Is transnational migration a new phenomenon?

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2008 10 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Miscellaneous


Transnational Migration

With currently an estimated 190 million people internationally migrating in 2005 (UNO 2005), cross-border transnational migration and its special impacts has become a common feature in the world. However, during the module of Migration it turned out that there arose some controversies regarding the issue of transnational migration and the creation of transnational social spaces (following out if it). While a majority of scholars began to show an increased interest in transnational migration studies with the beginning of the 1990s – because from their point of view it presented an interesting and new phenomenon to explore – some of my course mates assert that there is no such thing as a new appearance in transnational migration patterns (see Discussion Board Unit 4). On the contrary, they say transnational migration has always existed and at heart there are no significant differences.

For that reason, I am subsequently going to discuss by means of a literature analysis if transnational migration and the formation of transnational social spaces can be considered a new phenomena or rather not. I will do this in close in accordance with the process of globalization, as it exerts a significant effect on migration. However, the exact starting point of globalization is not clear or definite – many scholars consider the time period between the 1970s and the 1990s as important threshold (Hengsbach 2000). In consequence, I will set the time around the 1980s as my “parting line” between “traditional” and transnational migration, since this is the time when the internet experienced its steep international breakthrough (Scholte 2000, p. 75). Besides, it is also the time when soon afterwards transnational migration studies gained popularity in academia (Parnreiter 2008, p. 5). But first of all, I will outline several aspects of this “phenomenon” for reasons of clarity.

Transnational migration and transnational social spaces

To put it in a nutshell, transnational migration implies that people are moving back and forth between their country of origin and the country of destination. In a way, these migrants remain connected to their native state by maintaining relationships and networks with friends and family, thus creating transnational identities. Out of it result various activities between here and there, leading to the formation of so called transnational social spaces, summarized by Faist as “sustained ties of geographically mobile persons, networks and organizations across borders across multiple nation-states” (2006, p. 3). These networks “link cultural practices, economic activities and living conditions in the regions of origin and arrival and foster migration dynamics”, underlining that “migration is increasingly a kind of continuous coming and going” with many migrants changing their place of residency sometimes even several times in their lives (Kohlmorgen 2005, p. 1). It also implicates that migrants may sooner or later move back to their countries of origin.

Faist points out that such transnational links can exist within the subsequent four types of transnational social spaces (2006, p. 3):

1. Small groups (households, families)
2. Issue networks (regarding a certain topic like e.g. human rights)
3. Transnational communities (like religious groups, diasporas etc.)
4. Transnational organisations (NGOs and transnational enterprises)

However and last but not least, one should not forget that the term transnational is a contested one, which implies that a hundred per cent clarity on the meaning doesn’t yet exist among scholars due to an abundance of existing different understandings (Kohlmorgen 2005, p. 1).

Transnational migration before the 1980s

On the subject Glick Schiller notes that “transnational connections of immigrants, religious authorities, political organizations, and intellectuals were widespread in scholarly writing before World War II” (2006, p. 6). Likewise scientists like Vertovec or Fitzgerald and Waldinger affirm that migrants moved back and forth a long time ago, (e.g. during the international mass migrations of the early 20th century, compare Fitzgerald and Waldinger 2004, p. 1183), thus embedding them at the same time in their country of origin as well as in the new host country. Vertovec points out that “various forms of transnationalism have existed in earlier periods of migration (such as chain migration, regular communications among split families, sending of remittances)” (2002, p. 5).

However, one must admit that moving around was definitely more restricted in former times than currently – as a rule due to technical (and financial) limitations. Migration was basically more often a permanent issue, or at least contacts between here and there didn’t occur as regularly as today. Nevertheless, contacts were “existing across time and space” before (Boyd 1989, p. 639), which in general can also be underpinned by network theory, accounting for this long-time phenomenon.

This theory implies “interpersonal ties that connect migrants, former migrants, and nonmigrants in origin and destination areas through ties of kinship, friendship, and shared community origin”, which in turn facilitate additional movement by reducing costs and risks through the provision of information about the available infrastructure in terms of jobs, housing etc. (Massey et al. 1994, p. 728). Logically, such networks comprise contacts and interchange between two worlds, embedding migrants into their new world and concurrently staying connected with their place of origin. After all such networks “shape migration outcomes, ranging from no migration, immigration, return migration or the continuation of migration flows” (Boyd 1989, p. 639).

Last but not least, also the new economics of migration, i.e. sending a family member abroad to diversify risks by the provision of a stable income, have usually brought about regular contacts and interchange among relatives, i.e. movements between both worlds since long time (e.g. for visits etc.).



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Free University of Berlin – Center for Global Politics
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Title: Is transnational migration a new phenomenon?