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Transnational Citizens, Cosmopolitan Outlooks? Migration as a Route to Cosmopolitanism


Cindy Horst,

Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Oslo, NO
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Tore Vincents Olsen

Department of Political Science, Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus University, Aarhus, DK
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In this article, we argue that transnational citizens – those international migrants who maintain connections to their country of origin and its diaspora – can be moderate cosmopolitans. We hold the primarily normative idea of cosmopolitanism up against the empirical literature on transnationalism, and show how cosmopolitanism can develop from the migration process itself and the subsequent connection to a diversity of places. We claim that studying migrants who lead transnational lives can increase our knowledge about the compatibility of attachments to particular places or people on the one hand, and cosmopolitan outlooks on the other. It can also correct the narrow focus in European politics as well as in migration studies on ethnic or national values and identities, encouraging a more intersectional approach. We thus aim to contribute to a re-conceptualisation of the relationships between polity, territory, and civic responsibility in culturally and religiously diverse societies in Europe today.

How to Cite: Horst, C. and Olsen, T.V., 2021. Transnational Citizens, Cosmopolitan Outlooks? Migration as a Route to Cosmopolitanism. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 11(1), pp.4–19. DOI:
  Published on 22 Mar 2021
 Accepted on 04 May 2020            Submitted on 24 Jul 2018


Public discourse in Europe today is characterised by a strong preoccupation with the values, motivations, and activities of immigrants, in particular those immigrants who originate from the Global South (Ezzati forthcoming, Iversen 2014). While liberal democratic institutions are understood to depend on social conviviality, active citizenship and an abstract sense of justice, in debates across Europe these immigrants are often represented as lacking the characteristics to support such institutions because of their assumed strong ties to family, ethnic, or religious groups. It is frequently argued in public discourse that rather than having cosmopolitan outlooks that would enable them to fully integrate into pluralistic societies and support the universalistic principles that are presumed to underlie liberal democratic institutions, they are embedded in particularistic values and beliefs (Moosavi 2015). Yet, as we will illustrate, cosmopolitanism can develop from the migration process itself and subsequent transnational connections to a diversity of places, and thus, transnational citizens can certainly have cosmopolitan outlooks.

In this article we hold the primarily normative idea of cosmopolitanism up against the empirical literature on transnationalism. The cosmopolitan citizen is in many ways understood to be an ideal world citizen committed to principles of justice and democracy that are portrayed as universal, guided by a global sense of solidarity. The literature on transnationalism, on the other hand, often portrays transnational citizens as being guided by narrow, particular ties and holding less-universal values (Balta and Altan 2016, Levitt 2009). We explore migration and transnationalism as formative processes towards cosmopolitan outlooks. At the same time, we go one step further by illustrating how multiple social structures and identity markers intersect and intertwine to produce specific social relations (Anthias 2013).

Derived from the Greek word kosmopolites (‘citizen of the world’), underlying all cosmopolitan perspectives is the idea that all human beings are (or can and should be) citizens in a single community (Kleingeld and Brown 2014). We are operating with a republican understanding of citizenship and focus on civic values, identities and practices, rather than on citizenship as legal status. What we are interested in, then, is citizenship-as-desirable-activity, or active citizenship (Kymlicka & Norman 1994).

An important issue pertaining to the discussion of cosmopolitan citizens is how they are created. Cosmopolitanism is often seen as the product of an expanded form of civic education that socializes young citizens into cosmopolitans or at least globally oriented national citizens (Heater 2002; Nussbaum 1994). Theories on the formation of an individual’s ideological outlook hold that the length and type of education they receive is a good predictor for how liberal or cosmopolitan an outlook they have (Stubager 2010). From this perspective, the formation of identity and motivation in a certain sense comes before the cosmopolitan practices in which people will ultimately engage. However, the immersion of people into different kinds of international activities could also be viewed as a way to create cosmopolitans. This so-called ‘communitarian’ route points out how engagement, interaction and dialogue with people outside one’s own country and nation, who in part are different from oneself, could be a crucial mechanism in creating a cosmopolitan perspective among citizens (Eckersley 2007; Jordaan 2011).

