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From Immigrant to Transmigrant: Theorizing Transnational Migration
Author(s): Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch and Cristina Szanton Blanc
Source: Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 48-63
Published by: The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research
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University of New Hampshire
Wagner College
Columbia University
Contemporary immigrants can not be characterized as the “uprooted.” Many are
migrants, becoming firmly rooted in their new country but maintaining multiple li
to their homeland. In the United States anthropologists are engaged in building a t
tional anthropology and rethinking their data on immigration. Migration proves t
important transnational process that reflects and contributes to the current politica
figurations of the emerging global economy. In this article we use our studies of mi
from St. Vincent, Grenada, the Philippines, and Haiti to the U.S. to delineate som
parameters of an ethnography of transnational migration and explore the reasons
the implications of transnational migrations. We conclude that the transnational
tions of immigrants provide a subtext of the public debates in the U.S. about the me
immigration. [transnationalism, immigration, nation-state, nationalism, identity]
new process of migration, scholars of transnaIn the United States several generations ing
of aresearchers have viewed immigrants as persons
migration emphasize the ongoing and continuproot themselves, leave behind home and country,
uing ways in which current-day immigrants
and reconstitute their simultaneous emand face the painful process of incorporation
into a
different society and culture (Handlin 1973[1951];
beddedness in more than one society. The purpose
Takaki 1993). A new concept of transnational
miof this
article is to delineate the parameters of an
gration is emerging, however, that questions
of transnational migration and use
long-held conceptualization of immigrants,
sugthis anthropology
to explore the ways in which the
gesting that in both the U.S. and Europe, current
increasdebate on immigration in the U.S. can be
ing numbers of immigrants are best understood
read as as
a nation-state building project that delimits
“transmigrants.” Transmigrants are immigrants
and constrains the allegiances and loyalties of
whose daily lives depend on multiple and transmigrants.
Once we reframe the concept of iminterconnections across international borders and
migrant and examine the political factors which
whose public identities are configured in relation- have shaped the image of immigrants as the upship to more than one nation-state (Glick Schiller rooted, a whole new approach to understanding imet al. 1992a; Basch et al. 1994). They are not somigrants and the current debate about immigration
journers because they settle and become incorpobecomes possible.
rated in the economy and political institutions, loThree vignettes of discontinuities we have obcalities, and patterns of daily life of the country in
which they reside. However, at the very same time, served between the transnational practices of immithey are engaged elsewhere in the sense that they grants and common assumptions about immigrants
maintain connections, build institutions, conduct made by scholars, members of the public, the media and public officials experts illustrate the myopic
transactions, and influence local and national
events in the countries from which they emigrated. view of immigrants demonstrated in much public
Transnational migration is the process by debate. The vignettes point to the need to redefine
which immigrants forge and sustain simultaneous our terminology and reformulate some of our basic
multi-stranded social relations that link together conceptualizations of the current immigrant
their societies of origin and settlement. In identify- experience.
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Towards a Transnational Anthropology
A large number of Filipino households are transnational
with individuals, resources, goods, and
In the
1960s themoving
word “transnational”
was widely
and forth between the U.S., the Philippines,
and of
counused by students
processes to refer to
tries. Decisions that affect the daily lives of household members
the establishment of corporate structures with esare made across national borders. Yet Szanton Blanc noted,
while participating with census organizers and Filipino immigrants living in New York in discussions that preceded the ad-
ministration of the 1990 U.S. Census, that census questions
about households did not reflect the transnationalism of these
populations.1 The questions assumed that all Filipinos resided
in the U.S. permanently, having cut their ties with their coun-
tries of origin. The partial character of many of the Filipino
households located in the U.S. that participated in the census
interview was not recognized. The frequency of travel between
the two countries, the ongoing relationships between household
tablished organizational bases in more than one
state (Martinelli 1982). In a separate intellectual
tradition several generations of scholars had been
using the adjective “transnational” to signal an
abatement of national boundaries and the development of ideas or political institutions that spanned
national borders; it is this usage that can be found
in standard dictionaries. For example, Webster’s
members living in both locations marked by a constant ex- Third New International Dictionary, defining the
change of funds and resources, and the organization of activities across borders were not examined. Hence, officials of governmental and civic institutions often formulate policies and
programs based on census data that inadequately capture the
structure and mode of operation of many contemporary immigrant households.
At a dinner recently Glick Schiller listened while international development experts debated the degree to which land in
the Haitian countryside was cultivated by squatters. These specialists did not consult with the only Haitian at the table. They
did not expect him to be familiar with questions of land tenure
term as “extending or going beyond national
boundaries” (1976: 2430), provides two examples.
