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What is Transnationalism?

MA, Gender Studies (London School of Economics & Political Science)


Date Published: 11.04.2023,

Last Updated: 07.02.2024

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Defining transnationalism

Transnationalism is a social phenomenon which has developed into a field of study. The study of transnationalism explores how an increasingly connected world — through both the internet and global travel — impacts the relevance of the different boundaries and borders of nations. Although the term has been used and applied in a myriad of contexts within academia, we can start our exploration of transnationalism with the definition in Transnationalism by Steven Vertovec:

Transnationalism’ refers to multiple ties and interactions linking people or institutions across the borders of nation-states. (2009)

Transnationalism book cover
Transnationalism

Steven Vertovec

Transnationalism’ refers to multiple ties and interactions linking people or institutions across the borders of nation-states. (2009)

The crucial element of this definition is how transnationalism is often tied to the concept of states or nations. In this context, the state can be described as a nation or territory under a government. So when we talk about transnationalism, we are often talking about the ways in which boundaries around states (geographical, social, political, economic) do or do not affect people. In many other texts, transnationalism also looks at the crossing of other boundaries — such as across cultural groups within a state or nation, be they religious or grounded in kinship, such as in the queer community. Largely this article will focus on transnationalism across nation or state borders, but it is important to acknowledge how borders between cultures exist outside of what is defined by governmental powers. 

The term was coined in the 1910s by writer Randolph Bourne, who was reflecting upon the complex nature of the American identity. In “Trans-national America,” he writes:

The term has since evolved to incorporate modern ideas around borders, travel, and individual identity. In A Century of Transnationalism: Immigrants and Their Homeland Connections, scholars Nancy Green and Roger Waldinger explain how the definition of transnationalism has been a site of conflict across academic disciplines:  

Initially, scholars asserted that the home country connections of contemporary international migrants were unprecedented, with many contending that transnationalism was a late-twentieth-century phenomenon fueled by new modes of communication and transportation. Historians instantly countered: the last age of mass migration entailed a similar transoceanic ebb and flow of people, goods, and ideas; likewise, many nationalist movements were born in exile, which is why a contemporary immigrant preoccupation with homeland politics represents nothing new. While that response elicited general agreement, debate over the novelty of transnationalism continued, without, however, fully meeting the challenge of thinking through long-term patterns. (2016)

A Century of Transnationalism book cover
A Century of Transnationalism: Immigrants and Their Homeland Connections

Nancy L. Green & Roger Waldinger

Initially, scholars asserted that the home country connections of contemporary international migrants were unprecedented, with many contending that transnationalism was a late-twentieth-century phenomenon fueled by new modes of communication and transportation. Historians instantly countered: the last age of mass migration entailed a similar transoceanic ebb and flow of people, goods, and ideas; likewise, many nationalist movements were born in exile, which is why a contemporary immigrant preoccupation with homeland politics represents nothing new. While that response elicited general agreement, debate over the novelty of transnationalism continued, without, however, fully meeting the challenge of thinking through long-term patterns. (2016)

As noted in the above passage, transnationalism has often focused on immigrant connections to their homeland. This passage draws attention to how transnationalism, even before the age of modern communication technologies, presented itself in the connections individuals created between places of residence and places of origin. Transnationalism is often misrepresented as a modern phenomena, but for as long as humans have traveled across geographical borders,those borders have affected identities.


How does transnationalism relate to different fields of study? 

Transnationalism has become a subject of study across a multitude of academic fields. Its emergence within academia was non-linear, developing separately but almost simultaneously across a number of disciplines. As Nancy Green explains in The Limits of Transnationalism

It has been over a quarter of a century since “transnationalism” was born — as a perspective, as a concept, as a research agenda. US political scientists in the early 1970s may have been the first academics to use the term, but cultural anthropologists, migration anthropologists, and US historians, separately but enthusiastically, “discovered” transnationalism in the early 1990s. They made it into a veritable scholarly success story. It fit easily into the globalisation talk of the late twentieth century and seemed obvious once revealed. (2019)

The Limits of Transnationalism book cover
The Limits of Transnationalism

Nancy L. Green

It has been over a quarter of a century since “transnationalism” was born — as a perspective, as a concept, as a research agenda. US political scientists in the early 1970s may have been the first academics to use the term, but cultural anthropologists, migration anthropologists, and US historians, separately but enthusiastically, “discovered” transnationalism in the early 1990s. They made it into a veritable scholarly success story. It fit easily into the globalisation talk of the late twentieth century and seemed obvious once revealed. (2019)

Green mentions globalization in the above passage, sometimes referred to as economic transnationalism. Although globalization and transnationalism are also sometimes used interchangeably, globalization tends to describe the connecting of economies and governments across geographical borders, only accounting for a small sector of the larger phenomena of transnationalism. Transnationalism grew to accommodate the exploration of human behavior, identity, and broader social thought. Where globalization explores the crossing of these boundaries, transnationalism also considers what it means for individuals to belong to one or more communities across said boundaries. Green goes on to explain the variety of applications of this term and how those applications are contingent on context and individual background:

On these grounds, it would be reductive to suggest that transnationalism is a concept which is married to or even originates from one academic discipline or industry. Transnationalism is perhaps best described as the gateway into conversations about how societies are impacted by an increasingly connected world.

