Transnational Citizenship Research Paper

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Me velle civis totius mundi non civis oppidi. When Swiss Reformation leader Ulrich Zwingli offered Erasmus of Rotterdam citizenship in Zurich, the humanist philosopher is said to have replied that he did not want to become a citizen of this single city, but of the ‘entire world.’ World citizenship was always one of humanity’s dreams, one considered as honorable as it is unfulfillable. Now globalization has not only razed the fortress of the nation-state (as progress in ballistics did to the fortified walls of medieval city-states), it has also created opportunity for what is called transnational citizenship. In historical perspective, nations provided the framework of modern community and society; they limited the space of communication where political parties and interest groups of all kinds acted, thus creating the prerequisites for equal representation and civic participation. In the welfare state, too, who should be included and who excluded from solidarity, was defined within this framework. But the universalistic principle of inclusion itself helped migrants gain a high-value status as residents, without being formal citizens. A person’s national citizenship thus uncoupled from his or her right to have rights, insofar as international laws, for example to protect migrant labor, and human rights conventions became plausible as independent sources of individual and collective rights. The question at hand is: Between local patriotism and global markets, where can homo politicus be found?

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1. The Term ‘Transnational’

The Oxford Dictionary dates the emergence of the term to about 1920, documented with a quotation from an economic text that saw Europe after World War I characterized by its ‘international or more correctly transnational economy’; interestingly, it added another source that identified the Christian Church as the sole power that could create the conditions for a ‘transnational, non-racial democratic polity.’ One author, who had ‘transnational America’ in view as early as 1916, is not even mentioned: Randolph vs. Bourne. While the nations of Europe hit out at each other in enmity, this literary critic and pacifist from New York emphasized a special potential of the USA, one he thought represented the core and seed of future world society. The USA, as the ‘first new nation’ of immigrants, clearly did not have recourse to the European bases of nation-building and collective identity, either ethnic-cultural or state-bureaucratic. On the other hand, Bourne rejected the then-current idea of a ‘melting pot’: ‘We are all foreign-born abroad or the descendants of foreign-born, and if distinctions are to be made between us they should rightly be on some other ground than indigenousness.’ One should not seek the foundations of American collective identity in a mystified past, as was the case with the European nationalism, instead ‘… we must perpetrate the paradox that our American cultural tradition lies in the future.’ From this, Bourne drew the conclusion: ‘America is coming to be, not a nationality but a transnationality, a weaving back and forth with other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors’ (Bourne 1916, pp. 87, 92, 96).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, ‘transnational’ has become a technical, but also a fashionable term, though one seeks it in vain in dictionaries and most social science lexicons. It is used especially in connection with international organizations and the ‘multis’ (transnational corporations, or TNCs). According to the original meaning of the Latin prefix ‘trans,’ it points beyond the usual diplomatic dealings among sovereign nation-states and the customary division of labor among ‘national economies’; the unit of analysis, not only in international relations, has become Weltgesellschaft (world society, see Luhmann 2000). This does not intend to announce an ‘end of nation-states’; but state sovereignty as we knew it has become ‘anachronistic’ (Czempiel 1969). From the accustomed macroperspective or bird’s-eye view of the world economy, the glance drifts to the microlevel of Lebenswelt (life world), where we can trace the cross-boundary paths on which people and objects, metaphors and symbols, individual life histories and collective biographies are transferred. It is time for social science and political actors to acknowledge this ‘paradigm shift’ from international relations to transnational that also allows that a new form of world politics is arising: governance and citizenship beyond the nation-state.

2. Economic And Cultural Preconditions Of Transnationality

2.1 Global Economy

From the beginning, the most powerful and conspicuous relativizers of the nation-state were the transnational corporations with their world-spanning trade and finance transactions. There has been a world market since sailing and techniques of navigation first permitted intercontinental trade, currency exchange, and investment; the Hanseatic League and the spread of Chinese family households throughout the Pacific demonstrate that the postmodern subversion of national borders has its premodern precursors. Yet, capital’s inherent ‘lack of patriotism’ (Karl Marx) has meanwhile developed beyond the accustomed relations between parent companies and foreign subsidiaries; economic and financial conglomerates have merged so that, aside from having a legal seat, they are no longer anchored in one particular nation. Ecommerce, including business-to-business deals, will further radicalize this despatialization.

