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Creation of Transnational Communities from International Migration

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Studies
Wordcount: 2534 words Published: 4th Nov 2020

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Whilst social scientists had been long ‘constrained by the closed models of “structural functionalism”’ ( Radcliffe Brown 1952) and ‘social system’, the static nature of these models only permitted them to treat each society ‘as a discrete and bounded entity with its own separate economy, culture, and historical trajectory’(Glick Schiller, Basch, and Szanton-Blanc 1995: 6). The proliferation of international migration has blurred these once distinct lines, necessitating a new conceptualization to analyse and explain the pattern of close ties linking immigrants to their countries of origin and the ‘consciousness of this new immigrant population’ (Schiller et al. 1992: 1).

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In more modern theories, social relations are ‘understood to be fluid and dynamic, yet culturally patterned, with an analysis on the global context’. This more flexible approach is required to ‘elucidate the processes underlying the experience of the sectors of migrating populations’ who go on to become transnational (Schiller et al. 1992: 9). The concept of transnationalism is defined as ‘the processes by which immigrants build social fields that link together their country of origin and their country of settlement’ (Schiller et al. 1992: 2). It provides a context that links migrants’ beliefs and their social and political identities together with global economic processes, and the conflicting persistence of interstate connections. Upon their arrival in a new country of settlement, immigrants have preconceived ideologies and views that are representative of and have been learned in their country of origin. They then ‘engage in complex activities across national borders that create, shape and potentially transform their identities’ (Schiller et al. 1992: 4). This results in the sustainment of ‘several identities that link them simultaneously to more than one nation’ (Schiller et al. 1992: 11). This new sense of self is encompassed by the term ‘transmigrant’. Although these transmigrants ‘assert their identities within national structures that monopolize power and foster ideologies of identity’, it remains clear ‘that the identity, field of action, ideology, or even legal rights of citizenship of transnational migrants are not confined within the boundaries of any one single polity’ (Schiller et al., 1992: 16).

In areas where international migration is rife, a group of people established within different nations may emerge as a transnational community. These communities develop as a result of various ‘social, historical and economic developments involving the actions of nation-states, multinational corporations and social and political movements, as well as the actions of migrants themselves’ (Gold 2000: 74). These transnational communities ‘embody and exchange concerns, relationships, resources and needs immersed in multiple settings’ (Gold 2000: 73). Robert Courtney Smith used his study of a transnational community found in Ticuani- a small county in the Mixteca region of Mexico from which many migrate to New York- to develop the theory of transnational life. He has refined the theory’s framework through ‘examining other factors that profoundly affect it, such as the life course, adolescence, gender, political change, and changes in patterns of migration and assimilation’’ (Smith 2006: 220). His empirical study has led him to the conclusion that ‘Ticuanese is not a cosmopolitan placeless identity but a local, deeply rooted traditional identity lived in two countries at once’ which has evolved into ‘something transnational but still local’ (Smith 2006: 11). Ticuani displays characteristics of a remittance society, where ‘material goods are embedded in social relations’ (Schiller et al. 1992: 10). Through the act of sending goods back to the country of origin ‘connections are continued, a wider system of social relations is maintained, reinforced and remains vital and growing’ (Schiller et al. 1992: 11). Hence the transnational links are sustained not only through communication and travel between the states, but also through the support those in a more privileged location offer to those in a lesser developed state.  

