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Gender, Place & Culture

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Transnational (Counter) Topographies

Geraldine Pratta; Brenda Yeohb a Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, b Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, Online publication date: 14 July 2010

To cite this Article Pratt, Geraldine and Yeoh, Brenda(2003) 'Transnational (Counter) Topographies', Gender, Place &

Culture, 10: 2, 159 166

To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/0966369032000079541 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0966369032000079541


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Gender, Place and Culture, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 159166, June 2003

Transnational (Counter) Topographies

GERALDINE PRATT, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia & BRENDA YEOH, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore
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Noting that much of the literature on transnationalism is gender blind, we consider what a focus on gender brings to understanding transnationalism. Tracing a feminist itinerary shows that there is nothing inherently transgressive or emancipatory about transnationalism. Rather, the effects are contradictory and complex, and must be assessed within specic times and places. Gender relations are often transformed through transnational migration, although gains in gender equity tend to be uneven, hard fought for, and sometimes impermanent. Rather than weakening the nation-state, transnationalism is bound up with remaking the nation, often within renewed patriarchal norms of national belonging. So too, while transnationalism can open up new spaces of belonging, we argue that this is accomplished through specic connections between places rather than through (an often romanticised) deterritorialised mobility. Finally, we consider what feminist counter topographies can bring to transnational feminist politics.

Correspondence: Geraldine Pratt, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2, Canada; fax: 604-822-6150; e-mail: gpratt@geog.ubc.ca

Feminists have an ambivalent relationship to transnationalism, as both an academic discourse and a complex set of social practices. Writing as recently as 2001, Mahler and Pessar note that gender has rarely been a principal focus of studies on transnational spaces and processes, including transnational migration (p. 441). Neither men nor women are treated as conscious gendered beings tracing new maps of desire and attachment as they make multiple, circular, return or provisional journeys across transnational space [1]. The considerable literature on entrepreneurs-creators of transnational business networks and empires, or globe-trotting expatriate workers sustaining transnational corporations, for example, is almost always gender-blind, as both categories generally have been assumed to be male-dominated. There is, then, some suspicion that the neglect of gender reects the fact that much scholarly work on transnationalism is implicitly genderedas masculinist. In traversing transnational space, men often feature as entrepreneurs, career-builders, adventurers and breadwinners who navigate transnational circuits with uidity and ease, while women are alternatively taken to be truants from globalised economic webs, stereotyped as exotic, subservient or victimised, or relegated to playing supporting roles, usually in the domestic sphere (Yeoh et al., 2000). Taking Appadurais enthusiasm for the post-national diasporic subject as her target, Kondo (1997) argued that he presumes a diasporic, always already masculine subject (p. 175), able and willing to transcend territorial identications. As Clifford (1997, p. 259) observes, When diasporic experience is viewed in terms of displacement rather than placement, traveling rather than dwelling, and disarticulation rather than rearticulation, then the experiences of men will tend to predominate. 159

ISSN 0966-369X print/ISSN 1360-0524 online/03/020159-08 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI 10.1080/0966369032000079541


G. Pratt & B. Yeoh

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A masculinist hypermobility enters into the construction of academic texts. Visweswaran (1994) locates the all-seeing unsituated sense of Appadurais theorising in his tendency to proliferate empirical vignettes without attending to the particularity of each. Indeed, if there is a common thread to feminist criticisms of academic writing on transnationalism, it is their admonishment to pay much closer attention to the particular and the concrete specicity of daily experience. Mahler urges the need to push the transnational gaze deeper into the stuff of everyday life (1999, p. 713); Mitchell (1997) explicitly expresses this as a geographical project, one of bringing geography back in. Attending to gender, geography and the stuff of everyday life reveals that there is nothing inherently transgressive or emancipatory about transnationalism. While in some of the writings, it is almost as if resistance is suggested merely through movement across borders and by the formation of circuits, which enhance the possibility of survival in places full of uncertainty (Hondagneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997, p. 550; see also Mitchell, 1997), it is clear that burdens are borne alongside opportunities, in different ways in different times, places and social locations. We trace some of this feminist itinerary to show, not only that the effects of transnationalism on gender relations are contradictory and complex, but that conceiving transnationalism more specically creates opportunities for rethinking both geography, and feminist theory and practice.

