Tamara Kay

Professor of Global Affairs and Sociology

Research Interests

Global and transnational sociology; sociology of culture; political sociology; organizations; social movements


Cultural Sociology, Global and Transnational Sociology, Political Sociology, Qualitative Methods, Social Movements, Sociology of Development


Tamara Kay is a professor of global affairs in the Keough School of Global Affairs. She also holds an appointment in Notre Dame’s Department of Sociology.  Her work engages two primary areas: transnational political economy, with a focus on labor and social movements; and transnational culture, centered on how cultural processes work in a globalized world. Her research examines the political and legal implications of regional economic integration, transnationalism, and global governance, and in understanding how civil society organizations -- particularly labor and environmental movements, as well as NGOs and nonprofits -- respond and adapt to processes of regional economic integration and globalization. She also work on issues of global health, in particular health systems, health and culture, health and development, and reproductive health and rights. 

Kay earned her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley (where she helped build a union for graduate student workers), and spent two years as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for US-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Kay began her academic career at Harvard, where she was associate professor of sociology and co-director of Harvard’s Transnational Studies Initiative. She also taught at the University of New Mexico. She has published in the top sociology and specialty journals including the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of SociologySocio-Economic ReviewLaw and Social InquiryTheory and Society, and Social Science & Medicine.

Kay’s prizewinning book, NAFTA and the Politics of Labor Transnationalism (Cambridge 2011), explores why and how the North American Free Trade Agreement stimulated transnational relationships among key unions in the US, Mexico, and Canada. The book illuminates how global governance institutions can play a pivotal role in the development of transnational social movements by providing new arenas for activists to build collective interests, strategies, and trust.

Kay’s second book, Trade Battles: Activism and the Politicization of International Trade Policy (Oxford 2018) examines how activists were able to politicize and influence trade policy during NAFTA’s negotiation despite their relative weakness in the trade policy arena. They did so by creating a new set of institutionalized and disruptive strategies around trade that leveraged broader cleavages across state and non-state arenas. The book also analyzes the effects of civil society—in particular, social movement mobilization—on international policy formation, exposing the linkages between institutional opportunities and democratic practice. Trade Battles was named a CHOICE “Highly Recommended” title in 2019 and won the 2019 Charles Tilly Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award from the American Sociological Association. It has been translated into Chinese.

Kay is completing a third book, Sesame Street Travels the World: Organizations and the Politics of Cultural Innovation (under contract). The ubiquity and success of Sesame Street around the world during the last fifty years, particularly given the extraordinary politicization of culture in an era of globalization, presents three interrelated puzzles that this book addresses: First, how does an iconic US cultural innovation move through transnational channels over time and gain acceptance and legitimacy as a local product? How do people decide whether to accept, reject, or transform foreign cultural products? And finally, what elements of relationship-building between US nongovernmental organizations and their partners allow them to navigate cultural differences, manage conflicts, and generate successful project outcomes? The book will answer these questions using data gathered from seven years of intensive ethnographic fieldwork and 200 in-depth interviews from seventeen countries within four regions around the world: Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Puerto Rico); the Middle East (Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and among the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council); Africa (Nigeria and South Africa); and South Asia (India and Bangladesh). A 2022 Theory and Society article based on this project explores how organizational partners coproduce Sesame Street, shedding light on culture in transnational interaction.

Kay’s work on global health includes her multi-award winning co-authored article “Abortion, Race, and Gender in Nineteenth-Century America” that explores how racism and nationalism in the U.S. drove the first successful effort to criminalize abortion in the 19th century.

Kay is currently working on a research project that will culminate in her fourth book, focused on global health policy and innovation. This research examines how Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine replicates an innovative healthcare model and builds relationships to engage in collaborative work around the world. Kay is editor-in-chief of Studies in Comparative International Development, a leading interdisciplinary journal on economic development. Under her leadership, the journal’s editorial home moved from Brown University’s Watson Institute to the Keough School in December 2021.


Email: buildsolidarity@nd.edu
Phone: (574) 631-5789
Office: 3140 Jenkins Nanovic Halls
Office Hours: Thursdays 4:45 pm and by appointment

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