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Transnationalism: An Old Idea in a New Box?



Transnationalism generally denotes the inter relationships among the people of different nations across borders. Theorists of transnationalism opine that with recent advanced technology and fast communication system greater inter-relationships among different nation-states is feasible. However, this research divulges that defining ‘transnationalism’ is a complex task. Some critics deny the necessity of a new theoretical term like ‘transnationalism’ and prefer to see it with the old lens of ‘diaspora’ and ‘globalisation’. This research intends to explore into the question of whether ‘transnationalism’ is synonymous with other correlative theoretical terms used to address issues of our global world as well as find out the aspects that constitute the theoretical knowledge of transnationalism.


Keywords: Transnationalism, technological advancement, diaspora, globalisation, cross-border relationships, nation-states



In the broader field of globalisation, a current popular concept is transnationalism. But to explain matters related to small communities whose origin is in one country but is forced to live in a different land, concepts like diaspora have been in use for a long time and comparatively, transnationalism is a new term. Since both ‘diaspora’ and ‘transnationalism’ theoretically operate in an international and global sphere, some entanglements between the two terms can be observed. Usually, immigration is in exigency among working people from low- and middle- income countries. Besides, religious persecution has been one of the putative reasons for relocation as scriptures like the Bible instantiates. However, in recent years, studies find out that in the post-colonial, post-modern world, people opt for living in different countries other than their own nation-state for various reasons. Many people move from countries to countries, have multiple citizenships and possess dual identities. Unlike in diasporic situation, the migrant identity people carry with them is not always imposed on them but often something that they have voluntarily chosen. Theorists have felt the necessity for a new term — ‘transnationalism’ in order to explain the long-term relationship among people traversing several nation-states and to analyse the coterminous issues arising from this phenomenon.

This paper aims at researching into the conceptual idea of transnationalism and transnational condition, and its association with other theoretical ideas dealing with borderless situation.


Literature Review

Researchers have probed into the matter of transnationalism and asserted their views from different perspectives. Himadri Lahiri in his paper “Transnationalism and Diaspora: ‘Awkward Dance Partners’?” concedes that technological advancement is the driving force behind an ensuing acceleration of worldwide communication and points out two critical terms to describe this phenomenon – transnationalism and diaspora. However, Lahiri argues that diaspora and transnationalism are ‘cognate’ terms and should be used together (116-30). But other scholars have suggested that the term ‘diaspora’ should be used cautiously although both diaspora and transnationalism deal with homeland ties and assimilation of persons in the foreign land. Thomas Faist in his essay “Diaspora and Transnationalism: What kind of dance partners?” opines that the term ‘transnationalism’ is used differently than ‘diaspora’ although both the terms are used to refer to cross-border practices (9-34). Ato Quayson and Girish Daswani, while attempting to clarify the notion of ‘diaspora’ in their paper “Introduction – Diaspora and Transnationalism: Scapes, Scales, and Scopes”, claim that despite the case of being uprooted and forced to scatter all over the world is in the origin of diasporic situation, not all such dispersals result in diaspora, rather an ethno-political identity and religious ideology impregnate the critical ideas of diaspora (1-26).

This current study examines the different opinions on ‘transnationalism’ and endeavours to find out whether features of terms like diaspora, migration, globalisation overlap with the aspects of transnationalism, or transnationalism offers further insights into trans nation-states rapport, and has potential to be studied and applied as an individual entity in critical and literary theory.



Critical and theoretical ideas professed by different scholars are brought in to scrutinise different aspects transnationalism; therefore, the research is conducted with a combined method of close reading and theoretical interpretations. Both primary and secondary sources are used to conduct the research.



As a comparatively new coinage there is opaqueness regarding the meaning of ‘transnationalism’ and debates follow over its many definitions. Generally, theorists agree that the term was first used by the writer Randolph Bourne in “Trans-National America” in 1916 to describe a new way of thinking about the interconnectivity between different cultures across national boundaries, but the term itself was coined by one of his colleagues in college. Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that the term ‘transnational’ was first used in print in 1921 after the death of Bourne. Patricia Clavin states in her article “Defining Transnationalism”, “Definitions should offer clarity and precision, and a clearer definition of ‘transnationalism’ will help in our understanding of the evolution of the modern world”, but at the same time she also acknowledges, “There is certainly a degree of wooliness in the current usage of transnationalism” (233).