The first from the New Republic magazine speaks
of the “abatement of nationalism and the creation
of transnational institutions which will render
boundaries of minor importance.” In the second citation Edward Sapir reports that “by the diffusion
of culturally important words transnational vocabularies have grown up.”
The recent use of the adjective “transnational”
in the social sciences and cultural studies draws to-
gether the various meanings of the word so that the
restructuring of capital globally is seen as linked to
the diminished significance of national boundaries
who had been living in the U.S. since he was a teenager. What
in the production and distribution of objects, ideas,
they did not consider was that the Haitian scholar and his
in Haiti because he was an authority on Haitian cosmology
brother owned land in Haiti and that the two brothers had ne-
gotiated a working relationship with the squatters who lived on
that land. Like so many Haitians in the U.S., the Haitian
scholar relates to Haiti through diverse and ongoing social and
class relationships that influence his stance towards development in Haiti. Experts on Haiti routinely ignore the impact of
transnational migration on all aspects of Haitian society, including Haiti’s relationship to the U.S.
and people. Transnational processes are increasingly seen as part of a broader phenomenon of
globalization, marked by the demise of the nationstate and the growth of world cities that serve as
key nodes of flexible capital accumulation, commu-
nication, and control (Knox 1994; Knight and Gappert 1989). In anthropology2 there has been a renewed interest in the flows of culture and
population across national borders, reviving, in a
At Expo 1993, a trade and cultural fair in Brooklyn sponsored by the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce that
Basch attended, one of the panels explored the extent to which
the curriculum in New York City schools gives voice to African-Caribbean and African-American experiences. It soon became clear that many immigrant families opt to send their children to private West Indian schools in New York where the
curriculum reflects both Caribbean and U.S. experiences, preparing children to live a transnational existence. Indeed, many
West Indian youngsters are sent home to the West Indies for
part of their educations. However, public officials engaged in
curriculum development often do not recognize that the socialization of many transmigrant children takes place in an inter-
connected social space encompassing both the immigrants’
West Indian home societies and the U.S.
new global and theoretical context, past interests in
cultural diffusion.3 Many contributors to this schol-
arly trend see it as part of an effort to reconfigure
anthropological thinking so that it will reflect cur-
rent transformations in the way in which time and
space is experienced and represented (Appadurai
1990, 1991; Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Kearney
1991a, 1991b; Hannerz 1989, 1990). Appadurai
has stated that ethnography now has the task of
determining “the nature of locality, as lived experi-
ence, in a globalized, deterritorialized world”
(1991: 196). He has further argued that there is a
need to reconceptualize the “landscapes of group
identity,” a need that flows from the current world
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conjuncture in which “groups arethe
longer tightly
of transportation, education,
territorialized, spatially bounded,
services are stripped
away from those counselfconscious, or culturally homogeneous”
(p. and cities, defined as
tries, and sections of countries
superfluous to the newly defined circuits of wealth
Migration is one of the important
and power. Attacks
on the infrastructure take the
through which borders and boundaries
are adjustment
being programs in debtor
form of structural
contested and transgressed (Kearney
and calls for
reduced taxes and public
1991, 1992). Anthropologists who
mi- countries such as the
in capital
grants have much to contribute to
U.S. our understanding of a new paradox: that the growth
intensifiThe and
for migration in a myriad of
cation of global interconnection
of economic
peripheral states have been set by the
processes, people, and ideas is accompanied
intensive penetration
of foreign
capital into the
resurgence in the politics of differentiation.
economy and political processes of “post-colonial”
we study migration rather than
in the cultural
1960s and 1970s, and the subseflows or representations, we see quent
that massive
growth of indebtedness and ecoprocesses are located within thenomic
Faced with wide-spread deteindividuals and families, making up the warp and
rioration in their standards of living, professionals,
woof of daily activities, concerns,
skilled workers,
workers, merchants, and
agricultural producers all have fled to global cities
or to countries such as the U.S. that still play cen-
Reasons for Transnational Migration
Three conjoining potent forces in the current global
economy lead present day immigrants to settle in
countries that are centers of global capitalism but
to live transnational lives: (1) a global restructuring of capital based on changing forms of capital
accumulation has lead to deteriorating social and
economic conditions in both labor sending and labor receiving countries with no location a secure
terrain of settlement; (2) racism in both the U.S.
and Europe contributes to the economic and political insecurity of the newcomers and their descendants; and (3) the nation building projects of both
tral roles in capital accumulation. However, once in
these countries, immigrants confront a deepening
economic crisis that often limits the economic pos-
sibilities and security many are able to obtain.
