Note: Like many of my other blog posts, this post is written from a largely U.S. American perspective. I recognize that some of the ideas I discuss will not hold true in every context, but because I am an American currently living in the U.S., a U.S. perspective is what I am most familiar and know the most about. In addition, my master’s thesis research was specifically about immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship. I’d love to hear from an international point of view on this topic, so if you would like to share your thoughts, please leave a comment!
What is Transnationalism?
Transnationalism is the idea that there are people whose cultural, social and economic ties extend across national borders. For example, many immigrants maintain a close relationship with the country they were born in, while still participating in the new society that they moved to.
Transnationalism is a product of modern times, modern governments, and modern borders. Today there are many people, all over the globe, who are transnational in some way. Transnationalism is influenced by governments and the immigration or citizenship regulations that they enforce, but also by individuals and the way that they live and identify themselves.
Transnationalism vs. Globalization
The concepts of transnationalism and globalization are closely related, but not the same. While globalization is centered around the global flow of ideas, products, and people, transnationalism focuses on the ways that individual and group identities can be rooted in more than one place (specifically, more than one nation). While globalization theory relies on the de-emphasis of national identities, transnationalism relies on the idea that people (as well as corporations, and in a way, ideas) can identify with more than one nationality, more or less equally. In addition, regardless of the nationality they identify with, many people live their lives constantly crossing literal and figurative borders.
Nations, States, and Nation-States
The definition of a nation, as used in anthropology, is a group of people with a shared history, culture and language living in the same territory. Although definitions of a nation may vary, by this definition, a nation does not need to have an officially recognized government to be a nation—that is what defines a state. There are many nations that are not recognized as states for example, Kurdistan in Iraq, or the many Native American nations throughout the U.S. The word “nation-state” is a combination of the two concepts; it describes a group of people that are both culturally homogenous and governed under the same political body. The difference between these classifications is not always clear cut, and the category that a place falls into can be debated from many different points of view.
The concept of transnationalism can apply to people whose identities are rooted in more than one nation, more than one nation-state, or a nation and a nation-state/state. For example, someone may feel that they are a member of both a globally recognized state and an indigenous nation that resides within that state. A very literally example of someone who is a member of two nation-states/states is someone who holds dual citizenship. However, there are many examples of transnational identities that are not represented by one’s passport.
Identity and Citizenship
One of the themes that I explored in my master’s thesis research is the idea that applying for and obtaining citizenship in a new country is rarely an exercise in cutting ties with one’s birth country—in fact, obtaining U.S., citizenship often serves to strengthen new citizens’ ties with the place they were born. This is largely because U.S. citizens can travel in and out of the U.S. more freely than legal permanent residents. For some immigrants, becoming a U.S. citizen is a chance to visit their loved ones in their birth country for the first time in many years.
Contrary to common rhetoric, even if a new U.S. citizen has no plans to visit their birth country, it does not mean they plan to completely replace their former national identity with a U.S. American identity. Culture, heritage and traditions do not change when your passport does. Instead, many U.S. immigrants are likely to incorporate ideas from both the U.S. and their birth country into their life at the same time. And of course, immigrants from all over the world shape U.S. culture in many unique ways as well. Citizenship and non-citizenship are not mutually exclusive. The theory of transnationalism demonstrates that people can have feelings of belonging, loyalty and pride towards more than one nation at a time.
Places of Origin: Home Country or Birth Country?
You may have noticed while reading this blog post that I prefer to use the phrase “birth country” over “home country.” This is because the word “home” has many underlying meanings and associations attached to it—when people think of “home” they may think of the place they were born, but they might also think of the place where they are most comfortable, or the place where they feel they belong. Just because someone was born in a certain place does not mean they consider that place to be home. In addition, people can have more than one place, or even no place, that they feel is their home.
I think this distinction is especially important in the current U.S. political climate. In my opinion, referring to all immigrants’ birth countries as their “home countries” runs the risk of perpetuating a false belief that all immigrants hold strong attachments or loyalties to countries other than the one they currently live in. For some immigrants, the place they were born is a place they consider to be home, while for others, home is the place that they immigrated to. Some may feel that both places are home. For others, “home” may not be either of these places!
I don’t think that everyone who uses the phrase “home country” is using it with the meaning I described above, but I personally prefer to use “birth country,” as I feel it is a less loaded alternative.
I feel like there is so much more I could say about this concept, but I try to keep my blog posts relatively short! Let me know what you think of this post—have you heard of transnationalism theory before? How well do you think I outlined the idea of transnationalism?