Transnational Dissent

and the World Social Forum:

Alliances and Contradictions


Principal Investigators:

Ellen Reese, Sociology, UCR

Chris Chase-Dunn, Institute for World Systems Research and Sociology, UCR

April Linton, Sociology, UCSD

William Robinson, UCSB



Sonia Alvarez, Politics, UCSC
Christopher Ansell, Political Science, UC-Berkeley
Ralph Armbruster, Ethnic Studies, UCSB
Edna Bonacich, Ethnic Studies and Sociology, UCR
Peter Evans, Sociology, UC-Berkeley
Inderpal Grewal, Women's Studies, UCI
David Meyer, Sociology, UCI
David Smith, Sociology, UCI

v. 1-27-05


Our proposed project has two goals.  First, the principal investigators will examine the social bases of cooperation and conflict among transnational social activists through an analysis of survey data and field observations collected during the 2005 meeting of the World Social Forum.  Second, we will hold a one-day workshop for UC researchers studying globalization and social movements to address two types of research questions: (1) How are the relations of cooperation and contention among social activists shaped by global structures? (2) Under what conditions can transnational social movements coalesce to form powerful and effective forces that can help to shape global policies?



Research Questions and Goals

As economic and political ties between countries have increased over the past few decades, so have ties among social activists.  Greater international 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 (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 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 within these countries, as elsewhere, are divided in terms of their diagnoses of global problems, their priorities, and strategies for social change (Brecher, Costello, and Smith 2002 [2000], Starr 2000, and Ponniah and Fisher 2003). Our proposed research project seeks to better understand the social bases of cooperation and conflict among transnational activists. 

Literature Review

Our research is guided by insights from the social movements literature and the sociology of knowledge.  Scholars, such as Meyer and Tarrow (1998) 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 heavily reliant on private donors and foundations would be more likely to hold reformist positions than those affiliated with labor unions or political groups funded primarily with membership dues.

           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.  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). 

Following Karl Mannheim (1952), we would also expect to find that there are distinct “political generations” whose ideological beliefs are shaped by important historical events and trends that occur when they are young adults.  In particular, 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.   We plan to test each of these hypotheses and explore the role of other factors, such as region, class, race, or gender, in shaping activists’ views and priorities. 


Research Methods


Our research will be based on survey data that is being collected at the World Social Forum (WSF) in January 2005.  The World Social Forum was created in 2001 to provide a forum for activists in the global democracy movement, who demand greater public control over the global economy, to exchange ideas.  Since 2001, the World Social Forum has quickly become the largest international meeting of activists, including labor, human rights, feminist, civil rights, and environmental activists.  In 2004, it drew together an estimated 100,000 people.  The World Social Forum thus provides an excellent opportunity to survey transnational activists.  In January 2005 Dr. Reese and a team of student researchers from UCR traveled to Porto Alegre, Brazil to survey about 700 adult participants of the World Social Forum. The survey is in English, Spanish and Portuguese (see 

Our survey asks 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).  We also ask a series of open-ended 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 items request information about activists’ social background and their affiliation with various movements and political organizations.  Because of the potentially sensitive nature of these questions, participation in the survey is completely voluntary and all information regarding the participants’ individual identities will be strictly confidential.

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 existing international data on countries’ level of development, strength of socialist parties, and commonality of particular religious and cultural beliefs for each of our survey participants’ home countries.  We will supplement our survey research with field observations at the WSF on the main lines of political agreement and debates among transnational social activists regarding the causes of global social problems, visions of the future, and strategies of change.

Contribution to Scholarly and Policy Communities

There is a growing body of research documenting various lines of political agreement and conflict among transnational social activists (e.g., see Brecher, Costello, and Smith 2002 [2000], Starr 2000, and Ponniah and Fisher 2003).  There has been little systematic research on the social bases of this however.  Our findings will thus be of particular interest to scholars of transnational movements as well as participants of transnational movements who are interested in forging stronger alliances with one another so that they can increase their influence on global policies and practices.

Plan for Raising Extramural Support

After completing papers on their research findings, principal investigators will organize a one-day workshop with a broader group of collaborators whose research focuses on processes of globalization and transnational social movements.  In this meeting, we will seek feedback on our research, exchange research ideas, and develop ideas for larger research proposals that build on our study of transnational social movements.  In particular, we will address two types of inter-related questions:

(1)                        How are the relations of cooperation and contention among social activists shaped by global structures?

(2)                        Under what conditions can transnational social movements coalesce to form powerful and effective forces that can help to shape global policies?


Based on the ideas generated at this workshop, the principal investigators will then collaborate with interested colleagues to develop new research proposals to study the cooperation and conflict among activists involved in actual transnational campaigns.  We plan to submit proposals to several funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the Ford and Mellon Foundations and the Carnegie Council’s new initiative on “global policy innovations.”

Work Schedule

Winter 2005: We will collect surveys and make field observations at the World Social Forum.


Spring 2005: We will analyze our field observations and begin to construct a data set of our survey findings.


Summer 2005: We will create a data set of our survey findings and clean and code our data.  We will also conduct a preliminary analysis of our survey results.  We will present our initial findings at the 2005 meeting of the American Sociological Association and the 2005 meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. 


Fall 2006: We will write an initial research proposal draft and circulate it among our UC collaborators along with our revised research papers.  We will then hold a workshop with our UC collaborators to exchange research ideas and develop our ideas for externally sponsored research projects.


Winter 2007: We will revise our research papers and submit them to academic journals and publish a brief synopsis of our findings through the UCR’s Institute for Research on the World System website, and with permission, the official website for the World Social Forum.

Spring and Summer 2007: We will finalize our external grant proposals. 




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Armbruster, Ralph.  1999.  “Globalization and Cross-border Labor Organizing: The Guatamalan Maquiladora Industry and the Phillips Van Heusen Workers’ Movement.”  Latin American Perspectives.  26(2): 109-128. 


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