In this article, we will discuss the idea of transnationalism in international relations. We will discuss what is transnationalism, we shall provide examples of transnationalism in international affairs. Transnationalism theory has been a part of international relations theory, and therefore, it is imperative that we break down the term and also provide examples of transnationalism theory. In addition, we will also discuss transnationalism within the context of globalization. It is important that transnationalism and transnationalism theory is studied, since there are increased linkages happening in our world.

What is Transnationalism?

Transnationalism theory is the idea that there exist increased connections between societies across the world, whether they are in matters of economics, politics, and/or culture (Vertovec, ND). Thus, transnationalism theory can be understood as the emanation and analysis of “transnational activities and social forms along with the political and economic factors that condition their creation and reproduction” (Vertovec, ND: 3). In order to separate experiences from what may be “common” among anyone abroad, Portes, Guarnizo & Landolt (1999) explain that “it is preferable to delimit the concept of transnationalism to occupations and activities that require regular and sustained social contacts over time across national borders for their implementation” (219).

Transnationalism theory structured on the interconnected networks, and the ability to these networks to maintain and foster relationships on common issues, despite any geographical space between these different groups (Vertovec, 1999). It is this idea of “social morphology” that may best describe transnationalism or transnationalism theory in global affairs (Vertovec, 2004). It is this idea of connected social organization and social groupings throughout and across different physical borders, and how these networks can influence individuals and groups (or societies) (Wiltshire, 2001; in Vertovec, 2004).

While there are clear similarities between transnationalism and globalization, Kearney (1995) argues that transnationalism is more limited; “Whereas global processes are largely decentered from specific national territories and take place in a global space, transitional processes are anchored in and transcend one or more nation states…Thus transnational is the term of choice when referring, for example, to migration of national coming across the borders of one or more nations…” (548). Kearney (1995) goes on to add that “Transnational calls attention to the cultural and political projections of nation-states as they vie for hegemony in relations with other nation-states, with their citizens and “aliens” (548). So, as we shall discuss in more detail, transnationalism is directly related to different economic and political developments arising out of international social movements and cross-state linkages.

History of Transnationalism

One of the first foundational works on the idea of transnationalism was the edited volume by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye (1971) entitled Transnational Relations and World Politics, where different writers example various increasing global relations between individuals that falls outside of the powers of the state. Later work by James Rosenau (1980) focused on additional non-state linkages in the international system. Whether it was non-governmental organizations, student groups, or individuals, there was an increasing move for collective activity and activism (in Vertovec, ND).

More recent work has further expanded the conversation of transnationalism and transnationalism theory, looking at additional ways in which activities are thought of and then implemented through international linkages and networks. This can be on matters of economy, political transnationalism, or transnational movements centered on the issue of human rights. For example, Keck and Sikkink (1999) wrote a groundbreaking work on transnational human rights activism entitled “Activists Beyond Borders” in which they discuss these transnationalist movements for social justice and equality. This idea of social networks is imperative in the understanding of transnationalism theory (Vertovec, 1999).

Overall, as Vertovec (1999) writes, there are many sub-categories of study within transnationalism theory that include discussions about communities, notions of citizenship, identity politics, social movements and networks (and political opportunity structures as a factor related to political and social movements), ideas about family, ethnicity and nationalism, economic issues (trade, migrant workers, etc…), as well as a range of political issues in the context of this transnationalism.

The center of transnationalism and transnationalism theory rests on the idea of social networks, and how these networks not only link to one another, but how they develop internationally, how they share ideas with others in their network, and how these ideas and concepts then become applied to domestic and international challenges.

Transnationalism and Technology

Within the conversation about globalization, and/or the pros and cons of globalization is the role of technology pertaining to social relationships and networks. It is important to note that while technology clearly can help shape social groups and further strengthen bonds of transnational networks, technology itself is not developing new groups, but is instead serving as a reinforcement mechanism for these pre-existing groups (Castells, 1996, in Vertovec, 1999).

So, scholars studying transnationalism theory can and often do examine the relationship between technology and social actions and networks. One such example is the role of telephone calls (Vertovec, 2004) and also the Internet in keeping contact with family members others. This is a line of research that has particularly received attention within the topic of migrants and transnationalism) (see below). The costs of communications and technology within globalization have reduced greatly in years (Vertovec, 2004) have had a great effect on these social networks.

