Transnationalism refers to the movement of ideas, people, and capital across national borders in the modern global era. The term emerged and became popular in the 1990s (though it had been in use before that), particularly in academic circles, as a way to describe and theorize the intercontinental displacements, economic relations, cultural forms, identities, and communities that characterize the contemporary era. As a concept, its emergence goes hand in hand with the ideologies of globalization and the technologies, processes, and networks that constitute an increasingly interdependent and connected world.
Transnationalism signals a different kind of analytical lens that emphasizes the connections and flows between different nation-states, territories, and regions in the world. It expands on and departs from older notions of identity that were based on national borders and allows a focus on subjectivity—or ways that identities are always in process, and constantly being inflected by different political, cultural, economic, and social factors. One key critique of the usage of the term transnational is that it tends to flatten out asymmetries of power between different regions of the world, nations, classes, and modes of displacement: There is a world of difference between the transnational capitalist class (a businessperson flying first-class, for example), an overseas contract worker whose mobility is regulated by the sending state, and an undocumented migrant whose mode of travel is highly perilous, and even fatal. As Caren Kaplan puts it in her 1996 examination of different metaphors of travel, “All displacements are not the same” (p. 2). Nevertheless, one way in which transnationalism remains such a key mode of analysis is the way it can bring the aforementioned businessperson, contract worker, and undocumented migrant together into one conceptual field, where the social, economic, cultural, and political forces that connect them can be analyzed, along with the kinds of effects they might have on each other’s lives. In that sense, transnationalism encourages a connective but not necessarily flattening way to understand the world and its inhabitants.
Although the term is relatively new, transnationalism itself is certainly not a new phenomenon: Even before the emergence and rise of the nation-state as a modern form of governance and identity (that is, before national boundaries existed), ideas, people, and goods traveled across other kinds of borders. The Atlantic slave trade (which took place between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries) is one example of a transnational phenomenon that has had major repercussions on the condition of African, American, and European nation-states and peoples into the twenty-first century. The institutionalization of racism through the trafficking and enslavement of peoples of African descent had transnational effects that profoundly shape present-day economic and political development in Africa. Most historians estimate the total number of people trafficked at between nine and twelve million. As a result, the African continent suffered a tremendous loss of its human labor, the breaking up of family and tribal ties, and the devastation of ways of life. In contrast, the massive profits from the Atlantic slave trade fueled the continued development in Europe of architecture, the arts, and science, setting up a radically skewed transnational relationship that continues into the early twenty-first century.
As a transnational phenomenon, slavery laid the economic groundwork for the concept of race to emerge as an organizing mechanism of American society. Southern planters and slave traders needed to rationalize the dehumanization of a whole people in order to systematically exploit them as chattel, as property. As W. E. B. Du Bois stated almost four decades after the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” (1996 , p. 1).
The anticolonial poet and scholar Aimé Césaire, reflecting on the colonization that followed the abolition of the slave trade, writes about how these transnational historical processes shaped black life, identity, and consciousness in the New World. In his 1969 play, Une tempête, a rewriting of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, that elucidates the work that racism does in the relationship between colonizer and colonized, Césaire argues:
you have ended by imposing on me
an image of myself.
underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That is the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
and I know myself as well.
Césaire and later his student, Franz Fanon, write about lives and cultures that have been profoundly shaped by the transnational processes of slavery and colonialism. Just as significantly, however, they write about a process of anti-colonialism that was similarly transnational, much like the abolition movement that preceded it. Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1965), a searing critique of European colonialism and racism in Africa (specifically the French in Algeria), influenced other anticolonial and liberation movements around the world, including the Black Power and black liberation movements in the United States. Recent scholarship, such as Paul Gilroy’s 1993 examination of the transatlantic cultures of black music, shed light on the complex networks of creativity and survival in the African diaspora, in milieus shaped by the oppression of slavery and capital. In the early twenty-first century, the African continent continues to be marked by economic and political turmoil and communal violence that stems from these early trans-national processes.
The AIDS crisis, which is a global crisis, is one example of how certain transnational phenomena, such as epidemics, natural disasters, and nuclear fallout, pay no attention to national borders. That nearly two-thirds of all the world’s HIV-positive people live in sub-Saharan Africa, however, speaks to the continuing disparities that exist between Africa and its former colonizers. Old patterns of poverty, continuing social and political instability, and rapid urbanization and modernization have all contributed to Africa’s disproportionate rate of infection and continuing inability to address the urgent needs of its HIV-positive citizens. In addition, AIDS continues to play a role in Africa’s lagging economic development because of its impact on the labor force and households, yet treatment options and global aid for this problem fall short of the great need. Black Americans in the United States have been disproportionately affected by the AIDS epidemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making up nearly half of all HIV/AIDS diagnoses. A related statistic, that one in every four black people in the United States lives in poverty, indicates the racialized and classed ways in which transnational phenomena such as epidemics continue to link the lives of African peoples long after the abolishment of slavery.
In the early twenty-first century, cross-border activities epitomized by the trafficking of women and girls continue old patterns of sexual, labor, and racial exploitation. Trafficking refers to the illegal and highly profitable trade in human beings that uses coercive tactics, violence, and debt bondage to control its victims. There are many parallels to the African slave trade here, and the usual victims come from countries in the global South, such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia, as well as from places that have undergone social, political, and economic turmoil, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Soviet Union, and parts of Africa.