As briefly mentioned above, for Ticuani, gender roles have been largely influenced by the transnational connections shared with New York. In ‘migrating to and working in the United States, women challenge patriarchal constraints, including the unequal division of household labour, and try to renegotiate them’ (Smith 2006: 86). Smith defines the traditional Mexican trait of ranchero masculinity as a ‘hegemonic configuration of gender practices that legitimize men’s dominant and women’s subordinate position’ (Smith 2006: 86). When placed in the context of an egalitarian society, these ideologies must be revised, and we can see that gender is practiced in a different way. The level to which the migrants adapt to the new standards varies, with some clinging to their traditional beliefs more so than others. The modern migrant poses an alternative view of masculinity, one which ‘retains elements of ranchero masculinity but pragmatically adapts to the new context where his partner must also work, where the state interferes with ranchero prerogatives such as using violence, and where the man then defends such changes in a revised gender ideology’ (Smith 2006: 87). The immigrants who pertain to this modern definition of masculinity criticise the ‘traditional ranchero masculinity’, whilst others ‘engage in an ongoing defence of it’ (Smith 2006: 87). It is said that these ‘contemporary Mexican men see themselves as ni macho ni mandilón’ demonstrating that upon their departure from Mexico they lose the black and white ideology of masculinity as defined by the exertion of power and the participation in manual labour (Smith 2006: 86). For first-generation immigrants, although alternative ‘gender practices coexist with it', ‘ranchero masculinity is the dominant ideology’ (Smith 2006: 106). This is a matter rather more complicated for the second generation, who must ‘negotiate gender in three contexts: various hegemonic and non-hegemonic “Mexican” and “American” notions of masculinity and femininity, nagging generational questions of ethnic authenticity and nostalgia, and an immigrant narrative of upward mobility’ (Smith 2006: 106). Whilst in New York the behaviour of this younger generation tends to coincide more with the American notion of gender equality, but upon returning to Mexico it is found that gender practices alter and aspects of the inferior treatment of women return, although not to the extent of the traditional ranchero/ranchera behaviour. Their more progressive views are gradually becoming accepted into the Mexican society as the inhabitants of Mexico become more exposed to these more modern beliefs.

The increased transnational mobilization between the United States and Mexico is likely to ‘increase immigrants’ participation in American politics and spur the adoption of American citizenship (or dual citizenship)’ hence allowing Mexican immigrants to impact American policies (Smith 2006: 226). Mexican politics have also been greatly impacted by the influence of the United States as a result of the immigration between the states. Mexico has ‘given its emigrant citizens a constitutional right to political representation’ (Smith 2006: 226). The result of migrants ‘gaining spots as plurinominal or regional congressional representatives’ is that they can now ‘enter directly into Mexican politics and will no doubt press their demands for inclusion’ (Smith 2006: 228). As a result, even without the ability to partake in electoral votes from abroad, ‘returning migrants or migrant diputados (congressional representatives) living in the United States will exert increasing political pressure in Mexico, amplified by migrant dollars and prestige’ (Smith 2006: 229). This act of inclusion towards emigrants has undeniably strengthened the transnational links between Ticuani and New York.

However, there are still criticisms to be made for this transnational model, which is often underpinned by technological determinism- the belief that technological developments have led to the development of these transnational communities. This would imply that it is ‘the invention of rapid transportation and communication systems, rather than the current state of the world social and economic system’(Schiller 1992: 9) that explains why ‘modern-day migrants are more likely than their predecessors to maintain ongoing ties to their societies of origin’ (Wakeman 1988). Geographically distant people are now ‘becoming linked through economic markets, communications, and cultural dissemination and homogenization’, which inevitably works to dissolve the significance of state borders (Smith 2006: 13). Furthermore, ‘in the globalized economy that has developed over the past several decades, there is a sense that no one place is truly secure’ despite increased access to different countries (Schiller, Basch and Blanc-Szanton 1992: 12). This encourages transnational social fields as migrants try to ‘continuously translate the economic and social position gained in one political setting into political, social and economic capital in the other’ so as to ‘keep their options open’. Yet this emphasis on the role of globalisation in causing transnationalism can be disputed by the exhibition of transnational behaviour in the past, which was earlier classified as diasporic, but can now be understood as an earlier form of transnationalism. Evidently technological innovations have ‘facilitated the ability to maintain multiple links’ which promotes the ease of creation of these communities, but does not directly cause it (Gold 2000: 75).

