Since the end of the Cold War, political projects to form a region, i.e. regionalisms, have become an important object of research in political science. The study of regionalism deals with projects and imaginations that claim a political, social and economic space between the nation state and the global governance system. Though regionalisms are a priori not constrained to one specific institutional form, they are predominantly studied as formal intergovernmental organisations. Academic research predominantly reverts to state-centric approaches and has struggled to systematically incorporate actors other than states in both conceptual and empirical terms.
The objective of this study was to address this gap in research on regionalism by expanding the focus of analysis towards non-state actors. This endeavour departed from a critique of the main schools of thought with respect to how they deal with informal and self-organised forms of regionalism. Based on this critique, revised working concepts of regional civil society and regional networks were elaborated and applied to Southern Africa for the period 1989 to 2016. Southern Africa has been selected due to its established paradoxical regional governance system that provides a joint space for a formal regionalism, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and civil society networks.
Relying on semi-structured face-to-face personal interviews and other primary resources, this study developed a typology of the kinds of institutional arrangements developed by regional civil society groups while interacting within both formal and self-organised regionalisms. A differentiating comparative approach revealed that regional civil society networks that form part of a dominant formal process of regionalism exhibit different strategies, norms and rules than those that emerge out of contestation in opposition to formal regionalism.
Following the empirical findings, this study proposed a conceptual expansion of regionalism that does not only understand non-state actors as dependent units of formal regional organisations but considers them actors in their own rights.