At the beginning of the 1990s a debate about the need for a new paradigm to address migration studies emerged among scholars. In the United States anthropologists Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller and Cristina Szanton Blanc became the pioneers of transnational studies. Although their first theoretical definition of transnationalism was coined in 1992 in Transnationalism: A new analytic framework for understanding Migration: "We have defined transnationalism as the process by which immigrants build social fields that link together their country of origin and their country of settlement" (Glick Schiller et al. 1992:1), I consider their next definition found in Nations Unbound: Transnational projects and the deterritorialized nation-state (1994) more useful. In that book transnationalism was defined as “the process by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement. We call these processes transnationalism to emphasize that many immigrants today build social fields that cross geographic, cultural, and political borders” (Basch et al. 1994: 7).

In this context, when this theoretical approach was emerging in migration studies, these authors also considered that it would be necessary for a growing number of migrants to be conceptualized as transmigrants (Glick Schiller et al. 1995). In this way they tried to overcome the emigrants-immigrants binary since it limits the understanding of their daily practices within two closed geographical spaces (origin and destination), wrongly considered distant and independent from each other. On the contrary, the challenge was seeing as shifting the focus of analysis away from the place of origin and destination to the movements involved in the maintenance of cross-border ways of life (Levitt and Sorensen 2004). Hence, transnationalism refers to processes as abstract phenomena where non-state agents, such as country of origin, country of destination and migrants themselves, become key actors creating, at least, a triangular social structure (Faist 2010). This structure can be expanded or modified along the lines of migration, and also includes new agents such as families and those who do not migrate (those left behind), third countries (those which are neither host nor sending countries), or socio-political organizations. Focusing on transnationalism from below (Smith and Guarnizo 1998) allows us to capture the local and specific dynamics of power relations in the transnational arena at certain times; therefore this process should be always located and historicized.

The understanding of the variety of experiences of migrants requires overcoming static theoretical models, but also closed and unique visions of society and culture. Therefore, the best approach is to emphasize social relations across borders in the sense of connections of a quite variable scale (Hannerz 1996):  interactions, relationships and networks which do not always have to involve macro-levels. But these connections should be understood as fluid and dynamic relations, and within an analysis of the global context in order “to consider the nature of the local under conditions of globalization” (Ibíd., p. 19).

While there is no doubt that this approach is a novel contribution to both theoretical and methodological levels, this should not be confused with a supposed novelty of the phenomenon of transnationalism in migration processes. But the importance of its theoretical emergence is based on contemporary transnationalism as part of a different period of the global economy, in which stakeholders have been able to develop new answers or strategies to deal with the constraints imposed by the system. In large part this is due to access to new technical resources (Portes, Guarnizo and Landolt 2003).

Several theoretical proposals emerge under this new paradigm of transnationalism focused mainly on emphasizing that society and nation-state are neither unique nor the same entity, and in doing so, they overcome the bias of so-called methodological nationalism (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002). One of the most widespread concepts used in migration studies in order to overcome these constraints is transnational social fields. This analytical concept enables scholars to trace the relationships between those who move out and those who stay behind but receive direct influences through their transnational social networks. The authors, Peggy Levitt and Nina Glick Schiller, define this concept in the following way: “we define social field as a set of multiple inter-locking networks of social relationships through which ideas, practices, and resources are unequally exchanged, organized, and transformed” (Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004: 1009). The boundaries of nation-states must not necessarily fit with the boundaries of social fields, and neither should migration be limited to the process affecting only those who move out.

It is important not to leave any relevant stakeholder outside the analytic map, and also to capture all the simultaneous and multiple memberships, like the linkages with more than one nation-state and with any other social institution such as religious groups, political organizations or families. These linkages are differently named by Levitt and Glick Schiller as forms of being and forms of belonging which people combine in different ways within transnational social fields according to the context, and they do not always occur together or simultaneously:

 Ways of being refers to the actual social relations and practices that individuals engage in rather than to the identities associated with their actions (...) They have the potential to act or identify at a particular time because they live within the social field, but not all choose to do so.

In contrast, ways of belonging refers to practices that signal or enact an identity which demonstrates a conscious connection to a particular group. These actions are not symbolic but concrete, visible actions that mark belonging (...) Ways of belonging combine action and an awareness of the kind of identity that action signifies (Ibíd.,1010).

