Bridging places across borders: Constitution, maintenance and meaning of transnaional social spaces

Janine Dahinden, Yvonne Riaňo, Marc Tadorian (Université de Neuchâtel),
Michael Nollert, Marina Richter (Université de Fribourg)


Contemporary globalisation has had a great impact on the way that we relate to space. Owing to significantly increased human mobility and facilitated international communication, the everyday lives of many individuals are not merely bound to a single geographical location, but transcend national boundaries, thus connecting and positioning them in social spaces that encompass more than one country. Understanding such transnational social spaces has become an important challenge for social scientists. From a practical point of view, it is important to address that challenge because transnational social spaces are the socio-spatial context around which the everyday lives of many people take place, and where social meaning is increasingly produced. Besides, transnational social spaces have the power of creating invisible bridges between different places across the world by means of the everyday social, economic and cultural exchanges that take place between groups and individuals. From a more theoretical point of view, understanding transnational social spaces lies at the core of the production of social theory. The significance of space for our everyday lives has long been observed by social scientists. Everyday social interactions do not take place in a "vacuum", but in space and through space. Rethinking the spatial question in the context of transnational social relations is of central importance for the development of contemporary social theory.

Unfortunately, our practical and theoretical understanding of transnational social spaces remains incomplete for the following reasons. First, although space is clearly a core dimension of study for understanding transnational social lives, studies that specifically address the question of how to conceptualise space and how to empirically analyse it are rare. Secondly, studies of transnationalism have almost exclusively focused on international migrants, thus neglecting the case of individuals who have not moved to live elsewhere, or do not have migration experience, but may also be implicated in transnational social spaces. Detailed research is urgently needed to address the problem of how to theoretically and practically explain the process by which transnational social spaces are (re)created, maintained (or given up) and given meaning by everyday cross-border actions.

This research project aims to advance our scientific understanding by developing, applying and assessing a conceptual model that allows deep insight into the processes of emergence, maintenance and evolution of transnational social spaces. The empirical research approach is based on the following two arguments. First, we think it important to start the empirical enquiry with the actual experiences of individuals rather than from pre-defined notions of scale. Second, we believe that to gain deep understanding of the process(es) by which transnational social spaces are (re)created, maintained (or given up) and given meaning, we need to address the interplay between social/physical structure and human agency. Thus, this project embraces the following five dimensions of analysis which encompass one or more aspects of social/physical structure and human agency: (1) materiality: spatial distance and geographical location; (2) the social position and social roles of individuals; (3) the policies and state regulations of specific national contexts; (4) the social networks and social practices of individuals; and (5) the spatial representations of individuals.
In order to empirically address the role of migration experience, geographical distance and state regulations in shaping different types of transnational social spaces, we will examine three case studies (all residents of Switzerland): first-generation Colombians/Ecuadorians; second-generation Spaniards; and Swiss individuals without migration experience. Within each group, individuals will be differentiated by age, gender and professional occupation. The planned research methods are qualitative and include visual methods, multi-sited interviewing (narrative-, network- and semi-structured interviews), multi-sited field observations, and policy analysis. Statistical analysis of census data will complement the qualitative study.


Financed by:
the Swiss National Science Foundation (Division I)