Identity in a Transnational World: Where do I Belong to?

Madhav Kafle* ( 


Mobility has been described as one of the dominant urges of human beings. While we moved in the pre-historic times mainly for search of food and shelter, nowadays we shuttle between various places for a plethora of reasons. With advancements in travel and technology, the movement across borders—both literal and metaphorical—has intensified. What’s more, unlike in the past, today we can choose to develop and maintain particular networks or communities across the globe, irrespective of material mobility. With the compression of time and space and the possibility of forming transnational ties, the permeability of identity has increased as well. The incommensurability of identity as static and homogeneous is, therefore, becoming more obvious. The treatment of identity in Applied Linguistics, however, still tends to be dominated by traditional orientation. In this light, this paper discusses new conditions created by globalization in a transnational world. It is hoped that this will shed light in making the treatment of identity in Applied Linguistics relevant as per the changing contexts. I frame the discussion mainly in three interconnected issues: globalization, migration, and identity.

Theoretical Framing: Globalization, Migration, and Identity

Globalization. Globalization has been defined and viewed in various ways. For some scholars, globalization is “nothing new” and it has been going on, though on a certain scales, from pre-modern times. Lechner and Boli (2004), for example, opine that it has become a global cliché. Similarly, Modelski (1972) argues that globalization has been going on for millennia. He mentions the city-states of Mesopotamia six thousand years ago, and the global spread of the Islam from the 7th century to the 15th century as examples of that phenomenon. Some scholars agree that globalization is a phenomenon with beginnings well before the 15th century, but especially from the birth of the modern nation-states in Europe. For some others, spreading outwards and colonization of the world by European superpowers marked beginning of globalization. However, many argue that globalization is a recent phenomenon. Robertson (1992) noted that McLuhan’s idea of “the global village” and some general notion of global “shrinkage” entered public as well as academic consciousness fairly soon after World War II. Or, even later: the first major fuel crisis of 1973, and abandonment of the Fordist mode of production for the priority to international competitiveness (Block, 2006), for example, was when the world really went global. Globalization for those is a new or “strikingly new” phenomenon (e.g. Appadurai 1996, p.27). Appadurai defines globalization as a ‘“complex, overlapping and disjunctive order’ made up of five dimensions of cultural flows, which he calls ‘scapes”’ (Block, 2006, p. 5). Nevertheless, there seems to be a general agreement in saying globalization is a catchword for a particular historical phase(s) and even if the processes we call globalization are not new in substance, they are new in intensity, scope, and scale (Blommaert, 2010). Even though there are some skeptics who view the concept of globalization as somewhat exaggerated, or as a “faddish academic concept of the 1990s” (Coupland, 2010, p.2), widely held concept of globalization (Bauman, 1998a, 1998b; Robertson, 1995) is that the world is already globalized and is yet increasingly globalizing.

On discourses about globalization, David’s Harvey’s (1989) concept of “time-space compression” is often invoked, either explicitly or implicitly. In fact, Giddens defines globalization as “the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa” (Giddens, 1990, p. 64). Likewise, Perlmutter (1991) notes, the impact of this time-space compression has meant that the world is coming to be organized less vertically, along nation-state lines, and more horizontally, according to communities of shared interests and experiences.

With such intensification, it is argued, “the constraints of geography” are decreasingly relevant (Block & Cameron, 2002, p. 1) and as Appadurai (2001, p. 5) notes, “we are functioning in a world fundamentally characterized by objects in motion.” With intensification of worldwide social relations or “transcultural flows” (Pennycook, 2007) various “-scapes” (Appadurai, 1996) are in operation: ethnoscapes, flow of people; mediascapes, flow of information; technoscapes, flow of technology; financescapes, flow of finance; ideoscapes, flow of ideology/ideas. However, not all scholars agree on the degree of such flows. Ohmae (1995), for instance, argues that there is no significance of nation-states as do Giddens (2002), who sees the world as a “runaway world,’’ and others (e.g. Evans, 1997; Hardt & Negri, 2000). For them, with decreasing importance of the nation-states, there are progressively more and more communities which transcend nation-state boundaries and individuals who in much of their lives feel more allegiance and affinity to these communities than they do to the national states in which they reside.

