Transnationalism Essay

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The concept of transnationalism, described as an integral part of the globalization process, is becoming increasingly popular in social and political sciences. Originally coined in international economics to describe flows of capital and labor across national borders in the second half of the twentieth century, this concept was later applied to the study of international migration and ethnic diasporas. The transnational perspective became increasingly useful for exploring such issues as immigrant economic integration, identity, citizenship and cultural retention. Transnationalism embraces a variety of multi-faceted social relations that are both embedded in and transcend two or more nation-states, cross-cutting sociopolitical, territorial and cultural borders. The ever-increasing flows of people, goods, ideas and images between various parts of the world enhances the blending of cultures and lifestyles and leads to the formation of ”hyphenated” social and personal identities (Chinese-American, Greek-Australian, etc.).

Some authors argue that transnationalism may actually be a new name for an old phenomenon, in the sense that most big immigration waves of the past were typified by ethnocultural retention and contacts with the homeland. Indeed, historic studies of ethnic diasporas show that immigrants never fully severed their links with the country they left behind. Yet, due to technical and financial limitations of the time, for most migrants these links remained mainly in the sentimental and cultural realm, and were seldom expressed in active shuttle movement or communication across borders. Economic ties with countries of origin were typically limited to monetary remittances to family members. Although up to one-quarter of transatlantic migrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries eventually returned to their homelands, the decision to repatriate was in fact another critical and irreversible choice to be made. Hence, for the majority of historic migrants, resettlement was an irreversible process always involving a dichotomy: stay or emigrate, or else stay or return.

In the late twentieth century efficient and relatively cheap means of communication and transportation (time- and space-compressing technologies) made this old dichotomy largely irrelevant. As Castells (1996) has pointed out in his book The Rise of the Network Society, new technologies have virtually created new patterns of social relations, or at lest strongly reinforced pre-existing tendencies. They allowed numerous diasporic immigrants to live in two or more countries at a time, via maintaining close physical and social links with their places of origin. Transnational activities and lifestyles became widely spread, embracing large numbers of people and playing a significant role in economy, politics and social life of both sending and receiving countries. Guarnizo and Smith (1998) have introduced a useful distinction between the two types of transnationalism -”from above” and ”from below.” The former refers to institutionalized economic and political activities of multinational corporations and organizations such as UN, Amnesty International or Greenpeace, which set in motion large-scale global exchange of financial and human capital. On the other hand, the increasing role in these networks belongs to ordinary migrants – grassroots agents of transnationalism who run small businesses in their home countries, organize exchange of material (e.g., ethnic food) and cultural (e.g., tours of folk artists) goods within the diaspora, pay regular visits to their birthplace and receive co-ethnic guests. This is called a transnational lifestyle.

Most transnational networks in business, politics, communications and culture organize along ethnic lines, i.e. include members of the same ethnic community spread between different locales on the map. Common language and cultural heritage are the key cementing factors for the transnational diasporas. In most cases, transnationals become bi-lingual and bi-cultural, but different communities may exhibit various extent of cultural separatism versus acculturation in the host society.

Migration experience in the context of global society, where constant exchange of people, products and ideas is reinforced by global media networks, has attained a whole new quality. The full-time loyalty to one country and one culture is no longer self-evident: people may actually divide their physical pastime, effort and identity between several societies. Citizenship and political participation are also becoming bi-focal or even multi-focal, since some sending countries allow their expatriates to remain citizens, vote in national elections and establish political movements. In this context, international migrants are becoming transmigrants, developing economic activities, enjoying cultural life and keeping dense informal networks not only with their home country, but also with other national branches of their diaspora. The split of economic, social and political loyalties among migrants, and gradual attenuation of loyalty to the nation-state as such, is seen as problematic by some receiving countries. Yet, some recent studies show that dual citizenship may in fact promote immigrants’ legal and socio-political attachments to both their home and host country rather than reinforce the so-called post-nationalism.


  1. Guarnizo, L. E. & Smith, M. P. (1998) The locations of transnationalism. In: Smith, M. P. & Guarnizo, L. E. (eds.), Transnationalism from Below. Comparative Urban and Community Research series, vol. 6. Transaction, New Brunswick and London, pp. 3-34.
  2. Portes, A., Guarnizo, L. E., & Landolt, P. (1999) The study of transnationalism: pitfalls and promise of an emergent research field. Introduction to special issue on Transnational Communities. Ethnic and Racial Studies 22 (2): 217-37.
  3. Van Hear, N. (1998) New Diasporas: The Mass Exodus, Dispersal and Regrouping of Migrant Communities. University College of London Press, London.

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