Certainly, the prospects of the new economy must be viewed with caution, but state and cultural boundaries already play hardly any role anymore in its leading branches, telecommunications and biotechnology. Elimination of boundaries through ‘digital capitalism’ already have dramatic consequences for taxes and customs—which, after all, are the primary sources of revenue for nation-states and even supranational economic communities like the European Union. Global standards of management and services are joined by the harmonization of trade and economic law through legal firms, auditing companies, and consultancies. These need not really have global reaches; what we observe is rather a regionalization (in the sense of ‘continentalization’) of economic domains (North American Free Trade Association, European Union) or a geographic subdivision, as with the executive board of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and other transnational private–public institutions.

2.2 Migrant Communities

These examples show that transnational spaces have arisen between nations. Moving in the interstices is a ‘business class,’ a loose conglomerate of managers, consultants, and service providers more closely associated with companies and concepts (e.g., the ‘Apple culture’ and, more recently, the ‘Linux movement’) than with native countries and native tongues. Border-crossing mobility is not limited to the upper levels of the labor market; even unskilled workers with precarious residence status have meanwhile become highly mobile and multicultural. This Volkerwanderung (mass migration), joined by masses of foreign travelers, commuters, and retirees in the sunny South, has especially stimulated thought about ‘transnational social spaces’ (Faist 2000). Today’s nomads differ from their long-familiar precursors, especially the streams of immigration to the USA, Canada, Australia, and France in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, ‘homeland’ and ‘host country’ are more closely connected and networks between them are much denser. With cheap transportation and easy communication, not to mention the worldwide reception of ‘home’ television and radio broadcasts via cable and satellite, permanent settlement no longer seems necessary. Bags were always packed and ready in the Diaspora, but usually they remained in the attic; and the back and forth of those times—for example between New York’s Lower East Side and southern Italy or between Chicago and Warsaw—also lacked the emotional routine that now characterizes transnational mobility, and above all it did not have the effects on the structure of entire societies that transnational communities are likely to have today (Ong 1999, Leggewie 1999).

We can now define more precisely as transnational a social field, transcending national affiliation, in which a growing number of people lead a kind of double life. The expropriation of farmers, which tore the agrarian population from the ‘soil’ and drove them into the industrial cities, now finds its counterpart in a kind of ‘expropriation of borders.’ This casts doubt on sociology’s ‘container vision’; its spatial metaphors referring to closed national societies now seem exhausted. For transmigrants live in the long term in two or more places, constantly speak two or more languages, possess en masse two or more passports, and pass continually in both directions through makeshift households, networks of relationships, and spaces of communication. From this perspective, migration ‘routes’ count more for cultural studies than the migrants’s ‘roots’ of personal identity in national collectivities (Clifford 1997, Hannertz 1996). All this together, perhaps combined with and crowned by the World Wide Web, a medium of transnationalization par excellence, leads to a despatialization that, unlike classic emigration, permits ‘virtual proximity’ and merely temporary absence. This allows communities to maintain themselves even without constant face-to-face encounters; and with successive long-term presence ‘at home’ and ‘abroad,’ both poles of such transitory existence finally become almost interchangeable.

2.3 Religious Pluralism

Wanderers between the worlds generally bring their native gods and rites in their bags, for people who are supposed to have lost their ties are especially likely to seek ‘ties back’ (Latin re-ligere), which is the literal translation of religion. Religious communities have always transcended national borders; spiritual belief is especially suitable for ‘stretching’ and reconstructing in what was originally called ‘the Diaspora’ since the scattering of Jewish and early Christian congregations. The supralocal spread of religious ideas and communities is not new in principle (the Catholic Church can be seen as the first-ever agent of globalization), but the transnationalization of religion is no longer identical to Christianization; nor has secularization, which became typical for the Christian societies of Europe, prevailed as a model for the world.