In this article, we posit that cosmopolitan citizens are also created through migration and transnational engagement, and that this is an important third route to explore to better understand cosmopolitan values, identities and practices in Europe today. Importantly, studying immigrants who lead transnational lives can increase our knowledge about the compatibility of attachments to particular places or people and cosmopolitan outlooks. Our main focus in this article is on citizens in Europe who are members of transnational communities, living lives that cross national, political, and cultural boundaries. Civic participation today is increasingly operating in, between, and across multiple locations. This experience can be conceptualised as ‘multi-sited embeddedness’; an embeddedness created in the interactions between feelings of belonging and civic participation in multiple communities (Horst 2018). This concept provides an alternative to binary understandings of belonging and participation that focus on national or ethnic identities only.

Ethno-national understandings of civic participation can be binary in two ways: first, civic participation is often empirically studied as taking place either in the country of origin or in the country of residence; second, in normative literature the binary contrast is made between individuals either being embedded in a (ethno-)national group or having a cosmopolitan outlook. Yet transnational citizens are embedded in, between, and across multiple sites simultaneously. Furthermore, they are not just defined by their national or ethnic identities but also by gender, age, class, religion, and a host of other identity markers that require an intersectional research approach (Anthias 2013). Recognizing the relevance of multiple identity markers allows us to understand that they can both be embedded in particular groups while also having cosmopolitan perspectives.

Consider the example of Abdi Hashi,1 who was born in Somalia, has Norwegian citizenship, spent his childhood in the United Arab Emirates, and currently resides in Mogadishu and London, while his family members live in all the aforementioned places. At different points in his life, he has felt a sense of belonging to and has engaged in a range of social and political activities in Norway, the United Arab Emirates, Somalia, and the UK – or particular cities within these countries. Transnationalism entails that people have connections to other places or polities than the one they currently live in and that their motivations, identities and practices are not determined by one national context. At the same time, this transnational citizen is defined by a range of identity markers that go beyond the national. She or he can feel connected to her or his ethnic group through family ties and a shared history; to residents of the city where (s)he lives through shared affiliations and everyday experiences; to fellow Muslims through a shared faith and religious practice; and to activists within, say, the global conservation movement through a shared concern for the environment.

We are not alone in emphasising the part played by transnational populations within Europe in promoting the cosmopolitanism required for today’s society and politics, both locally and globally. Baban and Rygiel (2014), for example, suggest the study of ‘transgressive cosmopolitanism’, which they put forth as a form of cosmopolitanism that manifests itself when marginalized populations that lack legal citizenship status make claims to be accepted as members of European society through their civic and political participation. Through civil-political acts, they argue, the concrete content of cosmopolitanism is negotiated by marginalised residents in precarious legal positions, rather than elites. While we applaud the important contribution Baban and Rygiel and others make, we want to go one step further and argue that not just marginalized residents, but a much larger group of transnational citizens in Europe engage as cosmopolitans. It is this group of migrants, whose cosmopolitanism has developed from the migration process and subsequent transnational connections to multiple places, that we are focusing on in the present article.

In the next two sections, we briefly outline a number of core elements of relevance in the literature on cosmopolitanism and transnationalism. We focus on moral and cultural cosmopolitanism and discuss the features of extreme and moderate forms of each. We then explore what the literature on migrant transnationalism can teach us about identities, motivations, and practices of transnational citizens. The fourth section explores the cosmopolitan traits of transnational citizens from an intersectional perspective. We conclude by drawing out the theoretical, methodological, and empirical implications of our claim that migration and transnationalism can be an important route towards cosmopolitan outlooks.

Cosmopolitan Citizens

The core idea of cosmopolitan citizenship is that all human beings are citizens in a single community: humanity. The literature on cosmopolitanism can be divided into three strands: a moral, a cultural and a political, which each entails a different conception of the cosmopolitan citizen. Moral cosmopolitanism emphasises that we have equal moral duties or ‘duties of justice’ towards all human beings, regardless of the particular relations in which we stand to them. This strand defines cosmopolitan citizens as having a global sense of justice and solidarity that applies to the whole of humanity indiscriminately.

