Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis

This essay argues that transnationalism is an indispensible term, bringing into sharp relief all the ways that scholarly disciplines have relied upon, and reified, the nation. Although some have charged that the concept is intellectually “soft,” this article contends that it does crucial work in undoing academic complicity with the ideological work of constructing the nation. Transnationalism is, we argue, a radical intervention with roots in anti-imperialist writers back to Fanon and Wallerstein, forward to the sharpest critics of neoliberalism. Drawing on work principally from Latin American and the United States, this article suggests that transnationalism need not be a concept that obviates our ability to think borders, walls, and militaries, but is precisely the conceptual apparatus that allows us to locate objects like the border wall in relation to transnational currents of globalization and its discontents.

In 1986, Joan Scott summarized a decade of feminist scholarship by arguing that gender refers to far more than sexed bodies (or even worse, female ones), but to entire symbolic systems and forms of social organization. In this piece, we suggest that the same is true of the nation—that it has organized knowledge, disciplines (Mexican History, American Literature), and forms of social organization (the entire bureaucratic apparatus associated with the Guatemalan economy). While the nation is anything but a transhistorical, natural, or autonomous entity, it has been politically usefully and academically expedient to proceed as if it were. “Gender” was the name Scott gave to the conceptual acid that could reveal the constructedness and utility of sex; “transnationalism” is the sign under which a critique of the nation has been underway.