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College Quarterly
Fall 2011 - Volume 14 Number 4
Transnationalism and Society: An Introduction
Michael C. Howard
Jefferson NC, USA; London, UK: McFarland & Company, 2011
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Long, long ago, the prolific Canadian writer, Pierre Berton, wrote a book called 1967: The Last Good Year. Those of a certain age may be forgiven for thinking that it was, but I'd advance the date a little. I'd suggest 1968 or even 1969—but nothing past May, 1970 or, perhaps, October, 1970. Americans and Canadians of that certain age will understand why.

Berton's reflections, however, stand as a good testament to the 1960s, which began with a great infusion of optimism for those who expected extraordinary things from US president John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was, for a time, my generation's version of "hope you can believe in."

One demonstration of this hope was a project that came to life at the University of Hawai'i in 1964. It was called the East-West Center, and it served as a graduate school for thousands of students from around the Pacific Rim and from the United States of America in roughly equal proportions. It first appeared in the public record when then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson advocated the creation of an educational institution that would promote not only professional skills, but also greater understanding between East and West. I was pleased to spend some time there between 1967 and 1970, and was happy to present my first paper at an academic conference on "Problems of Modernization in Asia and the Pacific" in August, 1970. I've returned many times since, but not since spending six weeks living in its Spartan facilities in Hale Manoa, the main residence in the Spring of 2007. It wasn't like "the old days."

Because of constant funding cuts, programs were reduced, meetings among scholars and students seemed fewer and even the cafeteria had shut down. Still, when President Obama tried to stick the last knife in with his proposal to cut federal funding in half as part of his 2009 budget, there was enough life left to resist and the spending cuts were abandoned. The East-West Center struggles on.

I mention this because the East-West Center represented American values at about their best. Never mind that it was a State Department initiative. Set aside that there was probably a robust CIA recruitment program in operation. Don't think too much about connections with the US Agency for International Development which, in turn, was often considered a "front" for clandestine activities and covert actions. Ignore, if you can, that the best days of the East-West Center coincided with the worst days in Vietnam. The fact remains that the ideals of cooperation and the quality of the research into areas as diverse as agriculture and language learning, art and demography allowed people from about half the globe to prosper, intellectually and cross-culturally. It was not enthusiastic about detailed analysis of political economy, to say nothing of US foreign policy as the conflict in Southeast Asia escalated. Nonetheless, there was great optimism that the people who came together there would one day comprise leadership cadres in many developing nations. Perhaps many of them did.

A similar sort of optimism and eclecticism can be found in Michael C. Howard's conversation about "transnationalism." The result is a competently written, wide-ranging volume that gives expression to the variety of experiences and consequences of an increasingly interconnected world. The approach is "multidisciplinary," but not quite in the sense of bringing the insights of various academic disciplines—aesthetics and anthropology, psychology and sociology, criminology and demography—to bear on a common substantive theme. Instead, Howard presents a collection of eight topic areas, with an introductory overview. Each more-or-less independent discussion includes some history and occasional vocabulary drawn from sociology and economics, but little attempt to generalize or theorize on the results. Instead, we view a group of attractive trinkets, baubles or even gems spread out across a table, awaiting transformation into jewelry.

In order to make a necklace, it is usually better to hold a string and apply the plastic beads, puka shells, shark's teeth or pearls to it, rather than to lay the ornaments out and try to push the string through the holes in each decoration. Or, less metaphorically, it is normally best to have an overall thesis or theme, and to connect the individual chapters to it than to allow the parts to exist without a sense of connectivity. Howard comes perilously close to showing us a collection of sometimes worthy pieces, but failing to bring them together into a coherent whole.

As advertised in the book's title and supported by Howard's lifelong career in documenting transnational events, processes and patterns, the putative theme is "transnationalism." Although I would be inclined to use some element of political economy as a connecting thread for displaying social relations across national borders, there are other unifying concepts and practices that might work: theories of communications and transportation technologies, or demographic shifts (both of which are given space in Transnationalism and Society), or even Everett Rogers' diffusion of innovation theory1 (which is not) might provide a sturdier base upon which to build a book. Howard, however, is much too invested in "transnationalism" as an adequate research domain. The question is: Does it work?

