More often than not, the prevalence and health of social movements in a given country can indicate the quality of its democracy.

The most effective transnational movements work to press individual governments to abide by international norms or to ratify treaties [1]. When national political systems are repressive or restrictive, appeals to international norms or alliances can bring international pressure to bear on states, thereby altering the balance of power in national political contests.

In the case of Argentina, human rights activists mobilized their transnational networks, they introduced an additional cost (U.S military aid) to the government if it persisted in flouting international law.

This illustrates to us that transnational movements often influence both national and international political processes. By working with international institutions, they help define the institutional arrangements of our global political system.

Transnational social movements enable citizen participation in otherwise unresponsive political spaces. They do in fact ensure democratic participation – because as groups around the world mobilized to advocate for human rights or to limit the use of military force, they have found themselves directly involved in the process of helping define the role of citizens in global institutions that were established by states.

Global political institutions such as the European Union and United Nations were formally organized by governments with little desire to see citizen participation. These institutions were characterized as high politics – meaning that they needed to be removed from the pressures of what were seen as poorly informed and passionate citizenries. Hence, transnational social movements became the space for direct citizen participation in these global institutions of high politics.

Unfortunately, there has been a substantial democratic deficit in the world – and transnational social movements are the only suitable mechanism that will ensure that international institutions that are unelected and largely unaccountable to citizens remain in check and their interests aligned with that of the general citizenry.

Thankfully, after years of growing transnational activism aimed at promoting international agreements for human rights, more equitable development, and environmental protections, more transnational movement groups are demanding global democracy in the twenty first century.

Transnational social movements help shape institutions, policies, and systems of meaning, and they are important actors in our global system. By insisting that the global system be made more open and accountable, transnational movements are essential for the preservation of democracy.

Lastly, recent research has suggested that high mobilization is necessary for a movement to gain political influence and that certain mobilizing structures and political circumstances boost the productivity of movement efforts [2].


[1] Smith, Jackie. "Transnational social movements." The Wiley‐Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements (2013). [2] Amenta, Edwin, Neal Caren, Elizabeth Chiarello, and Yang Su. "The political consequences of social movements." Annual Review of Sociology 36 (2010): 287-307.


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