Although transnationalism is a multi-disciplinary subject of interest, it has become a specific area of focus within the field of Migration Studies. Migration Studies is an interdisciplinary field and, like the subject of transnationalism, draws on anthropology, sociology, economics, history, colonial studies, and law. Migration Studies can focus on (but is not limited to) the history of migration, immigration, social demographics, displacement, and urban planning. Within this field, scholars investigate the impact of relocation on individual and social identities, taking into account matters of cultural norms, social values, belief systems, power structures, and gender dynamics. Naturally, transnationalism is situated at the center of that investigation, challenging the notion that an individual can only belong to one geographical place or culture.

The transnational approach to migration research has faced criticism in recent years. Transnational Studies have, at times, been described as the less politically mindful counterpart of Diaspora Studies. A diaspora describes a population which has spread out across several regions, separate from their location of origin (see our study guide, What is Diaspora Theory?). On the subject of the relationship between the two fields, gender scholar Asale Angel-Ajani wrote that "there is the possibility within diaspora studies to move away from the politically sanitised discourse that surrounds transnational studies" (2006). Angel-Ajani is referencing the political nature of African diasporic studies, which focuses on the white supremacy, racism, and impact of the historical forced displacement (often through slavery) of Africans. Transnationalism’s lens is often calibrated less on inequality and social justice and more on the phenomena of social groups crossing these geographical and social borders. Transnationalism and diaspora theory can be applied concordantly in research, and many social scientists do not exclusively use approaches or concepts from one over the other. 


Examples of transnationalism to real-world scenarios

In a world where migration is increasingly frequent and exposure to cross-cultural experiences is increasingly accessible, applying a transnationalist lens to social science research can be insightful. For example, Identity and Transnationalism: The New African Diaspora Second Generation in the United States is a collection of case studies edited by Kassahun Kebede focusing on the impact of geographical and cultural borders on the identities of African immigrants. Several of the case studies focus on second-generation immigrants, individuals born in a country their parents moved to. In a chapter on second-generation Cameroonian immigrants growing up in the United States, Michael Takafor Ndemanu explores the tensions experienced  by these second-generation immigrants when navigating both Cameroonian and American social norms. For example, the researcher explains how Cameroonian gender roles around food preparation for events (men providing meat, women cooking the meat) are at odds with what immigrants are exposed to in the United States:

Second-generation immigrant children are being socialised into similar gender roles and expectations although with a certain degree of difficulty because they do see men and women cooking and serving people in the restaurants, movies, books, and in their peers’ homes. They understand both cultural worlds in terms of gender roles and customary norms. They know what is acceptable in both the Cameroonian culture and the American culture. They understand through cultural immersion that they are supposed to greet a known Cameroonian adult with a handshake or a side-hug and with honorific titles before their names such as ‘auntie, uncle, brother, sister … ’ while at the same time greeting their fellow American adults they know with a ‘hello’ and without honorifics. (Ndemanu, in Kebede, 2020)

Identity and Transnationalism book cover
Identity and Transnationalism: The New African Diaspora Second Generation in the United States

Edited by Kassahun H. Kebede

Second-generation immigrant children are being socialised into similar gender roles and expectations although with a certain degree of difficulty because they do see men and women cooking and serving people in the restaurants, movies, books, and in their peers’ homes. They understand both cultural worlds in terms of gender roles and customary norms. They know what is acceptable in both the Cameroonian culture and the American culture. They understand through cultural immersion that they are supposed to greet a known Cameroonian adult with a handshake or a side-hug and with honorific titles before their names such as ‘auntie, uncle, brother, sister … ’ while at the same time greeting their fellow American adults they know with a ‘hello’ and without honorifics. (Ndemanu, in Kebede, 2020)

Through a transnationalist lens we can begin to understand the ways in which these second-generation immigrants simultaneously do and don’t belong to both Cameroonian and American cultures. In the case of social greetings, they are, arguably, bilingual; they can greet both Cameroonians and Americans in the ways that are normalized within both cultures. However, when faced with a situation where applying both cultures isn’t possible — for example, when dividing the labor of preparing a meal for an event — tensions arise. It is stated that these children are being socialized into these Cameroonian gender roles, but resistance exists because of the gender roles that have already been normalized for them in American culture. 

Identities which straddle border lines are often described as ‘hybrid’ identities. These hybrid identities do grant a certain level of cultural bilingualism but can also leave individuals feeling disconnected or at odds with norms from one or both cultures. In “Transnationalism: current debates and new perspectives,” researchers Miriam Tedeschi, Ekaterina Vorobeva, and Jussi S. Jauhiainen state, “Living across borders and having hybrid identities, transnationals often feel that they do not fully belong anywhere.” (2022). While we might be inclined to characterize these second-generation immigrant children as more Cameroonian or more American depending on the situation, the transnationalist lens invites us to consider how these children belong to, simultaneously, both and neither culture. 


