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Steven Vertovec

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Steven Vertovec

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'Transnationalism' refers to multiple ties and interactions linking people or institutions across the borders of nation-states.

This book surveys the broader meanings of transnationalism within the study of globalization before concentrating on migrant transnational practices. Each chapter demonstrates ways in which new and contemporary transnational practices of migrants are fundamentally transforming social, political and economic structures simultaneously within homelands and places of settlement.

Transnationalism provides a much-needed single, clear and condensed text concerning a major concept in academic and policy discourse today.

The book is for advanced undergraduate students, postgraduates and academics.

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Today transnationalism seems to be everywhere, at least in social science. That is, across numerous disciplines there is a widespread interest in economic, social and political linkages between people, places and institutions crossing nation-state borders and spanning the world. The expansion of transnationalism as a topic of study has been tracked by Gustavo Cano (2005). Cano examined publications that were keyworded ‘transnational’ or ‘transnationalism’ in the Social Science Abstracts Database and saw an increase from a mere handful of articles across the social sciences in the late 1980s to nearly 1,300 such keyworded articles by 2003; almost two-thirds were published between 1998–2003. As any current internet search will reveal, this expansion of interest is evident in a rapidly increasing number of publications, conferences and doctoral projects within the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, geography, political science, law, economics and history, as well as in interdisciplinary fields such as international relations, development studies, business studies, ethnic and racial studies, gender studies, religious studies, media and cultural studies. And as particularly detailed in the bulk of this book, such interest is growing in migration studies too.
It is not a coincidence that the growth of interest in transnationalism – or sustained cross-border relationships, patterns of exchange, affiliations and social formations spanning nation-states – parallels the growth of social scientific interest in globalization over the same period (see GuillĂ©n 2001). Facilitated, but not caused, by improved transportation, technology and telecommunications, globalization has entailed the increasing extent, intensity, velocity and impact of global interconnectedness across a broad range of human domains (Held et al. 1999). Enhanced transnational connections between social groups represent a key manifestation of globalization.
Of course there are numerous other ways of looking at aspects of globalization. These include new or modified uses of technology (such as the internet and mobile phones), the changing nature of the global labour force (surrounding de-industrialization and the rise of service industries in some places countered by industrial growth in others, feminization, ‘flexibility’, migration and outsourcing), the development of interconnected supply chains and markets, the growth and expansion of non-government organizations and social movements, and the changing capacity and roles of nation-states, multilateral agreements and international political frameworks (see inter alia Robertson 1992, Castells 1996, W.I. Robinson 1998, Held et al. 1999, Cohen and Kennedy 2000). Change within each of these spheres has implications for the transnational forms and activities of many kinds of groups and institutions.
Just as – contrary to the prediction of some observers – globalization itself has not produced a smooth, borderless, integrated global order, transnationalism has not entailed consistent kinds of social formations or practices. Reviewing James Rosenau’s (2003) book Distant Proximities, John Urry (2003: 250) notes that rightly, from Rosenau’s perspective, ‘globalization is not viewed as essentially economic or political or sociocultural or environmental. Rather, it is viewed as all of these, taking the form of multiple, complex, messy proximities and interconnections’. Just as transnationalism is a manifestation of globalization, its constituent processes and outcomes are multiple and messy too.
Some scholars have attempted to describe facets of ‘globalization from above’ (the sphere of large corporations, international agreements and so forth) as distinct from ‘globalization from below’ (entailing small-scale, non-state actors). Similarly a literature has developed suggesting a contrast between ‘transnationalism from above’ and ‘from below’. While doubtless of some heuristic value, such conceptual binaries are ultimately not very satisfactory. The scales, spaces and mechanisms of globalization and transnationalism are just too entangled to allow such clear abstractions.
At least one conceptual clarification is worth underlining, to begin with. With regard to interactions between national governments (such as formal agreements, conflicts, diplomatic relations), or concerning the to-ing and fro-ing of items from one nation-state context to another (such as people/travel and goods/trade), we might best retain our description of these practices as ‘inter-national’. When referring to sustained linkages and ongoing exchanges among non-state actors based across national borders – businesses, non-government-organizations, and individuals sharing the same interests (by way of criteria such as religious beliefs, common cultural and geographic origins) – we can differentiate these as ‘transnational’ practices and groups (referring to their links functioning across nation-states). The collective attributes of such connections, their processes of formation and maintenance, and their wider implications are referred to broadly as ‘transnationalism’.
There are many historical precedents for and parallels to such patterns (see for instance Bourne 1916, Bamyeh 1993, Grant et al. 2007). Indeed, transnationalism (as long-distance networks) certainly preceded ‘the nation’. Yet today these systems of ties, interactions, exchange and mobility function intensively and in real time while being spread throughout the world. New technologies, especially involving telecommunications, serve to connect such networks with increasing speed and efficiency. Transnationalism describes a condition in which, despite great distances and notwithstanding the presence of international borders (and all the laws, regulations and national narratives they represent), certain kinds of relationships have been globally intensified and now take place paradoxically in a planet-spanning yet common – however virtual – arena of activity.
As mentioned previously, transnationalism represents a topic of rapidly growing academic interest. While broadly remaining relevant to the description of ‘transnationalism’ offered above, however, most of this burgeoning work refers to quite variegated phenomena. We have seen increasing numbers of studies on ‘transnational’ communities, capital flows, trade, citizenship, corporations, intergovernmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, politics, services, social movements, social networks, families, migration circuits, identities, public spaces, and public cultures. These are obviously phenomena of very different natures, requiring research and theorization with different tools, on different scales and with different levels of abstraction. In the rush to address an interesting area of global activity and theoretical development, there has been much conceptual muddling.
It is a useful exercise, therefore, to step back at this point in order to review and sort out the expanding repertoire of ideas and approaches so as perhaps to gain a better view on how transnationalism has been discussed.


