In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Transnational Politics

  • Introduction
  • Types of Transnationalism

Latino Studies Transnational Politics
Rodolfo O. de la Garza
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0009


The continuing increase in Latin American immigration to the United States has generated great interest in transnational behaviors—the interactions of Latino immigrants and the native-born with country-of-origin governments, nongovernmental institutions, organizations in sending communities, and the families they left behind. The research on these themes has focused on economic, cultural, and social behaviors, with less attention paid to political interactions. This bibliography is intended to help correct that oversight. It begins by identifying distinct types of transnationalism and showing how they are linked to but distinct from political transnationalism. It moves on to review both the historical and current roles that immigrants play in home-country politics and the history of sending-state behavior vis-à-vis immigrants. The focus then shifts to more recent immigrant behavior involving the home country and the demands immigrants make of home-country officials. It will also review sending-state behaviors that target immigrants. Finally, it reviews the literature on the political behavior of immigrants that is relevant to the home country, including their foreign policy views and their impact on US foreign policy toward home states. In sum, the objective of this essay is to provide an overview of what we know and need to learn about the extent of immigrant-related political transnationalism, its salience, and its consequences for immigrants themselves as well as for sending states.

Types of Transnationalism

Transnationalism research often implies that transnationalism is a new phenomenon, and that any activity between actors in one state and those in different nation-states is transnational. Neither is correct. Portes, et al. 1998 notes that immigrant political and economic transnationalism have long existed, even though, as Smith and Guarnizo 1998 illustrates, transnationalism in the current era has transformed in form and substance because of today’s distinctive characteristics. These include inexpensive travel to and from the home country, continuing demand for low-cost labor, technological developments that facilitate and expedite transborder communication, reliable money transfers, and changes in how home-country governments define their relationship to emigrants. Transnational activities consist of regular repeated behaviors with specific goals involving non-institutional actors such as home-town associations. Such activities require coordination across state boundaries by the actors. They may but do not necessarily involve local or national political institutions. However, state policies and institutions are likely to affect the structure and content of these interactions. This distinguishes transnational behaviors from personal social or familial interactions such as telephoning or remitting funds to friends and relatives, as well from occasional or episodic interactions such as crossing the border for private social or business reasons. Transnational behaviors also do not include state-state relations that fall within the rubric of international relations, though diasporic groups may become involved in such activities. There is an extensive literature on economic, social, and cultural transnationalism. This includes Alvarez 2005, an analysis of the trucking industry that goes beyond economics to document how transnational business connections lead to individuals changing their daily lives. Levitt 2001 on Dominicans immigrants, like Sagás and Molina 2004, shows how their social lives are transnational—that is, how they are affected and affect the home country. These analyses also show that incorporation into American society is not incompatible with nurturing home-country traditions. Smith 2006 similarly explains how Mexican immigrants are incorporating into US society even as they maintain home-country traditions. Hagan 2008, like other ethnographic studies, documents the importance of religion in facilitating immigration and immigrant incorporation. Although studies such as these provide valuable insight into aspects of transnationalism that may be politically significant, they do not address political transnationalism per se. Instead, they leave it to the reader to explicate the institutional and behavioral political consequences of the varied processes these studies emphasize.

  • Alvarez, Robert R. Mangos, Chiles, and Truckers: The Business of Transnationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

    Alvarez analyzes the effects of policies such as NAFTA on mango and chili pepper farmers in Mexico, on the truckers who transport the crops across the US–Mexico border, and on immigrant communities that receive them. The ethnography shows how these processes stimulate technological and business innovations, and their impact on maintaining established customs while creating new cultural traditions.

  • Hagan, Jacqueline Maria. Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope, and the Undocumented Journey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

    This carefully written and tightly argued ethnography is a valuable addition to the literature on immigrant survival. Hagan’s research provides examples that help us to understand that migrants believe their God will give them the strength to overcome the violence and suffering they expect to experience on their northern trek.

  • Levitt, Peggy. The Transnational Villagers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

    Levitt’s highly regarded volume analyzes a wide array of social, cultural, and political interactions between Dominicans in the United States and in the home country to show how these transform lives in both countries.

  • Portes, Alejandro, Luis E. Guarnizo, and Patricia Landolt. “The Study of Transnationalism: Pitfalls and Promises of an Emergent Social Field.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 22.2 (1998): 217–237.

    DOI: 10.1080/014198799329468

    Presents guidelines to orient research on transnationalism and highlights the factors that make this a significant research field. Present understanding of this phenomenon and its practical implications are summarized.

  • Sagás, Ernesto, and Sintia E. Molina. Dominican Migration: Transnational Perspectives. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

    Consists of essays addressing a wide spectrum of issues related to immigrant social and political incorporation in New York and Spain. The volume pays particular attention to how gender has affected immigrant labor and education experiences. It also includes essays that focus on literary and musical production.

  • Smith, Michael Peter, and Luis Eduardo Guarnizo, eds. Transnationalism from Below. Comparative Urban and Community Research 6. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998.

    Brings together an important collection of theoretical and empirical essays addressing multiple dimensions of transnationalism, including its impact on economics, identity, social networks, and urbanization.

  • Smith, Robert. Mexican New York: Transnational Lives of New Immigrants. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

    An instant classic. Smith provides new insights into Mexican transnationalism with detailed information describing circular migration between New York and Puebla. The study provides great insight into changes affecting gender, social mobility, and political life.

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