Nevertheless, Clavin outlines the emergence and evolution of the term ‘transnationalism’ and traces its use in 1919 in the United States in a discussion of migration and identity with a view to ‘internationalise’ American politics. In the subsequent decades, especially during the inter-war period and later on, the term has been used to indicate matters or interests extending beyond national boundaries. She maintains:

‘Transnationalism’ therefore, took life inside nation-states and seemed to be used primarily as an alternative term for inter-state relations, or was adopted by multinational corporations that wanted to rebrand themselves as transnational corporations during the 1980s because ‘multinational’ had become a dirty word, associated with greed and inequality. (433)

What is notable in Clavin’s words is that from the beginning of its use, identity politics and economic aspects have been attached to transnationalism and understood as such in the global world.

Drawing attention to the imperviousness of transnationalism, another acclaimed scholar Steven Vertovec thinks that just as globalisation has not “produced a smooth, borderless, integrated global order” (2), transnationalism has not entailed consistent kinds of social formations or practices. He identifies the improved transportation technology and telecommunication as the facilitator of globalisation and draws a parallel of it with the emergence of transnational factors because of heightened linkages among people from different territories. By claiming that transnationalism is a manifestation of globalisation, he points out the similarities in the multiplicity of their formation process and the various outcomes of the both:

Some scholars have attempted to describe facts of ‘globalization form 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. (2-3)

However, Vertovec attempts at making one ‘conceptual clarification’ by making a distinction between ‘inter-national’ and transnational practices. He states that contracts, conflicts, diplomatic relations between national governments, travelling, trading, and transporting goods are practices that we should call inter-national. On the other hand,

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). Their collective attributes of such connections, their processes of formation and maintenance, and their wider implications are referred to broadly as ‘transnationalism’. (3)

Vertovec marks fast speed and greater efficiency of new technologies, particularly emphasising telecommunications, as the possible catalyst of increasing interconnectivity. Furthermore, the building of a virtual world through the Internet and mass-media has supervened a paradoxically parallel era of activities. Regarding the role of the virtual world, he explains:

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. (3)

In addition, Steven Vertovec recognises the presence of diverse variables apart from political and monetary ones in the theoretical arena of transnationalism. Accordingly, he has classified transnationalism in six groups:

First, Transnationalism as social morphology: Reshaping and changing of old social patterns have been brought in by new technologies and the current global Information Age. Vertovec says, “Dense and highly active networks spanning vast spaces are transforming many kinds of social, cultural, economic and political relationships” (5).

One of these relationships is that of diaspora. While it is true that the diasporic situation has a similarity with the transnational condition, the two theoretical concepts act differently. In order to explain the relationship and the change, Vertovec claims, “the dispersed diasporas of old” have morphed into “today’s ‘transnational communities’ sustained by a range of modes of social organization, mobility and communication” (5). However, these kinds of social changes do not remain limited to ethnically diasporic groups and migrants, rather illegal and violent groups, for example, terrorists, drug dealers, human traffickers and so on, are operating transnationally and require states to assume transnational measures to counter them.

Second, Transnationalism as a type of consciousness: Vertovec looks into the consciousness of transnational people and finds that similar to diasporic mental state, transnationalism also creates a unique consciousness in the transnational community. Media and cyberspace play a crucial role in making transnational bonding possible by not requiring actual direct migration, but by sharing cultural heritage and through creating a transnational shared imagination in the mind. The sense of being here and there or multilocality certainly creates a fracture in the consciousness. Vertovec further thinks that this kind of transnational and diasporic situation will result in ‘fractured memories’ as there will be breaks and gaps in the archeology of collective memory which will create “a multiplicity of histories, ‘communities’ and selves…” (7). At the same time, this sense of dwelling in one place and belonging to another can make diasporic transnational people remain connected to ‘others’, that is, non-native and marginalised people of a particular nation-state, and coupled with the fractured multiple history, can persuade them to resist the repressive local or global situations.

Third, Mode of cultural reproduction: Vertovec looks at transnationalism as a mode of cultural reproduction because here exists a fluidity and hybridity in the construction of cultural and social practices. People, especially younger generation who has been exposed to multitude forms of cultures, can consciously select and syncretize from more than one heritage. The Internet, global media, satellite television channels and other forms of communications are facilitating this reproduction of culture.

Fourth, Avenue of capital: Vertovec ponders over the economic aspects of transnationalism and concludes that transnational corporations within their many phases of activities involving the supply, production, marketing, information exchange, management and investment create a trajectory of transnational activities as well as constitute a transnational capitalist class of people who are professionals, bureaucrats, politicians, global media and elite consumers enjoying transnational merchandises. Besides, migrants sending remittances to their family members living in the homeland is also preponderant in the movement of capital and often the government introduces policies to encourage such exchange.

