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date: 28 March 2017

Space, Mobility and Legitimacy

Summary and Keywords

While migration has always existed, and its consequences have always been important, few people have lived a mobile life in the history of mankind. Population immobility has recurrently been part and parcel of political strategies of social control and domination. Since the second half of the 20th century, however, the extent of geographical movements of individuals has expanded enormously. In particular, the size and scope of international travel has increased at an exponential pace. Favored by globalization and technological progress, transnationalism, initially linked to migration, has emerged as a relatively widespread phenomenon that involves a growing portion of the general population, especially, but not only, in developed countries. Mainly on the basis of research carried out in Europe, there is evidence that transnational practices tend to strengthen cosmopolitanism and the legitimacy of supranational polities (particularly the European Union [EU]), while it is less clear whether they entail denationalization. Further research is needed to improve the quality of independent and dependent variables in this area and assess the effect of international mobility and transnationalism outside the European context.

Keywords: human mobility, space, transnationalism, cosmopolitanism, geography, legitimacy, political support, supranational integration, European Union

Human Mobility in World History

If it were possible to pin down on a map the movements all human beings who ever existed on earth made during their lives, much like geographers track the trajectories of worldwide flights, we would be probably surprised by the final outcome: a prevalence of very circumscribed dots. Migration is ubiquitous in time and space, and a leading cause of genetic, demographic, economic, cultural, and political change. But, on balance, it has always been a minority experience. Its size is often magnified by the higher visibility of migrants and by their impact on pre-existing social equilibria.

Until 12,000–11,000 bce, the whole of mankind was formed by nomadic hunters and gatherers. However, this highly mobile population amounts to less than 1 percent of the estimated 107 billion homines sapientes ever born (Haug, 2011). The discovery of agriculture was a watershed in the relationship between humans and mobility. Farming forces one to stay put. At the same time, sedentarity grants higher fertility, better shelters, and stocks of food, and thus reduced mortality. Although sedentary life increases disease risks, these are outweighed by overall security (Diamond, 1997, chapters 4–6; Livi Bacci, 2012a, pp. 36–41). Ever since the Neolithic revolution, therefore, if not displaced by external—natural or man-made—forces, the large majority of humans opted for setting up a geographically stable existence. When, periodically and in waves, over-crowding and fallowing created incentives to move, the rule was to occupy the nearest unpopulated area (Cavalli Sforza, 2001, p. 102). In addition, because life expectancy at birth averaged about ten years for the bulk of human history (Haug, 2011), most people’s time on earth was too short to engage in traveling.

This is not to deny that migrations have occurred perennially, with varying intensity. All continents have known gradual territorial expansion of human groups during the Neolithic. History is also punctuated by famines, natural catastrophes, wars, conquests, and colonizations that encouraged resettlement of entire populations at even considerable distances (Kenwood & Lougheed, 1999, chapter 3; Livi Bacci, 2012b, chapter 3). Moreover, selected individuals have engaged in long-haul travels since the very distant past—for instance, the silk road between China and Europe existed 4,000 years ago (Cavalli Sforza, 2001, pp. 100–101). Despite how significant and transformative such movements have been, in sheer demographic terms they have involved a relatively modest proportion of mankind. Even during one of the absolute peaks of emigration in world history, which occurred in Europe between 1840 and 1920 and had a considerable impact on both sending and receiving societies (Morawska, 2001), yearly international out-flows averaged only two persons per 1,000 (Livi Bacci, 2012a, p. 134; see also Emmer, 1993). Internal migrants in modern nations are harder to count, but most of them moved from the countryside to nearby cities, minimizing their travel distance from the places of origin (Lucassen, 1987). Even today, migration tends to obey a gravitation principle by which short-distance movements prevail (Simini et al., 2012).

In sum, in a very long-term perspective, travellers have been the exceptions rather than the rule in human history. What is more, they have most likely been “resettlers,” whose mobility experience used to be limited in time (a one-shot event) and space (with larger numbers moving to closer places and with further mobility targeted to return to the origin rather than subsequent moves). Genetic geography furnishes the most solid proof of the strong territoriality of the human species: there is a high correlation between spatial and DNA distances (Cavalli Sforza, 2001). For a remarkable number of millennia, the average radius of land covered by the average individual over his or her life-course has been limited to the vicinities of the person’s family or group settlement. As Cavalli Sforza (2001, p. 54) concludes, until very recently humans’ movements were “rarely greater than a day’s walk.”

