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Networks of influence: A theoretical review and proposed approach to AIDS treatment activism

Year: 2008
Working paper number: 218
Author: Grebe, Eduard
Unit: ASRU
The topic of AIDS activism cuts across disciplines, is complex, under-theorised, and does not lend itself to neat theoretical explication. Furthermore, the story of the relationship between activism and the broad societal response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still emerging, is deeply contextual, and its analysis requires rich empirical description. But since such a project is necessarily shaped by prior theoretical assumptions, this paper reviews a set of potential approaches for their explicatory potential and ability to inform an ethically engaged discussion. These approaches are broadly categorised as the sociology of political contention (most specifically social movement theory) and the political philosophy of civil society (including notions of global civil society). The focus is on the transnational dimension of activism, which has been especially critical in AIDS activism. I argue for a network approach to political contention and for a conception of transnational networks as 'networks of influence' that incorporate a wide range of actors, including (but not restricted to) the activists normally referred to in transnational advocacy networks. Such an approach is better able to account for the transnational dimension than traditional sociological approaches that exhibit a domestic and state-centric bias. Furthermore (following Keck and Sikkink), I propose a focus on transnational networks as formations that are capable of leveraging powerful actors, information flows and symbolic and accountability politics, but go beyond simplistic formulations such as the 'boomerang pattern'. I conclude that only such an approach — and a willingness to be guided by the empirical and historical reality of AIDS activism — will allow us to make sense of the phenomenon.
Publication file: WP218.pdf