Transnationalism is the idea that flows of transstate migrants and their symbolic and material accoutrements are bi- or multidirectional and ongoing. That is, where previous generations of migrants tended toward making a “clean break” with their societies of origin, many contemporary migrants continue to have ongoing ties with the communities from which they migrated. Transnationalism has been defined in anthropology as “the process by which immigrants forge and sustain simultaneous multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement…. many immigrants today build social fields that cross geographic, cultural, and political borders.” In many sending societies, out-migrants are expected to play an ongoing role. Receiving societies take a variety of approaches, ranging from barring the assimilation or naturalization of migrants to encouraging ongoing dualities of identity or citizenship, but in states representing the full range of these, the number of people living transnationally is on the increase.
Most theorists regard transnationalism as reliant on a new characterization of space. For Arjun Appadurai, deterritorialization is a feature of the new globalized world in which identity is increasingly disconnected, or at least disconnectable, from place. However, Michael Kearney locates transnationalism in its specificity of place, arguing that it differs from global processes that are “decentered” and take place in “global space”; rather, transnational processes are “anchored in and transcend one or more nation-states.” This is reiterated by Aihwa Ong, who regards transnationalism as referring to “cultural specificities of global processes.”
Transnational life is made possible by new technologies that facilitate transportation, communication, and the rapid transfer of funds around the world. Air travel, while too expensive for many migrants to use on more than an occasional basis, nevertheless now whisks people between continents in hours instead of weeks. Migrant remittances sustain or improve the lot of impoverished families. Internet-based forms of communication such as list-servs, chat, e-mail, and Web sites facilitate the building and maintenance of deterritorialized communities. These technologies have rendered much of the world “self-consciously one single field of persistent interaction and exchange.”
Transnationalism has given rise to, and is now facilitated by, new institutions. Michael Peter Smith and Luis Eduardo Guarnizo highlight cross-national institutional networks such as sending country governments’ outreach to their nationals within host countries. Haiti, which does not recognize dual citizenship but has a Ministry of Haitians Living Abroad, is one such example.
As Sarah J. Mahler notes, many authors at least implicitly distinguish between transnationalism “from below” and “from above.” The former concerns the daily lives of ordinary people, and the latter the macro-level political and economic forces dominated by elites. Anthropologists have focused disproportionately on transnationalism from below.
In an article in which he traces the course of anthropology and his own career in it over the past fifty years, Clifford Geertz notes that an interest in transnationalism began in anthropology only in the 1990s, before which it was “not thought to be a part of anthropology’s purview” but that now studies of it seem to be “appearing on all sides.”
- Hannerz, U. (1996). Transnational connections: Culture, people, places. London: Routledge.
- Levitt, P. (2001). The transnational villagers. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Ong, A. (1999). Flexible citizenship: The cultural logics of transnationality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.