Transnational Social Networks: Historically & Today

June 16, 2015

This resource compares oral history and in-depth interviews from two different periods of immigration to the United States. Its goal is to complicate notions of migration as a unidirectional and permanent activity.

This lesson addresses state teaching standards:
II. MINNESOTA HISTORY G. Post-World War II to the Present: Benchmark 2. Students will identify and describe significant demographic changes in Minnesota and issues related to those changes and analyze the significance of their impact. 3. Hispanic, African and Southeast Asian immigrants, growth of suburbs, rural population loss


"Transnationalism" refers to the idea that many human phenomena occur across the boundaries of the nation-state. Migrants are embedded in social networks simultaneously in the country of destination and in their country of origin (and perhaps elsewhere in the world, as well). Although historically relevant, improvements in technologies of transportation and communication have made the concept of transnationalism especially obvious in the present day. For example, migrants today might move frequently and between multiple locations, rather than in a unidirectional fashion from home country to receiving country. Even if not able to move physically between nations, migrants can still retain cultural, political, or economic connections with their countries of origin (or, again, elsewhere in the world).

Transnationalism obviously challenges older models of immigrant incorporation and assimilation. It complicates notions of citizenship and nationalism by suggesting that migrants can have multiple identities. Transnationalism does not, however, remove the nation-state entirely from discussions. States affect the development of transnational networks by their policies, such as actions that incite or restrict migration. Conversely, transnational activities—like the sending of remittances (money transferred by migrants to their home countries) or rallies for political action elsewhere in the world—affect national economies and politics.


The following two sources offer evidence of transnational social networks. Both sources involve immigrants to Minnesota, but from different origins and time periods.

  1. Excerpts from oral history interviews with European immigrants who came to the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Katri (Laakkonen) Saari was born in Finland in 1893 and immigrated to the United States in 1913. Luigi Sella was born in Italy in 1894 and immigrated to the United States in 1909. During the 1980s, both participated in oral history projects concerned with the European immigrant experience.
    PDF iconEuropean Immigrants Transcript.pdf
    Interview with Katri (Laakkonen) Saari, conducted on March 4, 1981, by Velma Doby, Minnesota Finnish American Family History Project, Immigration History Research Center; interview with Luigi Sella, conducted on April 12, 1985, by Mary Ellen Mancina-Batinich Papers, Immigration History Research Center
  2. Excerpts from in-depth interviews with African immigrants who came to the United States at the end of the twentieth century. The narrators remain anonymous, but all were refugees from Somalia who had spent time in refugee camps in Kenya before coming to Minnesota. The interviews were conducted in 2002 as part of a study of citizenship and gender.
    PDF iconAfrican Immigrants Transcript.pdf
    Interviews conducted in 2002 by team members of the project "Gender Differences in Motivations for Seeking Citizenship among African Immigrants to the United States" (PI Professor Elizabeth Heger Boyle), in possession of the project leader.

Discussion Questions

  1. Compare the routes taken by each of the groups presented. What were the routes that the various narrators followed when coming to the United States? In what ways were these routes determined by transnational social networks?
  2. What sorts of transnational social networks did narrators continue to maintain after their arrival in the United States? Who was involved in these networks?
  3. Compare the examples of transnational social networks identified in the two sets of interviews. In what ways are they similar and in what ways are they different? Are transnational social networks a new or old practice?

Classroom Activities

The teacher will use these two oral histories as an illustration to researching and understanding migration in Minnesota. Assign students to complete their own research projects into different ethnic groups that have migrated to Minnesota (Somali, Liberian, Hmong, Lao) using local resources.

Suggested Readings

Blunt, Alison. "Cultural Geographies of Migration: Mobility, Transnationality, and Diaspora." Progress in Human Geography 31.5 (2007): 684-694.

Foner, Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. "More 'Trans-' Less 'National.'" Journal of American Ethnic History 25.4 (2006): 74-84.

Kivisto, Peter. "Theorizing Transnational Immigration: A Critical Review of Current Efforts." Ethnic and Racial Studies 24.4 (2001): 549-577.