We consider cross-space consumption as a form of transnational practice among international migrants. In this paper, we develop the idea of the social value of consumption and use it to explain this particular form of transnationalism. We consider the act of consumption to have not only functional value that satisfies material needs but also a set of nonfunctional values, social value included, that confer symbolic meanings and social status. We argue that cross-space consumption enables international migrants to take advantage of differences in economic development, currency exchange rates, and social structures between countries of destination and origin to maximize their expression of social status and to perform or regain social status. Drawing on a multisited ethnographic study of consumption patterns in migrant hometowns in Fuzhou, China, and in-depth interviews with undocumented Chinese immigrants in New York and their left-behind family members, we find that, despite the vulnerabilities and precarious circumstances associated with the lack of citizenship rights in the host society, undocumented immigrants manage to realize the social value of consumption across national borders and do so through conspicuous consumption, reciprocal consumption, and vicarious consumption in their hometowns even without being physically present there. We conclude that, while cross-space consumption benefits individual migrants, left-behind families, and their hometowns, it serves to revive tradition in ways that fuel extravagant rituals, drive up costs of living, reinforce existing social inequality, and create pressure for continual emigration.
Cross-space Consumption among Undocumented Chinese Immigrants in the United States
Min Zhou, Ph.D., is Tan Lark Sye Chair Professor of Sociology, Head of Sociology Division, and Director of the Chinese Heritage Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She is also Professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies and Walter and Shirley Wang Endowed Chair in U.S.-China Relations and Communication at the University of California, Los Angeles. Direct all correspondence to Min Zhou: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Min Zhou, Xiangyi Li; Cross-space Consumption among Undocumented Chinese Immigrants in the United States. Sociology of Development 1 June 2016; 2 (2): 158–182. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/sod.2016.2.2.158
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