NGOs, Grass-root Activism and Social Movements: Understanding Novel Entanglements of Public Engagement

Convenors: Filippo Zerilli (University of Cagliary) & Alex Koensler (Queen’s University Belfast)

In recent years non-governmental organizations (NGOs) became an important vehicle to rethink the political sphere and, in particular, to theorize changing forms of public engagement, both in sociology and anthropology (among many initiatives see for instance the “NGO-graphy” conferences). A number of scholars observe how NGOs have assumed functions and responsibilities that were usually managed by states or governmental organizations, arguing that (some) NGOs are now powerful global actors operating consistently with neoliberal governmentality (for example, Transparency International) and unintentionally reproducing existing social divisions and power relations.

In this session, we will focus on a less explored area of research: How do NGOs interact with various forms of grass-root activism and spontaneous social movements? We aim to address questions of how these connections might reveal uneven and novel configurations of public engagement, including a study of the multifaceted and unintended consequences of social justice, development or human rights. While according to some scholars traditional social movements have now been absorbed by “the culture of projects” (Sampson 2002), others argue that the growing number of NGOs around the world also generates new, unprecedented forms of activism that challenge existing forms of engagement that pose new questions about the “collective fiction” of the state (Bourdieu 2015). Based on ethnographic research, we would also like to draw specifically attention to these emerging forms of public engagement. Ethnography is uniquely situated to illuminate both “emerging forms of life” (Fisher 2009) and the complex web micro-politics surrounding the intersections between NGOs, activism and movements. Albeit we do have in mind our own ethnographic experiences with activism and NGOs related to themes such as agro-food activism, property restitution, or political tourism, this session does not intend to focus on a particular topic or geographic region.

In particular, we ask: On which particular ground NGOs and activist groups meet and cooperate (or refuse cooperation) one with each other, and why? What sort of tensions and contradictions their alliances and collaborations have produced in specific settings? How to assess the success (and the failure) of similar encounters at different scales? Is member affiliation to a specific NGO influencing particular forms of social activism and excluding others? How people negotiate complex interdependencies between the logic of organizations they belong to, and their social and political aspirations in everyday life? What sort of compromises, collisions, and collusions such intersections produce? How do local, national and supranational actors intersect in such encounters? How does the evolving processes between NGOs and grass-root practices enable spaces of resistance and/or complicity? In a broader web of social relations, what are the unintended consequences of these new forms of public engagement?


Bourdieu, P. (2015) On the State. Polity, London.

Fischer, M.M.J. (2009) Anthropological Futures. Duke University Press, Durham.

Sampson, S.L. (2002) Weak States, Uncivil Societies and Thousands of NGOs: Benevolent Colonialism in the Balkans. In S. Resic and B. Törnquist-Plewa (eds.), The Balkans in Focus: Cultural Boundaries in Europe, Lund University Press, Lund, 27-44.

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