Bringing Women into View

In an ethnography of a transnational American maquiladora in Ciudad Juarez, Wright (1999a) details the persistent erasure of mexicana labour from view: the trick [for the American manager] is to guarantee that she disappears from the things that she makes (p. 1604). Wright (1999b) pursues this devaluing and erasure of Mexican women outside of the factory, into the streets, and eventually into the desert, where the bodies of almost 200 murdered women have been dumped in recent years. It is the production of mexicana bodies as low qualityas the personication of wastethat links these various moments of disappearance. Wrights work forces us to confront the costs of ignoring womens work within transnational circuits of capital investment and labour migration, as well as the hegemonic cultural narratives that might lull us into doing so. The transnational labour migration of sex workers, dancers (Tyner, 1997), and domestic workers (Huang & Yeoh, 1996; Stiell & England, 1997; Pratt 1999; Groves & Chang, 2000; Lan, forthcoming), for instance, operates within similar processes of devaluation and erasure. Bringing these experiences into visibility makes readily apparent the super-exploitation of many transnational migrants. Bringing devalued (often racialised) womens labour into view sets in train a series of questions about the gendering of transnational experiences and the effects of such experiences on gender relations. Studies that have pursued these questions nd that transmigratory practices are usually not individual choices but inuenced by the division of labour and power within households, which are often negotiated along the lines of gender, age and relationships among members of the household (Chant, 1998). Many studies show that, often, women move less freely or have more socially embedded, or encumbered, spatial existences. Transnational parenting and elderly care, for instance, is typically lived differently by mothers/daughters and fathers/sons; Parrenas (2002) reports that some Filipina overseas contract workers telephone their children, who are cared for by extended family in the Philippines, daily, in order to carry out their responsibilities as good mothers. Women migrants often remit to their home countries a higher proportion of their incomes earned overseas (Fouron & Glick Schiller, 2001). Reliance of extended family members on these remittances is one factor that contributes to another frequently

Transnational (Counter) Topographies


noted gender difference; this is the tendency for women to resettle more fully than men, to live less mobile transnational existences. Other reasons are given for this as well: there are often fewer economic opportunities for women in their countries of origin, and women may be loath to give up gains in gender equity experienced through migration. In contrast, many men attempt to return home quickly and frequently to maintain status there that may be destabilised by migration (Pessar, 1999). An aspect of this is captured in a raw remark made jokingly by a Laotian refugee to the USA: When we get on the plane back to Laos, the rst thing we will do is beat up the women (Donnelly, 1994, p. 74; quoted by Pessar, 1999). This remark directs us to another characteristic of feminist approaches to transnationalism: there tends to be both a deep utopic hope that transnationalism may offer opportunities to realign and equalise gender relations, and a knowing scepticism that patriarchal relations return in different guises in different times and places. The balance of being neither too utopic nor too knowing is typically maintained through nely textured empirical study. On the one hand, Hugo (2002) argues that while there can be no easy generalisations, it is likely that migration involving the movement of Indonesian women away from the immediate control of traditional, often patriarchal families is usually, on the whole, an empowering process for these women (see also Tacoli, 1999). Women who are left behind in the source area from which menfolk migrate often nd themselves taking on a wider range of roles and responsibilities and may become more autonomous and involved in decision-making within the family and community. In contrast, Le Espiritu (2002) argues that while being left behind may give Filipina women more authority over family governance, it also increased their domestic burdens and overall workloads. Inversions of the traditional gender division of labour and male privilege resulting from migration are also usually transient. Le Espiritu (2002) shows that male Filipino migrants who became navy stewards doing feminised work may bring back to the family fold a host of domestic skills; at the same time, it is also possible that the stripping of male privilege experienced by these migrants may result in their attempting to reclaim their masculinity by denigrating women and children. Similarly, while female-rst skilled migration from the Philippines to the USA (as in the case of many Filipina health care professionals) may lead to downward occupational mobility for accompanying husbands, a reversal of gender roles is not automatic, as traditional patterns and expectations of what men and women do tend to be resistant to change. Any gains in gender equality tend to be uneven and hard fought for, often entailing conict and confrontation, and may well be impermanent. This ambivalence about the gendered effects of transnationalismalong with the spatial stickiness of many womens liveshas led feminists to look especially carefully at the complex ways in which geographies at various scales are intertwined, in mutually supportive and sometimes contradictory ways.
Flexible Borders: reworking the nation state