Indeed, a great number of national economics today, such as the Philippines, Pakistan and many Latin American states, absolutely depend on monetary transfers of many kinds from ‘nationals’ abroad…Resources do not just flow back to people’s country of origin but to and fro and throughout the network. (9)

Fifth, Site of political engagement: Transnationalism is increasingly seen with its political involvement and indeed the ‘-ism’ in transnationalism suggests an ideology. Vertovec draws attention to this new dimension of politics where global engagement in instigating, resisting and suppressing the local and national issues happen. The rapid dissemination of information through technology, mobilisation, and lobbying of political and intergovernmental organisations make this possible.

Fifth, Site of political engagement: Transnationalism is increasingly seen with its political involvement and indeed the ‘-ism’ in transnationalism suggests an ideology. Vertovec draws attention to this new dimension of politics where global engagement in instigating, resisting and suppressing the local and national issues happen. The rapid dissemination of information through technology, mobilisation, and lobbying of political and intergovernmental organisations make this possible.

According to Vertovec, transnational political activities are dynamic, and both the ‘homeland’ and transnational people influence each other. He explains:

Political parties now often establish offices abroad in order to canvass immigrants, while immigrants themselves organize to lobby the home government. Emigrants increasingly are able to maintain or gain access to health and welfare benefits, property rights, voting rights, or citizenship in more than one country (around half the world’s countries recognize dual citizenship or dual nationality). (11)

Finally, (Re)Construction of ‘place’ or locality: Because of re-grounding in the migrant countries and recreating of ‘places’ from one’s own homeland and other nation-states which is often experienced through the virtual world, brought in by technological advancement, such as, telecommunications, films, video, satellite TV and the Internet, transnational people are now having increasing difficulties of relating to one particular locality; instead, there is now ‘translocalities’ lived by them (6).

Thus, Vertove evinces the many faces of transnational activities. Transnationalism is inclusive of social, economic, cultural, and political dimensions. The sense of multi-level existence and hybridity substantiates it in practice.

However, Himadri Lahiri states, “[T]echnological progress has resulted in ‘time-space compression’” and observes, “In critical parlance two prominent terms- transnationalism and diaspora- are used to describe this movement of man and money” (116).  He refutes Faist and some other notable critics who think that diaspora and transnationalism are two different entities. He argues that the discourses of diaspora and transnationalism are ideologically too overlapping and because of this he finds the two terms compatible with each other and advocates to use them jointly.

Thomas Faist’s opinions on diaspora and transnational issues can be found in one of his essays, “Diaspora and Transnationalism: What kind of dance partners?” where Faist states:

Although both terms refer to cross-border process, diaspora has been often used to denote religious or national groups living outside an (imagined) homeland, whereas transnationalism is often used both more narrowly – to refer to migrants’ durable ties across countries – and, more widely, to capture not only communities, but all sorts of social formations, such as transnationally active networks, groups and organisations. Moreover, while diaspora and transnationalism are sometimes used interchangeably, the two terms reflect different intellectual genealogies. (9)

Transnational process does not necessarily mean ‘banishment’ or ‘exile’ from one’s home country. On the contrary, it may involve sending of remittances, goods, information as well as visiting in person, and migrant people despite living in different countries for a considerable duration can maintain a sustained communication with their relatives and friends back in the country of their origin. Therefore, it is not essential to consider diaspora and transnational ideas in conjunction. Faist offers a comparative discussion of diaspora and transnationalism, and contours the similarities and differences between the two areas of study. He also disentangles globalisation from diaspora and transnationalism by explaining globalisation as a worldwide, universal phenomenon whereas the other two concepts occur within limited spaces of particular regions or states. Although he calibrates the reading of diaspora and transnationalism by iterating their distinction from each other, he remarks that it is possible to find link between the two concepts, especially on political grounds. Consequently, the issues concerning cross-border migration discussed under diaspora and transnationalism often imbricate. However, Faist puts forth:

Diaspora is an old concept whose uses and meanings have undergone change. Originally, the concept referred only to the historic experience of particular groups, especially Jews and Armenians. Later, it was extended to religious minorities in Europe. Since the late 1970s, ‘diaspora’ has experienced a veritable inflation of applications and interpretations. (12)

In an attempt to explain diaspora, Ato Quayson and Girish Daswani state:

