The Transnationalism of the Immobile

Among the many biases crippling migration studies, one of the most common is the ‘mobility bias’. This, as theorized by Kerilyn Schewel in a seminal article published in 2020, refers to the disregard of immobility dynamics, including the drivers, aspirations and capabilities to stay. The ‘mobility bias’ not only sends immobility processes to the background, but it also obscures the important role that non-migrants play in migration. This is also the case in transnational migration studies: While scholars have traditionally focused on the socioeconomic, sociocultural and political adaptation opportunities that transnationalism offers to international migrants, non-migrants have been treated as passive receptors of transnational connections (Carling 2008). Efforts to change this and more comprehensively include non-migrants in transnational studies have, however, been made (see the calls of Boccagni 2012 and Lacroix 2009), and empirical studies on the matter have gained momentum. These studies focus, to a great extent, on second-generation migrants (Shahrokni 2019; Wessendorf 2007) and non-migrants with migratory family members (Bastia 2009; Graham et al. 2012; Hoang et al. 2015). How individuals without migratory connections engage with transnational social fields is however still a subject of research. Especially for those aspiring to migrate but that stay put in place, considering that aspirations to stay, return or move (onwards) shape transnational orientations (van Meeteren 2012; Dimitriadis 2020).

Expanding transnationalism in its extension of the actors can be useful to incorporate non-migrants more comprehensively to this subfield. Given that transnational social fields are characterized by the exchange, transformation and organization of ideas, resources, and practices (Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004), individuals can reconceptualize their relationship to social spaces and envision possibilities across borders (Bauböck 2003; Gargano 2009). Zelinsky (1971) already argued that the intensification of cross-border information flows triggered ‘the mobilities of the mind’, which refers to changes in the personal perception of time and geography, among other phenomena. This relates to the emergence of the ‘new mobilities’ paradigm and to new forms of movement, including ‘virtual’ or ‘imaginative’ travel (Sheller and Urry 2006). Little attention has been paid, nevertheless, to how aspiring migrants might adapt by mobilizing foreign information flows – such as international cultural products –, or through the imagination to feel ‘there’ while remaining ‘here’ (see Bissell 2007; Cangià and Zittoun 2020; Salazar 2011) and how this might create transnational ties.

While it is important to maintain a tight definition of transnationalism to avoid watering-down and stretching the concept beyond usefulness[1], in my doctoral research I found that the immobile can, on their own, actively create and sustain transnational ties over time. Indeed, those that aspire but have not yet migrated reinforce their imaginations, aspirations, and mobility plans through transnationalism, experiencing migration vicariously. This is also when they have no previous migration experience or when they do not possess migration connections. I call these the ‘transimmobile’. Transimmobility can be experienced in several manners by joining spaces associated with ‘foreigners’, ‘migration’ and the ‘experience abroad’, thinking and planning mobility, and reminiscing about past holiday travels. For instance, Carmen and Maria, two young adults with strong migration aspirations but limited resources to fulfill these, have incorporated YouTube clips to their daily routines as they watch the life of others abroad to experience movement virtually. Julia, a frustrated globetrotter who left her migration aspirations aside due to family responsibilities, thinks about and plans her vacations throughout the year to feel connected with places outside ‘home’. Researching different destinations, and delving into blogposts, documentaries, and books to get familiar with the local culture means that, while remaining physically in place, it is possible to imagine oneself in constant movement and to reside in different destinations at once.

Therefore, transnational spaces consists of individuals whose identities and daily lives are heavily influenced by transnationalism, be they migrants or non-migrants. Examining the practices and activities of those without migratory connections might provide new avenues to explore who can initiate and sustain transnational spaces between societies, and how globalization and cosmopolitanism encourage the transnationalism of the immobile.


Naiara Rodriguez-Pena is affiliated with the University of Business Innovation and Sustainability in Geneva, Switzerland.

This post is based on her doctoral dissertation entitled “Emigration from ‘Destination’: The Unfulfilled Migration Aspirations of the Precariat in the ‘Global North’”. The abstract of the dissertation can be found here:

Naiara Rodriguez-Pena won the Rinus Penninx Best Paper Award in 2023 and was previously a PhD representative of the IMISCOE SC on ‘Migrant Transnationalism’. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.





[1] Portes et al.'s (1999, 219) definition as "requir[ing] regular and sustained social contacts over time across national borders" might provide light to this matter.



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