The world currently stands at a crossroads. Globalization has raised living standards all over the world, but globalization is also defined by rising inequality and extreme polarization (Sassen 2013). This disparity between rich and poor is most prominent in cities, now the primary lived experience for the majority of people. Grassroots social movement organizations (SMOs) represent an important avenue for advancing social justice in the globalized urban world, but there are significant gaps in the current understanding of this process. Most importantly, there is reason to believe that cities act as movement spaces (Nicholls 2009) that offer a better environment for SMOs as compared to less urban areas. However, it is not clear precisely how cities encourage social movement activism at both the organizational and individual level, how or if this process differs across national borders, or how much activism depends on contextual effects as opposed to individual factors.
This dissertation advances previous research by studying urban social movement activism in a cross-national, multilevel framework. First, I examine whether the global economic competitiveness of a city encourages SMO persistence. Using a sample of 672 SMOs in 67 global cities drawn from the Transnational Social Movement Organization Dataset 1953-2003 (Smith and Wiest 2012), I test the organizational, urban and national determinants of two organizational outcomes: viability and age. Results indicate that global urban competitiveness, professionalization, alliances with intergovernmental organization actors and urban resources best predict SMO persistence in global cities. Next, I explore how urban status, relative deprivation and resource levels influence the likelihood of individual participation in six different forms of social and political activism in Europe's recent protest wave. Using the 5th wave of the European Social Survey, a series of multilevel logistic regressions indicate that European cities encourage citizen activism by connecting SMOs to the kinds of people most likely to participate. Finally, I further examine Europe's protest wave and study how successful grassroots actors were at achieving media standing as compared to institutionalized, bureaucratic actors during Europe's anti-austerity movement. A content analysis of 4,486 quotes published in the New York Times from January 2010-March 2013 indicates that institutionalized elites were better able to achieve media standing, but the overall sentiment was decidedly anti-austerity. Nevertheless, austerity became European policy, which indicates that the international media as measured here did not have a strong effect.
The findings of this dissertation indicate that cities act as movement spaces by promoting a better match between the supply of and demand for human and material resources, creating international and local networks of activism and connecting organizations to important allies like nongovernmental organizations and media actors. Results also indicate that resources play a strong role in SMO formation and persistence. Taken together, these findings point to a type of social movement convergence, in which organizational form and activity looks somewhat homogenous across national borders. I conclude with a discussion of the implications for future transnational social movements.