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It remains in question whether it is really possible for transnationalism to transcend state divisions. ‘While international migrants and their descendants recurrently engage in concerted action across state boundaries, the use, form, and mobilization of the connections linking here and there are contingent outcomes subject to multiple political constraints’ (Waldinger and Fitzgerald 2004: 1179). It is important to note that the opportunity for transnational communities to occur is greatly determined by the ease of travel between nations, which remains to be governed by the state. The existence of passports and border controls allow the state to govern who can exit or enter the country. Hence, the inter-state relationship plays a vital role in either facilitating or preventing the pursuit of ‘homeland interests’. A harmonious correspondence will encourage the relaxation of the ‘security/solidarity nexus’ (Orcés 2015: 98), whilst one of hostility, or even belligerence, will naturally lead to the toughening or limitation of connections between states, be that transport or contact. In the case of an outbreak of war between the states, whilst ‘homeland loyalties extending to allies or neutrals can be tolerated easily’, interaction with a hostile state will appear suspect and will likely be prevented, severing the supposed transnational ties (Orcés 2015: 98). This is a situation which renders the preservation of multiple national loyalties arduous, drawing attention to the fact that there are situations in which the transnational model cannot succeed and that state boundaries will remain fixed. The question of whether it is possible for these communities to transcend state divisions must equally be considered. The modern state is a ‘political organization with sharply defined territorial borders’ (Waldinger 2013: 229). David Fitzgerald (2002: 3) disputes that the ‘analytic formulation of transnational is inconsistent with empirical evidence in works demonstrating the promotion of particularistic nationalisms across state borders (Verdery 1994)’, suggesting that it is not fully possible to surpass state boundaries. However, nation is a more ‘ambiguous concept’ and so whilst ‘migrants are outside state territorial borders’ they can still be considered ‘within the boundaries of the imagined nation’ (Fitzgerald 2002: 13). In contexts of mass emigration, 'the nation is said to exist in a global “diaspora” without borders’ (Fitzgerald 2002: 230). From this analysis, it is demonstrated that whilst the divide between states lies within the control of the government, the sense of national identity is not bounded to any physical constraints.

Transnationalism has created ‘a new paradigm that rejects the long-held notion that society and nation-state are one and the same’, demonstrating that ‘social relations that are wider than national borders’ (Levitt and Schiller 2004:1003). International migration has provided “an important channel for the bi-directional flow of ideas” from which the development of transnational communities occurs (Sutton and Makiesky-Barrow 1987:114). These transnational ties are further concretised through communication and travel, supported by globalisation which both improves their accessibility and quality. From Smith’s Mexican New York we see that second-generation immigrants raised in New York retain their connections with Mexico despite not having lived there, demonstrating that these links go beyond physical state borders and are tied to a sense of national belonging that is not contained to one location.


  • Fitzgerald, D., 2002. Rethinking the 'Local' and 'Transnational': Cross-Border Politics and Hometown Networks in an Immigrant Union.
  • Fitzgerald, D., 2004. Beyond 'transnationalism': Mexican hometown politics at an American labour union. pp.228–247.
  • Gold, S.J. 2000. Rethinking globalization(s); from corporate transnationalism to local interventions. Reference and Research Book News, 15(3), p.n/a.
  • Orcés, D.M., The Cross-Border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands. Social Forces, 95(4), p.e29.
  • Levitt, P. & Schiller, N.G., 2004. Conceptualizing Simultaneity: A Transnational Social Field Perspective on Society 1. International Migration Review, 38(3), pp.1002–1039.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A.R., 1952. Structure and function in primitive society: essays and addresses, London.
  • Schiller, N.G. et al., 1992. Towards a transnational perspective on migration: race, class, ethnicity and nationalism reconsidered, New York: New York Academy of Sciences.
  • Schiller, N.I.N.A.G., Basch, L. & Blanc‐Szanton, C., 1992. Transnationalism: A New Analytic Framework for Understanding Migration. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 645(1 Towards a Tra), pp.1–24.
  • Smith, R.C., 2006. Mexican New York: transnational lives of new immigrants, Berkeley; London: University of California Press.
  • Waldinger, R. & FitzGerald, D., 2004. Transnationalism in Question.
  • Waldinger, R., 2013. Beyond Transnationalism: An Alternative Perspective on Immigrants' Link with their Country of Origin. Migraciones Internacionales, 7(Supp 1), pp.189–219.


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