Cultural cosmopolitanism sees cosmopolitanism as an identity and way of life. Cultural cosmopolitanism is characterized by a transcendence of local ties; in other words, by the ability to move and exist effortlessly in the world. It entails combining elements of different cultural practices from the cultural reservoir of the broader world to create one’s own idiosyncratic mix and identity. This strand has long historical roots, but today it is associated with the idea that globalisation must be complemented by cosmopolitan culture and identity formation – rather than adherence to ethno-national cultures and identities – in order to ensure the conditions for a good life (human flourishing) for the individual (Waldron 1992; 2000).

Political cosmopolitanism is mostly concerned with the need to create transnational democratic communities and to establish democratic institutions at the global and/or regional levels (Habermas 2001; Held 1995; Kaldor 2003; Linklater 1999). While the creation and support of global or supranational political institutions is an important topic within the normative debate on cosmopolitanism, it constitutes a marginal phenomenon empirically and is not discussed in the literature on transnationalism. It is therefore less relevant for our argument here and we will focus on moral and cultural cosmopolitanism only. In the following, we explore the identities, value orientations and practices that define cosmopolitan citizens according to moral and cultural cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolitan identifications and values

Moral cosmopolitanism concerns itself with human beings as such, without placing much moral weight on particular relations and group identifications that people have, e.g. nationality or ethnicity. The strictest iteration of moral cosmopolitanism claims that special relationships and group affiliations can never generate special responsibilities, as all human beings hold equal moral obligations to each other by virtue of their humanity. A more moderate version argues that being a world citizen implies having an ethical relationship with human beings as such in addition to one’s concrete affiliations with a national or local community (Nussbaum 1994; Scheffler 2001).

Thus moderate moral cosmopolitanism argues that the particular relations that one has with other people (e.g. friends, family or co-nationals) by definition come with special obligations (Parekh 2003; Scheffler 2001). However, these obligations do not override the equal treatment and the acknowledgement of the equal worth of all human beings in all contexts. The privileging of particular relationships in some contexts does not preclude the concern with humanity and its welfare prevailing in other contexts. In the moderate interpretation, global citizenship does not necessarily require one to detach oneself from one’s national, ethnic, religious or other forms of personal identity. In this perspective, such attachments are compatible with the recognition of different spheres of justice and finding a responsible balance between universal and particular obligations (Held 2010; Parekh 2003; Walzer 1983).

Cultural cosmopolitanism involves people of the world living in and travelling between metropolitan areas as well as people who stay at home and adopt or share new global cultural norms and practices (Waldron 1992; 2000). The extreme form of cultural cosmopolitanism claims that only people who are able to completely transcend their rootedness in particular communities and create their own cosmopolitan lifestyle and identity from the pool of cultural elements found in a globalising culture will be sufficiently attuned to the conditions of today’s world. This is typified by Waldron’s assertion that ‘the hybrid lifestyle of the true cosmopolitan is in fact the only appropriate response to the modern world in which we live’ (1992: 763).

By contrast, the moderate form of cultural cosmopolitanism argues that, while one does not need to be rooted in the culture in which one is reared to lead a good and autonomous life, it is possible to stay true to one’s roots while living a cosmopolitan lifestyle (Scheffler 2001; Waldron 1992). Being a cosmopolitan, in this perspective, is to engage with people and with one’s own identity in an open and critical manner, where one perceives cultural identities and practices as potentially rational and morally defensible ways of dealing with action and interaction problems in specific contexts (Waldron 2000).

As broadly conceived, then, moral cosmopolitanism is characterised by an abstract sense of justice and solidarity that motivates cosmopolitan citizens, while cultural cosmopolitanism is a certain way of life that may be congruent with a sense of justice and solidarity, but may also simply be based on a motivation to lead a good flourishing life in the global era, individually or together with other cosmopolitans. In extreme conceptions, cosmopolitans have no particularistic identities or seek to transcend the boundedness of particular national communities, while in more moderate perspectives the global orientation and commitment is paired and balanced with other attachments and obligations.

It follows from the two stands of cosmopolitanism that cosmopolitans are progressive (and egalitarian) people who possess a considerable degree of reflexivity towards their own beliefs, identities and value commitments. They respectfully and open-mindedly engage with others who are different from themselves in order to ensure inclusiveness, reach commonly acceptable solutions to problems or simply to share a good time and valuable practices (Appiah 2008; Brock 2011).