Among the causes of such immobility, politics has to be factored in. Political power affects individuals’ relation with space decisively. Constraints on territorial mobility stand out as a hallmark of political domination. Rights of spatial access are an important form of allocation of opportunities or risks—from the concession to settle down in a fertile land (like when redistributing conquered territories to colonists) to denial of entry (like when refusing a visa). For power-holders, the spatial positioning of the governed population matters immensely. As long as they know where the ruled are, rulers can tax them, conscript them, and impose norms and mores. Stable populations lend themselves to becoming politically socialized homogeneously and thus to strengthening existing political orders. For individuals and groups, rights to stay and rights to move affect life chances, shape worldviews, and are sources of claim-making. Indeed, in the late Middle Ages Western European feudalism was profoundly challenged by the demands of urbanization, which altered the traditional fixation of peasants onto their masters’ lands as adscripti gelbae. The right of mobility was possibly the first vindication of personal rights of incipient modernity (Bloch, 2004; see also Cresswell, 2006, pp. 10 and following). Accordingly, in chapter 21 of Leviathan Hobbes describes freedom as “absence of opposition” to motion (see Cranston, 1973; Juss, 2004). Individual freedom primarily manifests itself—in both European history and philosophy—as freedom of movement.

Although it did not invent it, the modern state owes much of its solidity to the monopolization of the “legitimate means of movement” (Torpey, 2000). The state mastering of individual actions—among them potential relocations—is part and parcel of what Michel Foucault (1991) dubbed “governmentality.” Foucault’s concept denotes all top-down activities meant to mould subjects’ (and later, citizens’) practices conveniently. The localization of the governed is the minimal requirement for power-holders to exert such penetrating controls. Typically, in the modern state geographical mobility is either forbidden beyond a limited range of space or inscribed within strict regulations (like authorization requests, as until recently in the Chinese hukou and the Soviet propiska systems; see Blitz, 2014, chapter 7). Governmentality capitalizes on the stability of the population not only because this favors direct control, but also because it exposes people to recurrent nation-building inputs—that is, verbal and nonverbal messages conveying “banal nationalism” that make reinforce the boundaries of collective solidarity and the structure of established hierarchies (Billig, 1995). On top of it, localization nurtures a sense of spatial confidence that psychologically tends to turn into spatial attachment and thus reinforces intentional activities to inculcate obedience to the existing order (cf. Tuan, 1977; Sack, 1986; Lévy, 1994; Moles & Rohmer, 1998). Ultimately, political legitimacy is an upshot of power exerted on a territorialized population.

Political legitimacy is defined here in the Max Weber–inspired meaning as individuals’ belief in the rightness of power-holders’ commands. In Weber’s own words, legitimacy is “the probability that to a relevant degree the appropriate attitudes will exist [leading to] submissiveness to persons in positions of power” (Weber, 1962, p. 74). In any “system of domination”—as Weber calls it—compliance stems from the “dominated inwardly assent to rule” (Titunik, 2005, p. 143).1 To operationalize this rather elusive attitude, in empirical research the focus is usually placed on “political support” (Easton, 1975; Norris, 1999; Dalton, 2004; Gunther & Montero, 2006). What triggers such support? Among other things, some scholars point to the congruence between socioeconomic and political spaces (Held, 1995; Zürn, 2000). Historically, the nation-state is a major example of the overlap of these spaces. In fact, processes of social, economic, and political globalization have weakened such congruence (Scharpf, 1997; Anderson, 2002). Increasingly, individual and corporate actors can and do exit the nation-state fully or partially (Bartolini, 2005). Supranational governance structures that have proliferated after World War II—the most spectacular being the European Union—facilitate such “exits”, entailing a territorial recalibration of sovereignty (Berezin, 2003).

Evidence about the exceptional rise of geographic mobility in the post–WWII era will be presented. Drawing on studies focused on Europe, research results about the association between international mobility and the legitimacy of different political orders—national and supranational—are examined. The methodological weaknesses of existing concepts and indicators to address the issue at stake are finally explored, along with a proposal to collect data about individual “space-sets.” Concomitantly, pending research questions and new directions of empirical inquiry are outlined.