Thus the challenge would be to capture, and properly read, all nuances of these social relations and the inter-influences exerted by migrants’ integration within societies of the receiving countries and the maintenance of a strong link with their places of origin, since these are not terms of a binary opposition. In other words, it is preferable to look at the experiences of migrants as a kind of indicator with a middle point; not an end point of full incorporation within the host society, but rather at the simultaneity of those linkages (Ibíd.).

Another theoretical proposal to take into account is the global power perspective (Glick Schiller 2005, 2009).In this case, Glick Schiller highlights the need to look at the relationship between transnational social fields, as mentioned above, and imperialism defined as “the extension of the power of a territorially based regime into the political, economic, social, and cultural life of other territories and states” (2005: 443). An analysis of cultural and power relationships produced within transnational social fields, and between different nation-states, would allow transnational studies to go further than the descriptive level, necessary but not sufficient, and reach deeper theoretical levels. Providing an analysis of the unequal power terrains where networks are embedded would highlight the way in which power is organized, structured and exercised transnationally through social ties, while it would also raise the power dynamics behind these relations (Glick Schiller 2009), the variety of positions where migrants are located, and also the contradictions emerging from these positions. Thereby scholars would be able to avoid the common mistake of taking the agency analysis of those who migrate apart from other aspects that also shape social fields.

In short, paying more attention to the dynamics between transnational networks and mainstream ideologies, the widespread trend of transnational studies to treat all nation-states as equal actors could be overcome, and the strong power of imperialist states engaged in the global arena would be made more visible. Moreover, analyzing the unequal global processes, including migration, that are transforming economies, institutions of power and ways of life in specific places requires a lens to enlighten those spaces and locations and bring them to the fore, since they are also key actors, and objects of analysis themselves.

This proposal emphasizes the urgent need to theorize about locality and spatiality (Glick Schiller and Çaglar 2008) in order to reflect how specific locations are affected by the same processes in many different ways. Migration studies are not feasible without an analysis of the past and current transformations that have occurred in places of origin and destination, since it is undeniable that migrants are local actors in both contexts: “Migrants are part of the social fabric of the cities in which they are settling. Migrant ties, activities and practices – in short, migrants as forces of integration as well as fragmentation – are parts of the changing urban politics and new geographies of urban governance and representation” (Ibíd., p. 20). Thereby, this approach intends to fill the lack of a scalar dimension (Ibíd.). This new dimension would allow us to analyze any locality in interaction with power hierarchies, and thus to deal with the ways in which these hierarchies work out in spaces where migrants are embedded. Migration flows influence the local context structure and the impacts of global processes are different in different areas at local, regional and national levels (Levitt 2011).

In this vein, Bernal (2004) uses the activities of the Eritrean diaspora and the Eritrean state as an example to highlight that nations not only continue to matter, but how nations can be constructed and reinforced through transnational flows and new technologies of globalization. In this case, nationalism and transnationalism do not oppose each other but intertwine in complex ways in the globalized spaces of diaspora. In doing so, they are challenging common assumptions about the decline of nationalism and the decreasing importance of nation-states. In short, this article explores the relation between nationalism and transnationalism in constructions of Eritrean nationhood. It seeks to reveal how and why nationalism and the nation-state remain significant for Eritreans not only despite global links but because of them. Bernal is using transnationalism not simply as another way of talking about diaspora rather as the fact of living a life that is not in any real sense circumscribed by a nation. It means that our frames of reference are not constructed on a national basis but in terms of standards, experiences, and concepts that include a larger world. Bernal reflects on how the Eritrean state is promoting what she calls ‘transnational nationalist networks’, and maintaining links to Eritreans in diaspora through, for instances, a new law defining citizenship  or making little attempt to control remittances. She concludes that the nation of Eritrea has developed novel institutions and new legal frameworks that at some level can be seen as a way of constructing a ‘deterritorialized nationality’ or a transnational nation.  The Eritrean nation is thus in several ways organizing itself around transnational links, resources flows, and global technologies rather than being broken up by them. She concludes: “It seems that transnationalism and globalization have not rendered nations and nationalism obsolete, but perhaps they have rendered some of our ways of thinking about nation obsolete” (Bernal 2004: 21).


Basch, Linda; Glick Schiller, Nina & Szanton Blanc, Cristina (1994) Nations unbound: transnational projects, postcolonial predicaments and deterritorialized nation-states, Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach.

