Transnationalism Essay

The turn of the twenty-first century has been met with a marked growth in economic, social, and political links among people, places, and institutions crossing nation-state borders and, indeed, spanning the world. Described as transnationalism, such patterns of sustained cross-border relationships, exchange, affiliations, and social activity have developed on various scales. Although people certainly maintained long-distance social networks, economic ties, and political loyalties in earlier periods, recent advances—not least a lowering of costs—in technology, telecommunications, and transportation have allowed expansion, intensification, and acceleration of such connections across large geographic and political spaces. It is not a coincidence that since the 1990s, the growth of social scientific concern with transnationalism has paralleled the growth of interest in globalization. Transnational ties, institutions, and social groups represent outcomes of globalization.

Interactions between national governments (e.g., formal agreements, conflicts, diplomatic relations), or the permanent transfer of people, goods, or other items from one nation-state context to another are still best described as international. Transnational realities can be distinguished as sustained social links and ongoing exchanges among nonstate actors based across national borders. This term thus emphasizes ties that function across nation-states and the borders, laws, institutional frameworks, and identity narratives they represent. The collective attributes of such connections, their processes of formation and maintenance, and their broader implications are referred to broadly as transnationalism.

Although the boom in transnationalism studies commenced in the 1990s, a significant precursor was Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye’s (1971) edited volume Transnational Relations and World Politics. The book’s contributors probed a set of transnational activities surrounding numerous kinds of border-crossing contacts, coalitions, and interactions that are not controlled by organs of government. As a whole, the volume importantly questioned a prevailing state-centric view of international relations. It emphasized the importance of global interactions—defined as movements of information, money, objects, and people across borders—and their impacts on interstate politics.

By the first decade of the twenty-first century, there was a massive proliferation of literature concerning transnationalism. Social scientists speak of a variety of types of social formation as transnational (e.g., varieties found in contributions to the journal Global Networks: A Journal of Transnational Affairs). These include dispersed social groups or communities (ethnic diasporas, religious congregations, social networks, families, migration networks); patterns of economic organization (e.g., capital flows, trade routes, commodity chains, modes of corporation organization and management); political structures (e.g., intergovernmental agencies, nongovernmental organizations, modalities of citizenship, political and social movements); global networks of law breaking and law enforcement (e.g., worldwide terrorist networks, organized crime syndicates, police initiatives); the so-called transnational capitalist class (e.g., corporate executives, state bureaucrats, professionals); and globalized occupational groups (e.g., domestic workers, seafarers, sex workers).

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the study of social movements represents one field that some say particularly “went transnational.” Transnational social movements themselves are nothing especially new. However, in recent years, there a globalization of social movement activities entails a widening repertoire of techniques for mobilizing support and waging campaigns. The transnational repertoire includes networking activities over long distances, enhancing possibilities for pooling resources, intensifying processes of coalition building, and empowering people “at the base” by connecting them directly to people “at the top.” Social scientists’ interest in transnational social movements focuses mainly on activist networks that connect a range of actors sharing common values, discourse, and information.

Within business studies and the sociology of organizations, researchers are currently keen on studying transnational corporate structures and management styles, business networks, supplier commodity chains, production networks, and innovative networks.

Perhaps the foremost field of transnational studies, however, is migration. A shift has occurred from a preexisting, rather one-way, paradigm that largely focused on the ways migrants moved and adapted to new societies. Beginning in the early 1990s, migration studies now mean that scholars across sociology, anthropology, geography, economics, and political science place considerable emphasis on the ways migrants not only move and adapt, but maintain ties of various kinds to their communities of origin (e.g., families, villages, or nation-states).

Among many social theorists, questions remain regarding the superficiality of contemporary transnational linkages and whether they are simply accelerated versions of what already existed, or whether these are truly transformative forms and processes, affecting basic modes of identity maintenance, social organization, and political processes.


  1. Keohane, Robert O., and Joseph S. Nye, eds. Transnational Relations and World Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.
  2. Khagram, Sanjeev, and Peggy Levitt, eds. The Transnational Studies Reader: Interdisciplinary Intersections and Innovations. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  3. Rosenau, James N. The Study of Global Interdependence: Essays on the Transnationalization of World Affairs. New York: Nichols, 1980
  4. Distant Proximities: Dynamics beyond Globalization. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
  5. Smith, Jackie, Charles Chatfield, and Ron Pagnucco, eds. Transnational Social Movements and Global Politics. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997.
  6. Tarrow, Sidney. The New Transnational Activism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  7. Vertovec, Steven. Transnationalism. London: Routeldge, 2009.
  8. Vertovec, Steven, and Robin Cohen, eds. Migration, Diasporas, and Transnationalism. Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar, 1999.
  9. Yeung, Henry Wai-Chung. Transnational Corporations and Business Networks. London: Routledge, 1998.

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