Questioning Transnationalism

Laura Briggs, Gladys McCormick, and J. T. Way open their article “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis” by stating that “Transnationalism is a much abused word,” then by asking, “is it the same thing as globalization? As internationalism? Is neoliberalism a particular period in the history of the political economy of transnationalism, or something else? Was the colonial period transnational or prenational?” (625). In their eyes, transnationalism is a form of antinationalism. Specifically, as the title of their article suggests, they claim that using transnationalism as an analytical category is a useful—perhaps the best—way to dispute and disprove the assumptions of nationalism as an analytical category. For example, when describing the goals of the article, the authors claim that they “want to suggest that “transnationalism” can do to the nation what gender did for sexed bodies: provide the conceptual acid that denaturalized all their deployments, compelling us to acknowledge that the nation, like sex, is a thing contested, interrupted, and always shot through with contradiction” (627). This suggestion is not something Roger Waldinger and David Fitzgerald would agree with. For them, transnationalism cannot be the end of the nation because it is mediated by the state. Referring to migrant communities who are often described as transnational, Waldinger and Fitzgerald reminds us that “states and the politics conducted within their borders fundamentally shape the options for migrant and ethnic trans-state social action” (1178). In other words, they believe transnationalism (in the way it is normally discussed) cannot do away with the idea of the nation because its terms are dictated by the nation-state. Furthermore, Waldinger and Fitzgerald claim that transnationalism doesn’t do away with identities; it reinforces them: “for transnationalism, the relevant forms of social action do not transcend difference but rather are directed entirely toward specific places or groups” (1179). In short, whereas Briggs, McCormick, and Way hold that transnationalism undermines the idea of the nation (and therefore, the nation-state), Waldinger and Fitzgerald hold that the nation-state undermines transnationalism.

As Yossi Shain’s article “American Jews and the Construction of Israel’s Jewish Identity” would seem to suggest, however, there are more than just two definitions of transnationalism. Shain takes a middle path between the Briggs-McCormick-Way definition of transnationalism and the Waldinger-Fitzgerald one. In his mind, Judaism connects Jewish-Americans to Israel in an “Israel-Diaspora relationship”, and thus, allows them to transcend the borders of the United States. However, Jewish-Americans transcend borders of one nation-state (the US) only to connect themselves with another (Israel). And that connection—and any influence that Jewish-Americans hope to have on events in Israel—is limited by the reality of living in the United States. One could argue, therefore, that Shain holds transnationalism to be both national and supranational. John Collins takes a similar stance in “Global Palestine: A Collision for Our Times,” when he says, “in the United States, the antiwar movement has found itself making common cause with the struggle for Palestinian rights, an alliance that is paralleled by the growing alliance between US conservatives and supporters of Israel” (3). So, although transnational alliances exist between Americans and other groups, they are informed by political antagonisms in the US. Nevertheless, Collins does ultimately contend that the struggle of the Palestinians is not merely transnational (in its ability to forge transnational alliances), but also global (in its prophetic qualities). In the end, then, all four articles give varying definitions of transnationalism. But is that “abuse,” or is that scholarship? Personally, I believe it is the latter.

Works Cited

Briggs, Laura, Gladys McCormick, and J. T. Way. “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis.” American Quarterly 60 (September 2003): 625-648.

Collins, John. “Global Palestine: A Collision for Our Time.” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 16 (Spring 2007): 3-18.

Shain, Yossi. “American Jews and the Construction of Israel’s Jewish Identity.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 9 (Fall 2000): 163-201.

Waldinger, Robert and David Fitzgerald. “Transnationalism in Question.” American Journal of Sociology 109 (March 2004): 1177-95.

[Thanks to Micheal O’Sullivan for looking over this post before it was published.]

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