By Dr. Özge Bilgili and Veronika Fajth
In today’s world, international migration not only affects those who are on the move but the vast majority of the global population. In this new era of hyper-connectedness, many of our actions have transnational ramifications, reaching many other people across the world. But the question is: how exactly should we define transnational?
For some, engaging in activities that cross borders is a central part of their lives. These individuals’ lives cannot be understood in a holistic manner without taking account of their social, economic and political engagements in multiple contexts. These experiences have been studied through a transnational lens since the early 1990s, and from October 19-21, UNU-MERIT’s Graduate School of Governance (MGSoG) hosted the ‘New Perspectives on Transnational Living’ Symposium and PhD course to reflect on the research of the past couple of decades.
The three-day event was a platform for researchers working on transnational phenomena to share their innovative work and engage in discussions with a vibrant group of over 30 senior researchers and PhD candidates. Participants came from diverse countries and a variety of disciplines, encompassing sociology, geography, political science, law and history, which allowed for a truly multi-faceted range of perspectives. Chaired by Dr. Ozge Bilgili (UNU-MERIT) and Dr. Karlijn Haagsman (FASoS), the event was organised jointly by the IMISCOE standing committee on Interaction of Migrant Integration and Transnationalism (IMITE) and the Maastricht Centre for Citizenship, Migration and Development (MACIMIDE).
The first keynote speech was delivered by Dr. Jorgen Carling, Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). In his lecture titled ‘What is transnational? Exploring the ontologies of an evocative adjective’ Dr. Carling laid the groundwork for the following days’ discussions on transnationalism research by providing an in-depth analysis of the term’s conceptual implications. Dr. Carling’s rule of thumb for using the ‘transnational’ label – a phenomenon that simultaneously involves people in two countries – offers a simple but effective solution. But at the same time, it creates the basis of the critical discussion of what is transnational.
He was followed by senior researchers Dr. Louise Ryan (University of Sheffield), Dr. Gayle Munro (The Salvation Army), Dr. Antonina Levantino (INED) and Justyna Salamonska (Migration Policy Centre), whose presentations provided novel insights on the themes of transnational practices versus transnational living and transnationalism beyond migrants. Dr. Ryan’s concept of differentiated embedding calls for a more nuanced understanding of integration when transnationalism is involved; rather than an ‘all or nothing’ measure, Dr. Ryan argues for considering of embeddedness in multiple dimensions with degrees (or directions) of attachment that change dynamically over time and over different places.
Meanwhile, in her analysis of refugees and migrants from the former Yugoslavia in Britain, Dr. Munro discovered an overlooked group: those who do not engage in measurable transnational practices but who still carry intense and highly personalised echoes of the homeland – for instance, by living in a ‘third place’ in their minds which is neither the homeland nor the host country. This kind of research challenges what we consider as transnational and suggests expanding the subjects and objects of study in transnational lives beyond migrants and clearly visible practices.
The day’s closing keynote lecture, given by Prof. Godfried Engbersen, Research Director of the Sociology Department at Erasmus University Rotterdam, focused on the links between welfare and transnational lives and brought to the debate what new research agendas we should explore in transnationalism research.
During the PhD course on the second and third days, PhD fellows presented their papers in smaller groups under the guidance of senior IMITE researchers and received feedback and comments from fellow PhD candidates. As part of the course, PhD fellows received lectures on methodological and conceptual issues.
First, Prof. Valentina Mazzucato (Maastricht University) explained the method of multi-sited transnationalism research through the case of her own project where she used the simultaneous matched sample (SMS) method. In the process of carrying out this research, Dr. Mazzucato found an initial challenge to be one of the most meaningful results: the discrepancy between the accounts gathered at the two sites highlighted the dangers of only relying on one side of the story in traditional research.
Despite challenges such as the danger of overemphasising flows and connections and its time-consuming nature, the method carries many benefits, such as the ability to observe simultaneous effects and to ‘see the invisible’ by interpreting a situation in light of contextualised knowledge. Her lecture left us wondering whether the methods we apply have a transnational lens that observes transnational phenomena in the best way possible.
Second, in her closing-day lecture, Dr. Marta Bivand Erdal (PRIO) provided a thought-provoking discussion of the transnational paradigm. The transnational lens rejects a simplistic ‘in’ or ‘out’ logic — stressing instead the potential multiplicity of migrant lives and challenging static understandings of collective identities. Transnationalism can be defined against concepts of de-territorialised globalisation, the nation-state container thinking, and zero-sum game approaches to integration. By further exploring the conceptual inferences of the transnational approach, Dr. Bivand Erdal invited participants to reflect on the implications of the paradigm for their respective studies.
All in all the debates pushed us to challenge our ways of thinking about transnationalism and promoted an interdisciplinary dialogue to help us rethink the realities of both migrants and non-migrants in a transnationally connected world.