However, there seems to be no agreement on the nature of flows. While some agree on the “conception of globalization as the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole” (Coupland, 2010, p. 4), others disagree about the extent to which globalization (i. e. flows) should be regarded as a homogenizing process. Some scholars point out that globalization has created inequalities and exploitations in the process. Many people on the fringes of poverty still live “fundamentally un-globalized lives; but the elites in their countries have such access [to the flows] and use it in the pursuit of power and opportunities – a pursuit which does affect the lives of the ‘un-globalized’ citizens” (Blommaert, 2010, p. 3). I suppose I do not need to further elaborate this point as many NELTA members must be already aware about such inequalities from their own experiences. For this reason, some propose that rather than accepting globalization as an all-sweeping process, we need to observe different dimensions related to it. Three familiar dimensions or application domains of globalization as per Coupland are economic, political, and cultural (Coupland, 2010, p. 3). Similarly, Bartelson (2000) tries to distinguish three ways in which global flows can be conceptualized, namely, transference, transformation, and transcendence. One more definition that brings many aspects of globalization is that of Pieterse (2004): “[G]lobalization is an objective, empirical process of increasing economic and political connectivity, [as well as] a subjective process unfolding in consciousness as the collective awareness of growing global interconnectedness, and a host of globalizing projects that seek to shape global conditions” (16-17).

What is the role of globalization in language contact or the vice-versa? Again, different views exist regarding the relation between globalization and language. Some scholars contend that certain languages (e.g. English) are hegemonizing the world while others see this simply as a natural process. Mufwene, one of the proponents of seeing language spread as a part of the natural phenomena, argues that the world is not heading towards monolingualism, and English is not a “killer language” (Mufwene, 1994, 2008). For him, the world’s linguistic system has an evolving set of relationships among languages as their utility values change. However, others believe the opposite and fulminate against “linguistic neo-imperialism,” “linguistic genocide,” and “crimes against humanity in education” (Coupland, 2010, p. 9). With these diverse views, now I turn to how identity is also enmeshed in the discourses of globalization.

Migration. There is a case for saying that in the era of globalization, the nature of migration has changed and this means that its impact is greater on receiving societies (Block, 2006, p. 7). Today’s migrants or better transmigrants stay in touch with family members left behind by various ways such as economic, familial, religious, and social. The relations within networks extend across the borders of nation-states. Transnational connection takes many forms, all of which go beyond (past) immigrant nostalgia in which a person who is removed from his or her ancestral land tries to recreate on the new land a sense of the old world.

The classic distinction between the immigrant vs. expatriate mode (Block, 2006, p. viii) of mobility do not hold anymore as many transnational communities (Vertovec & Cohen, 1999; Castles & Miller, 2003) are being formed. Similarly, there is a change in the meaning of diaspora as well. According to the authors such as Rogers Brubaker (2005), diasporas by definition unify several key features. Traditionally, diaspora meant dispersal of people from their original homeland two or more foreign regions. The process of dispersal could be traumatic or forced, or voluntary in nature, and the people developed collective memory and the idealization of the ancestral homeland. More importantly, return movement kept alive their dream of rejoining the ancestors. Further, these people attempted to contact the diaspora around the world, and had strong sense of the ethnic identity that used to be (or considered) separate from that of the host community (Block, 2006, p. 18). Such essentialist view of community today has turned out to be very simple and perhaps invalid. Today’s communities have different building bases. Bauman (2001), for example, defines community as more a feeling than a demographic structure. The metaphorical space in which people feel a sense of belonging to a collective and trust in their acceptance better propels the sense of the community today.

Since long held view of migration as people emigrating and immigrating has changed, there has been questioning of the models of migration as well. Papastergiadis (2000) had proposed the voluntarism push-pull model, and structuralist center-periphery model. As these models do not work well, multi-level migration systems theory has been brought to the fore by Faist (2000) and Castles and Miller (2003). The multi-level model consists of micro (individual values and expectations), meso (social ties, symbolic ties), and macro (economics, politics, cultural settings and demography).