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One of the distinctions of transnationalism as a concept, compared to globalisation, is that it signals specic locations, and the continuing, if evolving, importance of borders and the nation state. As transnationalism draws attention to what it negatesthat is, the continued signicance of the nationalit continues to remind us that we have far from reached a post-nationalist state of affairs. Instead, nationalisms on the part of both sending and receiving states have been re-ignited to strengthen or recongure the nation state. Feminists have been slow to declare the withering of the nation state and have


G. Pratt & B. Yeoh

considered, instead, how the nation is constructed through exible borders. Borders are both stretched beyond the nation and consolidated within, in both instances calling up and playing upon transnational connections and the production of national difference. Feminists have been particularly interested in how patriarchal norms of national belonging operate within transnational contexts, and how the nation state itself may be consolidated through a process that Fouron and Glick Schiller (2001) term long distance nationalism (see also Kondo, 1997; Mitchell, 1997; Yeoh & Willis, 1999). Sending states are increasingly institutionalising transnationalism by extending rights of dual citizenship to citizens who have immigrated to other countries. As Fouron and Glick Schiller note, reclaiming diaspora in this way has the effect of redening the meaning of nation, reviving a nineteenth-century equation of nation and race: blood ties rather than national territory (p. 543). A descent-based theory of nation rmly locates national belonging in familial reproduction and thus is gendered in very signicant symbolic ways. Yeoh and Willis (1999) explore the more immediate, material gender impacts of Singapores strategy of nation-building through transnationalism. It is typically men who take up jobs in transnational rms located outside of Singapore and employment in such jobs tends to loosen their wives commitment to the labour market and reinforce patriarchal norms within the household. Going transnational has done little to trouble the gendered division of household labour, or destabilise the gendered inequalities of the patriarchal state. Instead, traversing transnational space seems to be a hegemonically masculinised enterprise where men and women remain complicit in the reproduction of patriarchy beyond national borders. Refocusing attention on the project of nation-building in the light of the transgressive fact of migration (van der Veer, 1995), feminist scholars have raised crucial issues of nation, state and citizenship and argued that the gendering and racialising of such migrant ows have further complicated denitions of citizenship and the constitution of civil society. Precisely because the transmigrant other is a gendered subject and precisely because the state often articulates nationalism by employing genderic modes, the potentially disruptive absence/presence of female transmigrant others needs to be carefully managed by the state through the politics of inclusion and exclusion. Women transmigrants, during their sojourn as labour migrants, often nd themselves accorded few citizens and civil rights in destination countries and trapped within patriarchal notions of womens work and womens place (Chin, 1997; Pratt, 1999; Yeoh & Huang, 1999). The rules of marginality and otherness which operate to keep transmigrant contract workers in their place are often refracted through the gendered lenses of the host nation; as a result, women transmigrants, when put into a comparative frame with their male counterparts, nd their bodies subject to a more oppressive disciplinary framework, their skills further devalorised, and their spaces even more circumscribed (Mackie, 2002; Huang & Yeoh, forthcoming). This further deepens, and naturalises, the lines of gender inequalities already etched on the body of the nation (even as the entry of transmigrants no doubt produces new inequalities), for such transnationalisms fail to transcend, or trouble, the ideological gender bases upon which nationalisms are built. Indeed, Honig (1998) argues that constructions of the immigrant have served the role of returning [the American nation] to itself, in part by renormalising traditional forms of heterosexuality. The myth of the good immigrant often celebrates patriarchal familial bonds, and transnational transactions such as the foreign bride trade are both symptoms of and vehicles for the reassertion of traditional feminine and masculine roles. Thus, while much has been written about the way transnational subjects play by a different set of rules since they live in, or connect with, several communities simultaneously (Appadurai, 1998,

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Transnational (Counter) Topographies


p. 449), there is no clear evidence of the emancipatory power of transnational identities in destabilising the gender norms and forms of the nation state.

New Spaces?