Viator Unbound: The International Mobility Revolution of the Post–WWII Period

In the heydays of nation-states, and well into the first half of the 20th century, cross-border travel was a polarized phenomenon, practiced by privileged minorities or limited sectors of the lower classes. International mobility was either “tourism” or “migration” (including forced migration, like population exchanges after the fall of empires, for instance, between Turkey and Greece in 1923). Moreover, with the exception of interesting but demographically tiny categories (such as grand tour travelers and missionaries among the rich, and colporteurs and colons among the poor), those who went abroad usually moved between two points—an origin and a destination. Circular or scattered travel experiences were extremely uncommon. These specificities of cross-border mobility withered away when the developed world recovered from World War II. To start with, international travel picked up and has yet to decline (see Figure 1). By 2020 international journeys are estimated to be 21 per 100 persons in the world population; they were 1 per 100 in 1950 (Kester, 2008; see also Koslowski, 2011, p. 55). Secondly, travel trajectories, timings, and motivations seem to have diversified. Unfortunately it is hard to find data on motives for travel in earlier decades, but a EU15 travel survey carried out in 2001–2002 (the DATELINE survey) shows that of all trips longer than 100 kilometers, 29 percent were motivated by “business”,, 49 percent by “holidays,” 18 percent by “private reasons” and 4 percent by “commuting”—a quite varied array (Rich & Mabit, 2012, p. 4). International migration—conventionally defined as a form of human mobility that fulfils a space-based (that is, crossing state borders) and a time-based (usually, one year of residency) condition—accounts for only a scant part of these mobility episodes. People move much more than they resettle.

Space, Mobility and LegitimacyClick to view larger

Figure 1. The international mobility revolution: Growth of world migrant stocks and international travel arrivals, 1960–2015.

Figures are expressed in 10,000.

UN, International Migration Report 2015: Highlights. New York, UN, 2016. UNWTO, Tourism Highlights 2015. Madrid, UNWTO, 2015.

Advances in technologies of transportation, increasing and more equally distributed prosperity, higher literacy (including foreign language proficiency), a legal culture progressively expanding citizenship rights (including the right to exit one’s country, which is mentioned in the 1946 UN Declaration of Human Rights), and a growing cultural sensitivity for travel as leisure yielded a mobility revolution without precedent in the history of mankind. While the impact of economic, legal, and cultural factors is more complex to assess, the giant steps taken by transportation technologies and infrastructures is straightforwardly illustrated by isochronic maps (see Figure 2). Isochrones are lines that demarcate geographical space in terms of time units (normally hours or days) needed to travel across it from a given center. The first isochronic map was drawn by Francis Galton (better known for his major contributions to social statistics), in 1881. Having London as a pivot, the map shows that at that time it took approximately ten days to reach the borders of Europe. After World War I, travel time in Europe was cut by half: the same journeys to the limits of the continent would last no longer than five days. Unfortunately, the exercise became out-moded in the following decades. While railway networks expanded farther, politics played a part in slowing down (when not hindering) travel time: the Iron Curtain meant that East-West trips, if authorized, would have to incorporate lengthy border checks. However, European integration and the demise of the socialist bloc paved the way to tighter and faster links across Europe. In the bottom of the figure, two contemporary pictures show isochrones for flight time from Paris (but not including airport check-in and check-out procedures), and train timetables from and to major railway hubs. Europe can now be covered in three hours by boarding a plane; with a more budget-savvy land alternative—railways—the longest intra-European trips take approximately one day and a half—still a giant improvement compared to one century earlier.

Space, Mobility and LegitimacyClick to view larger

Figure 2a. Shrinking travel times: Isochrones of Europe, 1881–2015. 1881: Europe as 10-days continent

(Map 1:) F. Galton, published by Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society in 1881. Available at:

Space, Mobility and LegitimacyClick to view larger

Figure 2b. 1914: Europe as 5-days continent

(Map 2:) J.G. Bartholomew, LL. D., An Atlas of Economic Geography, London: Oxford University Press, 1914, p. 94. Available at

Space, Mobility and LegitimacyClick to view larger

Figure 2c. 2015: Europe as under 4-hours continent (by private flight)

