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Territory and Translocality: Discrepant Idioms of Political Identity

Dr. Peter G. Mandaville

University of Kent at Canterbury

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000

The conventional statist notion of political identity is founded upon a presumption of equivalence between the locatedness of people in territory and the nature/limits of the political practices in which they engage. In short, it is an account which suggests that where you are tells us something about who (politically) you are. But what happens when this equation is problematised by forces operating both within and across territorially-bounded apparatuses of governance? By ‘within,’ I am referring to various social movements and grass-roots political practices which challenge the state’s totalisation of political normativity (i.e. the idea that politics needs or ought to be done in a particular way). Likewise, my reference to forces operating ‘across’ the state seeks to identify forms of transnational practice which disrupt statist delineations of inside/outside or which enact political and economic forms that transcend the borders of state territory.

My starting point, then, is a recognition that politics may still often be about territory, but also a strong conviction that we need to investigate the possibility that the very nature of political territoriality may be undergoing certain transformations. Is it, as many have claimed, that the focus of peoples’ political claims has changed (i.e. moved beyond territory), or are we actually experiencing shifts in the way people understand territoriality? I would suggest the latter. It seems far too easy to simply argue that we need to now (quickly) move beyond territory because people supposedly understand their political identities in extra-territorial ways. Rather, I think we need to examine the possibility that people are actually holding on to notions of territority and place — increasingly complex yet highly tangible senses of ‘here’ and ‘there’ — but are also understanding the nature and, in particular, the boundaries of territory (as well as their socio-political relationships within and across these boundaries) somewhat differently. Increasingly today, identity and place travel together. It is this fact which leads me to locate a better understanding of the linkage between territory and political identity in the concept of translocality, a trope borrowed from the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. 1 For Appadurai the notion of translocality is indicative of a shift in the relationship between territory, identity and political affiliation. He uses the term in reference to various processes — such as transnational labour migration and diasporic community-building — in which the locatedness or territorial anchors of identity and community are problematised by modes of practice which effectively reconstitute these communities (and their politics) in locales beyond the boundaries of fixed territory: hence translocality. We should note that it is not being claimed here that translocal phenomenon are particularly de nouveau; people and communities have obviously been moving and reconfiguring themselves across geographical space since time immemorial. Rather, I wish to argue that with the emergence of various new technologies of travel and communication, translocality can be understood to have entered a new phase. Also rather telling is the fact that while translocal processes are nothing new, international relations (IR) as a disciplinary project has failed to take account of the implications for the relationship between political identity and territoriality suggested by translocality. Rather, IR has stuck to a fairly limited conception of what and where ‘meaningful’ politics take place. This is a point to which I shall return shortly.

Returning to the specific purposes of this study, I prefer to speak of translocal politics rather than, for example, ‘transnational’ politics in order to make the point that it is often the hegemony of the territorially cohesive nation-state which is challenged by these politics. These are people and processes which do more than operate across or between the boundaries and borders of nations; rather, they actively question the nature and limits of these boundaries by practising forms of political identity which, while located in geographical space, do not depend on the limits of territory to define the limits of their politics. As Appadurai puts it, "For many national citizens, the practicalities of residence and the ideologies of home, soil and roots are often disjunct, so that the territorial referents of civic loyalty are increasingly divided for many persons among difference spatial horizons: work loyalties, residential loyalities, and religious loyalties may create disjunct registers of affiliation." 2 Thus locality, in the sense of a locatedness within geographical space, is still crucial for understanding the forms and meanings of political identity — hence my emphasis on translocality. This trend suggests, however, that territory in its classic sense — which I understand as a sphere delimited by the exclusive jurisdiction of a particular political hegemony — may no longer constitute the primary space of the political.

The account I offer below suggests that the peoples who constitute the various communities and social movements living within and across state boundaries are being particularly creative in how they deploy this politics of (shifting) spatiality within their daily lives, their respective struggles and — of particular import to us — the ways in which they ‘relate internationally.’ An analysis of this sort is significant for international studies insofar as it calls into question much more than just the statist ontology at the foundation of classical (and neo-realist) IR. It is significant because it also — and, I think, more crucially — forces us to reconsider the nature of the political within what we call IR. In other words, the trajectory of this critique leads not simply to yet another appeal for greater plurality in international relations (i.e. the argument that we need to account for an ever increasing number of international political actors and processes), but rather it leads us to ask questions about what actually constitutes the political (both in terms of theory and practice) at a time when the territories and identities of IR are on the move. I begin with a brief exposition of IR’s conventional theorisation of the relationship between territory and political identity, derived from the core principles of citizenship, the ethics of rights-holding and state sovereignty. In the subsequent section I go on to look at some of the ways in which these precepts are challenged by various transformations in the structure and practice of political community in IR, as well as the contributions of a bourgeoning critical scholarship which questions IR’s traditional conceptualisation of the nature and location of the political. Identifying three exemplary modes of translocal practice — diasporic communities, borderzone identities and spiritualist movements — I then seek to demonstrate how these practices force us to rethink and reformulate the relationship between territory and political identity. I conclude with some suggestions as to how IR might better reorient the trajectory of its analysis in order to account for translocal politics.


International Relations: a limited political imagination?

The majority of international relations theory is effectively blind to a great deal of political activity in the world today. The purpose of this first section is to explain why this is so and also to argue that IR's limited imagination of the political prohibits its appreciation of important new forms of 'international' politics located within and across the traditional realm of state-delineated territories. My major complaint about dominant theories of international relations such as neo-realism is that they persist in working with a relatively unproblematised understanding of the state despite recent transformations affecting the categories and concepts through which we understand the relationship between community, identity and territory. Where these transformations are recognised, they tend to be marginalised in favour of an image of IR which reproduces political realism's 'timeless wisdom.' More specifically, traditional modes of theorising IR see the nation-state as the focal point of international politics and, indeed, operate with an understanding of the political as something which only legitimately emanates from the state. In doing so, however, realism and its more recent incarnations effectively ignore the fact that there are many other layers and spaces of politics.