While diasporas emerge out of dispersals, not all dispersals lead to diasporas. For example the violent dispersals that took place in Libya and the Ivory Coast in 2011 as a consequence of the political turmoil in those two countries may not necessarily lead to the formation of diasporas, whereas the Russian invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, which led to massive dispersals of Pashtuns and other Afghani tribes into Pakistan and surrounding areas, did coalesce into a diaspora. Indeed, the central feature of the Afghani dispersal came to intensify an ethno-political and religious ideology to be articulated in the institutional form of the Taliban, incubated and hatched in the diaspora in the late 1990s, which in its turn came to cultivate a strong affiliation with the transnational network represented by Al-Qaeda. (3)

Nevertheless, transnationalism is frequently used synonymously with other terms while referring to complex issues of an intricate globalised world and thus, causes more murkiness around transnationalism. Patricia Clavin cautions that in recent years the term ‘transnationalism’ has been applied so broadly and freely that it is becoming a ‘catch-all concept’ and the meanings regarding ‘trans-’, ‘multi-’ and ‘international’ are getting blotched (434). Clavin puts the concept of ‘nation-state’ in opposite to transnationalist approach and argues, “…transnationalism, despite its early identity with the transfer or movement of money and goods, is first and foremost about people: the social space that they inhabit, the networks they form and the ideas they exchange” (422). Clavin also places high value on the importance and necessity of transnationalism as a concept. She explains:

The value of transnationalism lies in its openness as an historical concept. Transnational history also allows us to reflect on, while at the same time going beyond, the confines of the nation. It sheds new, comparative light on the strengths and the fragilities of the nation-state and underlines the ways in which local history can be understood in relation to world history…The history of transnational communities is not just about how relationships are created, but how they are sustained and changed. (438)

Similar stance has been taken by Katherine Pence and Andrew Zimmerman while discussing the recent tremendous impact transnationalism has had on German Studies and the sundry new possibilities it has opened to existing German discourse from a more global intellectual point of view. They provide a comprehensive view of transnationalism by directly addressing some of the haziness surrounding the concept. Moreover, they advocate its application as a literary theory alongside other theories in literature studies:

One especially important question is how transnationalism differs from earlier international approaches, including comparative studies, history of diplomacy or foreign relations, or other analytic concepts, such as, borderlands or cosmopolitan, global world, or international studies. Transnationalism studies borrow from all these concepts, but current scholarship emphasizes the various types of flow across national boundaries in a fresh way, while questioning “the nation” as an analytical category…

In a very basic way, transnational approaches preserve the global scale of comparative history against the microscopic tendencies of some of the cultural studies of the 1990s- while embracing the attention to local peculiarity, thick description, and reading against the grain that are characteristic of cultural studies. Adding transnational approaches to the scholar’s toolbox, intermixed with other methodologies, can only make this inquiry richer. (496)

Pence and Zimmerman’s indication regarding the richness of the theoretical concept of transnationalism proves right when we consider how its notions are being entangled with other literary ideas like postmodernism and postcolonialism. The coexistence of multiple reality and hybridity of a transnational age also echoes core ideas of postmodernism. Additionally, critics Pence and Zimmerman trace the root of the emergence of transnationalism to the ‘postcolonial cultural criticism’ as it adds new understanding to the concepts of the empire and decolonization:

Works following Said’s Orientalism have demonstrated the racism and ethnocentrism at the heart of European knowledge about the colonized world. Transnational history proceeds from this demonstrated epistemological insufficiency of the European and Eurocentric archive to the necessity of multisited and multiarchival history. (497)

In fact, the establishment of colonies triggered a two-way movement of the colonisers and the colonised. In order to sustain the Empire, it was obligatory to meet the demand of workforce both at homeland and the colonised land. Hence, from the group of ‘others’ a class in the form of workers, labourers, slaves were created and they often travelled from one place to another to work on the plantations. Besides, in order to train a class of clerks to assist the colonial masters in ruling, certain young people from the colonised race were often sent to Europe to receive a Westernised education. Many of the people who moved to different countries in the colonial era for different purposes did not return but managed to sustain a connection with their root. As a result, the post-colonial era emerges at a juncture at which it is complicated by the interconnectedness of all sorts of social formations, and singularity is not possible anymore. While emphasising the importance of transnationalism, Pence and Zimmerman express their hope that transnational studies will broaden the narrow outlook of Eurocentric conceptions and will contribute in challenging racism, nationalism, and imperialism. They add:

