This post is provided by our guest blogger Peggy Levitt. Peggy Levitt is Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and a Research Fellow at The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University where she co-directs The Transnational Studies Initiative. Together with by Sanjeev Khagram she has published the transnational studies reader, in which they among other things criticize methodological nationalism and present different ways on how to conceptualize transnational phenomena. Her entry is part of a series in which we discuss concepts and phenomena in the field of transnational studies and follows previous discussions we had on transnationalism and methodological nationalism.

Methodological nationalism is the tendency to accept the nation-state and its boundaries as a given in social analysis. Because many social science theories equate society with the boundaries of a particular nation state, researchers often take rootedness and incorporation in the nation as the norm, and social identities and practices enacted across state boundaries as the exception.  But while nation-states are still extremely important, social life does not obey national boundaries.  Social and religious movements, criminal and professional networks, and governance regimes, to name just a few, regularly operate across borders.

In a 2004 article, Nina Glick Schiller and I proposed a notion of society based on the concept of social field and drew a distinction between ways of being and ways of belonging.  Social fields are multi-dimensional and encompass structured interactions of differing forms, depth, and breadth that are differentiated in social theory by terms like “organization,” “institution,” “networks,” and “social movement.”  National social fields are those that remain within national boundaries, while transnational social fields connect actors, through direct and indirect relations, across borders.  Neither domain automatically takes precedence; rather determining the relative importance of nationally restricted and transnational social fields is an empirical question.

The concept of social fields is a powerful tool for conceptualizing the social relations linking those who move and those who stay in one place.  It takes us beyond the direct experience of movement into domains of interaction, where individuals who do not move have social ties with people who do.  For example, because of these relationships, both non-migrants in a sending country or the children of immigrants in a receiving country can be influenced regularly by people, ideas, and material objects from far away.  NGO staff who have never traveled or attended an international training workshop learn of ideas and practices from their co-workers who do. They gain the skills and know-how to participate in these social fields and they can access its social networks.  Therefore, people with more direct social ties are not automatically more transnationally active than people with weaker connections.  Nor can we assume that people with few direct cross-border ties are uninfluenced by the field’s dynamics.

In 2007, Sanjeev Khagram and I outlined a transnational optic for capturing social life across borders. A transnational lens begins with a world that is boundarless and borderless and then asks what kinds of borders arise in particular socio-historical contexts, why, and explores how these interact with unbounded spaces.  It does not take the relevant space of inquiry as given but asks instead what the geography where the subject of interest is embedded actually is.  It tries not to privilege the global or the local, or the sending and receiving, but to hold these sites and layers of social experience, and all else in between, in conversation with each other. In other words, it sees the global, the national, the regional, and the local as potentially transnationally constituted. It stresses how each of these layers of social experiences are constructed through continuous, interative interactions.

A transnational optic helps identify the different actors, ideas, and objects circulating within social fields or what I call cultural carriers.  It calls our attention to the real and imagined, past and present geographies through which cultural products travel and the pathways and networks that constitute them.  It brings into sharper focus how other ideologies and interests circulating within these fields intersect with and shape their trajectories.  Finally, it produces a clearer picture of how and why assemblages are created—the impact and outcomes of these encounters.  When cultural elements (be they ideas, objects, rituals, or organizing strategies) comes to ground, how and why do they cluster as they do? How do the cultural elements circulating at other levels of the social field influence the shape, strength, and durability of this convergence?

Mapping and categorizing transnational phenomena and dynamics requires new kinds of observations and new kinds of methods for collecting them. Most existing data sets, historiographies, and ethnographies make transnational analyses difficult if not impossible because they are based on national-state units and are designed to make comparisons between countries.  They do not capture flows, linkages, or identities that cross or supersede other spatial units or the phenomena and dynamics within them.

Transnational scholarship requires that data be collected on multiple units, scales and scopes of analysis. In the ideal world, that would mean actually following a particular cultural product and seeing how it lands against different meta-cultural backdrops.  But when this is not possible, transnational dynamics can also be investigated by asking respondents to map the cross-border aspects of their identities, beliefs, and activities and the people they are connected to.

Where is the link to two articles: “Constructing Transnational Studies” by Sanjeev Khagram and myself, that appeared in The Transnational Studies Reader (New York: Routledge Press, 2007) where we lay out in greater detail the intellectual foundations of the perspective that we propose.  The second, “Religion on the Move: Mapping Global Cultural Production and Consumption” is a chapter in Religion on the Edge: Decentering and Recentering the Sociology of Religion (edited by Courtney Bender, Wendy Cadge, Peggy Levitt, and David Smilde, that is under review at Oxford University Press).  Although I use religion as my empirical case in this article, many of my ideas apply to other cultural products and flows.