On January 22 2013, Thomas Faist presented: “Social Inequalities: What Role for Transnationality?”

Thomas Faist is Professor of Transnational, Development & Migration Studies, Faculty of Sociology, University of Bielefeld.


In migration research in particular and mobility research more generally, the study of inequalities of resources, status, and power is mostly confined to a single country (and usually the immigration country); and occasionally international comparisons are undertaken. This state of affairs occludes more recent discussions on inequalities and cross-border mobility in other fields of the social sciences, such as the discussions on globalization and cosmopolitanism in which strong propositions abound. For example, Ulrich Beck has argued that “the most important factor determining the position in the hierarchies of inequality of the global age … is opportunities for cross-border interaction and mobility.” (Beck 2008: 21) Zygmunt Bauman has seconded that claim by stating that “… local in a globalized world is a sign of social deprivation and degradation.” (Bauman 1998: 2-3) The global/local binary is thus used by these authors to attribute life chances and social positions on different scales, connected to the observation that this is a relatively new development brought about in the course of globalization over the past few decades. Those who take the counter-position, such as John Goldthorpe, for instance, hold that patterns of inequality in general and career patterns in labour markets in particular still tend to be organized mainly nationally or locally and not globally (Goldthorpe 2002). In light of this, the claim of the existence and importance of coherent cross-border social positions seems to be premature. While this latter stream of research is highly critical of claims about the importance of cross-border ties, this does not suggest that transnationality is to be dismissed. Instead, those cross-border transactions need to be captured more clearly, going beyond the global/local(national) binary in the debate.
One may usefully start from the concept of transnationality, that is, the continuum of ties individuals, groups or organizations entertain across the borders of nation-states, ranging from thin to dense. In this context migration constitutes a strategic research field not because physical mobility is a prerequisite for cross-border ties but because migrants may maintain or even develop (new) patterns of ties in the process of settlement and movement. Spatial mobility is often hailed as the “oldest action against poverty” (John K. Galbraith). Yet the evidence is not that conclusive. While much research has supported this more optimistic scenario (for a summary see, for example, Goldin et al. 2011), there are also studies which focus on the resulting social exclusion or even the threat of underclass formation among international migrants. To summarize the debate, transnational ties have been hailed as strategies of migrants to improve their social position and those of significant others in the countries of origin or other countries of settlement, whereas other authors have warned of the dangers of transnational ties constituting a social mobility trap.
Against this background of debate, major issues arise for conceptual clarifications and empirical research; to name only three among many: First, does transnationality actually matter for the social position of migrants and related non-migrants? Second, does transnationality matter in interaction with other markers of difference, such as gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and legal status? Third, what are the frames of comparison: Is it the same immigrant group in the country of immigration, other categories in the country of immigration (middle class, underclass), or those left behind in the country of origin? How are the perceptions of inequalities by these various categories affected by cross-border relations?