Below, the different ‘takes’ on the subject should not be considered exclusive; some rely on others. Nevertheless, the meaning of transnationalism has been variously grounded upon arguably distinct conceptual premises, of which six merit closer scrutiny. Therefore we will examine transnationalism as social morphology, as type of consciousness, as mode of cultural reproduction, as avenue of capital, as site of political engagement, and as (re)construction of ‘place’ or locality.

1. Social morphology

The meaning of transnationalism which has perhaps been gaining most attention among sociologists and anthropologists has to do with a kind of social formation spanning borders (see Chapters 2 and 3). Ethnic diasporas – what Kachig Tölölyan (1991: 5) has called ‘the exemplary communities of the transnational moment’ – have become a central focus for attempting to understand the shapes and dynamics of transnationalism. To be sure, diasporas embody a variety of historical and contemporary conditions, characteristics, trajectories and experiences, and the meaning of the term ‘diaspora’ itself has been interpreted widely by contemporary observers (see Chapter 6; also Vertovec 1998). One of the hallmarks of diaspora as a social form is the ‘triadic relationship’ between: (a) globally dispersed yet collectively self-identified ethnic groups; (b) the territorial states and contexts where such groups reside; and (c) the homeland states and contexts whence they or their forebears came (Sheffer 1986, Safran 1991, R. Cohen 1997).
Central to the analysis of transnational social formations are structures or systems of relationships best described as networks (see Chapter 2). This is a handle on the phenomena in line with Manuel Castells’ (1996) analysis of the current Information Age. The network’s component parts – connected by nodes and hubs – are both autonomous from, and dependent upon, its complex system of relationships. New technologies are at the heart of today’s transnational networks, according to Castells. The technologies do not altogether create new social patterns but they certainly reinforce pre-existing ones.
Dense and highly active networks spanning vast spaces are transforming many kinds of social, cultural, economic and political relationships. Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (1992: 9) contend that:
Something like a transnational public sphere has certainly rendered any strictly bounded sense of community or locality obsolete. At the same time, it has enabled the creation of forms of solidarity and identity that do not rest on an appropriation of space where contiguity and face-to-face contact are paramount.
Further, Frederic E. Wakeman (1988: 86) suggests that the ‘loosening of the bonds between people, wealth, and territories’ which is concomitant with the rise of complex networks ‘has altered the basis of many significant global interactions, while simultaneously calling into question the traditional definition of the state’.
In these ways the dispersed diasporas of old have become today’s ‘transnational communities’ sustained by a range of modes of social organization, mobility and communication (see especially Guarnizo and Smith 1998). In addition to the long-standing ethnic diasporas and newer migrant populations which now function as transnational communities, many illegal and violent social networks also operate transnationally as well. For the United States Department of Defense, transnationalism means terrorists, insurgents, opposing factions in civil wars conducting operations outside their country of origin, and members of criminal groups (Secretary of Defense 1996). These kinds of cross-border activities involving such things as trafficking in drugs, pornography, people, weapons, and nuclear material, as well as in the laundering of the proceeds, themselves require transnational measures and structures to combat them (see for instance Stares 1996, Williams and Savona 1996, Castells 1998).

