A Review of The Transnational Villagers

by | Nov 14, 2001

The Transnational Villagers by Peggy Levitt

It is commonplace today to speak of the “Global Village”. The growth of technology such as the Internet, cheap international phone service, faxes and satellite television shrink the distance between any two points on the globe so that it becomes feasible to think about the option of living simultaneously in two societies. But is such a thing really possible? How do ordinary people go back and forth between a developed country like the United States and a small village in a poor country such as the Dominican Republic? How are the lives of people who remain behind in the sending village changed by the fact that so many of their relatives, friends, and neighbors have immigrated? How do institutions bridge the two societies? And what are the mechanisms by which such massive immigration causes social change at the individual and community level? Through exhaustive field work in Miraflores, a sending community in the Dominican Republic, and the receiving community in Boston’s neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, Wellesley sociology professor Peggy Levitt answers these and other questions about the lived reality of transnational migration and the ways in which it transforms both societies.

Levitt, who is an affiliate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, studies the institutional and interpersonal links between the two communities. Beginning in the late 1960s people left Miraflores to work in greater Boston. By the time Levitt began her fieldwork in the early 1990s, two thirds of the families in the town had relatives in greater Boston. Levitt studies both the migrants in Boston, the relatives and neighbors back in Miraflores and the organizations that span the two localities. She argues that the movement of people back and forth, and perhaps more importantly, the transnational linkages and movement of ideas, money, influence and information creates a situation that profoundly changes both environments and the people within them. It is as if village life takes place in two settings, she argues.

Levitt describes the changes in everyday life for ordinary people both migrants who must come to terms with life in the United States, and those in Miraflores who do not immigrate, but whose world is transformed through contact with return migrants, and through the flow of both economic and social remittances. Economic remittances sustain families and increase the material level of well being in the village. Practically every home in Miraflores has a VCR or television or compact disk player, supplied by relatives in the Boston area. Yet such economic remittances also affect the social status hierarchy in the town, changing the value of land as migrants buy dream houses they may never return to live in, and creating ever greater desires for immigration to meet the growing cash needs of those dependent on material goods from far away.

The book provides not only an empathetic and rich account of village life and the lives of ordinary migrants, but also makes a major original contribution to social scientists’ understanding of migration and the diffusion of global culture. Levitt introduces the concept of “social remittances” the ideas, behaviors, identities and social capital that flow from host to sending countries. This new theoretical concept is enormously helpful in understanding the ripple effects of migration. Thus, Dominicans who have never set foot in the United States are influenced by concepts of gender equality, racial politics and identities, and political practices that migrants describe on return visits, through letters and phone calls, or merely through modeling behaviors that are new and unsettling. For instance, Levitt demonstrates not only how marriages are transformed in the United States through women’s employment in paid labor, men’s active participation in household chores and child rearing, and the influence of the American norms of more shared decision making in household matters, but also how marriages in Miraflores are also challenged and changed through the growing knowledge there that in the U.S. things are different, and that it is possible to imagine new ways of managing gender relations.

“Transnationalism” has been a buzzword in the social sciences for a decade or so now, but this painstaking research on both sides of the border and the creative and sophisticated model of how such changes actually unfold will surely move this entire field forward in exciting directions. Transnational Villagers focuses on religion, electoral politics, and community development organizations that simultaneously operate in Miraflores and in Boston. This dual focus on individuals and organizations underlines the connections between the two places and begins to answer some of the tough questions about what transnationalism really means.

Finally, this book is also a contribution to the field of immigration studies. It provides a new way of thinking about how assimilation will work in the 21st Century. Levitt argues forcefully and convincingly that it is wrong to pit transnational ties against assimilation. Indeed ongoing transnational practices that link migrants to their sending communities are not antithetical to assimilation and full incorporation into American society and politics. The two are not only not incompatible, but perhaps they are the ways in which migrants will become Americans in the future.

Spring/Summer 2001

 

Mary Waters is professor of sociology and Harvard College Professor at Harvard University. She has written extensively on race and ethnic identity and immigration issues. Her most recent book is Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities (Harvard University Press, 1999).

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