Identity. With the compression of time and space, the models of identities have also changed. Traditionally, people are supposed to inhabit in a community throughout their lives. But today, social relations, and even forms of intimacy have become possible across distance, though they might have to be negotiated through complex and sometimes restrictive forms of mediation. There have been efforts to retheorize the traditional but unrewarding concept of speech community and to move from the sociolinguistics of community that has been built around it (Coupland, 2010; Pratt, 2008; Rampton, 2006, 2009), yet they have rarely addressed the features of transnational identities. Mobile trajectories and flows of population, in fact, assist in detailed analysis of sociolinguistic identities at distance, and cultural fragmentation. As Kramsch and Boner (2010) explain, globalization tends to instrumentalize relationships in the drive towards new entrepreneurial activity, and to set up “imaginary solidarities.”

An apperception of the practices of identity-formation in the globalizing world has made traditional conceptions of individuals as members of fixed and separate societies and cultures redundant (Rapport & Dawson, 1998, p. 3). Certainly, in terms of individual awareness, if not of universal practice, mobility has become fundamental to modern identity and an experience of non –place. It is in this milieu, the question arises of how we conceptualize our “homes.” The fundamental question is if it is necessary to find universally a stationary point in the environment from which we can engineer our moving, perceiving, ordering and constructing. In the construction and promulgation of essential cultures, societies, nations, and ethnic groups, being at home in an environment meant being, if not stationary, then, at least centered (Rapport & Dawson, 1998, p. 21). Home, with the globalizing world, however, is increasingly “no longer a dwelling but the untold story of a life being lived” (Berger, 1984, p. 64). Since there is a pluralization of social life- worlds between which individuals are in inexorable migration, “returning home” is not to find oneself in the same place as before (Weil, 1978, 196, cited in Rapport & Dawson, 1998, p. 33). Our lives are characterized by flows of images, voices and data that create hyperspaces with “no sense of place” (Luke, 1995, p. 97), and habitations in “the beyond” (Bhabha, 1994, p.7), an explosion of hybridity in a world in which “nothing is fixed, given, a [or] certain” (Lash & Urry, 1994, p.10). Such allusions to “states of limbo, of homelessness, of neither leaving nor staying, appear to be quite reasonable descriptions of the interstitiality that can be occasioned by this partial deterritorialization” (Rapport & Dawson, 1998, p. 52).

Identity in such contexts should be understood as becoming, i.e. a process, rather than the being. Bhabha (1994) and Hall (1996) account for the term third place. Papastergiadis (2000) also drives the same message home by advocating for “negotiation of difference.” However, for some scholars such as Stephen May (2001), much of the current work hybridity and third places is overstatement. He accepts that there is some fluidity but does not want to throw all the notions of structure in people’s lives. Discursive exchanges in the present world, Kramsch and Boner (2010) say, comes to involve “shadows” –creation of inequalities, and leaving out the downtrodden. It would be “wrong-headed to take the concepts such as hybridity and third places and choice to the extreme of arguing those social phenomena such as ethnic affiliation cease to have any meaning” (Block, 2006, p. 26). Rather, we should see identity as a process as per postmodernist models of identity would embody.

When does one become a member of the community, if there exists one? In the past, people generally aligned themselves with their birthplace or country while talking about their communities. Today, many people are in the move to a new place not only in search of better lands but also for many other complex reasons. The ongoing changes have challenged the assumption that people must identify with a single imagined community (Anderson, 1991). In fact, linguistic communities can be treated as emergent ones, constantly being reshaped by the interactive dynamics of their members (Blommaert, 2010, p. xii). This line of thought shows the power of the local. But, the local is quite resilient as well and local criteria and norms may/may not define the processes of change. Global influences become part of the context-generative aspect of the production of locality: they become part of the ways in which local communities construct a social, cultural, political and economic environment for themselves. That’s why, Blommaert argues, today we have truncated repertoires (Blommaert, 2010; Blommaert, Collins, & Slembrouck, 2005).