2. Type of consciousness

Particularly in works concerning global diasporas (especially within Cultural Studies) there is considerable discussion surrounding a kind of ‘diaspora consciousness’ marked by dual or multiple identifications. Hence there are depictions of individuals’ awareness of de-centred attachments, of being simultaneously ‘home away from home’, ‘here and there’ or, for instance, British and something else. ‘While some migrants identify more with one society than the other,’ write Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch and Cristina Blanc-Szanton (1992b: 11), ‘the majority seem to maintain several identities that link them simultaneously to more than one nation’. Indeed, James Clifford (1994: 322) finds,
The empowering paradox of diaspora is that dwelling here assumes a solidarity and connection there. But there is not necessarily a single place or an exclusivist nation. 
 [It is] the connection (elsewhere) that makes a difference (here).
Of course it is a common consciousness or bundle of experiences which bind many people into the social forms or networks noted in the section above. The awareness of multi-locality stimulates the desire to connect oneself with others, both ‘here’ and ‘there’ who share the same ‘routes’ and ‘roots’ (see Gilroy 1987, 1993). For Stuart Hall (1990), the condition of diaspora or transnationalism comprises ever-changing representations that provide an ‘imaginary coherence’ for a set of malleable identities. Robin Cohen (1996: 516) develops Hall’s point with the observation that
transnational bonds no longer have to be cemented by migration or by exclusive territorial claims. In the age of cyberspace, a diaspora can, to some degree, be held together or re-created through the mind, through cultural artefacts and through a shared imagination.
A wealth of personal and collective meanings and perspectives may subsequently be transformed, such that, as Donald M. Nonini and Aihwa Ong (1997) describe, transnationalism presents us with ‘new subjectivities in the global arena’.
Further aspects of transnational or diasporic consciousness are explored by Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge (1989: i), who suggest that whatever their form or trajectory, ‘diasporas always leave a trail of collective memory about another place and time and create new maps of desire and of attachment’. Yet these are often collective memories ‘whose archaeology is fractured’ (ibid.). Compounding the awareness of multilocality, the ‘fractured memories’ of diaspora consciousness produce a multiplicity of histories, ‘communities’ and selves – a refusal of fixity often serving as a valuable resource for resisting repressive local or global situations.
Finally, in addition to transformations of identity, memory, awareness and other modes of consciousness, a new ‘transnational imaginary’ (Wilson and Dissanayake 1996) can be observed reshaping a multitude of forms of contemporary cultural production.

3. Mode of cultural reproduction

In one sense depicted as a shorthand for several processes of cultural interpenetration and blending, transnationalism is often associated with a fluidity of constructed styles, social institutions and everyday practices. These are often described in terms of syncretism, creolization, bricolage, cultural translation, and hybridity. Fashion, music, film and visual arts are some of the most conspicuous areas in which such processes are observed. The production of hybrid cultural phenomena manifesting ‘new ethnicities’ (Hall 1991) is especially to be found among transnational youth whose primary socialization has taken place within the cross-currents of differing cultural fields. Among such young people, facets of culture and identity are often self-consciously selected, syncretized and elaborated from more than one heritage.
An increasingly significant channel for the flow of cultural phenomena and the transformation of identity is through global media and communications (see Chapter 3). Appadurai and Breckenridge (1989: iii) comment that
Complex transnational flows of media images and messages perhaps create the greatest disjunctures for diasporic populations, since in the electronic media in particular, the politics of desire and imagination are always in contest with the politics of heritage and nostalgia.
Gayatri Spivak (1989: 276) describes ‘the discourse of cultural specificity and difference, packaged for transnational consumption’ through global technologies, particularly through the medium of ‘microelectronic transnationalism’ represented by electronic bulletin boards and the Internet.
Many other forms of globalized media are having considerable impact on cultural reproduction among transnational communities too, e.g. diasporic literature (for example, Chow 1993, King et al. 1995). Concerning television Kevin Robins (1998) describes aspects of deregulation affecting broadcasting regions that effect the emergence of ‘new cultural spaces’, necessitating a ‘new global media map’. The expansion of satellite and cable networks has seen the spread of channels targeting specific ethnic or religious diasporas, such as Med TV for Kurds, Zee TV for Indians, and Space TV Systems for Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Koreans. Viewing is not solely passive, and there are emerging multiple and complex ways in which these media are consumed (see for instance Gillespie 1995, Morley and Robins 1995, Shohat and Stam 1996).