This is particularly unfortunate insofar as intuitively one might think that IR has a particularly important role to play in accounting for shifting idioms of political community at the global level. As Yosef Lapid puts it:

[A]s an "inter-" type discipline long dominated by political realism, the IR field should have been doubly well prepared to deal with issues of diversity. Instead, recent events have rendered apparent IR's inability to encompass vastly accelerated and co-occurring dynamics of integration and disintegration at both sub- and supra-state levels. It seems as if IR's fascination with sovereign statehood has greatly decreased its ability to confront complex issues of ethnic nationhood and political otherhood. 3

Injunctions to critique IR's state-centric nature are, of course, nothing new. Realism has had its vociferous critics for many years. 4 Other normative visions, from Burton's 'world society' to the World Order Models Project (WOMP) have been voiced. 5 Theorists of complex interdependence have sought to downplay state hegemony. 6 Indeed, many IR theorists today would insist that we have moved beyond our obsession with the state, citing important work being done in areas such as gender, ecology and international political economy in which the state, when present, tends to play the antagonist — that which must be vanquished. The spectre of the state, however, is — as Lapid points out — still very much with us. In short, it is still expected that IR should be able to account for conventional interstate politics. And for good reason. The state is a very important actor in world politics; one would, I think, be foolish to claim otherwise at the present time. My argument, however, is not simply that we need to ask questions about the existence of other actors in world politics (for I take this as given), but rather that we need to ask questions about the nature and location of the political within what we understand as world politics. By this I mean that theories of international relations have tended to assume that "proper" politics is something involving particular forms of decision-making by particular actors within specific institutional spaces (e.g. diplomats voting on trade agreements in the GATT). I do not deny that these are important aspects of world politics. However, there are other forms of world politics to which IR theory is effectively blind because it has only been taught to recognise a limited range of shapes and colours as political. In this sense, the question of what IR can and cannot "see" is central to this study. This line of inquiry becomes all the more important when we begin to realise that the world is undergoing transformations which threaten further alienation in the relationship between world politics and the ways we think about the nature and location of the political.

IR’s classic formulation of the relationship between territory and political identity can be found primarily in the concepts of citizenship and sovereignty. Citizenship provides a framework for political identity, usually envisaged as a mutually constitutive package of rights and obligations defining the legal parameters of the ethical self affiliated to a particular state apparatus. Closely related is the principle of sovereignty within which lies the state’s claim to territorial integrity and jurisdiction over all those inside this territory, i.e. its citizens (and increasingly today a whole host of ‘guests’ who — depending on the nature of their political identities and territories of origin — enjoy widely varying degrees of hospitality). The citizen is hence intrinsically linked to the state insofar as it is only the state which can bestow this status upon an individual. This traditional model is currently under strain due to a number of forces. One is an increasingly global market which does not respect state borders. Multinational corporations, for example, are able to identify and recruit labour from beyond the borders of the state in which their operations are based, yet there is no guarantee that the relevant state will allow 'non-citizens' to participate in its labour market. This phenomenon is prevalent from one end of the employment spectrum to the other, from the 'illegal' Mexican migrant worker in the United States to the information technology specialist in Southeast Asia. The point I want to draw from this is the fact that increasingly today there is a disjuncture between one's legal identity as citizen of a territorial state and one's political identity as an actor in the public sphere. Benedict Anderson makes the point well when he alludes to the 'counterfeit' quality of passports:

[I]n our age, when everyone is supposed to belong to some one of the United Nations, these documents have high truth claims. But they are also counterfeit in the sense that they are less and less attestations of citizenship, let alone of loyalty to a protective nation-state, than of claims to participate in labor markets. Portuguese and Bangladeshi passports, even when genuine, tell us little about loyalty or habitus, but they tell us a great deal about the relative likelihood of their holders being permitted to seek jobs in Milan or Copenhagen. The segregated queues that all of us experience at airport immigration barricades mark economic status far more than any political attachments. 7

Traditional conceptions of citizenship are also facing other threats. Experiments with 'supra-national' — and again, it would be more accurate to say 'supra-state' — forms of political community, such as the European Union, are forcing us to rethink citizenship's exclusive relationship with the territorial nation-state. Some theorists have started to work towards envisaging more inclusive forms of citizenship whose criteria for membership are not limited by the spatial extension of the modern state. 8 Particularly important in the present context is the fact that citizenship, at least in its liberal variants, has always implied an implicit universalism — i.e. an assumption that the same rights and obligations should and do apply to all peoples. There is a sense in which this apparent inclusivity is highly democratic. However, there is also a sense in which such 'universalism' can be read as a form of exclusion which, by its assumption of homogeneity, negates difference. This aspect of citizenship was first queried by feminist writers who noticed that the classic conception of the citizen tended to refer to white, property-owning men. 9 Their argument was that citizenship requires the capacity to account and provide for the needs of specific identities. Because the nation-state is based on this more traditional conception of the citizen, its integrity is challenged by those groups — genders, sexualities, religions, ethnicities — seeking to devise idioms of citizenship whose inclusivity is not premised on a particular preconception of the territorially-bound citizen subject. Like citizenship, the territorial nature of state sovereignty is currently facing a host of challenges. Borders have been rendered more permeable by non-corporeal expressions of political agency (e.g. satellite television and computer-mediated communication); multinational corporations are increasingly taking on competences usually seen to fall within the remit of the state (e.g. hiring armies); and people live their lives across and between territories rather than within the 'little boxes' of "official" state space. "As fissures emerge among local, translocal, and national space," writes Appadurai, "territory as the ground of loyalty and national affect is increasingly divorced from territory as the site of sovereignty and state control…" 10


Problematising the political in International Relations

What we end up with, then, is a situation in which the classic formulation of the territorial citizen — the sine qua non of political identity in traditional IR — is rendered problematic by a wide range of transformations in the structure of international practice, and by the emergence of translocal practices which escape the grasp of mainstream IR. The discipline has not, however, been completely blind to the sorts of challenges and transformations mentioned above. Various figures within its mainstream have offered theories, models and explanations of these changes. John Ruggie, for example, presents an historical sociology of bounded political space in order to ask whether we might now be moving "beyond territoriality," 11 while James Rosenau describes these developments as forms of "turbulence in world politics." 12 Although these theorists have made significant contributions to this discourse, there is still a sense in which their work fails to engage with the problematic of the political per se. What I mean by this is that they seem to work with an unproblematised notion of what (and where) politics is. Rather than seeking to understand how we have come to associate politics with a limited range of activity within a specific location — and by so doing to "de-naturalise" the territorial basis of the state — Ruggie and Rosenau do not move much beyond questioning how current dynamics might effect the territorial state; therefore they also do not question whether territoriality is the best point of departure from which to understand the political.

