‘Transnational’ families are families who live apart but who create and retain a ‘sense of collective welfare and unity, in short “familyhood,” even across national borders’ (Bryceson and Vuorela 2002). They include transnational couples (for example, migrant spouse/partner and non-migrant spouse/partner), migrant parents and their non-migrant children who remain at ‘home’, and migrants and their elderly non-migrant parents and siblings. They mark the intersection, on the one hand, of individual and familial aspirations and needs, and on the other hand, structural opportunities and constraints. Such families are an inevitable consequence of migration and are hardly a recent phenomenon.
Transnational families cannot be counterposed with those whose members remain in one country. Instead, these families encourage us to problematize (implicit) assumptions about relatedness. For instance, is co-residence a necessity for family-making? And, is physical co-presence the primary means of showing care and affection? If some people migrate in order to make particular lives possible in their country of origin (Sørenson and Olwig 2002), then physical separation cannot be taken a priori to be culturally problematic. Equally, the transnational aspect of families may only be a temporary phase in the lives of specific families, as they ultimately seek to be reunited in the country of destination.
These families offer a unique lens through which to explore processes and experiences of transnational migration. They are often formed through the coming together of individuals with different linguistic, cultural, social, and/or religious backgrounds. In doing so, they may contribute to processes of creolization whereby selected elements from the various backgrounds of family members and the places where they live are brought together in ways that give rise to new identities and cultural practices (Cohen, 2007).
Today, communication and travel across vast distances are cheaper, and technologies more widely available, than in earlier periods of migration. Phone calls, text messages, and emails offer ways to stay in touch quickly, frequently, and easily, while Skype with video allows transnational kin to approximate a sense of physical co-presence. Safer, cheaper modes of travel make family visits more accessible. These technologies have been incorporated into a repertoire of familial practices that enable kin to sustain a sense of relatedness across space. Despite such practices, living apart can be an emotionally painful experience and contribute to a sense of alienation and disconnectedness among both those who move and those who stay. It can also give rise to gendered moral criticism that reflects specific cultural norms around what it means to be a good parent, child, or relative.
Moreover, being able to stay in touch brings with it the expectation of communication. Yet familial relations are complex. Affection can be accompanied by irritation, happiness by anger, and shame by guilt. The distance generated by migration can further complicate the mix of sentiments. Perhaps, for some family members, the physical distance has welcome (if unacknowledged or unacknowledgeable) consequences. Living apart can give rise to a greater freedom and autonomy, as well as opportunities to negotiate obligations and reconfigure familial relations.
Regardless of dynamics within transnational families, these so-called family-making technologies are not equally accessible to every family. (In)accessibility has both micro dimensions that relate to individuals and their families, as well as more macro structural dimensions. Wealthy families can easily travel to meet each other. Yet poorer families may be constrained in their movement not only by limited financial resources, but also by a lack of social capital to, for example, navigate bureaucratic visa procedures. Depending on the country in which they live, families of every social background may struggle to move around the world to visit their kin because of where their country is positioned socio-politically in the nation-state order, or what Massey (1991) refers to as the ‘global power geometry’. Meanwhile, family members traveling from other countries invite less scrutiny. Thus, transnational migration can also be a vector through which social stratification is articulated or compounded.
Much of the preceding discussion could be framed as a debate about translocal families. More specifically, family members live in particular places, whether they are villages, towns, or cities, and relate to each other from those locales, which occupy positions lower on the geographic scale than the nation state. Accordingly, it is important not to privilege a priori the nation state or the ‘national’ when trying to understand the lives of families who live apart.
Nonetheless, the nation-state system can exert a powerful influence over the shape such families take and how they live their lives. State regulations limit who can move (or visit), under what conditions, and for how long. It is important to place the tightening of regulations within a given (particular) social and historical moment, a time when much attention is directed at the issue of (im)migration in many countries around the world. Family reunification is a migration channel over which states have little control. Though the state may be constrained in its ability to stop family members from settling in the destination countries of their kin, such regulations can still interpenetrate their intimate relations such that laws differentiate kin on the basis of their migration status. Increasing state regulation will likely only contribute both to the rising prevalence and to the persistence of transnational families.
Bryceson, D. and Vuorela U. (eds.) (2002) The Transnational Family: New European Frontiers and Global Networks, Oxford and New York: Berg.
Cohen, R. (2007) ‘Creolization’, in G. Ritzer (ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Malden: Blackwell Publishers.
Massey, D. (1991) ‘A Global Sense of Place’, Marxism Today, 38: 24-29.
Sørenson, N. N. and Olwig K. F. (2002) Work and Migration: Life and livelihoods in a Globalizing World, London: Routledge.