Social Movements and Transnationality: A Conceptual Discussion

Friday, July 18, 2014: 5:30 PM
Room: 418
Oral Presentation
Thomas OLESEN , Aarhus University, Denmark
In June 2009 a short grainy video shocked people all over the world. The video, recorded by a bystander, showed a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha Soltan, dying from a gunshot inflicted by a regime related shooter during protests against the fraudulent Iranian presidential election. Neda almost instantly became a transnational injustice symbol representing the unjust nature of the Iranian regime. The case of Neda is interesting for social movement scholars for a variety of reasons, including the role of new media and the power of photography and citizen journalism (Olesen, forthcoming).

The present paper, however, employs the case to ask a range of conceptual as well as methodological questions about the transnationality of transnational movements. Because while Neda’s televised death, motivated various activist organizations and interest organizations to act and criticize the Iranian regime, the activities around the Neda injustice symbol was much broader. Apart from activists, three categories of actors in particular were vociferous and active: politicians/political parties, media, and networked citizens all expressed outrage and demanded change on the basis of the footage.

This propels us to ask how we can best conceptualize the activities surrounding Neda’s death. Was it a transnational social movement – or something else? In the paper I argue that it was in fact a social movement. Accordingly, I contend that the defining element of a movement is not the actors involved, but rather the kind of action expressed. I also propose that this way of understanding social movements may be especially pertinent in a transnational context where information circulates rapidly and where actors are increasingly networked, connected, and visible and able to engage in numerous and often different political issues at the same time.