Other theorists have been more radical in their analyses. These writers have been contributing to a rapidly growing literature on critical international theory. 13 Borrowing from Habermasian sociology, for example, Andrew Linklater is engaged in a normative project which seeks to map the contours of what he terms a 'post-Westphalian order.' 14 Linklater focuses on the question of citizenship and asserts the need to uncouple this category from those of sovereignty, nationality and territoriality. "The practical task," he argues, "is to envisage forms of citizenship which are appropriate to the post-Westphalian condition of multiple political authorities and allegiances." 15 To this end, he examines new categories of transnational and cosmopolitan citizenship. Modifying citizenship means more than simply loosening the parameters of the term; rather it requires a reconceptualisation of what it means to be a citizen. Given the increasing plurality of political authorities to which Linklater refers, the question surfaces as to what exactly one is a citizen of. Where before the term tended to bear a connotation of monism (i.e. one's affiliation was to a single state) the new global market for political loyalties is such that it becomes increasingly difficult to think of citizenship in such exclusionary terms. Linklater's understanding of political community is also crucially linked to moral boundaries. Indeed, his vision of politics relates to the boundaries of particular ethical practices. In this regard, his analysis of the post-Westphalian order considers the ways in which the sites and institutions of ethical political practice and accountability (i.e. states) are changing. He has an interest in experiments with supra-national political forms — and the European Union in particular. However, while Linklater does have important things to say about the future of political identity qua citizenship, he concentrates primarily on transformations taking place within conventional political spaces (states) and does not give much attention to the plethora of alternative sites — often informal and uninstitutionalised — which are rapidly becoming important loci of political loyalty and activity. I am not seeking to characterise Linklater's work as somehow 'conservative,' nor am I accusing him of not going far enough. I believe his project to be immensely valuable in itself, but would like to suggest that a better understanding can accrue by combining it with an examination of alternative spaces and notions of the political.

If we turn, however, to the work of a writer such as Warren Magnusson, we begin to find a nascent (albeit under-substantiated) vocabulary for theorising identity and community beyond bounded political territory. Magnusson, another representative of the critical turn in IR theory, asks us to look at what goes on in the 'gaps' between territorially-bounded societies and states. In doing so, he seeks to identify forms of "global popular politics," or what I would want to see as alternative forms of political community:

My claim [writes Magnusson] is that popular politics occurs at the juncture of localities and movements, and that state-centric theories conceal the character of politics by reifying localities and movements as dimensions of the state or of prepolitical civil society…Mine is a worm's-eye view, which focuses on realities at the margin between "the state" and "civil society," or between formalized politics and social actions. At first sight, these realities seem far removed from international relations, but in fact they are the presence of popular politics in the global domain. 16

In his reading, many contemporary political scientists and sociologists still see society as an entity defined in relation to the territorial state, and politics as a process of government which links civil society to the state — and certainly only within the state. In this regard, both disciplines tend to ignore political processes which do not fit into a cybernetic dynamic of state-civil society relations. 17 Magnusson's dissatisfaction with conventional idioms of the political also leads him to consider the role of social and grass-roots movements vis à vis the international system of sovereign states. He makes the important point that social movements tend to be considered political only when they become institutionalised — that is, when pinned down and made to wear the garb of proper (territorial) politics. "This suggests that the collective activities of ordinary people, in working out new understandings of themselves and bringing those understandings into the world, are themselves prepolitical. Thus, the creative social activity in which ordinary people are most likely to be engaged appears beyond or outside politics." 18 He goes on to argue that this distorted view of social movements arises from IR’s limited vision — a political imagination constrained by state-centric conceptions of what it means to act politically. "If we begin with popular political activity," he argues, "rather than from the enclosure imposed upon it, another dimension of reality emerges." 19 That is, if we are willing to understand forms of political identity as responses to contingencies found in particular spaces and times (i.e. locales) rather than as the function (and form) of a specific and exclusionary form of territorial jurisdiction, a much richer picture of political life can accrue. Magnusson hence sees something like popular social movements as the cutting edge of a creative politics embedded in the minutiae of daily life, and emphasises the important role of localities in providing a socio-cultural context for the elaboration of popular politics:

Localities are the venues for such politics. They are the places where the various practices of domination meet with the practices of political resistance and invention. Politics as a creative popular activity thus occurs at the junctures of localities and movements. These junctures are obscured by the reification of political community as the state and political theory as the theory of the state. To focus on these junctures is to open two analytic dimensions: first, locality as the place where movements arise and where they meet; and, second, movement as a mode of action that redefines political community, and hence connects localities to one another. In exploring these dimensions, we become acutely conscious of the fact that the state never fully contains the everyday experience of politics or political community. 20

It is the fusion of locality and movement that constitutes what I want to call translocality in the context of IR. My claim, in short, is that these interstices, junctures and 'gaps' (i.e. spaces between and across territorially bounded communities) are replete with people ‘relating internationally’ but not in ways which International Relations, conventionally understood, would recognise. Because the state never fully contains the everyday experience of politics or political community, traditional IR theory fails to account for a great deal of political activity. As the relationship between political identity and those categories closely associated with the state (e.g. citizenship and nationality) becomes increasingly tenuous, the conceptual language with which we read and write political identity requires rethinking such that translocality and its associated practices become an integral component of IR’s conceptualisation of the political.