4. Avenue of capital

Many economists, sociologists and geographers have seen transnational corporations (TNCs) as the major institutional form of transnational practices and the key to understanding globalization (see for instance Sklair 1995). This is due not least to the sheer scale of operations, since much of the world’s economic system is dominated by the TNCs (Dicken 1992). TNCs represent globe-spanning structures or networks that are presumed to have largely jettisoned their national origins. Their systems of supply, production, marketing, investment, information transfer and management often create the paths along which much of the world’s transnational activities flow (cf. Castells 1996).
Alongside the TNCs, Leslie Sklair (1998) proposes that there has arisen a transnational capitalist class comprising TNC executives, globalizing state bureaucrats, politicians and professionals, and consumerist elites in merchandizing and the media. Together, Sklair claims, they constitute a new power elite whose interests are global, rather than exclusively local or national, and who thereby control most of the world economy.
In addition to the Big Players in the global economy, however, the little players who comprise the bulk of transnational communities are making an ever greater impact. The relatively small amounts of money which migrants transfer as remittances to their places of origin now add up to at least $300 billion worldwide (IFAD 2007; see Chapter 5). Beyond what they mean to the families receiving them, for national governments remittances represent the quickest and surest source of foreign exchange. Indeed, a great number of national economies today, such as the Philippines, Pakistan and many Latin American states, absolutely depend on monetary transfers of many kinds from ‘nationals’ abroad. This fact has prompted many countries to develop policies for the ‘transnational reincorporation’ of ‘nationals’ abroad into the home market and polity (Guarnizo and Smith 1998). One often-cited case is India, which provides a range of favourable conditions for ‘non-resident Indians’ (NRIs) to use their foreign-honed skills and capital to invest in, found or resuscitate Indian industries (Lessinger 1992; cf. The Economist 6 June 1998). Such policies have impacts beyond the economic dimension. As Katharyne Mitchell (1997b: 106) observes, ‘the interest of the state in attracting the investments of wealthy transmigrants widens the possibilities for new kinds of national narratives and understandings’.
Resources do not just flow back to people’s country of origin but to and fro and throughout the network. Robin Cohen (1997: 160) describes part of this dynamic; anywhere within the web of a global diaspora,
Traders place order with cousins, siblings and kin ‘back home’; nieces and nephews from ‘the old country’ stay with uncles and aunts while acquiring their education or vocational training; loans are advanced and credit is extended to trusted intimates; and jobs and economically advantageous marriages are found for family members.
The strategy is often one of spreading assets (particularly if one of the geographic contexts of activity – ‘at home’ or ‘away’ – is deemed unstable for reasons of political turmoil, racism, legal bureaucracy, shrinking labour market or simply bad business environment). While many transnational communities have found themselves dispersed for reasons of forced migration (van Hear 1998), others have largely spread themselves for economic reasons. Thus among the Chinese diaspora, Nonini and Ong (1997: 4) stat...

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Citation styles for Transnationalism
APA 6 Citation
Vertovec, S. (2009). Transnationalism (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2009)
Chicago Citation
Vertovec, Steven. (2009) 2009. Transnationalism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Vertovec, S. (2009) Transnationalism. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Vertovec, Steven. Transnationalism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2009. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.