A scepticism about the demise of nationalism can be held in tension with optimism about the potential for new spaces and new social identities. Rather than looking for such spaces and identities primarily in mobilitya type of detachment from placeor new scales beyond the nation, they might be conceived through the new ways that places are put into relation through transnationalism. As Mahler (1999, p. 712) notes, transnational processes may produce new spaces, but this does not mean that actors within these spaces are set completely loose from their social moorings. The tether [including that of place] may be loosened, redirected, and perhaps frayed but not lost into an imaginary third space. Mahler comes to this point through her close study of transnational couriers, who travel at least monthly between El Salvador and New York, delivering goods, remittances, letters and news. Carrying large sums of money can be a risky business, and thus Mahler was rst surprised to learn that roughly half of the couriers are women. Mahler understands the success of (mostly older) women couriers in terms of traditional gendered norms: older women have established relations of trust through extensive social networks of kin and friends, and can rely on the former for both male protection and assistance to cover familial responsibilities when they are away. The courier women simultaneously enact and transgress gender roles, and their transnationalism works throughnot over or apart fromlocally embedded social relations. Social transformations also happen in particular places, though it may be transnational movement across places that enables them. Gibson et al. (2001) discuss the ways that Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong have worked to transform their situations in both Hong Kong and the Philippines by drawing resources from their experiences in each. Through the Regeneration Program of the Asian Migrant Centre in Hong Kong, domestic workers are pooling their savings earned in Hong Kong to invest in collectively owned cooperatives in the Philippines. Gibson et al. interpret this as a transition from a slave class (domestic worker) to a communal class position. Though the womens activities have the objective of extending their economic rights in all parts of their lives, they do so within the particularity of their class position in each context. As they acquire new skills in their entrepreneurial business venture, the women also develop resources to ght for their rights as domestic workers in Hong Kong. At the same time, their understanding of their work experience in Hong Kong is used to build social values beyond prot maximising into their business ventures in the Philippines. The particularity of the struggles in Hong Kong and the Philippines cannot be attened and blurred, but they certainly alter each other in meaningful ways.

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Transnational Feminist Politics

The necessity of paying close attention to the specicity of place and context, whilst building connections across struggles in different places, lies at the heart of transnational feminist politics (Grewal & Kaplan, 1994; Hyndman, 1998; Katz, 2001). Katz invites feminists to construct counter topographies, a metaphor that suggests tracing lines across places to show how they are connected by the same processes, and simultaneously embedding these processes within the specics of fully contextualised, three-dimensional places. She hopes that this metaphor will inspire a different kind of politics, one that is


G. Pratt & B. Yeoh

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not homogenising, but in which crossing space and jumping scale are obligatory rather than overlooked (p. 1231). This suggests at least two ways of moving forward. First, by taking seriously the challenge to perform research on transnational subjects transnationallytracing pathways, crossing space, encountering borders, negotiating scales and difference, forging connectionsthe divide between researcher and researched, between reection and experience, may be further blurred. The specicities and struggles of place that take shape in different ways in the tracing of counter topographies may be further elaborated through looking at the way comparative transnationalisms intersect on the ground, whether this is comparing different transnational networks in the same place or comparing network practices across space (Smith, 2001, pp. 176177). As we come to grips with the terrains traversed by transnational subjects in all its material specicities, there is a better chance of moving beyond inquiryto amplify the possibilities of imagination and partial identication (cf. Pratt, 2000, p. 649). The imperatives to perform grounded, multisite, multiscale research in tracing the multistranded connections transnational subjects make as they traverse transnational space would also challenge us to deal with our own spatial stickiness, to recognise possibilities and try to overcome difculties in crossing borders in material, discursive and performative terms. Second, transnational subjects impel us to re-evaluate and take seriously the importance of transnational collaboration in research and writing. Collaborating across worldsdespite its discomforts, messiness and power politicsallows us to make full use of situated knowledges and at the same time creates often unplanned opportunities to destabilise vantage points, and to improvise different, variegated perspectives in producing and performing knowledges. While the politics and slippages inherent in trying to talk across worlds (Nagar, 2002) in creating collaborative knowledges across space/ difference cannot be ignored, it is when we have the courage to link up, open diverse channels of communication between different places and make the whole notion of travelling more than a unilateral movement that we help to chisel away at entrenched hierarchies of knowledge and place. In rethinking the purposes of research and the priorities on the research agenda against the framework of transnationalism, it may help us take seriously the politics of simultaneity (Smith, 2001, p. 162) which operate at every scale, and in doing so go on to create more equitable border-crossings in academia and beyond. NOTE
[1] There is, however, growing literature on the construction of masculinities among male empire-builders, planters and travellers in their contest with tropical nature and people during the colonial era. See, for example, Duncan (2000).

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