In the preceding two sections I have argued that the state-centric nature of traditional IR theory has blinded it to any political form which does not conform to the requirements of political science qua a science of the territorial state. Even those theorists who do take account of "alternative" actors in international relations still tend to use the state as a benchmark by which to evaluate the efficacy of these politics. I have also argued that certain trends in critical IR theory offer potent analyses of the discipline's failings in this regard. Writers like Warren Magnusson, but also figures such as Rob Walker, Cynthia Weber, Michael Shapiro, Christine Sylvester and David Campbell have all challenged the foundations upon which IR constitutes politics and political identity, and have begun to investigate forms of "post-Westphalian," "post-national," or "post-international" politics. One of the most sustained attempts to rethink the political in International Relations has come from feminist writers. Cynthia Enloe and Christine Sylvester, for example, have both been arguing for several years now that we need to pay more attention to and appreciate the important political function of locations such as factories, rural collectives and border crossings. 21

Discrepant Practices of Territory and Identity

Now that we have explored some of the conceptual dimensions of politics within and across the territories of states, I want to go on to highlight several examples of their contemporary practice and — more specifically — to demonstrate why these various forms of translocal politics are salient within the context of IR.

Before proceeding to look at specific cases, some general remarks on the enabling conditions of these practices are warranted. There is a strong sense in which many of the translocal practices highlighted below, while not actually caused by, are nevertheless heavily implicated in various large-scale transformations in the organisation of society, politics and economy. I have in mind here changes in the global division of labour and the spatial organisation of capital, (often closely related) phenomenal increases in the translocal movement of peoples, the emergence of new varieties of social movements, experiments with supra-national political forms, the rise of global and migratory cities and rapid developments in the proliferation and capacities of communications and information technologies. While these sorts of transformations are often analysed under the rubric of 'globalisation,' this term has, I believe, acquired so much ideological and sensationalist baggage in recent years as to become almost analytically meaningless. Some of the dynamics I have in mind are often much less than global in scope; indeed, many of them are better understood as particularly 'local' phenomenon albeit ones which sometimes operate across vast distances — hence my emphasis on the notion of translocality. So while I may appear to be referring at times to features of what is commonly called ‘globalisation,’ I am not convinced that the practices I associate with these transformations actually pertain to 'the globe' as a single space. Rather, I am seeking to understand the ways in which changes in how we and our identities interact between and across territorial spaces (often separated by great distances) constitute new locations for the construction of political identity and also new spaces of political discourse. Thus I am primarily interested in two sorts of transformation. One concerns changes to the ways in which social relations exist in space (more specifically, the reconfiguration of how people conceive of 'heres' and 'theres'), while the other pertains to alterations in our understanding and constitution of political identity. There is, however, a motif which runs through the dynamics of both these aspects, that of movement. On the one hand I am interested in how movement creates new political space, and on the other in those sites (and sorts) of politics which travel. By the latter I mean the ways in which competing identity and ethical claims are transformed as they move within and across territories, all the while challenging the logic of bounded community.

In terms of contemporary intra- and post-statist politics, I want to point to three broad categories of practice: diasporic communities, borderzone identities and spiritualist movements. This topology is by no means exhaustive, nor does it succeed in capturing many of the nuances present in these discrepant visions of community and identity. Rather, I am seeking here only to provide something like a snapshot image of translocal ‘forms of life’ which problematise the hegemony of territorial politics.

Diasporic Communities

Diasporic communities, eminently translocal in nature, practice forms of political identity which clearly incorporate multiple sites of affiliation. In such communities we find evidence of the fact that one cannot so easily map peoples and cultures today by reference to static, territorially-bounded localities. As people move, the meaning of locality can itself shift such that it comes to refer to more than just a geographic notion of ‘here.’ Identity and place, as indicated in my introduction, increasingly travel together. Uprooted and diasporic cultures forge ‘homes away from home,’ and hence the imagination of new ‘distanciated’ (to borrow a term from Anthony Giddens) communities means that ‘the local’ can spread itself across and between bounded spaces. The community, removed from its ‘originary’ territory, reconstitutes itself in diaspora by reproducing (and, inevitably, reformulating) identity practices which invoke its affiliation to other locales: the complex politics of a simultaneous here and there.

Sensing the importance of this translocal dynamic, the anthropologist Karen Fog Olwig argues that "important frameworks of life and sources of identification sought in the cultural sites which have emerged in the interstices between local and global conditions of life." 22 Her work on the people of the West Indian island of Nevis is a prime example of how ethnography necessarily becomes a translocal activity today. In order to gain a better picture of contemporary Nevisian life, Olwig found that she had to carry out her fieldwork in four separate ‘fields’: Nevis itself; New Haven, Connecticut, a key destination of early twentieth century Nevisian migration; Leeds, England, which received many Nevisians in the 1950s and 60s; and the US Virgin Islands. She alludes to the sense in which her presence in any one of these fields could only tell part of the story:

Even though the field work of necessity was grounded in specific locations, it took place within a non-local cultural space related to the network of ties which connected individual Nevisians residing in these separate locations. Thus a great deal of the Nevisians’ daily life was oriented towards activities and concerns of relevance to people and places in other points in the global network, giving me the feeling that Nevisian culture kept escaping me -- it always seemed to be where I was not. 23

A translocal orientation towards the mapping of community seems to better appreciate the fact that people are increasingly mobile and that their identities are now configured in relation to more than one locality — or towards localities which have been effectively ‘stretched’ across space. Peoples and cultures are therefore not to be understood solely by reference to what is taken to be their ‘place,’ but rather by the ways in which they define themselves between and across such places. These people(s) and place(s) dynamics become even more interesting when we begin to consider how they mediate political identity. How do these processes affect and/or change nations and states? If we take these two categories to be representative of traditional notions of the political then an emphasis on translocal relations allows us to move beyond the boundaries of conventional politics. This task has a vital normative component insofar as the peoples and cultures involved are often ‘invisible’ because they do not conform to the modern political imaginary. Official radars do not see them as participants in transnational networks and members of distanciated communities, but rather as objects attempting to cross state borders. Consequently there are some writers who emphasise the ways in which translocal subjectivities are subjugated by the hegemony of state borders:

It is in this border area that identities are assigned and taken, withheld and rejected. The state seeks a monopoly on the power to assign identities to those who enter this space. It stamps or refuses to stamp passports and papers which are extensions of the person of the traveler who is ‘required’ to pass through official ports of entry and exit. 24

Khachig Tololyan concurs, arguing that "the nation’s aspiration to normative homogeneity is challenged not just by immigration but also by various forms of cultural practice and knowledge production." 25 It is however difficult to detect the emergence of any social form which could play the role of a successor to the nation. In this regard it might be more meaningful to suggest that the nation may be changing rather than simply withering: mutating, not melting. What though would it mean to speak of changes to the territorially-defined nation, or of an emerging post-national politics? In order to begin answering this question we need to first recognise that the translocal is itself a site of national politics. As Basch et al. argue:

Both the transnational processes that challenge bounded thinking and the pressures on transmigrants to reconstitute their identities in terms of nation-states and race reflect ongoing hegemonic contention within which constructions of identity are constantly being reformulated, transformed, and modified... Consequently the newly reconceptualised categories represent simultaneously both resistance to domination and new hegemonic categories that perpetuate domination. 26

Their analysis of the phenomenon of ‘transmigration’ (by which they mean forms of transnationalism which involve constant movement between multiple spaces and communities rather than permanent or semi-permanent settlement within a ‘host’ society) focuses on diasporic Carribean and Philippino communities whose boundaries are defined not by the limits of a single, bounded territory, but rather by the multiple spaces taken in by their social, political and economic practices. These, then, are forms of community defined by movement — ones which specifically resist statist attempts to fix (quite literally, to render static) the parameters of political community within territory.

Borderzone Identities

The problematic of territory/identity also finds a particularly clear expression in the notion of borderzone identity. Simultaneously situated both in between and across the frontiers of political community, borderzone identities represent a hybridised practice which partakes — often with great ambivalence — of two or more political cultures. Although formally citizens of one or another ‘side’ of the border in question, the daily experience of life on the border often straddles the frontier, giving rise to a complex set of identity claims on the part of those inhabiting these regions. Borderzone identities have been of interest to many anthropologists of late, and the U.S.-Mexico border in particular has been the subject of much recent work in this area. 27 I wish to briefly highlight two types of borderzone political practice, one of them textual in nature (albeit highly subversive), and the other a form of grass-roots, "on the ground" resistance to the state’s territorial logic which perhaps articulates something like a translocal ethic.

In her innovative book Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldua offers a rich account of life in the borderzone by fusing together the discursive strands of identity forms absent from the official accounts of citizenship and subjectivity on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The hegemony she resists does not emanate simply from the policing of ‘Unitedstatesian’ borders. It is also present in the Mexican state’s denial of Indian culture and in the patriarchy and homophobia which permeate Chicano culture. Anzaldua’s invocation of a borderzone subjectivity (which she terms mestize — a tapestry of discrepant cultures and practices) points to the subversive capacity of liminal identities:

The new mestize copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode–nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else. 28

Anzaldua is, in effect, highlighting the emergence in the borderzone of a new form of identity, highly political in its negotiation of various antagonisms and resistant to statist totalisations of community and territory.

Similarly — and perhaps more tangibly — we might point to the ways in which the practices of various grassroots movements along the U.S.-Mexico border challenge official configurations of territory and identity. Nevzat Soguks’s analysis of the Sanctuary Movement, a group concerned with the plight of Central American (and, increasingly, other) refugees in the United States, is particularly striking here. 29 The Movement, whose origins lie in southern Arizona, emerged in the early 1980s out of the discontent felt by local clergy about U.S. policy towards these refugees, a policy which in their eyes effectively abandoned victims of political repression. In addition to establishing a large network of ‘sanctuaries’ for these refugees across the region and, eventually, across Mexico and the United States, the movement also sought to facilitate their entry into the United States through underground railroad operations. This, then, was a direct subversion of state sovereignty by a translocal, grassroots ethic which refused to recognise the boundaries of the state as the limit of its moral responsibility. Although most certainly finite in its efficacy, the Sanctuary Movement is important insofar as it represents a sustained (and relatively successful) attempt to articulate a political practice in dissonance with the logic of territorial statism. As Soguk puts it, "If at all, the significance of the movement should not be "measured" by its size but by its strategic contribution to the effective deterritorialization of the political and cultural spaces straddling the borders and beyond." 30

The significance of borderzone identities for IR, then, lies in the ways in which they give rise to forms of political identity which blur, merge and fuse the boundaries of territorial states. In essence, they take territories imagined as cohesive (and exclusive) and render them permeable. Here, the political identity of the other is no longer clearly (or safely) outside the community, but rather heavily implicated in the definition of political identities on the ‘in’side of the border. In this sense borderzone translocality challenges the traditional cartography of IR by problematising the precise lines differentiating territorial units. Where the state imposes a monist idiom of citizenship, the popular practice of borderzone community denies the singularity of political identity. A thorough account of identity formation in IR would hence need to account for political practices situated across supposed territorial divisions.

