An end to nationalism?

January 14, 2000

British geographers are tackling the vogue subject of transnationalism, which until now has been largely the preserve of American sociologists and political scientists, writes Olga Wojtas.

The annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers at Sussex University last week included presentations springing from the Transnational Communities Programme launched in 1998 by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Richard Black, director of the Sussex centre for migration research, said that United States research had suggested that transnational communities were potentially challenging nationalism and nation-states, as mobile individuals carved out new trans- national identities, living and working across national boundaries.

The significance of "national" identities might be expected to fade as these communities build on a hybrid or even global sense of belonging. There were hopes that transnational communities might become a force for the reconstruction of war-torn societies, in which taking part in the global labour market and economy replaced longstanding national or ethnic rivalries.

Dr Black said: "Our research suggests that ... transnationalism in practice is most evident when it is well organised, and nation-states and nationalism have in most cases been able to organise transnationalism."

He defined trans-nationalism as flows of people, money or goods across national boundaries, alongside simultaneously held allegiances such as dual citizenship, or paying taxes in two places.

Researchers had thought that transnationalism could be a route out of political crisis associated with nationalism in Bosnia and Eritrea. Both were new states, created from nationalist struggle which had resulted in large refugee communities. Transnationalism was much stronger in Eritrea than Bosnia, said Dr Black.

A key difference seemed to be that Bosnians had never had a secure national identity, while Eritrean identity had been firmly rooted over the past 30 years. The new Eritrean nation state had fostered a sense of community among exiles.

"Transnationalism in many cases can be little more than nation-states or nationalism at a distance," Dr Black said.

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