Cosmopolitan practices

From the conceptions of moral and cultural forms of cosmopolitanism follows certain kinds of social and civic practices that aim to realize global justice and/or a cosmopolitan culture. Social practices involve creating and attending cultural events and associations that celebrate aspects of a cosmopolitan culture. Civically, cosmopolitans may engage in acts of protest and advocacy aimed at policymakers at national and international levels as well as demonstrations of global solidarity. Cosmopolitan practices also have a material side to them, including the organisation of volunteer work, donations to non-governmental organisations and other forms of global charity (Kaldor 2003).

The practices of cosmopolitan citizens take place both at home and abroad, as globalisation and new communication technologies reduce the distance in both time and space and allow activities to take place simultaneously in different locations. Physical co-presence is not always required (Giddens 1990). Abroad, cosmopolitan citizen practices range from very concrete projects such as building and funding schools in a particular village or region to influencing the constitution of international trade regimes such as the World Trade Organization. At home, cosmopolitanism entails doing the groundwork for global activities taking place elsewhere. However, cosmopolitans realise that globalization has produced increasingly diverse societies and that engaging and expressing solidarity with others in one’s own society, especially those who are different from themselves, is a key practice of cosmopolitanism. The challenge is to accept mutual responsibility for a common future and for solving shared problems through collaboration and dialogue (Hannerz 1990; Osler & Starkey 2003). What characterizes cosmopolitan practices both at home and abroad is a commitment to the principles of universal justice and democracy, a global sense of solidarity and the conception of a cosmopolitan life as a precondition for a good life.

Table 1 provides an overview of the identities, values and practices of cosmopolitan citizens. In the next section, we explore the possibility that the experience of migration, and subsequent transnational ties, can give people enhanced cosmopolitan identities and values while leading to practices similar to those envisioned by the two strands of cosmopolitanism. That is, we investigate whether our claim that migration is third route to cosmopolitanism in addition to civic education and ‘the communitarian path’ (Jordaan 2011; Eckersley 2007), holds in light of the empirical literature on transnationalism.

Table 1


Moral Identities Values Practices

Extreme Membership of humanity Global sense of justice and solidarity Civic and material oriented towards realizing global justice
Cross cultural dialogue and collective responsibility
Moderate Combined membership of humanity and of particular communities Balanced global and social sense of justice and solidarity Civic and material oriented towards realizing local and global justice
Cross cultural dialogue and collective responsibility

Extreme Cosmopolitan citizen of the globalised world Individual flourishing in a cosmopolitan culture Social and material oriented towards realizing cosmopolitan culture
Cross cultural dialogue and collective responsibility
Moderate Reflective culturally embedded citizen of the globalised world (‘Weltoffen’) Individual flourishing in cosmopolitan culture and in reflective cultural rootedness Social and material oriented towards realizing cultural openness and reflection
Cross cultural dialogue and collective responsibility

The transnational citizen

The study of migrants’ transnational networks and practices was launched in the early 1990s within the fields of anthropology and sociology (Basch et al. 1992; Basch et al. 1994; Glick Schiller et al. 1995; Waldinger 2013). Central to transnational migration studies is a reformulation of the concept of society so that it is no longer automatically confined by the boundaries of a single nation state (Levitt & Glick Schiller 2004). The effects of globalisation are visible in everyday lives through the increasing speed and density of interconnectedness across locations. This changing reality required a new analytical lens and methodological approach focusing on the networks and flows that crossed borders and simultaneously connected different locations.

Migrants are often embedded in multi-layered, multi-sited ‘transnational social fields’ (Levitt & Glick Schiller 2004), and this reality impacts basic assumptions about central concepts of social analysis such as citizenship. The transnational approach argues against the common methodological nationalism in social sciences that assumes the nation state and its boundaries as a given (Wimmer & Glick Schiller 2003). In mainstream social sciences, it is argued, the nation state is represented as natural and given rather than recently constructed. In order to challenge this, the transnational approach studies flows of people, goods, money, thoughts, and the like as operating in a transnational social field where locations remain important but are no longer solely defined by and studied within nation-state boundaries.

