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Political Research Exchange - PRX

Social Movements in International Relations: Recognizing Complexity

Civil Society
International Relations
Social Movements
Political Sociology
Alejandro Peña
University of York
Alejandro Peña
University of York

The paper discusses the dominant treatment of social movements in International Relations (IR) theory, positing that the discipline approaches these phenomena according to dyadic conceptions of politics and society, which inadequately describe contemporary protest movements and the complex interactions movements can have with international political structures. Thus, movements are largely discussed from either liberal perspectives, as part of associational ‘global civil society’ networks contributing to democratization, norm-diffusion, and global governance, or from critical positions, where they represent emancipatory reactions against the symbolic boundaries of dominant global cultural and political institutions. As a result, the contribution of social movements to international affairs in understood in normative-teleological terms. The article challenges and complements these two positions through a third paradigm that emphasizes systemic interactions, combining English School’s ideas of World Society with sociological Systems Theory. From this perspective, social movements are understood as transversal irritations that can generate non-coherent reactions from social systems operating with differentiated political and functional logics. The paper aims to widen existing discussions about social and protest movements in global politics, and enhance the theoretical repertoire by which IR frames social phenomena that cannot be easily subsumed under nationalist and rationalist premises.
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