Spiritualist Movements

Although not so clearly an example of translocal practice as diasporic community or borderzone identity, spiritual movements nevertheless represent a discrepant form of ‘political’ identity whose conception of community is far removed from the constraints of territory. While the connotations associated with the notion of spiritualism are perhaps somewhat misleading, I use the term here in order to indicate a particular orientation on the part of these groups towards what they take to be the proper sources of ethical life. For spiritualist movements, ‘good politics’ is not something which emanates from any particular model of territorial community — or from any other formal institution for that matter. Rather, moral community is constituted in and through a relationship with the divine (which can take both transcendental and more immanent forms). Fellow community members exist by virtue of shared faith rather than by their co-presence within a spatially-defined political space. This gives rise to a form of identity which locates itself neither simply within the state nor outside it. Rather, it seeks to inhabit a world in which statist notions of territory have little or nothing to do with the constitution of political community. In other words, these groups represent a particular breed of social movement, one that does not explicitly engage in critiques of state practice but perhaps even more radically (or some might say naively) does its best to act as if states do not exist. We can differentiate spiritualist movements from other universalising religions precisely by this refusal to engage with conventional manifestations of the political. Where classic Christian doctrine, for example, draws an explicit distinction between the religious and the political — therefore in effect naming the political as a distinct sphere of activity alongside the divine — spiritualist movements tend to grant no such status to the political sphere.

In a recent piece, Rob Walker draws our attention to one such group, the Swadhyaya, a highly active social movement (with hundreds of thousands of adherents) in the Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra as well as urban Bombay. 31 Inspired by a particular reading of Vedic philosophy, the Swadhyaya work to improve the standard of living in various rural and fishing communities throughout these regions. The group seeks to cultivate self-respect and revitalise community through an immanent conception of the individual’s relationship with God. 32 Particularly interesting about the Swadhyaya movement is its "ambiguous" relationship with established institutions of government and bureaucracy in India. Like other spiritualist movements the group renounces conventional politics but, as Walker argues, "this form of antipolitics is part of the key to its own politics." 33 The group has managed to establish parallel but alternative forms for the organisation of local community while at the same time maintaining — through participation in various bureaucratic structures — a toehold in conventional statist politics.

Another similar spiritualist movement — and one particularly notable for its problematisation of conventional gender roles — is the Tablighi Jama'at. The Tabligh movement is a translocal, and (again) 'apolitical' network for religious propagation whose core mode of operation involves despatching 'missionary tours' which travel to wherever Muslims are to be found in order to encourage greater religious devotion and observance. Interestingly, this is a group that works almost exclusively within the Muslim community. The conversion of non-Muslims to Islam is not its aim. Although its origins lie in the Indian subcontinent, the Tablighi Jama'at is globally active with a large European headquarters complex in Dewsbury, Yorkshire.

The Tablighi Jama'at attitude towards women, suggests Barbara Metcalf, may be somehow tied to they way in which it conceives — or, rather does not conceive — its ideas about politics:

I would argue that the reason [other] political Islamic movements…emphasize women's domestic roles, in contrast to the Tablighi Jama'at, is due to the distinctive status accorded to women's roles and feminine nature in the discourse of modern nationalist politics and its accompanying notions of the private and public realms. 34

The Tablighi Jama'at, on the other hand, stands largely outside the order imposed by the territorial nation-state system. Through its focus on missionary travel, the movement primarily inhabits translocal space. "The Tablighis, in terms of rhetoric and cosmopolitan membership," write Eickelman and Piscatori, "direct followers toward the pan-Islamic umma." 35 It has no interest in participating in or even heeding national politics. For Tablighis, one does not reform society through political activity, but rather through concentrating on producing moral individuals. For the Tablighi Jama'at, "political inclinations are not entombed in the Qur'an but are rather daily reshaped by judgements about who is most likely to provide justice and development." 36 Although the group shuns political activity of any kind, its fervent apoliticism becomes, in a sense, a form of (anti)politics. As Felice Dassetto observes:

[T]he very radicalism of their faith and their methods of reference are powerful elements in a critique of political systems, particularly those defining themselves as Islamic. Everything suggests that the Tablighs, far removed from power by virtue of their position in society, instead of attaching themselves to it engage in challenging its legitimacy. They go to the heart of the problem of power in 'Muslim' countries without touching it. 37

In this regard other modern Muslim movements, particularly those who are politically active, have difficulty making sense of the Tablighi Jama'at. Their quietism is often dismissed as devotional obsession — an other-worldly disengagement with the world. Indeed, many young Muslims in the West question the group's staying power given its seeming reluctance to engage with the political imperatives facing young diasporic Muslims today. However, I want to argue that there are senses in which the Tablighi Jama'at can be read as a movement or tendency whose practices challenge received notions of space and power in Islam — particularly as regards gender. These innovations, however, relate not so much to new things that women do, but rather to what Tablighi men do that most other Muslim men do not do.

Although Tablighi women do occasionally travel, the vast majority of the group's da'wa ('missionary') activities are undertaken by men. There are a number of interesting points to be made about the nature and style of this travelling. First of all, Tablighi men "devalue the public realm" by pointedly avoiding politics. They hence do not claim any particular position or space of masculine power or virtue. At times Tablighi men have come in for criticism from other Muslims because their frequent sojourning is seen as a neglect of the masculine duty to protect and care for the family. The Tablighi style of discourse and inter-personal communication is also very simple and humble. While travelling the men are expected to acquire a strong set of domestic skills. They wash clothes, cook, clean and maintain the integrity of the group — roles usually associated with women. Other aspects of Tablighi Jama'at discourse also seem to contribute to a reconfiguration of gender roles:

A talk given at an annual Tabligh meeting, for example, reminded men that women also had a responsibility to Tabligh, and that men should not only refrain from objecting but should actively facilitate women's participation by providing child care. The speaker reminded his audience that since the Prophet had said that women have the right to refuse to nurse should they want to, women certainly could decline to provide child care for a task so important as Tabligh. 38