Bernal, Victoria. 2004. Eritrea Goes Global: Reflections on Nationalism in a Transnational Era. Cultural Anthropology 19(1): 3-25.

Faist, Thomas (2010) “Diaspora and transnationalism: What kind of dance partners?”, Bauböck, R. & Faist, T. (eds.) Diaspora and Transnationalism. Concepts, Theories and Methods, IMISCOE Research, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 9-34.

Glick Schiller, Nina (2009) “A global perspective on transnational migration: theorizing migration without methodological nationalism”, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Working Paper nº 67, University of Oxford. 

Glick Schiller, Nina (2005) “Transnational social fields and imperialism: bringing a theory of power to transnational studies”, Anthropological Theory 5, 4, 439-461.

Glick Schiller, Nina & Çaglar, Ayse (2008) “Migrant incorporation and city scale: towards a theory of locality in migration studies”, Willy Brandt Series of Working Papers in International Migration and Ethnic Relations, 2/07, Malmö: Malmö University.

Glick Schiller, Nina; Basch, Linda & Blanc Szanton, Cristina (1995) “From immigrant to transmigrant: theorizing transnational migration”, Anthropology Quarterly, 68, 48-63.

Glick Schiller, Nina; Basch, Linda & Blanc Szanton, Cristina (1992) Towards a transnational perspective on migration: race, class, ethnicity and nationalism reconsidered, New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

Hannerz, Ulf (1996) Transnational connections. Culture, People, Places. London: Routledge.

Kofman, Eleonore (2004) “Family-related migration: a critical review of European Studies”,Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, 243–262.

Levitt, Peggy (2011) “A transnational gaze”, Migraciones Internacionales, Vol. 6, nº 1, 9-44.

Levitt, Peggy & Glick Schiller, Ninna (2004) “Conceptualizing Simultaneity: A Transnational Social Field Perspective on Society”, International Migration Review 38(3): 1002-1039.

Levitt, Peggy & Sorensen, Ninna Nyberg (2004) “The transnational turn in migration studies”, Global Migration Perspectives, nº6, Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM).

Portes, Alejandro; Guarnizo, Eduardo & Landolt, Patricia (2003) “El estudio del transnacionalismo: peligros latentes y promesas de un campo de investigación emergente”, in Portes, Alejandro; Guarnizo, Eduardo & Landolt, Patricia (eds) (2003)  La globalización desde abajo: Transnacionalismo inmmigrante y desarrollo. La experiencia de Estados Unidos y América Latina, México: FLACSO, pp. 15-43.

Smith, Michael Peter & Guarnizo, Luis Eduardo (eds.) (1998) Transnationalism from below: comparative urban and community research, volume 6, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Wimmer, Andreas & Glick Schiller, Nina (2002) “Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences”, Global Networks 2, 4, 301-334.


This entry derives from issues encountered in the discussion following Session 3: Nationalism, Transnationalism, Counter-nationalism. Northampton, CoHaB Summer School. 22nd March 2013.

Recommended reading included the following:

Mandatory texts:

Bernal, Victoria. 2004. Eritrea Goes Global: Reflections on Nationalism in a Transnational Era. Cultural Anthropology 19(1): 3-25.

Tölölyan, Khachig. "Beyond The Homeland: From Exilic Nationalism To Diasporic Transnationalism." The Call of the Homeland: Diaspora Nationalisms, Past and Present. Eds. A.S. Leoussi, A. Gal and A.D. Smith. Brill, 2010.


Supplementary texts:

Appadurai, Arjun. “Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology.” In Richard Fox (ed.). Recapturing Anthropology. Working in the Present. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1991, 48-65.

Brubaker, Rogers & Frederick Cooper. 2000. Beyond Identity. Theory and Society 29 (2000): 1-47.

Brydon, Diana. “Postcolonialism Now: Autonomy, Cosmopolitanism, and Diaspora.” University of Toronto Quarterly. 73:2 (2004), 691-706.

Cohen, Robin. “Mobilizing Diasporas in a Global Age.” in Global Diasporas. An Introduction. London et al.: Routledge, ²2008, 141-158.

Glick-Schiller, Nina & Linda Basch, Cristina Szanton Ba. 1995. From Immigrants to Transmigrants. Anthropological Quarterly 68(1): 48-63.

Pratt, Ewing, Katherine. 2006. Between Cinema and Social Work: Diasporic Turkish Women and the (Dis)pleasures of Hybridity. Cultural Anthropology 21(2): 265-294.