On the one hand, transnational citizens – those international migrants who maintain connections to their country of origin and its diaspora – are often described in the academic literature as tied to their ethnic and/or national roots, and these bonds are seen as primary determinants of their identities, values and practices (Colic-Peisker 2006; Dahinden 2012). This emphasis on roots and embeddedness in a specific ethnic or national culture suggests that transnational citizens are unlikely cosmopolitans. On the other hand, transnational studies also point to how the experience of migration has a formative effect on the identity of transnational citizens (Anthias 2012; Çaglar 2001; Vertovec 2001). From this perspective, it is the ‘routes’ and not ‘roots’ (Clifford 1994) that determine the political identity and activity of transnational citizens. Not only does the actual process of migration demand that people relate reflexively to their own identity (Brigden 2016), migration also means that people’s sense of belonging and connectedness to different people and places changes (Horst 2018).

Transnational civic identity and its location

What happens when ‘society differs from polity and is made up of sets of social relationships in intersecting and overlapping national and transnational social fields’ (Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004: 1015)? There is often a zero-sum assumption that sees transnational involvement as a direct challenge to local engagement and ‘good citizenship’ on a national level. However, various studies have argued against this assumption by showing the complementarity of transnational and local practices (Erdal & Oeppen 2013; Nagel & Staehili 2008; Snel et al. 2006).

In the transnational literature we often find identifications of immigrants from the ‘Global South’ as relating to ‘homelands’ through family or ethnic ties and emotional connections (Brubaker 2005, Glick Schiller et al. 2011). These identifications can resurrect methodological nationalism by replacing the boundaries of the nation state with those of essentialized ethno-national and cultural communities (Glick Schiller 2005). Yet groups are never static, and the idea that we belong to one community only and that this community is unified by a common culture, with fixed norms, values, and practices, is problematic (Vertovec 2001). Civic identity and action are not just defined by social groups that are national or ethnic, because action, contestation, and dialogue are shaped by multiple identity markers (Anthias 2012; Caglan 2001).

As Keller (2013: 244) argues, a migrant often forms attachments not to the new country but ‘to the particular places and communities within which she makes her new life’. Keller’s perception of migrants as ‘worldly citizens’ is an inspiring call to move beyond an understanding of transnational citizens that questions the particular ties they have. According to Keller, a worldly citizen is ‘genuinely a citizen of a particular country, and with particular attachments to places and communities within that country, but taking upon her country a perspective informed by her knowledge that that country is not the only one there is’ (Keller 2013: 245). While Keller does not call this worldly citizen cosmopolitan, she could be understood as such within the moderate cosmopolitan perspective that we are discussing in this article, which allows for, but moves beyond, particular attachments such as those related to nationality, religion and ethnicity.

Transnational motivations and civic virtues

Do transnational migrants have civic virtues that make them cosmopolitan citizens? The question of what motivates migrants to provide assistance or engage politically is central to many studies. Often, as Carling (2014) claims, motivations are discussed either in terms of egoistic or altruistic motives. Alternatively, a range of obligations and responsibilities to kin or community are stressed. Research that explores the relevance of cosmopolitan normative ideas for studying transnational empirical realities goes a step further by discussing the underlying values and virtues that drive transnational practices (Glick Schiller et al. 2011).

Drawing on empirical case studies amongst inter alia Sierra Leoneans in Washington DC, Ghanaians in London, and pan-African organizations in Belgium, Fumanti and Werbner (2010) explore how migration introduces permeable ethnicity, intercultural communication, a process of expanding horizons and the creation of citizenship. They encourage researchers to understand practices that take place in the transnational social field as ‘rooted in moral ideas and values’ and call for reviving the notion of ‘virtuous citizenship’ (Fumanti & Werbner 2010: 6). At the same time, in their perspective, such moral rooting is strongly linked to personal and communal ties to people in the country of origin. As such, their approach to understanding the cosmopolitan nature of transnational citizens is deeply rooted in the particular.