There does therefore appear to be certain ways in which Tablighi practices contribute to a reconfiguration of gender roles in Islam. Furthermore I want to argue that it is in part the particular problems associated with the translocal nature of Tablighi community that contribute to this reconfiguration. The solutions to these problems, and the concomitant skills they require male Tablighis to acquire, serve — at least to some extent — to relativise the assignment of gender roles within the community. At the same time, however, the group's reluctance to bring its views into the public sphere or to engage with other forms of political practice (Muslim or otherwise) mitigates against their wider propagation. Similarly, Tablighi Jama'at's translocal character does much to widen the boundaries of political community in Islam, yet their refusal to speak this translocality in political terms raises questions as to the group's continued efficacy. Its numbers, though, continue to grow. Perhaps there is in this model of community a new idiom of (anti)politics or a discrepant translocality — one in which the gendered notions of public and private are gradually being eroded. It is in groups such as the Tablighi Jama'at — a movement both translocal and postnational — that the Islamic notion of the ummah, a community of believers unhindered by geographical or national boundaries, finds a tangible manifestation in Islam today. In terms of politics, the Tablighis dwell in a translocality that challenges the spatial confines of political community. More crucially, however, they advocate an understanding of the political which in many ways seems to resonate with Warren Magnusson's vision of 'global popular politics' as articulated above. Theirs is, in essence, an inverse normative model in which ‘the good’ does not emanate from an ethical institution or a particular ‘place’ (i.e. the territorial state) but rather from an emphasis on the collective power of the ethical self.

The three forms of translocal practice dealt with above — diasporic community, borderzone identity and spiritualist movements — all point to different ways in which IR’s standard account of the relationship between identity and territory is problematised by forms of politics which explicitly deny the territorial logic of conventional political identity. Diasporic communities challenge the assumption that a community’s presence in a constitutive territory is a prerequisite for the practice of its identity. Communities can stretch between and across the limits of particular territorial jurisdictions and, in doing so, develop their own disparate formulations of political identity beyond the official narratives of territorial authority. Likewise, borderzone identities demonstrate that even the ‘nearest abroad’ — those ‘just over the line’ — are vitally implicated in the process of identity formation on both sides of the border. Border communities constitute a hybrid form of political identity, rendering fuzzy the sharp, clear lines of IR’s geopolitical imaginary. Finally, spiritual movements articulate a vision of (anti)political identity which, in many respects, moves beyond the notion of territory altogether. By locating the good within a transcendent order beyond earthly space, spiritualist movements seek to forge community through a collective dwelling within the utopian space (in the literal sense of ¼) of this vision. Although seemingly divorced from international relations as it is conventionally conceived, all three of these practices point to distinct lacuna in IR’s account of political identity. Furthermore, these are theoretical gaps that are likely to become all the more pronounced as translocalising processes become increasingly prevalent in world politics. IR needs to start recognising these disparate modes of political identity sooner rather than later.


Conclusion: IR as translocal politics

Let me conclude by recapping the key arguments I have made. I began with a critique of territorial-centrism in IR’s understanding of political identity and highlighted some of the key sociocultural transformations which question the hegemony of this particular conception. I suggested that we need to question today the extent to which the imagination of political identity remains territorialised — that is, whether political identity remains the exclusive reserve of a single territorial referent. The approach I would endorse involves re-orientating the trajectory and widening the arc of analysis in international relations such that its emphasis lies less on the examination of bordered, bounded and fixed entities and concentrates instead on the ways in which international socio-political life manages increasingly to escape the constraints of the territorial nation-state. This involves the reconceptualisation of international relations such that 'the political' is not understood as a practice or set of practices which pertains only to relations between given (that is, prior and self-evident) actors within specific territorial units, but rather as a space of interaction situated across and between many territories — interaction which is itself constitutive of new political identities. It is when the nexus of globalisation and political practice is viewed in this sense that the possibility of translocal politics begins to emerge.

Translocal spaces are hence constituted by those technologies and infrastructures which allow peoples and cultures to cross great distances and to transcend the boundaries of closed, territorial community. Translocality does not refer simply to a 'place,' nor does it denote a collectivity of places. Rather it is an abstract (yet daily manifest) space occupied by the sum of linkages and connections between places (media, travel, labour, import/export, etc.). The notion of locality is included within the term in order to suggest a situatedness, but a situatedness which is never static. Translocality can be theorised as a mode, one which pertains not to how peoples and cultures exist in places, but rather how they move through them. Furthermore, I also want to argue that translocality disrupts traditional constructions of political identity and gives rise to novel forms of political space. In this sense we can claim that certain spatial extensions (i.e. 'places') such as migratory or global cities — further examples of translocal practice that I have not dealt with — are characterised by a particularly high degree of translocality. In other words, translocality can be used to refer to places which peoples and cultures occupy, but in doing so it seeks to draw attention to the dynamics of distanciation at work within such locales rather than to the 'locatedness' of these places. In summary, under globalising conditions we see that political identities are becoming increasingly disembedded from the context of the territorial nation-state. What I am seeking is a conceptualisation of this fact which does not address the political subject's alienation from the nation-state simply by attempting to produce a new, more inclusive model of the territorial community. Rather, I am trying to refigure the scope of international political theory such that it becomes more capable of recognising and accounting for new political spaces and the identities they construct. Translocality is hence about recognising forms of politics situated not within the boundaries of a territorial space, but rather configured across and in between such spaces. It is — as I have said — about studying what flows through localities rather than what is 'in' them.

My core thesis, then, might be stated as follows. In an increasingly globalised environment, the rigidity of bureaucratic and institutional structures such as the nation-state have allowed mounting pressures to produce a certain amount of cracking and fragmentation in their frameworks. The inherent fluidity of political identities, however, has allowed them to flow into, through, and out of these crevices — merging and syncretising as they go — thus creating new forms of politics whose dynamics hinge on spatial distanciation rather than on the persistence of a fixed territorial space. The multifaceted nature of identity has, under translocality, brought forth a diverse new set of political practices. These involve the possibility that any given individual may have ties and identity claims which pertain to more than one nation or state. Furthermore, the activities of such individuals are not limited to a single political space, either in terms of territory or discourse. One's presence in a particular territorial state does not restrict one from engaging in translocal relations which seek to politicise a component of identity which is not "of" the territory from which these activities emanate.