(Map 3:) Y. Savina (OSC, Sciences Po, Paris), courtesy of the author

Space, Mobility and LegitimacyClick to view larger

Figure 2d. 2015: Europe as 40-hours continent (by public railway)

(Map 4:) R. Steve, Train cost and Time Estimates Across Europe, available at:, courtesy of the author

Even when they do not lead to resettlement, international movements affect social organization and mindsets. A primary consequence is the spread of transnationalism. The concept was first introduced by anthropologists to denote “the processes by which immigrants build social fields that link together their country of origin and their country of settlement” (Glick Schiller, Basch, & Blanc-Szanton, 1992, p. 1), those “multiple ties and interactions linking people or institutions across the borders of nation states” (Vertovec, 1999, p. 447), or “activities that require regular and sustained social contacts over time across national borders for their implementation” (Portes, Guarnizo, & Landolt, 1999, p. 210). Initially, “transnationalism” was predominantly associated with migrants—or, more precisely, with a sub-set of them, sometimes called “transmigrants” (Glick Schiller, Basch, & Blanc-Szanton, 1995). Migrants’ experiences are the prime engine of “intersocietal convergence” (Waldinger, 2015). In fact, given the expansion of international mobility previously sketched out, the opportunities for contact with individual and corporate actors established abroad have grown exponentially for the entire population—not only for migrants. The spread of the Internet contributes to it, inasmuch as it sustains virtual cross-border connections and helps keep social relations abroad at no cost. Social transnationalism represents the primary sociological fall-out of globalization. Legally, since the end of the 20th century, an increasing number of states have come to terms with transnationalism by allowing dual or multiple citizenship, long considered a threat to national integrity and security (Bauböck, 2011). Prohibition of dual citizenship has by now become more the exception than the rule around the world (Blatter, Erdmann, & Schwanke, 2009).

Relying on a representative survey of the German population, Mau (2010) first drew a “cartography of transnational social relations,” which shows that almost one out of two persons maintained personal ties with at least a friend or a relative living abroad and that six out of ten respondents’ holidays were spent in a different country. On a larger scale, less precise but comparative indicators of social transnationalism were made available by Eurobarometer in 2006 and 2010 (Mau & Mewes, 2012; Baglioni & Recchi, 2013; Delhey, Deutschmann, Graf, & Richter, 2014). More recently, an ad hoc survey carried out in six European countries (the EUCROSS survey), expanded the range of indicators of transnationalism to include “virtual transnational practices” as well (Salamonska, Baglioni, & Recchi, 2013).

Table 1. The social stratification of transnationalism among EU27 residents (2010, percent of respondents)

Transnational practice

Upper class (EGP I-II)

Middle class (EGP III-IV)

Lower class (EGP V-VI-VII)


Worked abroad for three consecutive months or more




Studied abroad for at least half a year




Lived abroad (not for work or study) for three consecutive months or more




Spend holidays or weekends abroad regularly





Have close friends in a country different from that of birth




Have close friends in the country of birth who are from a different country




Have family/kin living in a country different from that of birth




Have (or had) partner with different citizenship




Source: Baglioni and Recchi (2013, pp. 54–55). EGP refers to the Erikson-Goldthorpe-Portocarero social class schema. Data come from Eurobarometer 73.3, N = 26,602.

All these empirical analyses from different sources converge on highlighting recurrent macro- and micro-foundations of social transnationalism. At the macro-level, country differences are remarkable, even when accounting for economic and social factors that enhance the likelihood of transnationalization (GDP per capita, economic globalization, general level of human development, diversity of national population). With some country nuances, residents of northwestern Europe tend to live more transnational lives than their counterparts in southern and central-eastern Europe. At the micro-level, transnationalism—in all its manifestations—is more widespread among younger cohorts, the more educated, and those in more privileged social classes (Table 1). Upper class Europeans are significantly more likely to have lived, studied, and spent holidays abroad; they also typically have more foreign friends and partners, as well as family living abroad. On all forms of transnationalism, the difference between the upper class and the middle class is larger than that between the middle class and manual workers (Baglioni & Recchi, 2013). Further analysis shows that social class gradients in the frequency of transnational behaviors are steeper in more affluent countries (Delhey, Deutschmann, & Cirlanaru, 2015). In a Bourdieusian perspective, these findings suggest that mechanisms of distinction and class delimitation in the upper part of the social hierarchy may leverage on transnational practices more than on traditional symbols and behaviors (like, typically, cultural consumption; see Chan, 2010). Symbolic and utilitarian aspects do probably overlap and combine to boost the class structuring effects of transnationalism. In a globalized world, where opportunities and life chances are spread over a wider horizon, transnationalism comes to be a relevant tool of social differentiation. This outcome has politically relevant consequences.

