What Is Transnationalism? Definition, Pros, and Cons

Vintage illustration of the globe of the world, surrounded by cars and planes driving on a highway around its circumference, 1941.
Vintage illustration of the globe of the world, surrounded by cars and planes driving on a highway around its circumference, 1941. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Transnationalism refers to the spread of economic, political, and cultural processes beyond national borders. In today’s increasingly interconnected world, the changes resulting from transnationalism have and will continue to pose a challenge to leaders and policymakers.

Key Takeaways: Transnationalism

  • Transnationalism is the movement of people, cultures, and capital across national borders.
  • Economic transnationalism is the flow of money, human capital, goods, and technology across borders.
  • Socio-cultural transnationalism is the flow of social and cultural ideas across borders.
  • Political transnationalism describes the extent to which immigrants remain active in the politics of their native country.
  • Often acting as a vehicle of globalization, transnationalism poses a challenge to policymakers in today’s increasingly global community. 

Transnationalism Definition

As applied in the fields of economics, sociology, and politics, transnationalism generally refers to the exchange of people, ideas, technology, and money between nations. The term became popular during the 1990s as a way to explain the migrant diasporas, complicated economic relations, and culturally mixed communities that increasingly characterize the modern world. In some cases, transnationalism can turn old enemies into close allies. For example, just as Japanese sushi, prepared by Japanese chefs, was becoming all the rage in America, McDonald's fast-food restaurants were springing up across Japan, where baseball—the “American pastime”—had long ago become the nation’s most popular and profitable spectator sport.

In this context, transnationalism often acts as a vehicle of globalization—the accelerating interdependence of nations linked by instantaneous communications and modern transportation systems. Working together with the ideology of globalization, transnationalism often results in changes to the economic, socio-cultural, and political character of all countries involved, thus forcing world leaders to look beyond the interests of their nations when creating policies and procedures.

Economic Transnationalism

Economic transnationalism refers to the flow of money, people, goods, technology, and human capital across national borders. Both the sending and receiving countries, as wells as the businesses involved, hope to benefit from these exchanges. In many cases, migrants involved send much of the money they earn back to their home country, resulting in significant savings for the receiving countries. For example, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has estimated that immigrants working in the United States send the equivalent of $300 billion annually to their home countries, more than twice the amount of U.S. foreign aid. In some cases, however, this rapid inflow of money can leave the sending country dependent on the financial success of their respective migrant diasporas. 

Socio-cultural Transnationalism

Socio-cultural, or immigrant transnationalism, refers to the various interactions during which social and cultural ideas and meanings are exchanged across national borders by foreign-born residents regularly. These interactions can range from phone calls to loved ones in the native country to immigrant entrepreneurs continuing to manage a business back home, remittance transfers to relatives, and many more. According to Alvaro Lima, Director of Research for the Boston Planning and Development Agency, these interactions promote multiculturalism and greatly influence the migrant diaspora’s view of community and personal identity. They also make it more likely that immigrants will continue to be involved in the economic, social, and political spheres of their native countries.

Political Transnationalism

Activities of political transnationalism can range from immigrants remaining active in the politics of their native country, including voting, to actually running for office. A modern example is the growing number of native-born American citizens who choose to live in Mexico for family, business, or economic reasons. According to Professor of Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University of Ohio, Sheila L. Croucher, many of these north to south American migrants continue to vote in U.S. elections, raise money for U.S. political campaigns, meet with U.S. politicians, and form local groups dedicated to American ideologies while living in Mexico.

Pros and Cons of Transnationalism

Like its close relative globalization, transnationalism has its pros and cons. While it creates closer ties between individuals, communities, and societies across borders, its inherent changes in the social, cultural, economic, and political landscapes of both countries challenge policymakers to more carefully consider the multinational impact of their policies. The success or failure of those policies can have both positive and negative effects on migrants and the societies of both countries.

Pros

The diversity created by migrants can enhance many aspects of the society and culture of the receiving country. For example, areas such as the arts and entertainment, education, research, tourism, and alternative medicine can be enhanced by transnationalism.