In this article I have been concerned to map the conceptual ground upon which political identities are constructed under translocal conditions, and — through a brief examination of diasporic communities, borderzone identities and spiritualist groups — to identify various forms of translocal political practice. In doing so I have also sought to critique some of the ways in which international relations has traditionally configured relations that are inter-, tran- or post-national. Can IR successfully reflect these mutations of political cartography — this ‘blurring of the boxes’ — within its conception of world politics? Can it imagine forms of community based not on horizontally-arranged and contiguous, exclusive territories but rather on multiple, overlapping allegiances and post-territorial politics? The various processes of cultural displacement surveyed above are constitutive of forms of political identity which locate the political (and its practice) outside the normative boundaries of the territorial state. We therefore need to write an IR that takes account of translocality and its discrepant vision of the political.

Note 1: Arjun Appadurai, "Sovereignty Without Territoriality: Notes for a Postnational Geography" in Patricia Yaeger (ed.), The Geography of Identity, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.  Back.

Note 2: Ibid., p. 47  Back.

Note 3: Yosef Lapid, "Culture's Ship: Returns and Departures in International Relations Theory" in Y. Lapid and F. Kratochwil (eds.), The Return of Culture and Identity in IR Theory, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1996, p. 10  Back.

Note 4: See John Vasquez, The Power of Power Politics, London: Pinter, 1983; and Justin Rosenberg, "What's the Matter with Realism?" Review of International Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4, October 1990, pp. 285-303.  Back.

Note 5: See John Burton, World Society, London: Cambridge University Press, 1972; and Richard Falk, The Promise of World Order, Brighton: Wheatsheaf, 1987.  Back.

Note 6: See Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye Jr., Power and Interdependence, Boston: Little Brown, 1977; and Stephen Krasner (ed.), International Regimes, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.  Back.

Note 7: Benedict Anderson, "Exodus," Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, Winter 1994, pp. 323-24  Back.

Note 8: See Andrew Linklater, The Transformation of Political Community, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998. Linklater outlines what he terms a 'post-Westphalian' conception of the citizen.  Back.

Note 9: See e.g. Mary Dietz, "Context Is All: Feminism and Theories of Citizenship" in Chantal Mouffe (ed.), Dimensions of Radical Democracy, London: Verso, 1992.  Back.

Note 10: Arjun Appadurai, "Sovereignty Without Territoriality: Notes for a Postnational Geography" in Patricia Yaeger, The Geography of Identity, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996, p. 47  Back.

Note 11: Ruggie, op. cit.  Back.

Note 12: James N. Rosenau, Turbulence in World Politics: A Theory of Change and Continuity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.  Back.

Note 13: Several recent examples of this genre can be found in the series Borderlines, edited by David Campbell and Michael Shapiro for the University of Minnesota Press. See for example Thom Kuehls, Beyond Sovereign Territory: The Space of Ecopolitics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996 and Michael J. Shapiro and Hayward R. Alker (eds.), Challenging Boundaries: Global Flows, Territorial Identities, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.  Back.

Note 14: Andrew Linklater, Men and Citizens in the Theory of International Relations, London: Macmillan, 1990; Beyond Realism and Marxism: Critical Theory and International Relations, London: Macmillan, 1990; The Transformation of Political Community, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998.  Back.

Note 15: Linklater, The Transformation of Political Community, p. 200  Back.

Note 16: Warren Magnusson, "The Reification of Political Community," in R.B.J. Walker and Saul H. Mendlovitz (eds.), Contending Sovereignties: Redefining Political Community, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1990, p. 45  Back.

Note 17: Ibid., p. 51  Back.

Note 18: Ibid., p. 52. Emphasis added.  Back.

Note 19: Ibid.  Back.

Note 20: Ibid., p. 55  Back.

Note 21: See Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Relations, London: Pandora, 1989 and Christine Sylvester, Feminist Theory and International Relations in a Postmodern Era, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.  Back.

Note 22: Karen Fog Olwig, ‘Cultural sites: Sustaining a home in a deterritorialized world’ in Karen Fog Olwig and Kirsten Hastrup (eds.), Siting Culture: the shifting anthropological object, London: Routledge, 1991, p. 35  Back.

Note 23: Ibid. p. 19. Emphasis added.  Back.

Note 24: Kearney, ‘Borders and Boundaries of State and Self,’ p. 58  Back.

Note 25: Khachig Tololyan, "Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment," Diaspora, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1996, p. 4  Back.

Note 26: Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller and Cristina Szanton Blanc, Nations Unbound: Transnational Projects, Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States, Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1994, p. 268.  Back.

Note 27: See e.g. Thomas M. Wilson and Hastings Donnan (eds.), Border Identities: Nation and State at International Frontiers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; Michael Kearney, ‘Borders and Boundaries of State and Self at the End of Empire,’ Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1991, pp. 52-74; Nevzat Soguk, ‘Transnational/Transborder Bodies: Resistance, Accommodation, and Exile in Refugee and Migration Movements on the U.S.-Mexican Border’ in Michael J. Shapiro and Hayward R. Alker (eds.), Challenging Boundaries: Global Flows, Territorial Identities, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 285-325. Back.

Note 28: Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987. Back.

Note 29: Soguk, op. cit. Back.

Note 30: Ibid., p. 317 Back.

Note 3: R.B.J. Walker, ‘Social Movements/World Politics,’ Millennium, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1994, pp. 669-700. Back.

Note 32: Ibid., p. 685 Back.

Note 33: Ibid., p. 687 Back.

Note 34: Barbara Metcalf, "Islam and Women: The Case of the Tablighi Jama'at," Stanford Electronic Humanities Review, Volume 5, Issue 1: Contested Polities, p. 5 Back.

Note 35: Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 150 Back.

Note 36: Yahya Sadowski, "'Just' a Religiion: For the Tablighi Jama'at, Islam is not totalitarian," The Brookings Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer 1996, p. 3 Back.

Note 37: Felice Dassetto, "The Tabligh Organization in Belgium" in T. Gerholm and Y.G. Lithman (eds.), The New Islamic Presence in Western Europe, London: Mansell, 1988, p. 162  Back.

Note 38: Metcalf, "Islam and Women," p. 4 Back.