Does Transnationalism Favor Cosmopolitanism? Evidence from Europe

From a political sociology perspective, the mounting transnationalization of life raises a major question: Does individual embeddedness in transnational activities foster an attachment to supranational political units—that is, cosmopolitanism (or its continental variants, like Europeanism)? Well before transnationalism became en vogue, the idea that cross-border practices could have a politically significant impact was formulated in Karl Deutsch’s transactionalist theory (Deutsch et al., 1957). The theory itself was devised having in mind the then embryonic European construction as a “security community.” In Deutsch’s view, the institutionalization of such a “community” depends on the scope and strength of a wide palette of cross-border exchanges—such as international trade, labor and capital mobility, scientific cooperation, cultural activities, the use of non-national media, and intermarriages (Deutsch, 1969, p. 102).2 Broadly speaking, any transaction across borders is expected to promote a learning process sustaining trust in the emerging supranational polity and a virtuous circle of additional consensus for further integration (Adler & Barnett, 1998).

More or less consciously following Deutsch’s lead, the relation between individuals’ transnational activities and political attitudes began to be explored empirically in the mid-2000s. Focusing on Europe, several pieces of research found that cross-border mobility and practices go hand in hand with cosmopolitan (Mau, Mewes, & Zimmermann, 2008) and European (Recchi, 2015, pp. 140–142; Kuhn, 2015) identifications. Van Mol (2014, p. 98 and following) shows that the association between European identification and mobility experiences holds even in case of relatively short settlements, like Erasmus grants (lasting no more than 12 months). Interestingly, a German study indicated that the transnationalism-cosmopolitanism association is stronger among ordinary citizens than it is in the elite (Helbling & Teney, 2015). This probably reflects a ceiling effect, as the members of the elite are homogenously highly transnational. Both in the general public and the elites, cosmopolitanism does not come at the expense of local identities, though. Cosmopolitanism does not translate into plain denationalization (Roudometof, 2005; Gustafson, 2009). Local and global identifications are not incompatible and can be nested one into the other (Díez Medrano & Gutiérrez, 2001; Risse, 2010). Qualitative studies of European upper-middle classes confirm the coexistence of international travels, migration experiences, and foreign friendships with a persistent focus on the issues, debates, and identities of the place of residence (Savage et al., 2005; Andreotti, Le Galès, & Moreno-Fuentes, 2014).

What happens when transnationalism is related not to a broader sense of collective belonging (feeling “a world citizen,” a “European”) but rather to a more explicit political support for supranational units? The issue was examined in detail by Kuhn (2015), who offers the most sophisticated test of Deutsch’s theory as applied to the EU case. Her point of departure is an apparent inconsistency: at the aggregate level, transnational contacts have proliferated in Europe since the 1970s, while support for European institutions has stagnated, with some trendless fluctuations. In fact, the transnationalism-Europeanism association is incontrovertible at the individual level, but it does not show up in aggregate terms because it is strongly stratified. In other words, the rise in the volume of transnational activities is disproportionately due to privileged social strata, a group that also expresses strong support for the EU. Kuhn’s analysis also shows that:

  • - Transnational practices (hinged on cross-border mobility) sustain the legitimacy of the EU more than a transnational background and transnational human capital.

  • - Cross-border sociability reverberates on EU legitimacy more than cross-border activities of an instrumental nature (like trade), possibly indicating the deeper influence of sociopsychological mechanisms over utilitarian consideration in the causal mechanism linking transnationalism and legitimization.

  • - In all EU national societies, transnationalism correlates more strongly with European identification than with EU support, which also may attest to the higher relevance of sociopsychological over utilitarian aspects of transnationalism.

  • - Intra-EU transnational practices affect pro-EU attitudes more than experiences of transnationalism that are geographically anchored outside the European space.

  • - The transnationalism-EU legitimacy association is accentuated in the most globalized European countries, where highly transnational individuals are more Europhile and “non-transnationals” are more vigorously Euroskeptic, possibly feeling marginalized and threatened by European integration.