Significant books on transnationalism

Since transnationalism is a topic which is explored and applied across a host of academic disciplines, the collective texts available on transnationalism are broad in their subject matter. For those looking to approach transnationalism as an investigative tool for research, Rethinking Transnationalism by Ludger Pries is a text which confronts the “vague and indistinct” (2008) nature of transnationalism as a subject area and considers its methodological uses in research. For those looking to understand transnationalism better through the lens of international relations or gender studies, Pries’ publication is highly recommended reading. 

Transnationalism as a phenomena also calls into question how social scientists define and characterize racial identities. Race and Transnationalism in the Americas by Benjamin Bryce and David M. K. Sheinin provides a litany of examples of migration and displacement affecting perceptions of racial identity. Touching on the impact of colonialism and the complex concept of citizenship, Bryce and Sheinin’s collection provides excellent insight into the formation and reformation of racial identities across geographical borders. 

Finally, it would be amiss to omit the impactful and influential The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations by Nira Yuval-Davis. Sociologist Yuval-Davis effectively unpacks identity and citizenship from an intersectional perspective, considering how nationality, ethnicity, religion, and gender encourage or disrupt the formulation of a sense of belonging. Although not a text explicitly intended to focus on transnationalism, Yuval-Davis’ writing powerfully illustrates how experiences of migration and displacement influence other facets of the self in complex and often unpredictable ways. 

Transnationalism’s broad and varied applications can be off-putting for scholars more familiar with concepts more simply defined. Regardless of our subject of study, the transnationalist lens invites us to ask particular questions such as: How does geography impact what we observe in our subjects of study? Does their movement across this geography over time change what we observe, and how? Do fundamental characteristics — such as race, gender, socioeconomic status — change as a consequence of geographical relocation? Transnationalism invites us to probe the adaptable nature of the human condition and call into question what facets of personhood are susceptible to that adaptation. From the social sciences to literature and media studies, a transnationalist analysis can benefit any scholar looking to better investigate individual and social identities in an ever-connected world.


Further transnational resources & reading on Perlego

Trans-Nationalism and the Politics of Belonging - Annie Phizacklea, Dr Sallie Westwood

Second-Generation Transnationalism and Roots Migration - Susanne Wessendorf

Minor Transnationalism - Françoise Lionnet, Shu-mei Shih

Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam - Mohanad Hage Ali

Migration and Transnationalism: Pacific Perspectives - Helen Lee, Steve Tupai Francis

Making Culture: Commercialisation, Transnationalism, and the State of 'Nationing' in Contemporary Australia - David Rowe, Graeme Turner, Emma Waterton

Humanitarianism, Empire and Transnationalism, 1760–1995 - Andrew Thompson, Joy Damousi, Trevor Burnard, Alan Lester


Transnationalism FAQs


Bibliography

Angel-Ajani, A. (2006). “Displacing Diaspora: Trafficking, African Women, and Transnational Practices,” in Gomez, M. A. (ed.), Diasporic Africa. NYU Press, pp. 290–308.

Bourne, R. (1916). Trans-national America. The Atlantic, 118(1), pp. 86-97. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1916/07/trans-national-america/304838/

Bryce, B., & Sheinin, D. M. (eds.). (2021). Race and Transnationalism in the Americas. University of Pittsburgh Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/3118889/race-and-transnationalism-in-the-americas-pdf

Green, N. L. (2019). The Limits of Transnationalism. University of Chicago Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1852133/the-limits-of-transnationalism-pdf

Green, N. and Waldinger, R. (eds.) (2016). A Century of Transnationalism: Immigrants and Their Homeland Connections. University of Illinois Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/3493127/nationalism-transnationalism-and-political-islam-hizbullahs-institutional-identity-pdf

Kebede, K. H. (ed.). (2020). Identity and Transnationalism: The New African Diaspora Second Generation in the United States. Routledge. Avaialble at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1584102/identity-and-transnationalism-the-new-african-diaspora-second-generation-in-the-united-states-pdf

Pries, L. (ed.) (2008). Rethinking Transnationalism: The Meso-link of organisations. Routledge. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/717579/rethinking-transnationalism-pdf

Tedeschi, M., Vorobeva, E., and Jauhiainen, J. S. (2022) “Transnationalism: current debates and new perspectives,” GeoJournal, 87(2), pp. 603–619.

Vertovec, S. (2009). Transnationalism. Routledge.

MA, Gender Studies (London School of Economics & Political Science)

Georgie Williams is a deferred doctoral student in the field of Social Justice at University College Dublin and founder of gender & sexuality research hub, /Queer. Georgie’s research predominantly focuses on the development of gender and sexuality related social practices in post-colonial countries and the application of reflexive feminist methodologies to anthropological and sociological field research.