Mobility, Nationalism, and Transnationalism
The focus in the study of mobile populations has shifted away from notions of discrete nation-states toward an analysis of the links across and between home and host countries in the theorization of
transnationalism (Glick Schiller, Basch, & Szanton Blanc, 1992; Kearney, 1995; Vertovec, 1999). In other words, scholarship of migration goes beyond focus on either ‘sending’ or ‘receiving’ societies and, instead, studies how “immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (Basch, Glick Schiller, & Szanton Blanc, 1994, p. 7). This shift goes hand in hand with increased scholarly attention to the mobility of people, discourses, cultural products, and information that maintains these links (Appadurai, 1996). While mobility has always been a feature of the social world, the intensity of this mobility in terms of speed and frequency, as well as its facilitation through the increased use of new communication technologies has brought greater attention to these issues (Vertovec, 1999). Following this
scholarship, work on language and
migration has also adopted more
transnational approaches to the study of
mobile populations’ sociolinguistic behaviors (e.g., Blommaert, 2010; Dick, 2010; Koven, 2007, 2013a,b; Lo & Kim, 2011; Mendoza-Denton, 2008).
The relationship between language and
nationalism may also undergo change, become more complex, or intensify as a consequence of
transnational mobility. This relationship can be understood through the paradox that while language constructs the nation, the nation also constructs language. What is meant by this first part is that it is through socially situated discursive practice that national identity is created and sustained. Silverstein (2000) argues that the process of imagining the nation is a distinctly discursive, linguistic, and narrative one. In making this argument he draws from
Anderson’s (1991) notion of an imagined community
– i.e. the idea that citizens imagine the nation-state as a real community, notwithstanding the fact that they never meet or interact with most of its members.
Silverstein highlights how this
imagined community is created through the standardization of a national code, narratives in mass media, and the discursive establishment of a national and collective ‘we’. The nation is also maintained
through discursive practice as Park and Wee note that it is not enough to construct
national identity, but that this identity must in fact “be constantly maintained and revitalized in the face of multiple kinds of diversity” (2017, p. 48).
transnational mobility bring about precisely these types of diversity against which the nation-state is communicatively defined, and this has implications not only for the discourses and practices of national governments but also for those who cross national borders. Scholars have described the multitude of ways in which those who move abroad encounter new types of diversity while continuing to discursively and linguistically reconstitute their national identities from a distance (De Fina & Perrino, 2013; Eisenlohr, 2006; Marques & Koven, 2017; Sorensen, 1998). As speakers reconstitute these national identities, they also discursively construct a broader
sociological imagination (Mills, 1959), that is, they (re)imagine ways in which the homeland relates to their transnational trajectories, their individual positionings, and their country of residence, for instance. All of this construction is accomplished through language. If as
Appadurai argues, the work of the imagination
is ‘a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity’, which is itself informed by mobility (1996, pp. 3–4), then we can understand discourse or linguistic practice as the constitutive feature of this imagination (cf., Blommaert, 2018).
The second way in which language and
nationalism are connected is that national ideologies determine what counts as a
legitimate language, acceptable ethnolinguistic
linguistic competency. Nation-states may attempt to reduce sociolinguistic complexity (Blommaert, 1996) by engaging in various types of erasure (Irvine & Gal, 2000) in order to present a clear and idealized image of the nation as a homogeneous collective formed by the links “between territory, ethnicity, and language” (
Wee, 2017, p. 48). At other times, the nation may be less concerned with managing its multilingualism, so to speak, and more concerned with how
its citizens are speaking. For instance, the way in which the women of a nation speak is often seen
as a reflection of the moral and political state of the country as a whole (Inoue, 2006). These linkages between
gendered speech, and the
nation-state are presented as iconic (Irvine & Gal, 2000), and it is through these iconized linkages that the nation legislates what counts as legitimate ways of speaking, thereby constructing language as a sociopolitical and symbolic object.
In transnational contexts, some scholars have noted how national ideologies continue to determine the legitimacy of linguistic practices (Maryns & Blommaert, 2001). Others have argued that one of the impacts of mobility is the
reconceptualization of language as an individual
skill, rather than a national symbol, and the corresponding replacement of national ideologies with the hegemony of
neoliberalism (Cameron, 2005; Heller, 2010; Park & Wee, 2017). Both understandings of linguistic competence as a reflection of
national identity and as an
individual skill are situated in relation to the destabilized indexical meanings and values that accompany migrants’ deterritorialized experiences (Blommaert, 2003; Hall, 2014; Jacquemet, 2005). Thus, understanding language within a transnational context requires attention to the multiple centers of authority and different orders of indexicality (Blommaert, 2005; see also Agha, 2007b; Silverstein, 2003) that guide and constrain linguistic practices and ideologies. This has been theorized in terms of polycentricity
, which can account for complex meaning-making processes in transnational experience.
In general terms, polycentricity is the notion that “in every environment for social action, multiple sets of norms will be simultaneously present” (Blommaert, 2018, p. 33). This idea was originally developed in a study by Blommaert,
Slembrouck (2005) where they demonstrated how the multiple centers of a neighborhood determine the “different codes and norms as to what is accepted as ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘marked’, ‘unexpected’, ‘normal’, and ‘special semiotic behavior” (2005, p. 207). Polycentricity is observed in language use when a speaker shifts between different types of linguistic behavior or when multiple speakers engage in divergent discursive practices in order to orient to different centers. These centers can be compared to similar theoretical notions, such as authorities or ‘superaddressees’ (Bakhtin, 1981;
Blommaert, 2007), or distinctive linguistic marketplaces (Bourdieu, 1991; Park & Lo, 2012).
polycentric nature of social life becomes particularly salient for those who undergo
transnational migration because of how they are simultaneously orienting to both the country of origin and the country of residence (cf., Smith & Guarnizo, 1998). In addition to this, speakers may also construct and orient to multiple, polycentric images of the same
nation (Davidson, 2007; Pietikäinen, 2010) in those moments when different historical understandings of the homeland come
to play simultaneously, for instance. Because of their normative power, the multiple centers of authority to which migrants orient become microhegemonic ‘moralized behavioral scripts’ (Blommaert, 2018; see also Billings, 2013) that contrast with one another, shaping (but also being shaped by) migrant discourses and ideologies.