The construction of race and racism is deeply tied to the migration of labor. In his 1994 examination of race relations in nineteenth-century California, Tomás Alma-guer argues that labor and its status as “free” or “unfree” became highly racialized, with the latter term becoming associated with people of color, who were seen as posing a threat to immigrant and “native” white labor. White labor unions successfully agitated for limitations on Asian immigration, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law that barred immigration on the basis of race.
One of the ways in which transnationalism is invoked in the early twenty-first century is in discussions of migration and the conditions that produce migration. In turn, such transnational processes of migration have a profound effect on processes of racial formation in different locales. As Michael Omi and Howard Winant suggest, racial formation is “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed” (1994, p. 55). Race, as generally construed, is the product of a social process marked by conflict, where meanings are assigned to different types of human bodies. Nowhere is this more evident than at one of the sites emblematic of transnational processes: the national border. At the U.S.– Mexico border, for instance, many institutional mechanisms work to help produce meanings about race and citizenship, and they do this by managing transnational flows of people, capital, and ideas.
When the United States closed off Chinese immigration in the late nineteenth century, one of the replacement sources for cheap labor came from Mexico, and Mexican workers were soon established as farm workers, miners, and railroad workers in the Far West. American labor shortages during World Wars I and II institutionalized a binational temporary contract labor program, the Bracero Program, between the United States and Mexico. With the permeability of the border, however, came anxiety about who could live in, work in, and claim the United States as their home. The establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924 to police the border also heralded institutionalization of the concept of “illegal alien,” and the racial stereotyping of Mexican laborers began in earnest. This process of racial formation, with its creation and solidification of identities, is a transnational process, one that is highly dependent on an imbalance of political and economic power between the United States and Mexico. It is important to note the shifting perception of this population in U.S. culture. During times of labor shortage, the availability of the Mexican labor pool is viewed as an advantage. During economic downturns, however, this labor pool is portrayed as endangering the access that citizens have to the benefits of the American welfare state, and unfairly tapping the kinds of the entitlements that the state provides for working-class Americans.
The border issue is a highly volatile problem in the early twenty-first century, with illegal immigration cited as a top national priority and increasing militarization at the U.S.–Mexico border (along with a new fifteen-foot-high wall and night-vision scopes) cited as the solution. Larger transnational forces that affect migration, such as free trade agreements that established factories on the southern side of the U.S.–Mexico border to take advantage of looser environmental protection and tax laws as well as cheap labor, are also factors, as sociologist Saskia Sassen points out in “Regulating Immigration in a Global Age” (2005). Indeed, the continuing disparity of economic opportunities between the United States and Mexico has not been addressed by transnational mechanisms of trade, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994), which has taken down trade barriers such as tariffs, while migrant workers continue to risk life and limb in crossing the border. At the same time, the evacuation of traditional industrial centers in the United States to the global South has resulted in increasing unemployment for Americans, setting up conflicts over resources and jobs, and putting into play anti-immigrant measures such as California’s Proposition 187 of 1994.
This economic migration of people also sets up new patterns of kinship and affiliation that build on and extend old models of family and nation. In a transnational setting, new family forms are negotiated, and community affiliations are both strengthened and changed. Identity becomes understood as being a process that is marked by different, and perhaps contradictory, loyalties and identifications. Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc (1993) describe the multiple identifications of migrants, and the ways in which they maintain simultaneous identities linked to different nations over the process of migration and settling. The multiple loyalties are a result of these transnational processes and have an effect on how people negotiate notions of citizenship that are normally tied to the institution of the nation-state.
The cultural realm is often seen as a stage where transnational processes and identifications take shape that involve syncretic practices that fuse different cultural traditions, languages, and genres. Among transnational youth, who learn to be fluent in many different heritages and cultures, this mode of hybridity is a way of constructing what Stuart Hall has called “new ethnicities” (1996). In New York City, where the largest Indian-American population in the United States resides, Sunaina Marr Maira (2002) has observed the cultural fusions and identity negotiations of second-generation South Asian youth that take place in dance clubs, college campuses, and other urban spaces. Often savvier with Internet media and other communications technologies, transnational youth are often at the vanguard of new cultural productions and political mobilization.
In addition, new networks built around ethnic identity, social and cultural survival, and political mobilization form as a result of different kinds of displacements. Ties to nation and national identity do not necessarily disappear in a “borderless world” aided by technology. Nevertheless, identity and ways of understanding identity are increasingly complicated by other competing demands that are highlighted by transnational processes. Notions of race are bound less by national boundaries, enabling political activists and communities to make connections across national borders using a lens of race and racism—connections about structures of power, media and representation, the allocation of resources, militarization, and war.
Basch, Linda, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc. 1993. Nations Unbound: Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States. New York: Routledge.
Césaire, Aimé. 1969. Une tempêe. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1996 (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin.
Fanon, Franz. 1965. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press.
Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Grewal, Inderpal, and Caren Kaplan. 2001. “Global Identities: Theorizing Transnational Studies of Sexuality.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7 (4): 663–679.
Hall, Stuart. 1996. “New Ethnicities.” In Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, edited by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen, 441–449. London: Routledge.
Kaplan, Caren. 1996. Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Maira, Sunaina Marr. 2002. Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
Ong, Aihwa, and Donald M. Nonini, eds. 1997. Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism. New York: Routledge.
Sassen, Saskia. 2005. “Regulating Immigration in a Global Age: A New Policy Landscape.” Parallax 11 (1): 35–45.
Wilson, Rob, and Wimal Dissanayake, eds. 1996. Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Vernadette V. Gonzalez