Though religious life (and dominant cultures based on it) are relativized by transnational migration, emigration can thus revive religious feelings of belonging. In regard to world society, religion pushes globalization forward precisely by resisting the profane effects of economic globalization inasmuch as it forms particularist congregations. Diaspora, once experienced as catastrophic, is no longer an exception in the religious pluralism of our time; and at the same time, protection of religious freedom has improved all over the world, so that imported religious symbols are becoming visible again in the public space of secularized societies. Globalization is thus not limited to corporate mergers, Internet communication, and financial transactions. Religious communities, too, travel around the globe, and not only in the organizationally and functionally supported manner of world churches, but also and especially as decentralized grass-roots movements, as an unofficial, heterodox, self-founding, religious civil society.

2.4 Hybrid Cultures

What can be said about religious coexistence is also true for the diffusion and mixing of multicultural societies in general; a characteristic of this world of hyphens is provided by ‘world music’ (e.g., in the style of Peter Gabriel or Putumayo)—a collage of disparate materials often fusing completely contrary styles. In such mixtures, called ‘hybrid’ in allusion to biological crosses, things grow together that would not sound compatible to any purist’s ear. But proponents of musical and other mixtures point to quite successful combinations since the earliest origins of the fine arts; and in general we can note that the creativity of cultures is never based on keeping the foreign at a distance, but to ‘extraordinary’ borrowings, i.e., to mimetic appropriation and the constant exchange of inventions, to innovation from the margins and the acquisition of the seemingly unassimilable. Seen in this way, phenomena of ‘world culture’ are merely a further stage of the hybridization of hybrid cultures, and all efforts toward canonical restoration are futile while the barriers between high and low culture have been razed, too (Appadurai 1996, Tomlinson 1999).

The ‘wild’ combining of artifacts, symbols, and identities began with the primary means of expression and communication, language itself, where it ‘creolized’ at the points of contact between two or more groups of speakers. The process of assimilation was usually asymmetrical and often violent, but, at the same time, hybrid constellations mirror the growing interdependence of world society, which of course excludes as often as it includes. In this process, components of all cultures are uncoupled from local roots and contexts; this has often been interpreted as ‘standardization’ and, since the origins of hegemonial popular culture can be traced to the USA, as Americanization. Much speaks for this assumption, if we observe the selectivity and modes of influence of the culture industry, whose effects sometimes amount to a kind of cultural extinction; on the other hand, the conformation of the world society’s structural prerequisites does not lead to complete cultural uniformity.

In the terminology of cultural anthropology, culture must be conceived as bounded and embedded, and thus as a field that can be cultivated only in a particular time and place. The global economy and technology require and produce universal media like money and standardized systems of experts, which must ignore local origins, because this abstraction is the only thing that permits communication and creates trust; but cultural enclaves resist standardization. It is now rare for this aloofness to achieve the power of a fundamentalist resistance aimed at preserving one’s own culture. For however much the desires for distinctions can be agitated and politicized against each other in this ‘culture war,’ in the end they remain oriented toward a structure of common differences. Popular mass culture permits travels through time and space without requiring viewers and listeners to leave their homes. For the first time, electronic mass media like CNN and MTV can reach overarching audiences with ‘major events,’ including warlike conflicts, athletic competitions, and appearances by entertainment stars. There are topics that enthrall literally the entire world, and there are growing audiences for global stagings. But this thematic concentration is accompanied by a fragmentation of local audiences, which again can illustrate the dialectics of globalization and localization.

3. Arenas Of Transnational Citizenship

If the nation, in combination with government by bureaucratic agencies and popular representation, has been the fulcrum of personal identity and the condition of social affiliation since the nineteenth century, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, flexible forms of belonging and community transcending the nationstate challenge the representivity and legitimation of democratic rule. Again, the question is: Between local cultures and global markets, has the homo politicus become a dying species?

3.1 Transnational Governance

Governance without government, i.e., collective binding decisions outside the familiar arena of the nationstate (Rosenau and Czempiel 1992), is increasing, as evidenced by the multilateral regimes of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well of course as of the ‘multilevel politics’ of the European Union. These decisions are also effective, often to the dismay of national governments and populations, and they are no longer made solely unanimously, but increasingly also by majority votes. But the chains of legitimation for these supranational and transnational institutions are too long, and supranational and international regimes are suspected of disrespecting essential democratic prerequisites, namely the accountability of representatives and the congruence between those who make decisions and those who are affected by them. Attempts to ameliorate these defects, for example, by parliamentarizing the European Union, only underscore the difficulties of transnational citizen participation; the worldwide elections of the executive board of ICANN (fall 2000) show that there is a certain desire for worldwide participation and codecision, but also how difficult it is to organize such a process outside the nation-state. Only a few thousand out of millions of Internet users took part; we can speak at best of ‘successful failure,’ from which conclusions should be drawn for the status of the world citizen in the age of global markets and information (Held 1995).