Transnationalism and Migration

A subsection of the literature on transnationalism focuses on the issue of migrants, and migration experiences within societies. In fact, many scholars have developed concepts of transnationalism based on their observations of migrant in the international system (Schiller, Basch, & Blanc-Szanton (1992). There continues to be a growing research on the lives of migrants as they maintain connections with others, whether these connections are in their new country, in their country of origin, or with others throughout the world (Vertovec, ND). Vertovec (1999) argues that a key point of transnationalism is structured on the idea of “types of consciousness.” Here, diaspora communities in the international system often have a variety of identities. So, in instances, the migrants may have connections to multiple homes, or multiple identities (I am “this” identity and also “that”), even if people themselves may not actually like to call themselves (or actually do call themselves) “transnational” (Garrett, 2011: 8)

So, a lot of work on the relationship of transnationalism and migration focuses on linkages between migrants and others, whether it is those within their family, their neighborhoods, political associations, religious connections, or other networks. The questions around the issue of transnationalism and migration focus on the following: “What kinds of changes are stimulated by these connections? In what spheres of life? How deep are the changes and how long-lasting?” (Vertovec, 2004: 3). Within this is also a conversation not only on continued networks between migrants and those in their home country, but also the shaping of norms within the context of transnationalism (for a detailed discussion on transnationalism and norms, see Vertovec, 2004). Scholars of transnationalism have been driven to understand the economic and social activities of migrants (Guarnizo, Portes & Haller, 2003).

Economic activities of migrants and immigrations may center on trade, the establishment of small businesses by migrants in the country of origin, or international and multinational investments. Political activities related to immigrants may emphasize activities in civic communities, the entrance into political organizations, alliances with other groups (which can include within their country of origin), election activity, etc… (Portes, Guarnizo, & Landolt, 1999).


In this article, we have discussed the notion of transnationalism and transnationalism theory in international relations and global affairs. We have examined the development of transnationalism, we have discussed transnationalism theory in the context of globalization, and have also looked at threads within the overall umbrella of transnationalism thought and studies. Again, there are many additional resources and works that examine sub-elements of transnationalism, whether it is more on economic interconnectedness, political advocacy, the notion of global citizenship, or multiculturalism and multicultural with regards to national education (Mitchell, 2001). This topic will only continue to expand in the academic and policy research.

Transnationalism References

Castells, M. (1996). The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford, Blackwell.

Garrett, N. (2011). Transnationalism, Home and Identity: Personal Essays. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Pittsburgh. Available Online:

Guarnizo, L.E., Portes, A. & Haller, W. (2003). Assimilation and Transnationalism: Determinants of Transnational Political Action among Contemporary Migrants. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 108, No. 6, pages 1211-1148.

Kearney, M. (1995). The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 24, pages 547-565.

Mitchell, K. (2001). Education for Democratic Citizenship: Transnationalism, Multiculturalism, and the Limits of Liberalism. Harvard Educational Review, Spring 2001, Vol. 71, No. 1, pages 51-78.

Portes, A., & Guarnizo, L.E. & Landolt, P. (1999). The study of transnationalism: pitfalls and promise of an emergent research field. Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, March 1999, pages 217-237.

Schiller, N.G., Basch, L. & Blanc-Szanton, C. (1992). Transnationalism: A New Analytical Framework for Understanding Migration. Annals of the New York Academy Sciences, August 1992, pages 1-24.

Vertovec, S. (ND). Migration and Other Modes of Transnationalism: Towards Conceptual Cross-Fertilization. Red Internacional de Migracion y Desarrollo. Available Online:

Vertovec, S. (1999). Conceiving and Researching Transnationalism. Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 22n, No. 2, pages Working Paper version, pages 1-25. Available Online.

Vertovec, S. (2004). Trends and Impacts of Migrant Transnationalism. WP-04-03, pages 1-78. Available Online:

Wiltshire, K. (2001) ‘Management of social transformations: Introduction,’ International Political Science Review 22(1): 5-11

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