As Mohan (2006) argues, obligations to a given socio-political community are part of defining citizenship in terms of what a ‘good’ member of that community should do. Transnational citizens are thus understood as sharing a sense of co-responsibility (Werbner 2002) or moral conviviality (Mercer & Page 2010) with a community beyond the bounded territory of the state in which they reside. Soysal (1994) has argued for a need to explore citizenship in the context of a post-national world in which rights and duties are no longer defined exclusively within the boundaries of nation states. The transnational perspective rather suggests that transnational citizens have relationships to multiple states and polities. Whether post- or transnational, there is a need to reconceptualise the relationships between political community, territory, and obligation (Mohan 2006).

A narrow focus on ethnic and national ties as drivers of action is incomplete because there are other sources of obligation, which may relate to a range of personal identity traits, including religion, gender, age, profession, or class (Anthias 2012). Other sources of obligation also include those obtained by virtue of being human (Mohan 2006). Sinatti and Horst (2015), in a study on how the development aid community in Europe related to diaspora humanitarian and development aid, argue that the urge to assist others on the part of the western development worker is commonly seen to be linked to a professional call, whereas members of diasporas who engage in development aid are mostly understood to be called to ‘help their own people’. Such an analysis of diaspora engagement, the authors argue, ‘does not take into account that a shared sense of humanity might underpin the urge to assist, the wish to help others as fellow human beings’ (Sinatti and Horst 2015).

Transnational practices

When it comes to transnational practices, those most commonly studied in the migration literature relate to flows within transnational social fields that bridge country of origin and of residence, and financial flows in particular. Financial remittances play a crucial role for household livelihoods as well as national economies in large parts of the Global South. The literature on remittances has focused on what motivates migrants to send money (Horst 2008a; Lindley 2010; Page & Mercer 2012) and the impacts of these remittances (Maimbo & Ratha 2005). Remittances are sent and used for family consumption, humanitarian aid, and development contributions on local, regional, and national levels (Bakewell 2008; De Haas 2007; Van Naerssen et al. 2007). Transnational citizens also invest in businesses (Musa and Horst 2019; Nielsen & Riddle 2010; Riddle & Brinkerhof 2011) and real estate (Erdal 2012). Furthermore, research has identified a shift in remittance spending over time from family consumption to more communal forms of charity and investments (Oeppen 2013).

Levitt’s (1998) introduction of the term ‘social remittances’ adds another dimension to this focus on material flows. She argues that it is just as important to understand the transfers of values, knowledge and motivations taking place between contexts. Multiple experiences of governmentality and political socialisation do not occur in isolation from one another: people in transnational social fields are exposed to different ideas of citizen rights and responsibilities, direct experiences with international rights regimes, and different histories of political practices (Levitt & Glick Schiller 2004). These experiences shape the practices and outlooks of migrants, the societies they leave behind, and the societies they reside in.

Transnational citizens engage in a range of political practices as well (Adamson 2002; Brinkerhof 2011; Horst 2008b; Lyons 2007). This includes direct transnational engagements such as long-distance voting (Collyer 2013; Lafleur 2011), lobbying national and international actors to engage in particular causes or countries (Østergaard-Nielsen 2003; Tellander & Horst 2019), and running for a political position or contributing to the political campaigns of individuals and parties in country of origin and/or settlement. As Levitt and Glick Schiller (2004) argue, many migrants may not engage politically until a particular event or crisis occurs. These moments may trigger lobbying, demonstrating, organising, or campaigning in order to influence decision makers in the country of residence or origin.

Transnational Citizens, Cosmopolitan Outlooks

Can and do transnational citizens play a part in promoting the cosmopolitanism required for social conviviality, active citizenship, and support for liberal democratic institutions in culturally and religiously diverse European societies? Are migration and subsequent transnational practices a route to cosmopolitanism? We have aimed to answer these questions by briefly exploring the cosmopolitan literature, on the one hand, which is predominantly normative and interested in questions of how the ideal cosmopolitan citizen should identify herself, how her motivation should be developed and structured, and the kinds of practices she should engage in. We then explored a selection of the literature on transnational citizens, on the other hand, which empirically studies individuals and their engagements in the world. While comparing normative cosmopolitan literature with empirically grounded transnational literature is by definition challenging, we do believe our exploration of these two distinct literatures highlights several interesting findings.