3.2 Complex Multilateralism

Up to now, participation in the transnational sphere has been mostly informal and unconventional. Analogously to the transition from medieval municipal citizenship to modern national citizenship, a space of communication has grown that transcends the nationstate’s sphere. Here, individuals not only engage in economic and scientific exchange or unite culturally and religiously, but can also engage in political activity. One should mention more than 5,000 international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and, recently, social protest movements of global reach that articulate political will at conference tables, on the streets, and sometimes in both arenas. Both meanwhile fill the entire political space by devoting themselves to such topics as environmental protection and sustainable development, human rights, and equal rights for women. They can mobilize substantial resources and organize worldwide campaigns, with which they have attained the respect of and, if not a seat, at least a voice among representatives of states and international organizations. Such transnational activities can at least provide an impetus of agendasetting, but they also extend as far as the sphere of problem solving and decision making. Here, in a broad and still undefined field, where the ‘boundaries of the political’ are still unstable, transnational citizenship is crystallizing; as a rule, formulation of political demands and decision making in these organizations and social movements are, alas, just as lacking in democratic legitimation and control. Nation-states are still the most effective accumulations of political power. Nevertheless, violations of human rights by dictators and ruling by force are generally made widely public and effectively condemned, ignoring claims to political or cultural autonomy. Basic rights have been bindingly codified in international conventions to the degree that this has resulted in an international jurisdiction, albeit in embryo form and without any means of enforcement.

In particular, the USA blocks any form of ‘complex multilateralism’ as soon as it relativizes US hegemony. Viewed in this way, it is a pretty irony but no coincidence that, once again a movement that intensely criticizes the lack of democratic citizen participation in international regimes spread from the US West Coast to circle the globe, this time under the slogan ‘Seattle.’ In December 1999, the WTO met there for a conference to address routine questions of the further liberalization of world trade. The meeting was poorly prepared, but this caused less trouble for all the government representatives than did the surprising fact that thousands of determined demonstrators blocked the entrance to the conference building and that the sometimes violent protests precluded any normal course of conferring. The wisps of tear gas have moved on, and, in response to other summits, the baton of similar protest has passed to other summits in Davos, Washington, Prague, and Seoul.

‘Seattle’ has meanwhile become the mantra of a new transnational social protest that makes use of the latest communications technology and may thus be regarded as the first virtual protest movement of its kind (O’Brien et al. 2000). Economic globalization from the top has found its counterpart in this movement, an opposition from below that is equally despatialized and that, where it is not protectionist and nationalist-populist, calls for an alternative, and more inclusive, form of globalization and, under the honorable slogan ‘No globalization without representation,’ sets out to battle the autocracy of international organizations. The movement is very heterogeneous and runs all the risks of short-livedness and fragmentation that social movements have always incurred. It includes environmental protectionists and trade unionists, Christians and secular human rights advocates, workers and academics, reformers and revolutionaries, libertarians and anticapitalists; and these groups find only small areas ideologically and organizationally in common.

Environmental protectionists lambast the destructive effects of industrial methods of production; the religious people denounce its materialistic disposition and indifference to human dignity; socialists of every stripe are bothered by exploitation and private property; others reject the consumerism of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Ultimately, these groups contrast with each other as sharply as they do with their common enemy, the international organizations: Ecology and the economy can be arch-enemies; protectionist unionists want to close borders that dyed-in-the-wool cosmopolitans want to eliminate; development aid workers in the South attack the environmental protection regulations of the North as ecoimperialism, and so forth.

Here one can not predict whether such fronts will resolve into an opposition inspired by anticapitalism (like that at the end of the nineteenth century) against globalism or, more probably, into another reform movement from within globalism. But the logic of inclusion seems inescapable. In transnational spaces, ‘internal affairs’ no longer exist. What the humanist thinker Erasmus anticipated, is common sense now: one cannot be a citizen of a city without becoming a citizen of the world.


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