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Transnational civil society networks have become increasingly important democratizing actors in global politics. Still, the exploration of democracy in such networks remains conceptually and methodologically challenging. Practice theory provides a framework to study democracy as routinized performances even in contexts of fluid boundaries, temporal relations and a diffuse constituency. The author attempts to understand how new forms of democratic practice emerge in the interaction between political actors and their structural environments.
During recent decades, the arenas of political decision-making have increasingly shifted from national governments to intergovernmental and transnational political forums. At the same time, the number and relevance of non-state actors in international politics is steadily growing. These trends have led political scientists to study and theorize about new forms of democracy beyond the national political arenas (Archibugi 2004, Bexell et al. 2010, Nasström 2010). However, democracy beyond the nation state is difficult to conceptualize with the idea of an institutionalized democracy within the borders of nation-states. Therefore, many political scientists emphasize the role of civil society actors as a cure for the democratic deficit in inter-national politics (Steffek & Nanz 2008). Yet, normative and empirical problems arise over the extent of access, selection and role of civil society actors in international organizations (Tallberg et al. 2013). Furthermore, the normative relevance of transnational civil society actors makes it necessary to study their own democratic legitimacy.
While international organizations are mostly institutionalized and hierarchical governing bodies, the ever growing diffuse conglomerate of non-state actors is characterized by fluid structures, blurry boundaries and a multi-level setting of interaction (Keck & Sikkink 1998). Thus, in studying democratic practice in transnational civil society networks, we must ask: How institutionalized does political practice have to be and how flexible can it be, to still be considered democratic? Normative theorists reconceptualized democracy in the light of this changing context (Bohman 2007). Recent concepts of participatory, deliberative and representative democracy attempt to reconfigure existing democratic institutions through procedural elements (Fung & Wright 2003, Dryzek 2006) or innovative forms of representation (Phillips 1998, Mansbridge 2003, Castiglione & Warren 2006). This emerging theoretical framework is well suited to analyze the extent, to which democratic practice exists within transnational civil society networks.
By applying the concept of practice (Giddens 1984, Schatzki 2001) as a bridging tool between the empirical reality of fluid, temporary and open transnational civil society networks on the one hand and the institution-oriented democratic theory on the other hand, this study explores the extent to which democratic practice develops in a field that lacks traditional institutions to guarantee formal representation and deliberation as well citizen participation. As innovative transnational actors, civil society networks can bring up new forms of democratic practice (see Polletta 2006) that can potentially inspire the debate about transnational democracy as such. This study, with its innovate approach, hopes to invigorate the debate about transnational democracy and transnational civil society, which has stalled to some degree in recent years.
The study is divided into three parts: first, a conceptual part that clarifies the question of how democracy as practice can be theoretically conceptualized in transnational civil society networks, which is followed by an empirical exploration of political practice in the transnational civil society networks. In this second part, the main question is how participation, representation and deliberation practice develops in transnational civil society networks. Two cases of transnational civil society networks, the Clean Clothes Campaign and Friends of the Earth, are analyzed to provide insights into the democratic practice within transnational civil society. In the final part, the empirical findings are evaluated in the light of the outlined concepts of democratic theory in order to explore how democratic the political practice actually is.
The study identifies implicit and in-process practice of democratic norms in transnational civil society networks. Political practice in transnational civil society networks can become democratic through empowerment measures and trustful relationships. However, deliberation practice can be impeded by disembodied digital communication and complex decision-making. The study explores how new forms of democratic practice emerge in the interaction between political actors and the structural environments of actors and networks.
Dr. Henrike Knappe,
Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e.V. (IASS) Potsdam, Germany
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Target groups: researchers in the social sciences
Political Practices and Transnational Civil Society