In a transnational world, many would find themselves at what Clifford (1994) calls “lateral connections.” Otsuji (2010) even goes on to provide performative perspectives on origin: it is not pre-given but is an ambivalent, transgressive and dynamic discursive construct. People have always learned languages for economic reasons, but in a post- industrial economy, it has been argued that the linguistic skills of workers at all levels take on new importance (Cameron, 2000; Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; Gee et al., 1996). The spatiality of the ‘trans-’, it is suggested, may be more useful than the temporality of the ‘post’ (Pennycook, 2007, p.13) in studying identities of current migrants.

Notions such as transcultural flows, transidiomaticity and deterritorialization (Jacquemet, 2005) have made their way into mainstream social science. But Applied Linguistics (or Sociolinguistics) hasn’t well prepared itself for the study of current migrants. Modern “sociolinguists drew an artefactualized image of language into time and space, but it did not necessarily destroy the old Saussurean synchrony” (Blommaert, 2010, p.4). Treating language as a bounded, nameable, and countable unit, it often reduced to grammatical structures and vocabulary and called by names such as ‘English’ , ‘French’ and so on (Blommaert, 2006; Silverstein, 1998; Bauman & Briggs, 2003; Makoni & Pennycook, 2007). Even if the subjects are migrants, they are ‘fixed’, so to speak, in space and time. We now see that the mobility of people also involves the mobility of linguistic and sociolinguistic resources, that sedentary or territorialized patterns of language use are complemented by translocal or deterritorialized forms of language use (Blommaert, 2010, p. 4).

We need to shift from language regarded as a system (and from language systems functioning in global system) to language regarded as social action- or from languages to discourses. Language as a set of mobile, trans-locally operative resources rather than as localized and “sedentary” sociolinguistic patterns (Coupland, 2010, p. 16). Thus, language as a resource and not as a system can make positive contributions in constructing transnational homes, identities, and communities.

In conclusion, locality, and place are produced, not pre-given, and are enmeshed with constructing identity. Looking at people, or language for that matter, as belonging to a particular community that is stable and homogeneous does not reflect and validate the current life ways of people most of whom are on the move. A series of “trans”–approaches (e.g. transcultural, transidiomatic, translocal, transdisciplinary, translingual, transtextual) rather than for “post”-, “inter” – or “multi”- approaches will be more suitable in the changing context that we are inhabiting. Similarly, rather than discussing the subject in terms of totalizing dominance, replacement, and uprooting; identity, language, and culture need to be seen in terms of “circles of flow” (Pennycook, 2007, p.122). This also means we will have to focus on genres, registers, and styles (i.e. repertoires) rather than on languages. Therefore, we, as Applied Linguists, need to view language as something intrinsically and perpetually mobile, through space as well as time, and made for mobility (Blommaert, 2010, p. xiv). In such a context, I urge all the NELTA members and all the readers of this forum to ponder in what ways we can utilize mobile resources, trans-contextual networks, flows, and movements that students in our classes might be carrying. In what way we can make globalization, language, and identity as something intrinsically connected to ELT pedagogy?


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(*Madhav Kafle is a doctoral candidate in Applied Linguistics at The Pennsylvania State University, USA. Before going to the USA for his graduate studies, he taught English at different levels in both rural and urban areas in Nepal. His research interests include multilingual academic literacies, global spread of English, and critical pedagogy.)


2 responses

  1. Great critique, Madhav ji! I liked your idea of considering the notion of ‘trans’ in the current era that is primacy to ‘globalisation’. It is, of course, timely to think about incorporating the interplay of “globalisation, language [English?], identity [especially in multilingual context]” in the mainstream education.
    I really enjoyed your argument and look forward to many more.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you very much for your input, Pramod ji. Please pardon me for this delayed response. I saw your comment just today when I was trying to revise the blog article for other purposes. I absolutely agree with you that rethinking of interconnection between porousness of the borders and flows of ideas etc. is even more important in multilingual settings like ours. It only remains to be seen how fast the stakeholders are willing to espouse and act upon the idea of deterritorialization. I hope professional discussions like these would not go unnoticed.


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