Political legitimacy is critical for the survival and functioning of any polity—but all the more so for democracies. In the European integration process, a decline in support for the EU in the wake of the referenda held in France and the Netherlands in 2005 shipwrecked the adoption of the European constitution. The ensuing “constraining dissensus” (Hooghe & Marks, 2009) and declining popularity (Serricchio, Tsakatika, & Quaglia, 2013; Recchi & Salamońska, 2014) of the European integration project has also snowballed on domestic politics, pushing some national leaders to husband Euroskepticism or play down existing European legislation. But there is more to it. Kuhn’s last finding—which she appropriately terms “the Janus face” of expanding transnationalism (2015, p. 127)—warns that a legitimacy crisis can also be triggered by unintended backlash effects of a more mobile world. Mobility can bring about a divide between an ever more globalized upper class and a comparatively localized mass resenting the lack of transnationally generated opportunities. This “local-cosmopolitan” polarization, well known to classic American sociology (Gouldner, 1957; Merton, 1968, p. 368 and following), may regain salience on a larger scale. Differences in social transnationalism lie at the roots of the politically relevant divide between “winners and losers of globalization” (Kriesi et al., 2008). In attitudinal terms, these may be mirrored in the emerging “cosmopolitanism-sovereigntism” ideological struggle that, around the theme of the permeability of nation-state borders, is supplanting the traditionalism-libertarianism dialectic in advanced societies (Azmanova, 2011).

This tension is echoed in the “boundary work” that permeates EU politics and that migration flows—especially when they reach an extraordinary intensity, as during the asylum-seekers’ crisis of 2015 in Europe—magnify. Citizenship is inherently exclusive, and European citizenship makes no exception. Inflows of aliens reinforce the salience of the “us vs. them” frame of political life in the populace, especially among those who do not share transnational practices themselves and who are the prime supporters of the “Fortress Europe” philosophy of migration policies (Geddes, 2008). The less mobile are likely to accentuate mobility as an all-encompassing ideological cleavage.

Addressing Emergent Questions: Research Directions on the Spatial Rooting of Political Legitimacy

The size and scope of individuals’ geographical mobility has expanded vertiginously since the 1950s, representing a most significant but somewhat overlooked social change. Its effects on politics are also largely unassessed. Overall, citizens’ relation with space is only limitedly grasped within political sociology, which has been inclined to reify individuals as territorially stuck agents whose mobility was either negligible or politically insignificant. In fact, at different scales and scopes of government, all political regimes—from the city-state, to the nation-state, to supranational polities—tend to be spatially binding. Containing citizens’ physical mobility within the polity borders is a crucial albeit implicit component of political order. This is not only true in a surveillance perspective. Mobility responds also to a constitutive logic: when people move inside a given territory, they make it their own and assume it as the legitimate space for governance. One must remember that nation building was also invigorated by socializing extremely localized populations to other provinces of the country and their people—in particular, through urbanization and conscription, as Eugen Weber (1976) showed for France. Inasmuch as it capitalizes on the intra-EU mobility of its citizens, the EU uses the same logic. As a novel and overarching center of political authority (in a longue durée perspective), the EU is being naturalized possibly less by institutions and regulations than by transnational individual experiences (Recchi & Favell, 2009; Recchi & Kuhn, 2013; Vigneswaran, 2013; Recchi, 2015; MacNamara, 2015).