Howard defines transnationalism as nothing more nor less than "relations across state boundaries" and the kinds of societies created through transnational relations." It involves "individuals, groups and other social entities that maintain a significant presence in or are part of a social system within one state while also maintaining significant relations with others in different states." The subject matter, then, can involve anything from Wal-Mart to the MAFIA, from religious communities to various ethnic diasporas. So inclusive is the definition that it embraces organizations that are formal and informal, large and small, influential or insignificant. The Green Crescent and Greenpeace and would qualify. So would the Boy Scouts. So would terrorist sleeper cells. So would the US Marines. And so would ethnic community groups that kept in touch with friends and family in whichever "old country" they had departed—the Irish Republican Army or the Tamil Tigers, for example. What impact the "social media" might have on this definition is uncertain. As a result there should be little doubt that it will have some. Are Facebook friends "transnational"? Howard presents what are essentially vignettes that describe, but seldom explain everything from migratory labourers to Médecins Sans Frontières to drug cartels (legal and illegal). Some of the entries are very worthwhile.

In introductory texts, seeing the world through a well-polished lens brings disparate chapters on distinct issues into perspective. The linkage in this volume is comparatively weak. We are given chapters on a variety of topics—the arts, dress, kinship, missionaries and criminal organizations, for example—but each is set in its own frame without a clear purpose for the gallery. In his introduction, Howard tells us that transnationalism involves the creation of "social spaces" in which dynamic patterns, connections and ties between people on different sides of different borders, and that these matter. He is careful to insist that transnationalism is not a synonym for ethnic pluralism or multiculturalism, nor does it relate directly to concepts of assimilation or cultural heterogeneity. It is its own form of social exchange and, presumably, has common features no matter whether we are examining transnational relations between Ireland and America, Canada and Colombia, China and Vietnam. This is a promising beginning, but although the subsequent chapters are filled to overflowing with detailed information about all sorts of people doing all sorts of things in all sorts of places, the overall narrative is disjointed.

In the chapter on international corporations, for example, we learn that golf is increasingly popular among the emerging Vietnamese middle class, that German and Japanese firms have different decision-making structures, and that massive transnational food conglomerates (Carrefour of France, Metro of Germany and Tesco of the United Kingdom) may owe their success to the fact that they "source between 90 percent and 97 percent of the products on their shelves locally?

In the chapter on religion, we are treated to two main discussions: one is on pilgrimages in which the major focus is on the Muslim Hajj; the other is on missionaries in which Buddhists (mainly Tibetan) get eight pages, Christians fourteen pages and Muslims five pages. In those treatments, each receives an historical description of who went where and when. Not much by way of comparison, much less comparative analysis is provided.

And so it goes. Largely because I previously knew next to nothing about it, I was intrigued by the chapter on international crime and learned a little about Nigerian gangsters, the Japanese Yakuza and Chinese Triads. I also learned that a dominant route to get drugs into Hawai'i from the Philippines is through Canada, and that gangster cash is invested in the Turtle Bay Hilton and the Kuilima Resort on Oahu (I've driven by, but could never afford to stay).

What these minor narratives are intended to provide is uncertain. Some of the information is certainly fascinating, but I found at the end that I had been invited to explore certain discrete topics rather than being introduced to a field of study. The total effect is something like being exposed to a "sampler" music album in which delightful tunes are played to fascinate the listener, but which do not produce a coherent whole.

So, why begin a review of what was ultimately a superficially seductive, but ultimately unrewarding compendium of mini-narratives with some reflections on the East-West Center at the University of Hawai'i? I think that there is a parallel. The EWC was dedicated to cross-cultural learning and to helping foster cooperation among people from diverse backgrounds (albeit largely within the ideological frame of the US State Department at the outset of the escalation of the Vietnam conflict). Michael C. Howard's book also seems dedicated to alerting readers to some of the experiences and processes of transnationalism. At a certain level of generality, they both accomplish their tasks, but there does not seem to be an enduring central core. So, we come away from visiting either with the understanding that cultural differences exist and that the interaction among cultures can yield very interesting experiments and effects. Exactly what could or should be done with them is unclear.

Perhaps that is enough. Perhaps the East-West Center worked well for a while because it allowed its participants considerable freedom to choose their programs and their personal purposes for being there. Perhaps Transnationalism and Society is meant mainly to intrigue in the hope and expectation that each reader will use its smorgasbord of cultural fare to pursue deeper and more specific studies and apply them in a wide variety of ways to an assortment of disparate projects. Still, a firmer and more purposeful hand would have been helpful, at least to me.


1. Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of innovations, 5th edition (New York: Free Press, 2003).

Howard A. Doughty, teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at