Primer: Transnational Mobility and State Formation
Modern nation-states and transnational mobility – the movement of people, things, and ideas across borders – are two important subjects for historians to study. They are two fundamental features of the modern world and have influenced one another constantly over the last several centuries. In this essay, Kyle Harvey discusses how historians have examined the two by showing how transnational mobility has both supported and challenged states and their claims to power.
Modern nation-states owe their existence to transnational mobility. To use John Torpey’s words, the modern state has been defined by its attempts at the “monopolization of the legitimate means of movement.” At the most general level, modern nation-states have strengthened themselves by responding to a globalizing world and the transnational mobility accompanying it. The border-crossing mobility that has made up this globalizing world includes people, diseases, animals, plants, commodities, ideas, information, capital, and transportation technologies. Over the last several centuries, nation-states have tried to permit, encourage, prevent, and generally condition mobility across borders. The result has been the development of laws, technologies, and ideologies devoted to supporting nation-states’ projects to control mobility across their borders.
One intersection between nation-states and mobility has been transnational labor migrations. In the nineteenth century, nation-states increasingly liberalized commerce and the movement of laborers across borders. In the eyes of many states, however, one problem was that constantly changing populations threatened social stability and thus state authority. As a result, nation-states had to find ways to control the comings and goings of people across their borders. One way was the development of documents to keep track of and condition labor mobility. According to Torpey in his history of the passport, the document was transformed in the late nineteenth century in the context of both restricting and promoting transnational migrations. In the United States, for example, the government created documents for Chinese immigrants who arrived before the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as a way to distinguish them from any new arrivals and thus enforce the law. Elsewhere, nation-states in the nineteenth century created laws and institutions to protect and support nationals abroad. After World War I, governments created new laws to restrict immigration, justified through ideas of public order and stability. They also created new institutions to enforce those restrictions, such as the U.S. Border Patrol, which still exists today.1
This conflict between transnational migrations and the state can also be observed in the challenges to and strengthening of social hierarchies. The mobility of people across borders has shaped and been shaped by state-backed social hierarchies of race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. Examples like the Chinese Exclusion Act in the U.S. and the privileging of white immigrants in places like Argentina illustrate how the construction of global, institutional racism has intersected with mobility of migrant laborers. Any understanding of the transnational mobility of labor must also include the mobility of coerced and semi-coerced labor. Enslavement, blackbirding, coolie labor, and other forms of human trafficking involved the movement of not just people across borders, but also institutions of labor control. Underpinning them were systems of racial and ethnic classification, which also migrated across the world. Additionally, the transnational mobility of people has been heavily gendered, as expectations about who has been allowed to move has intersected with gender norms and assumptions. Lastly, it is important to point out that the creation of social hierarchies happens in specific places. For example, as Ana María Alonso reminds us, ethnicities and nationalities are social constructs. These categories are connected deeply to places, including those of transnational mobility, such as border spaces, where they are most observably made and challenged.2
Non-humans – such as diseases, animals, and plants – have increasingly become the subjects of histories of transnational mobility and state formation. Important to these histories is how non-humans have tended to ignore borders and disrupt states’ ideas of order. Diseases, for example, have flowed across borders increasingly in the modern period to affect state formation. Diseases like cholera in the nineteenth century were significant concerns of nation-states, leading to attempts to quarantine ports of entry while still maintaining systems of global trade. Other non-humans, such as animals and plants, have moved across borders to impact state formation by encouraging state policy and resources toward environmental management. Not only has non-human mobility impacted state formation, but also laid the foundations for states in the first place. For example, Alfred Crosby’s idea of “ecological imperialism” conceives of the European colonization of the Americas (and elsewhere) as an ecological transformation. It was the mobility of non-humans across borders and oceans that made this ecological transformation possible as livestock, plants, and diseases changed parts of the environments of the Americas and made them more ‘European.’3
Perhaps most visible in the modern era has been the impact that the transnational mobility of ideas has had on states. Related to the management of the environment, the transnational circulation of experts and expertise has been central to the development of states, such as modernist technocratic governance in the twentieth century. Of course, transnational mobility of ideas not only has been in the service of states, but also has threatened them. For example, subversive and revolutionary ideas since the eighteenth century have circulated throughout the world, constantly threatening the stability of the modern global system. For example, news of and ideas from the Haitian Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries influenced concerns about and the building up of racial hierarchies by states throughout the Americas.