Transnationalism also provides a useful means of examining the development of bodies of knowledge or technologies that are not bound by the nation-state. Scientific inquiry, pop culture, consumerism, art, and media all emerge through transnational networks. (498)

Thomas Faist in the “Introduction” to his book The Transnationalized Social Question: Migration and the Politics of Social Inequalities in the Twenty-First Century identifies persistent social inequalities, especially regarding income and career opportunities as the driving force for large-scale migration. He also marks ‘transnationalism’ as a social phenomenon as the title of his book suggests. While discussing the consequences of mobilisation beyond state boundaries in a new global space, he says:

Socially, cross-border migration has resulted in sustained transnational linkages, such as social spaces of networks, organizations, and diaspora groupings. Politically, cross-border migration has evolved as a visible sign of conflicts around cultural heterogeneities because it increases the plurality of heterogeneities such as religion, language, or gender in immigration countries – a process of transnationalization internal to national states. These features can be taken as a core around which political mobilization for or against multiculturalism, diversity, and other perspectives and issues has occurred.

At the same time, Thomas Faist thinks that contemporary South-North migration is a late outcome of European colonialism and imperialism. He suggests it to be seen as a post-colonial counter flow of European domination. He further adds in his other essay, “Diaspora and Transnationalism: What Kind of Dance Partners?”:

The diaspora literature usually emphasises the cultural distinctiveness of diaspora groups, while parts of the transnational literature have started to look more extensively into migrant incorporation and transnational practices. This is perhaps related to the fact that most scholars following a transnational approach are situated in immigration countries and frequently also take their cues from public policy debates characterised by keywords such as ‘integration’ and ‘social cohesion’. Overall, the link between integration and cross-border engagement has been pried open by transnational studies. (20)

A proof of Faist’s claim can be traced in recent fictional works by South-Asian authors, such as, Amitav Ghosh, Monica Ali, and Jhumpa Lahiri, to mention a few. In some of their writings, the authors have created a utopia like cosmopolitan world consisting of different races, religions, languages, cultural identities, and depicted the integration or the failure of integration in a different nation-state. More apposite and additional tools found in theoretical ideas like transnationalism other than those offered by diaspora discourse are required to critically discuss and analyse such works.



To recapitulate, both diaspora and transnationalism are concerned with cross-border ties, but transnationalism is more about the integration of immigrants in settler countries and the reciprocity of cultural customs and practices through continued communication surpassing borderlines. On the other hand, globalisation plays a key role in the advent of transnationalism but the convolution of multiple issues of a transnationalised society cannot be addressed solely by the ideas of a global process. The scrutiny of works by a number of researchers and theorists on the field of transnationalism reveals that the development of technology has neared the distance, and the inter-relationship between and among countries has become intense and more complicated. In the postcolonial era, the world has already undergone a contraction and now innumerable people from once colonised countries travel around the world in search of a home. People also migrate willingly in order to escape from poverty, racism, religious persecution, war, and maintain communication with family and friends across different nation-states. Aspects of these dynamic relationships across several nation-states can be processed more deftly with the contemporary theoretical knowledge of transnationalism.


Works cited

Clavin, Patricia. “Defining Transnationalism.” Contemporary European History, vol. 14, no. 4,

2005, pp. 421-39. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

Faist, Thomas. “Diaspora and Transnationalism: What Kind of dance partners?” Diaspora and

Transnationalism: Concepts, Theories and Methods, edited by Thomas Faist and Rainer

Baubock, Amsterdam University Press, 2010, pp. 9-34. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Aug. 2020.

Faist, Thomas. “Introduction: Migration as the Transnationalized Social Question.” The

Transnationalized Social Question: Migration and the Politics of Social Inequalities in

the Twenty-First Century. Oxford University Press, 2019. n. pag.

Lahiri, Himadri. “Transnationalism and Diaspora: ‘Awkward Dance Partners’?” postScriptum:

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Literary Studies. Spec. issue on Transnational and

Transcultural Spaces, vol. IV, no. ii, 2019, pp. 116-30.

Pence, Katherine, and Andrew Zimmerman. “Transnationalism.” German Studies Review, vol.

35, no. 3, 2012, pp. 495–500. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

Quayson, Ato, and Girish Daswani. “Introduction – Diaspora and Transnationalism: Scapes,

Scales, and Scopes.” A Companion to Diaspora and Transnationalism.

Wiley Blackwell Publishers, 2013, pp. 1-26.

Vertovec, Steven. Transnationalism. Routledge, 2009.


Date: December 24, 2021

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