transnational dissent:

Solidarity and Division Among Activists



Ellen Reese (, Christopher Chase-Dunn (,

Mark Herkenrath, Christine Petit, Linda Kim and Darragh White

Department of Sociology and Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside

Riverside, CA 92521-0419

v. 7-8-05  xxxx words (draft, more to come)


Abstract: Our survey research at the 2005 World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre examines the relationships among eighteen transnational social movements by asking participants at the WSF which movements they identify with and participate in, about the background characteristics of participants, and about the complementary and contentious relationships among the movements. And we also asked participants to identify contradictions among the movements and to suggest ways of resolving contradictions that would facilitate cooperation. We also asked specifically about North/South contradictions within the labor movement and about contradictions between the labor movement and the environmental movement. And we also asked participants their views regarding issues of anti-globalization and globalization from below. This paper reports those of our results that are germane to understanding contradictions within the family of progressive anti-systemic movements.

(add sentence about race, class and gender issues)

Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems in Philadelphia, PA. August 13, 2005, Session on Transnational Social Movements.  Paper is available at

As economic and political ties among countries have increased over the past few decades, so have ties among social activists.  Greater regional cooperation among labor, environmental, and human rights activists was forged through their participation in international meetings, such as the 1995 United Nations women’s conference in Beijing, cross-border labor struggles, international lobbying campaigns, and global protest events, such as the protest disrupting the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle (Alvarez, Dagnino, and Escobar 1998; Brecher, Costello, and Smith 2002 [2000]; Harrod and O’Brien 2002; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Smith and Johnston 2002; Starr 2000; Vayrynen 2001). 

Uniting across borders, activists have posed serious challenges to current and proposed trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, and other international policies.  They have also challenged the practices of multinational companies and international financial institutions (Armbruster 1999; Brecher, Costello, and Smith 2002 [2000]; Dalton and Rohrschneider 1999; Jie 2001; Reiman 2002).  Nevertheless, transnational activists are divided in terms of their assessments of the most serious global problems, their main causes, and strategies for resolving them (Brecher, Costello, and Smith 2002 [2000], Starr 2000, and Ponniah and Fisher 2003). Our research project seeks to better understand the social and ideological bases of unity and division among transnational activists through an analysis of original survey data. 

Theories, Research, and Hypotheses

Our research is guided by insights from the literature on social movements, especially transnational movements, and the sociology of knowledge.  Scholars, such as Meyer and Tarrow (1998), McAdam (1999[1986]), and Jenkins and Eckert (1986), suggest that when social movement organizations, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or non-profits, rely on external sponsors for financial support, this tends to moderate their political views.  Following these insights, we would expect to find that activists affiliated with non-profits and non-governmental organizations that are heavily reliant on private donors and foundations may be more likely to hold reformist positions than those affiliated with labor unions or political groups funded primarily with membership dues.

Consistent with Karl Mannheim (1952), much research suggests that there are distinct “political generations” whose ideological beliefs are shaped by important historical events and trends that occur when they are young adults (Klatch 1999; Zeitlin 1967).  Drawing on these insights, we hypothesize that older activists will be more likely than younger activists to identify with socialist or communist views that were more popular several decades ago, before the fall of the Berlin wall.  

            Previous research also suggests that activists’ political views will vary depending on their country of origin.  Tarrow (1998) suggests that national political culture tends to shape activists’ views.  Consistent with this, we might expect that activists from countries with strong socialist parties, such as China or Russia, would be more likely to hold socialist views than activists from countries where such parties are weak (but see Chase-Dunn and Boswell 1999).  Political divisions among activists might also be related to the strength of particular religions, such as Protestantism, Buddhism, or Catholicism, or broader cultural patterns, such as the strength of individualism or collectivism, within their home countries.  Other scholars suggest that activists’ views on economic policies differ according to their country’s level of economic development and position in the world system (Brecher, Costello, and Smith 2002 [2000]; Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000). 

