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Crossing Borders: Social Remittances & ICTs

Uwimana Basaninyenzi's picture

For some time now, I have been fascinated with the concept of social remittances, a term coined by sociologist Peggy Levitt, who argued that, in addition to economic contributions, migrants export ideas, behaviors, identities, and social capital back to their home communities.  These exchanges occur in a number of ways: through the interpersonal communication, letters, videos, blogs, phone calls, television and other forms of communication. This concept has not received as much attention as economic remittances, as pointed out in an interesting piece published by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) entitled, “It’s Not Just About the Economy, Stupid: Social Remittances Revisited.” The paper provides some compelling examples of how social remittances have contributed to development, including influencing ideas around good governance. In this blog post, I will examine the impact that social remittances can have on diaspora communities that are using communication technologies to develop their home countries, especially those engaged with social media and other online forums.

In the paper Social Remittances: Culture as a Development Tool, Levitt identifies three important defining features of social remittances that make them distinctive from other types of global cultural flows:

  • First, they travel through identifiable pathways that can be tracked, meaning their source and destination is clear. Migrants and non-migrants can also state how they learned of a particular idea or practice and why they decided to adopt it.
  • Second, they are transmitted systematically and intentionally to a specific recipient or group. An example provided here is when migrants speak directly to a family member about a political issue and encourage them to pursue reforms.  Typically, people know when and why they have changed their minds about something or begin to act differently.
  • Third, they are normally transferred between individuals who know one another or who are connected through social ties. This personalized communication is very different from the faceless and mass produced nature of global cultural diffusion.

These defining features mean a great deal to diasporas using communication technologies to engage in development interventions.  From the distinctive traits of social remittances, it is clear that these types of influences can be measured—from monitoring the transmission of messages to identifying change in behaviors and attitudes. These messages also come with a great deal of personal credibility, which has the potential to influence the outcome of an intervention. 

So, what is the potential impact of these exchanges on issues like gender equality, youth employment, and climate change? Can social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram be used to effectively communicate these ideas?

Yes, social remittances can have a tremendous impact on the diasporas and their ability to influence their home communities. This is something that is well documented in the literature. However, there is little evidence that delves deeply into the interplay between social remittances and communication technologies, particularly new and social media.

A lot of opportunities can be gained by examining social remittances specifically through the lens of communication technologies. There are some really interesting cases of how diaspora communities are using online forums to influence change.  An example is a study by Pedro J. Oiarzabal, who has conducted research on Basque diaspora groups on Facebook. One of the goals of his research was to discover the potential effects of social media on identities, community formation, communication exchange, and knowledge transfers. In his research, Oirazabal found that for many of the diaspora groups, Facebook strengthened their communication strategies and facilitated their ability to disseminate information about themselves and their activities beyond their immediate communities, which helped to achieve important goals in their home countries. To me, this research reinforces the work on social remittances and the potential that exists with new forms of media.

As pointed out by Levitt, social remittances have been referenced in a lot of literature, but not well understood. Given the proliferation of communication technologies, online forums, and transnational networks, it would be worthwhile to fully explore the meaning of these exchanges and what they could mean for diaspora communities working to influence development.


Photo credit: flickr user KoppCorentin

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