As we have shown, moral and cultural cosmopolitanism are two relevant strands of thought, where moral cosmopolitanism is characterised by an abstract sense of justice that applies to the whole of humanity indiscriminately and influences the identities, values and practices of cosmopolitan citizens, while cultural cosmopolitanism implies a certain way of life that transcends an individual’s rootedness in particular communities and draws on the pool of cultural elements found in a globalising culture. Both strands come in extreme versions, where cosmopolitans have no particularistic identities, while in more moderate versions the global orientation and commitment can be combined with other attachments and obligations.

While the transnational literature originates from a criticism of methodological nationalism, many studies operate with a frame that reifies the ethno-national motivations of transnational actors (Glick Schiller et al. 2011). We have argued in this article that it is important not to get stuck on conceptions of transnational citizens as always deeply embedded in their own culture and group, unable to extend their moral, social, and political orientation and practices beyond their ethnic community and country of origin. In fact, the multi-sited embeddedness experienced by transnational citizens allows for aspects of their identities, motivations, and practices to have clear cosmopolitan traits. This multi-sited embeddedness entails that individuals can both have a sense of belonging and engage in practices of civic participation that span across several nation-states and operate both locally and transnationally, connecting them to different locations and people and drawing on a range of identity traits; including ethnic identity, gender, generation, class and religion. Understanding transnational citizens in this multi-sited and intersectional way, we see two important points coming out of a comparison of transnational and cosmopolitan literature.

First, transnational citizens can indeed be cultural cosmopolitans, as they move to, increasingly feel at home in, and engage with others in their new places of residence. They adopt new technologies, cultural habits, and modes of organisation and governance while utilising the skills and resources they carried with them from their origin countries in order to support their economic, social, and political transnational practices. Because these transnational citizens expand their cultural repertoire and identification points while also holding on to a range of original attachments as they live and move within transnational social fields, they can be described as moderate cultural cosmopolitans.

For instance, Abdi Hashi – the individual introduced earlier who was born in Somalia, grew up in the Emirates and Norway and has lived his adult life in both London and Mogadishu – relates to cultural and national boundaries in fundamentally different ways from those who have never moved. As a consequence of his migratory trajectory and subsequent transnational networks and practices, he has grown more aware of the fact that cultural norms and ways of living are relative. He is also much more conscious of his identity than those who have never migrated, because his sense of belonging is continuously challenged in the societies he is part of, which still by and large define people’s ethnic and national identities in dichotomous ways. Simultaneously, he claims belonging through everyday civic practices (Horst, Erdal & Jdid 2019). While transnational citizens such as Abdi do not necessarily transcend their rootedness in particular communities and places, these communities and places are manifold. Abdi, like others who lead transnational lives and are part of transnational communities, practices a cosmopolitan lifestyle and has a cosmopolitan perspective on the world due to the routes he has traversed throughout his life.

Second, the literature on transnational citizens reveals practices that are aligned with moral cosmopolitanism, which is characterised by a concern with universal human rights and global justice. The contribution of remittances to humanitarian aid and development assistance is one prevalent example. Transnational citizens are acutely aware of global injustices and inequalities, as they can compare conditions in what are often quite divergent contexts through their own lived experiences and transnational exchanges with families and friends. They concretely address these inequalities through individual remittances or by contributing humanitarian aid and development contributions on local, regional, and national levels. When British-Pakistani women offer material support and stage human rights campaigns for Palestinian and Bosnian refugees (Fumanti & Werbner 2010), this may be classified as Islamic charity but may just as well be understood as cosmopolitan activism. When a Somali-Canadian development worker provides education and other forms of support for displaced women and girls in Somalia, such engagement is not done justice by understanding it merely as an attempt to help ‘one’s own people’ rather than a wish to help others in difficult circumstances as fellow human beings (Sinatti & Horst 2015).

The practices of transnational citizens with cosmopolitan outlooks can be motivated by a combination of concrete solidarity with a specific group and a more global sense of justice. The plight of members of the specific group may in fact represent a particular instance of a broader injustice to be remedied, such as the unequal distribution of wealth and human security between the Global North and the Global South. This engagement may also be understood as part of a division of moral labour in the realisation of global justice. By taking on the responsibility to provide for the poor in one’s country of origin or seek protections for Muslims in oppressed positions, transnational citizens contribute to the pursuit of global justice and addressing inequalities and injustices they have identified in their everyday lives.