Moreover, those sectors of the current immigrant
population who find themselves racialized as “Hispanic,” “Asian,” or “Black” find that even if they
obtain a secure position, they face daily discrimination in the pursuit of their life activities.
Observing the permeability of borders and
boundaries signaled by this form of migration,
some observers have begun to speak of the demise
of the nation-state’s ability to form and discipline
its subjects (Kearney 1991a). However, the task of
home and host society build political loyalties creating capitalist subjects, and the task of gov-
among immigrants to each nation-state in which
they maintain social ties.
Capitalism from its beginnings has been a system of production dependent on global interconnec-
tions between the people of the world. Today we
are facing a reconstitution of the structure of accumulation so that not only are profits accumulated
globally, but all parts of the world have been incorporated into a single system of production, investment, communication, coordination, staffing, production, and distribution (Sassen 1994). In this
global context there is less incentive to invest in entire national economies. It has become more profitable to base global operations in certain cities and
regions that are emerging as centers of communication and organization (Sassen 1991). Capital is
being channeled into key sectors and regions while
erning populations who will work in and accept the
world of vastly increased inequalities of wealth and
power, continues to reside primarily in different
and unequal states. Financial interests and transnational conglomerates continue to rely on the legiti-
macy and legal, fiscal, and policing structures of
the nation-state.’ There are, however, changes precipitated by this emerging form of migration. We
are entering an era in which states that can claim
dispersed populations construct themselves as
“deterritorialized nation-states” (Basch et al.
1994); states that continue to be bases of capital
rather than the homeland of migrants respond in
ways that tighten rather than transgress territorial
boundaries. The hegemonic political ethic of the
U.S. continues to demand that citizens, both native
born and naturalized, swear allegiance only to the
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narratives of
nation that
U.S. and define their political the
itswere prevalent until
borders. Meanwhile, dominant forces
the current
of sendglobalization. Assumptions
ing states imagine their states
to the
of immigrants filtered the
their emigrants have been incorporated.
way in which immigrant history was recorded, interpreted, and remembered.6 At the heart of the
the melting pot” was a
Memories of Things Past: The
Issue of
in which immiand Memory in Immigration Studies
grants eschewed the national identity as well as the
customs and language of their birth. However, the
It is useful to recall the socially
of home
ties or their transformation into
constructed nature of the concept
of rather
than connectionto
is also a central
understand this aspect of transnational migration.
aspect of pluralist and multicultural imaginings of
Recent scholarship has made it clear that nationAmerica in which immigrant groups are enstates are relatively new inventions that can be
couraged to preserve their culture, custom, and
linked to the development of capitalism and to the
identity yet be fully embedded in an American motype of political and economic loyalties that serve
the needs of dominant classes and strata within
saic (Glazer and Moynihan 1970[1963]; Takaki
1989, 1993). Whether the imagery has been one of
modern centralized states (Hobsbawm 1990;
assimilation into a newly emergent American culGellner 1983). Nation-states were constructed as
ture, or incorporation into a culturally diverse
classes and elite strata, striving to maintain or conAmerica, in the U.S. the forging of an American
tend for state power, popularized memories of a
nationality has been and continues to be the undershared past and used this historical narrative to aulying concern that united all discourse about immithenticate and validate a commonality of purpose
gration.7 What has been uniformly defined as unacand national interests (Anderson 1991 [1983]). This
ceptable was a migration in which immigrants
process of constructing and shaping collective
settled permanently in their new country while
memories can be called nation-state building. Key
to nation-state building as a political process has maintaining ties to countries they still saw as
been the construction of a myth that each nation- homelands. And yet this is an emerging pattern
state contained within it a single people defined byamong many immigrant populations currently settheir residence in a common territory, their undi- tling in the U.S.’
A brief recounting of the Americanization
vided loyalty to a common government, and their
commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation
shared cultural heritage. In the past immigrants
can serve to illustrate both the types of
were forced to abandon, forget, or deny their ties to
home and in subsequent generations memories oftransnational political connections that were maintransnational connections were erased.
tained by previous generations of immigrants setThere is evidence that in various ways and to tled in the U.S. and the processes by which these
different degrees, dispersed populations whether connections were discounted and historically oblitthey were diasporas of Jews (Clifford 1994), Pales- erated. The studies were commissioned during
World War I because the home ties and political
tinians (Gonzalez 1992), or “old world” immigrants to the U.S. (Portes and Rumbaut 1990), engagement of large numbers of immigrants from
maintained networks of interconnection. Many im- Europe raised questions about the allegiance and
migrants from Europe who settled in the late nine- loyalty of immigrants.’ Researchers were surteenth and early twentieth century maintained rounded by and reported evidence of transnational
family ties, sending both letters and money (Metz- engagement of imm …
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