Theories like Globalization (Robertson), World society theory (Luhmann) and World poverty (Meyer) neglect migrants’ agency thus simplifying migration as a phenomenon according to Thomas Faist. He therefore argues that transnational micro migration studies are unique compared to related macro theories.

“Transnationalism in my view is not a coherent theory, but a set of assumptions and observations which has to be theorised,” says Thomas Faist, advocating a transnational perspective in migration studies. Transnationalism in its narrow sense refers to cross border relations, however the broader definition – relations beyond the nation state – is a more substantial definition.

Thomas Faist, Universität Bielefeld
Thomas Faist, Universität Bielefeld


The anthropological (micro) perspective in transnational studies re-introduced the migrant as an agent of political and social change, which Thomas Faist later has adapted into his own research. He underlines the importance of studying migrants’ communal relations and the progression of these relations.

“The progression will further assist us in understanding boundary making, exclusion versus inclusion, and later on discrimination, racism and similar phenomena,” he says. He states that it is important to link the transnational lens with other kind of lenses, since related macro concepts are unable to do this. Such concepts are often insufficient when it comes to describing complex phenomena such as migration. According to Thomas Faist, the political science approach addresses transnationalism from “above”, while the anthropological approach targets transnationalism from “below”.

Transnationalism and its three T’s

Thomas Faist distinguishes three aspects of transnationalism: transnationalization as the process, transnational social spaces as a social structure and transnationality as a marker of heterogeneity. He contextualises transnationalization as the process when transnational ties are exchanged beyond borders, creating a transnational social space or field which further gets interpreted by its residents and performed as a form of transnationality.

In order to establish a viable transnational community and to sustain itself throughout time, a frequent involvement with both government and civic institutions in the homeland and receiving country is intrinsic. The reason for this is that transnational immigrants engage in activities intended to define and improve their position in the immigration region, while concurrently aiming to remain embedded and participate in the everyday (national or local) matters of the homeland community.

Thomas Faist argues that future research should be less interested in examining cross-border ties and exchanges of static categories of persons or groups (transnationality), but rather pay attention to changing boundaries, or in other words studies of transnationalization. There is a need for studies of transnationalization because social spaces mark dynamic processes, and not static notions of ties and positions, he says. It is crucial to address how boundaries become divided in a broader sense, and how boundaries are constructed and adjusted. The creation, maintenance and enforcement of boundaries constitute power. Therefore it is essential, according to Faist, to study transnationalization in order to understand power constellations.

Advice to students

Thomas Faist emphasizes the importance of linking the transnational lens with other kind of lenses since future research needs to move across different levels and scales. A topic of interest is for example the degree to which agents and organisations interact across borders – translocal and transnational. The study of transnationalization needs to be tied to substantial problems.

He also encourages elective affinity between theories, main questions, and methods used on the ground and the need to abolish homogenizations of notions of categories. The main focus in transnational migration studies should be on studying the creation, maintenance and erasure of social inequalities and the politics around social inequalities, he says. Thomas Faist is encouraging students to address less documented fields of transnational studies, such as social change brought upon by migrants and the implications of transnationality, not only for the global north but also for the global south.

Forum for Transnational Migration Research

The aim of Forum for Transnational Migration Research is to develop and intensify the collaboration in migration research at Stockholm University by introducing an interdisciplinary PhD course on transnational migration and a high-profiled seminar series on the same theme.

The Forum will have a particular focus on refugee migration and how the migration routes develop and are organized in relation to border-regimes and governmental control. It is a collaboration between researchers in the Department of Social Anthropology and the Department of History and is funded by the strategic action of Områdesnämnden för humanvetenskap at Stockholm University.

Interview by Anna Knoph