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Publication Details

Reference
Odysseos, Louiza (2004) Activism and Webs Of Meaning: Rethinking the Relationship between the ‘Local’ and the ‘Global’ in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Centre for Civil Society Research Report 23: 1-39.

Summary
How are local activist groups engaging in particular forms of political engagement and resistance throughout the world, and how are such activist practices located in the wider notion of a ‘global civil society’? In recent years, these questions have become a matter of intense debate, provoking a deepening polarisation between liberal and critical scholarship in this area. On the one hand, it is suggested that local activism emerges organically out of local issues and concerns, and then attempts to fashion alliances with globally active movements and organisations which cohere with its sentiment and understandings of politics. In this view, there is scope for progressive politics emerging out of the interactions of ‘local’ and ‘global’ civil society. On the other hand, critical scholars suggest that ‘global civil society’ actually colonises local activism by imposing its own, Western concepts and political worldviews onto local concerns and self-understandings. It may well be the case, however, that the growing interaction between local activist groups and ‘global civil society’ cannot be captured either by the optimistic liberal account or the pessimistic critical perspectives. This paper argues that the polarisation created by these two views about the relationship between the local and the global is, in fact, counter-productive for properly theorising their interaction, and for studying particular concrete cases. Furthermore, the dichotomy obscures the presence and participation of the state and its governmental apparatus in this interaction between local activism and ‘global civil society’.

In order to move beyond this theoretical impasse, the paper utilises Martin Heidegger’s notion of the world as a ‘web of meaning’ in order to call into question some of the assumptions about the relationship between the local and the global. Re-inscribing the liberal term ‘global civil society’ as a complex and ever-evolving web of background meanings, norms and discourses, against which we orient our existence, the paper recasts the question of the relationship between the local and the global away from such polarisations. This theorisation is followed by an illustration which examines the activism surrounding the recent evictions of the Bushmen living in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The paper examines the case of the actions of international Non-Governmental Organisations fighting to reverse the evictions and prevent further government actions, the government’s justifications about the evictions, and, finally, the Bushmen’s own activity within the web of meaning and discourse. Specifically, the paper shows how the government of Botswana, the London-based NGO Survival International and the Bushmen tribes all make use of norms, meanings and discourses available within the web of meaning. Moreover, the recasting of the question of the relationship between the local and the global away from the liberal/critical polarisation allows us to pose the following questions: in what ways do public actors (activists, governments, organisations) use the web of meaning? How do they choose amongst available meanings? How do activists located within postcolonial, indigenous, and local contexts uniquely appropriate norms and meanings available within the web of meaning? How does the appropriation of meaning by local contexts and the ‘repetition’ of certain types of practices, themselves affect the web? And, finally, how does such usage of meanings produce and transform political agency and subjectivity within the web?

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