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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.

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Many believe that global markets are a new phenomenon. But that is not the case. Not only had the late 19th century already reached a level of global trade and financial flows which approached that of today, but there have been long distance trading circuits across jurisdictions and continents which date back as far as medieval times. In the 12th and 13th century, the Italian city states of Venice and Genoa maintained long distance trading networks that reached as far as North Africa and Central Asia, providing the basis for ‘global’ markets for luxury goods, such as spices and silk.  In the North, the Hanseatic League formed a federation of trading cities along the coastlines of the Northern and Baltic Sea generating cross-border markets for bulk goods such as fish, salt, grain and wood.

These markets were transnational in the sense of their interconnecting economic actors from multiple political jurisdictions (i.e. kingdoms and city states) across the world into a multilayered system of rules and regulations which governed their exchange relationships.

Economic historians have produced a rich literature on these markets which is also instructive for economic sociologist studying the governance of contemporary ‘global’ markets. In a recently published article I combine both approaches to analyse how key coordination problems were resolved in medieval long-distance trading systems.

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This entry is part of a series in which we discuss concepts and phenomena in the field of transnational studies.

The major critique of cosmopolitan sociology on empirical research in social sciences is its methodological nationalism. Methodological nationalism means that most studies define (explicitly or implicitly) the nation state as the container of social processes. Thus the nation state unit is the key-order for studying major social, economic and political processes. One of the major critics of such a perspective, Ulrich Beck, argues that it is wrongly based on assumptions of the congruence of political, cultural and social borders. The nation state perspective doesn’t capture transnational linkages, structures or identities.

But how can one analyze transnational phenomena empirically? It is a fundamental problem of research on transnationalism that most data sets and strategies of social inquiry are nation state bound. That makes inferences on transnational phenomena difficult or impossible. This methodological problem is therefore fundamentally linked with sociological concept formation, which is  – from a cosmopolitan perspective –   nation state bound and thus unable capture the multi-dimensional process of change.  Or as Beck and Sznaider formulate it:

The decisive point is that national organization as a structuring principle of societal and political action can no longer serve as the orienting reference point for the social scientific observer (Beck and Sznaider 2006).

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Governance across borders or transnational governance looks at rule making, standard setting and institution building across borders. Empirically one can see the rise of a variety of patterns of regulatory governance. But transnational regulations are only one aspect of a whole field of transnational phenomena. Social life has always crossed, connected or transformed borders and boundaries.  Social processes have been transborder even before the spread of the nation-state system, as well as states also got shaped transnationally. Hirst and Thompson for example analyse different historical forms of transnational markets and long before the rise of the nation state.

Other transnational processes include transnational social movements, migration, communities, citizenship but also religion or various cultural practices (see for example Olgas entry on transnational ideas and local culture). In Europe, progress has been made specifically in regards to transnational phenomena within the European union, on debates about a European governance, public sphere or a collective identity (see for example also the new European Journal of Transnational Studies ) .

So far, there is no real discipline of transnational studies, but only a fragmented body of scholarship across sub-fields of sociology and other social science disciplines. To get into dialogue with and to learn from the insights of some of these studies, some general questions on transnationalism should be raised here, in a new series on transnational studies: What does it imply to analyze the global, national, local through transnational lenses for different approaches? Which phenomena are identified as transnational, how and why? How are the phenomena analyzed, how are flows or identities that cross certain spaces captured? How do transnational theories or theory building interact with traditional theories? And finally, what do all these different perspectives, including the governance research have in common, where are the biggest differences and what can we learn from each other? These are only some of the questions, which I think are important to discuss in order to be able to better understand transboundary social processes.

(sabrina)

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
February 2017
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