The traces of transnational mobility’s and state formation’s intersection show up in the material world: customs houses; ports; international canals and railroads; border barriers and surveillance technologies; underwater telegraph cables; and fiberoptic networks. These infrastructural feats have become monuments to the modern period. They have facilitated and controlled the transnational mobility of people, goods, information, and financial resources. For the most part, nation-states took on the task of building and maintaining these infrastructures, often in partnership with private capital. As transnational mobility increased those infrastructure projects proliferated, strengthening nation-states in the physical world along the way.
In sum, transnational mobility has been foundational to the creation of modern nation-states. Even when transnational mobility has challenged nation-states and their claims to power the result has been the expansion of state power in most cases.
1 For these examples, John Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State, 2nd edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 118–150.
2Ana María Alonso, “The Politics of Space, Time and Substance: State Formation, Nationalism and Ethnicity,” Annual Review of Anthropology v. 23 (1994), pp. 382–383, 391, 400.
3 Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, 2nd edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 7.
Chilean Consul Writes of Immigrants Needing Assistance, 1864
Found in the National Archive of Chile, this is a letter from José de la Cruz Zenteno, the Chilean consul in Mendoza, Argentina to the Minister of Foreign Relations in Chile. Mendoza was and is a province that borders Chile. In the 1860s when the letter was written, state institutions in Argentina and Chile were undergoing significant changes and Chilean migration to Argentina was increasing. In this letter, he refers to Chilean immigrants asking for alms and help from the consulate in the years after the 1861 earthquake in Mendoza that destroyed significant portions of the city. This letter and another from Zenteno show how transnational migrations impacted Chilean state formation, through institutions like the consulate, and state formation at a provincial level in Mendoza, Argentina.
This source is part of the transnational mobility and state formation methods primer.
Chilean Consul Writes of Immigrants Seeking to Avoid Military Service, 1865
This document is a portion of a letter, written by José de la Cruz Zenteno, the Chilean consul in Mendoza, Argentina to the Minister of Foreign Relations in Chile is from the National Archive of Chile. Mendoza was and is an Argentinian province that borders Chile. In the 1860s when the letter was written, state institutions in Argentina and Chile were undergoing significant changes and Chilean migration to Argentina was increasing. In this document, Zenteno talks of Chileans relying on the consulate to get out of military service at the onset of the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) involving Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. This letter and another from Zenteno show how transnational migrations impacted Chilean state formation, through institutions like the consulate, and state formation at a provincial level in Mendoza, Argentina. These migrants often challenged the provincial government’s authority over labor migrants by using the Chilean consulate as protection.
This source is part of the transnational mobility and state formation methods primer.
Alonso, Ana María. “The Politics of Space, Time and Substance: State Formation, Nationalism and Ethnicity.” Annual Review of Anthropology v. 23 (1994), pp. 379-405.
Chastain, Andra B. and Timothy W. Lorek. Itineraries of Expertise: Science, Technology, and the Environment in Latin America’s Long Cold War. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020.
Crawford, Sharika D. The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, 2nd edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Savala, Joshua. Beyond Patriotic Phobias: Connections, Cooperation, and Solidarity in the Peruvian-Chilean Pacific World. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2022.
Scott, Julius S. The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. London: Verso, 2018.
Sell, Zach. Trouble of the World: Slavery and Empire in the Age of Capital. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2021
Torpey, John C. The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2000
Kyle E. Harvey is a historian of Latin America who teaches at Western Carolina University. His current research focuses on transnational and borderland spaces through the lenses of mobility, social history, technology, and geography. He has published in the Journal of Latin American Studies and Historia Crítica, and is completing a book on a transnational borderland between Argentina and Chile in the mid-nineteenth century.