On an economic level, the money saved in foreign assistance resulting from money sent home by migrants, as well as the investment and trade in specialized goods and services sought by migrants can greatly benefit the destination country.

Additionally, the transfer of ideas—so-called “social remittances”—can benefit both countries. Migrants often raise the awareness of problems affecting their home country among the people of their host country. They may advocate for an end to human rights abuses, or raise funds to benefit communities in their home countries. Through such exchanges, migrants can help foster goodwill through a mutual understanding and acceptance of the cultures of both countries. 

Finally, the educational, professional, and lifestyle opportunities, as well as the language abilities of migrants and their families are often enriched by their transnational experiences.

Cons

The basic concept of transnationalism implies a weakening of the host country’s control over its borders and people. The tendency of immigrants to maintain social, cultural, and political ties to their countries of origin decreases the likelihood that they will assimilate into their host communities. As a result, their loyalty to the host country may be overshadowed by long-standing allegiances to their native culture. In worst-case scenarios, open borders immigration policies, when adopted as a result of transnationalism, can render the territorial controls of the host country completely irrelevant.

On a personal level, the uprooting effect of transnationalism can significantly challenge migrants and their families. The separation of parents from children often causes psychosocial problems. Also, migrants often lose access to the pensions and health insurance coverage they had in their home country and find that they are not eligible for similar benefits in their host country. Some immigrants lose their sense of identity and belonging, and family relationships can be strained as children develop attachments to a different country than that of their parents.

Transnationalism vs. Globalization

While the terms transnationalism and globalization are closely related and often used synonymously, there are subtle differences between them. 

The modern interconnected world
The modern interconnected world. The Image Bank / Getty Images Plus

Globalization refers specifically to the removal of barriers to free trade, thus allowing for closer integration of national economies. For example, a growing number of multinational corporations operate on a global scale with offices and plants in numerous countries. This allows the products and services of these companies to remain available virtually 24/7 to customers regardless of their location. In this way, globalization creates a growing mutual interdependence among countries economically linked by nearly instantaneous communications networks and high-speed transportation systems.

Transnationalism, on the other hand, refers to the exchange of human beings, along with their activities, cultures, and social institutions between nations for a variety of purposes, including economic advantage. For example, transnationalism is the preferred term when referring to the migration of nationals across the borders of one or more nations. In this context, transnationalism often acts as an agent or vehicle of globalization. For instance, migrant farmworkers who spend half the year in Mexico and half in the United States are using transnationalism to increase globalization.

It should be noted that since globalization and transnationalism are relatively modern concepts, they continue to be studied and could change in the future. It is possible, for example, that transnationalism, working in concert with globalization, could give rise to the “global village” the late media and communication theorist Marshall McLuhan controversially described in 1964. On the other hand, the world’s diversity of cultures may persist despite the influences of globalization and transnationalism. In either case, the interpretation of both theories remains a work in progress.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Lima, Alvaro. “Transnationalism: A New Mode of Immigrant Integration.” University of Massachusetts, Boston, September 17, 2010, http://www.bostonplans.org/getattachment/b5ea6e3a-e94e-451b-af08-ca9fcc3a1b5b/.
  • “Sending Money Home.” Inter-American Development Bank, https://publications.iadb.org/publications/english/document/Sending-Money-Home-Worldwide-Remittance-Flows-to-Developing-Countries.pdf.
  • Dirlik, Arif. “Asians on the Rim: Transnational Capital and Local Community in the Making of Contemporary Asian America.” Amerasia Journal, v22 n3 p1-24 1996, ISSN-0044-7471.
  • Croucher, Sheila. “Privileged Mobility in an Age of Globality.” Global Studies in Culture and Power, Volume 16, 2009 - Issue 4, https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4698/2/1/1/htm.
  • Dixon, Violet K. “Understanding the Implications of a Global Village.” Inquiries Journal, 2009, Vol. 1 No. 11, http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1681/understanding-the-implications-of-a-global-village.