We plan to test each of these hypotheses and explore the role of other factors, such as class, race, or gender, in shaping activists’ views and priorities.  In addition, we will explore how and why political divisions might vary across global regions.

(add stuff about race, class, gender issues, representation and participation at the WSF)


Our research is based on mainly survey data that we have collected at the World Social Forum (WSF) in January 2005.  Since 2001, the World Social Forum has quickly become the largest international meeting of activists.  In 2004, it drew together an estimated 100,000 people.  The World Social Forum thus provides an excellent opportunity to survey transnational social activists, especially those from the global north and Latin America which tend to dominate such meetings.  In January 2005, Dr. Reese, and a team of student researchers from UCR traveled to Porto Alegre, Brazil to survey more than 600 adult participants of the World Social Forum through a one-time survey that was available in English, Spanish and Portuguese.  Our survey asked participants’ opinions on a set of questions designed to capture the main political divisions described in previous research (Brecher, Costello, and Smith 2002 [2000]; Starr 2000; Ponniah and Fisher 2003; Teivainen 2004).  We also asked a series of open-ended survey questions about possible conflicts within and across movements and their possible resolution in order to explore potential sources of conflict and cooperation not captured by previous research. Other survey questions request information about activists’ social background and their affiliation with various movements and political organizations. 

We plan to use logistic regression to test the above hypotheses with a dataset that combines information from our survey of World Social Forum participants with national-level data gathered by other researchers.  In particular, we will collect international data on the level of development, strength of socialist parties, and commonality of particular religious and cultural beliefs for each of our survey participants’ home countries. 

Our research aims to provide us with a more accurate picture of the political divisions within and between transnational social movements and the social bases of cooperation and conflict among the activists involved in them.  Our findings will be of great interest to both scholars of transnational social movements and activists involved in such movements, especially those interested in further uniting the “movement of movements” that are represented at the World Social Forum.

The issue of representation is a huge one for the participants at the World Social Forum and our study will be able to add to the available knowledge about who attends. Earlier research (Schonleitner 2003) found that a majority of the attendees are majoring in, or have undergraduate or graduate degrees in, social sciences. The activists in the emerging global civil society, who are very concerned about the extent to which poor and disadvantaged groups are able to participate in global politics, are themselves mainly people who have training in the social science disciplines.

The notion of social scientists doing research to help themselves form effective global political partnerships, collaborations and organizations would come as no surprise to theorists of the role of intellectuals in political contestation. Antonio Gramsci and the other students of the sociology of knowledge have understood this for a long time. The reaction of popular forces against global corporate capitalism and the ideology of neoliberalism is generating new constellations of ideas and new forms of organization. Elites have long participated in the global polity as statesmen, publicists, scientists, religious leaders and etc. What is happening now is the emergence of transnationalized segments of the popular classes who are using new information technologies to organize globally. The World Social Forum is the most important arena for the organization of global networks and parties that claim to represent the peoples of the Earth (Gill 2000). The processes of party-network formation are what we are studying, and also what we intend to facilitate.


Analysis and report:


Descriptive statistics: how many questionnaires filled out?  Age, gender, race, occupation, homeplace, movements identified and active, memberships in different kinds of groups.

People from core, periphery and semiperiphery. (Lat Am semip countries= Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela. Other Semip: China, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Singapore, South Africa, Israel, Russia) Core countries: all Western Europe, Canada, U.S. Japan, Australia, New Zealand).

Typical answers to questions about globalization from below, desireablity of world government, need for more decentralization, etc. how about an index of items for the proglobfrombelow vs. anti-glob of any kind?

analysis of group memberships. How many groups identify and active in: 1=%, 2=% 3=%, 4 or more=%

Most frequently mentioned pair, pairs that never occurred. Counts for each pair.

Pairs of particular interest: labor-environmental


Network analysis of links among movements?


Tough open-ended questions: movements perceived as having big contradictions. Suggested solutions.


Develop reformist/radical index based on answers to questions about reform/replace. See if it correlates with source of funding.






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