In this article, we have made two main contributions. First, we have argued that migration and transnationalism can be important pathways towards creating cosmopolitan outlooks. This is a crucial point to make, both to inform public debate and academic work. In public debate, one common perspective is that migrants from the Global South are strongly tied to family, ethnic, or religious groups and that these particularistic ties hinder support for liberal democratic institutions (Ezzati forthcoming; Glick Schiller et al. 2011). Academic research on transnationalism often takes a narrow approach that only studies the particularistic embeddedness of transnational citizens. More research is needed on how the multi-sited embeddedness of transnational citizens impacts the state of cosmopolitan values, identities, and practices in Europe. In addition to exploring the role of the transgressive cosmopolitanism of marginalized groups, as Baban and Rygiel (2014) have shown is crucial, we argue that the values, identities, and practices of transnational citizens – as citizens in Europe rather than merely as marginalized others – are important topics of study.

Second, we have argued that such empirical work requires an intersectional approach that studies the ways in which multiple identity markers impact individual values, identities, and practices at different times (Anthias 2012). Empirical research on the cosmopolitan outlooks of transnational citizens can correct the narrow focus in European politics as well as in migration studies on their particularistic ethnic or national values and identities (Dahinden 2016). Much work within transnational migration studies presupposes that transnational practices are motivated by national or ethnic ties. Instead, we have argued for the importance of studying the values and identities of transnational citizens from an intersectional perspective, exploring empirically which particular identity markers matter in which context. When transnational citizens in Europe send financial support for humanitarian purposes or lobby international organizations for a particular cause, what are the values that drive them to do this and to what extent does their gender, age, educational background, professional identity, experience as a parent, religion, or a range of other personal characteristics influence these practices? More empirical research is needed to answer such questions.

Showing the contribution of the transnational route to the creation of cosmopolitanism enables us to illustrate how transnational citizens combine attachments to particular places and people with cosmopolitan outlooks and lifestyles that develop from understanding the relative nature of cultural perspectives and practices. Indeed, focusing on the transnational route to cosmopolitanism also makes it possible to address the criticism often levelled against cosmopolitanism that it is a form of western-values imperialism (Jabri 2007). Yet ethnographic studies show postcolonial perspectives on cosmopolitanism to be a vibrant and existing alternative (Amit & Rapport 2012). Similarly, we argue that transnational citizens can hold cosmopolitan outlooks, irrespective of their national background or personal worldview.

By acknowledging that a number of transnational citizens may very well be described as cosmopolitans, we open up the discourse for new questions in normative research on cosmopolitanism. Studying the perspectives of transnational citizens on global inequalities and injustices, for example, would allow us to explore some of the motivations behind cosmopolitan outlooks in new ways, building for example on the work of Fumanti and Werbner (2010). Similarly, drawing on empirical work that highlights the multi-sited understandings of belonging and civic practices of transnational citizens will require new reflections on exactly what a cosmopolitan way of life and being entails. This may also entail a re-conceptualisation of the nature of the values required to be a true cosmopolitan, as one does not need to hold western liberal values to believe in equal moral duties towards all human beings. This is a belief that is deeply ingrained in several religious traditions, for example. Nor is a liberal self-identity necessary for the development of the ability to move and be effortlessly in the world, combining elements of different cultural practices.

Finally, for transnational studies, a cosmopolitan angle provides an important corrective to its ethno-national preoccupations by encouraging explorations on the circumstances under which transnational citizens develop a cosmopolitan outlook. Such a project requires an approach that explores how ethnic or national background intersects with age, class, urban lifestyle, attachment to land, personal worldview, and other individual characteristics and life experiences to impact civic contributions on the local, national, and transnational levels. It also enables us to understand transnational citizens as more than (former) migrants, rooted in their past through the ‘homeland’ and transnational communities. Indeed, transnational citizens can and do combine multiple attachments to particular places and people with cosmopolitan motivations, identities, and practices.


1This example draws on data from the ‘Diaspora Return’ project. It has been anonymized to protect the identity of the informant. 

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.


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