However, this research agenda needs to address a number of methodological shortcomings. Existing studies on the political effects of geographical mobility can be advanced—to start with—by refining both the independent and dependent variables for empirical analysis. As far as the independent variables are concerned, it is undisputable that social survey measures of transnational mobility have been so far limited to rough indicators, like having traveled abroad (or not) over the one–two years preceding the interview. This conflates an enormous diversity in mobility experiences and thus mars the explicative power of spatial practices—a power that sociology has only tentatively and unsystematically sought to unravel over its history (Gieryn, 2000). In fact, what is needed is a conceptual and methodological toolkit to capture objective and subjective variations in individuals’ irradiation over space, at a time when this goes beyond the place of residence for a growing part of the population, at least in developed economies. A promising possibility is to track “space-sets,” conceived as the repertoire of places that are familiar to persons thanks to first-hand experiences over their lifecourse (Recchi, 2015, pp. 151–153).3 Space-sets are the outcome of individuals’ spatial careers, stemming from present and past mobility practices. Empirically they may be recorded as personal histories of significant places, or as personal maps of the physically experienced world. They can also be graphed as ego-centered networks, in which the points are not other people but significant localities people have been to. As in social network analysis, the size, range, and salience of space-sets vary dramatically across time, space, and social groups. Size is an objective measure: it measures the number of places where individuals have physically been in their lives (the scale of measurement may be more or less fine-tuned: by neighborhood, city, county, state, and so on). Range captures the geographical width of space-sets—typically, the distance between the farthest places that form it. Salience deals with subjective assessments. Different parts of a space-set are ordered by the intensity of the individual’s ties with each of them. More precisely, the salience of space-sets can be analytically distinguished into two sub-dimensions: the average strength of the personal attachment to places and their degree of centralization, which depends on the difference in the level of attachment to these places.

As regards the dependent variables, political legitimacy is also rather poorly captured by common mass survey instruments. Not only because one should always seek to discern support for the “regime,” the “government” and the incumbent “leaders,” but also because the declinations of such supports need to be qualified. In which ways do citizens translate their support into behaviors? How do they act upon declared allegiance to an existing or emerging polity? The attitude-behavior gulf can be particularly wide in this regard. Some controls might be not too cumbersome to conduct. For instance, one may compare aggregate levels of support in opinion surveys with the regime’s capacity to cash in taxes net from the economic cycle. Survey data are patently at pains when touching upon the tax issue, which is, however, central as far as legitimacy is concerned.

The operationalization of post-national allegiances is not less problematic. The literature’s debate on the measurement of “cosmopolitanism” (Olofsson & Öhman, 2007; Pichler, 2009; Haller & Roudometof, 2010) has to be complemented with a more general consideration of “denationalization”—which is not an automatic effect of cosmopolitanism (e.g., see Gustafson, 2009), nor necessarily triggers a shift of political support to supranational institutions. In principle, denationalization can be unpacked into different outcomes: a legally anchored post-national identity (in tune with the “constitutional patriotism” model: Habermas, 2003), a multinational or multi-ethnic belonging (typically a double affiliation: Berry, Phinney, Sam, & Vedder, 2006), a culturally or religiously loaded transnational attachment (like “Westerner,” “Christian,” “Arab,” “Muslim”: e.g., Bowen, 2004), or an individualized and anomic loss of all forms of belongings (the “new Barbarian” orientation: Favell, 2008, pp. 109–110). Each of these outcomes has different consequences in terms of the legitimacy of existing and emerging political regimes.

Another critical point is that empirical research on mobility and legitimacy has focused almost exclusively on the European case hitherto. This is significant in many regards, particularly because the EU stands out as the most advanced experiment in continent-wide supranational integration. What about other political identifications that transcend national frontiers? For instance, how does the less advanced but emerging Mercosur’s free movement regime affect political identities in South America (cf. Grimson & Kessler, 2005, p. 21 and following)? Is renewed “Pan-Africanism” an upshot of growing migrations within Africa (cf. Ackah, 1999)? What are the effects of transnationalism (of leaders and followers) on the emergence of movements challenging the state-based political order in the Middle East? Such questions have been neglected in studies on social and political change so far. To make them explicit is a first step for the progress of this research agenda.


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(1.) Differences in the grounds of this belief in the legitimacy of commands are then taken by Weber as the fundamenta divisionis of his “pure types of authority”—rational, traditional, and charismatic (Weber, 1968, pp. 215–216).

(2.) Quite imaginatively, Deutsch (1953) mentioned the ratio between domestic and international mail as a possible indicator of cross-border interactions. This operational cue is even more suggestive in a time of generalized use of emails and social network posts. Delhey et al. (2014) took up this Deutschian insight, computing indexes of “relative Europeanization” that consider not so much the amount of transnational practices and attitudes, but rather their weight over nation-based ones.

(3.) The lifecourse perspective, which is implicit in the reconstruction of space-sets, is also helpful to address the endogeneity issues that typically affect all explanations that establish a causality link between behaviors and attitudes—in this case, for instance, entailing whether current transnationalism nurtures post-national outlooks or the other way around.