Transnational Family Communication Chains

The Transnational ICT Communication Chains Of Immigrants and Their Families

Sondra Cuban


I present a model for understanding the ways immigrants in the U.S. communicate with their away-families through information and communication technologies (ICTs) based on a two-year study and which is the topic of my new book coming out in 2017, Transnational Family Communication: Immigrants and ICTs (Palgrave Macmillan). Through my lens of Transnational Communication Chains, four types of communication patterns emerged that highlight digital literacy and languages: 1) Rescue Chains for providing help; 2) Mother Tongues for family advice; 3) Family Dinner Tables for establishing togetherness; and 4) Walls for circulating mis/information. These family chains were adaptive strategies and as problematic as the ICTs that activated their communication

The literature on immigrants adopting information and communication technologies (ICTs) is highly optimistic; immigrants use the new technologies because of their “low cost” and contact their families in their home countries so successfully that not only do political borders seem to disappear, but so does the geographic distance that separates members (Baldassar, 2016; Portes, 1999; Vertovec, 2004, p. 219). The technology platforms and applications seem to make these connections possible rather than immigrants who are viewed as passive users of communication systems that they simply turn on. Furthermore, this scenario makes it appear that not only do all immigrants use these new technologies, and use them alike, but also the digital divide impacting this cross-border contact is non-existent.

I problematize the new technologies and propose a new model for examining this phenomenon through, what I call, Transnational Communication Chains (TICCs) (Cuban, 2015; 2017). These ‘chains’ are efficient and ingenious systems that immigrants develop for communicating with their away-families through ICTs. They develop these chains to exchange support, be together, and develop “familyhood” (Bryceson & Vuorela, 2002) from afar and they do so differently depending on their circumstances. Moreover, the chains, like the technologies are problematic and changeable. The model is based on findings of a two-year study (2014-2015) study that I conducted in Washington State. The study consisted of sixty women immigrants struggling to communicate with their families left behind through ICTs and the issues they encountered. The following research questions guided my study: 1) what adaptive strategies do immigrants develop to communicate with their transnational family members? 2) Which ICTs do they use and why and what is the frequency as well as the types of conversations that ensue? 3) What are the purposes of transnational family communication through ICTs? All of these participants were engaged in ICT-based TICCs but they differed in terms of the types, the ways that they used them, and their frequency. Two sketches of participants highlight their different family backgrounds and their ICT-based chains.

Josefina and Mariana
Josefina migrated from Oaxaca, Mexico to California “through the desert and with no papers” fourteen years ago to join her siblings and work in the fields. After getting married she moved to rural Washington, where she had four children. Using phone cards she bought from the local Mexican store, she called her family in Mexico, once a week “to know how they are doing to help them.” Mainly she spoke to her mother whose health problems required medical attention. First her mother dialed Josefina who then called her due to the cost after which she called one of her seven siblings who relayed the news to the next one. They remitted to their mother with Josefina noting, “It was just not enough.” She wished she could directly help her since: “talking on the phone and sending money isn’t the same.” Although Josefina had a computer, it had no camera and she didn’t know how to use it. Besides neither her parents nor her had broadband. By 39, Josefina felt torn between her mother and her children. Her teenage son, aware of the tensions vowed: “Don’t worry mom, when I am older I am going to fix your papers so you can come and go.” But Josefina felt uneasy about his need to rescue her so she could rescue her mother. Because Josefina couldn’t return, she circulated her mother’s news throughout her U.S. sibling network and secured the necessary funds for her medical needs. Josefina was caught between countries and generations as well as siblings. Her circumstances and communication patterns differed from Mariana.

Mariana, from Bogota, Colombia lived and worked in Seattle as an au pair. Yet she was constantly on social media with her family and friends in Colombia and enjoyed examining their Facebook Walls, “to see what people are doing.” She made it clear however that she didn’t like the chat and call features embedded in Facebook for interacting with those very people. This sentiment was sparked when her father’s communication lessened after which she became curious. In perusing Facebook she discovered that he was having an affair. She reflected:

He was not talking to me for three months. What is going on? He put this stuff on Facebook but never talks. There was a woman who wanted to hit on my dad…during that time it was terrible. My mom called me twice per day, crying. I felt I had to carry the problems.

For Mariana, using text-based social media was important because she could not verbally discuss complicated matters in her host family’s home. She said: “I always feel there is someone listening to what I’m saying.” At 20, she arrived a year ago but felt homesick: “I really want someone here, to kiss, to hug. I miss this most.” Although she regularly communicated with family back home and friends in Seattle, she felt that, “even if I know there are people that care, I feel alone.” Mariana and Josefina’s stories illustrate different TICCs.


I developed the TICC framework and focused heavily on access and use because in the ICT literature, it seemed as if no barriers to transnational communication existed. I conceptualized access as part of the technological tools and the digital literacies and languages required to navigate digital media and messages (Knobel & Lankshear, 2002; Guillen, 2014; Kress, 2005). However these depend on the “affordances” that are available to people, including their capacities, networks, and resources. Affordance theory focuses on opportunities to engage in particular social behaviors such as the availability to speak, as well as resources, and aptitudes (Gibson, 1979; Gaver, 1991; Bradner, 2001; Madiniou & Miller, 2012). This blog draws on affordance theory to frame the creative communicative systems that immigrants and their families develop within an ICT-based context filled with constraints and opportunities. The phone cards that Josefina purchased to make voice calls abroad and the data plans that Mariana paid for to access the Internet, for example were one type of affordance.

The TICC framework also draws from the human communications literature, which focuses on small group communication patterns (Galvin, 2014; Segrin & Flora, 2005; Steinberg, 2007). Four types have been identified. There is the “Line” which represents a grapevine, whereby one group member tells another something, while the “Star” contains a central member who controls information to individuals in a group. The “All-Channel” comprises group members who engage in numerous simultaneous interactions while the “Circle” is for circulating news in a roundabout way through many reference group members. Although these chains may seem oversimplified they assist in conceptualizing ICT-based transnational family communication.

I used ethnographic methods including interviews, observations, documentary analysis of emails and informant material such as journals because I wanted to capture the experiences of the participants in their communicative contexts; using their own words imbued with their meanings (Denzin, 2001). The interviews, half of which were conducted in Spanish, were designed to focus on the participants’ stories of family communication (Riesmann, 1993). Observations and video were made of one participant over several months in addition to gathering several participant-generated audio and video recordings of family conversations as well as journals. Through these methods, together with a sensory analysis of the findings, I was able to develop a richly textured picture of the socio-emotional and material worlds of the participants and their “perception, place, knowing, memory, and imagination” (Pink, 2009, p. 23) surrounding their transnational family communication.

Data Source
The participants were all Latinas, primarily from Mexico, representing the dominant immigrant nationality in Washington (Brown & Lopez, 2013). Participants also migrated from Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Honduras, and El Salvador. They were recruited through community gatekeepers and staff in Latino organizations throughout Washington and selected in a snowball sample. About half of the participants like Josefina were in their late 30s, undocumented, married with children, and settled while the other half like Mariana were in their 20s, single, without children, and in the U.S. for less time. Mariana’s group possessed tertiary education and came from small, urban, middle-class families most of whom did not previously migrate while Josefina’s group, had primary levels of education and came from agrarian backgrounds, with members migrating and then sponsoring one another to secure greater income distribution across a larger group. Their demographic characteristics translated to their communicative patterns. Josefina, who was dealing with crises and had few resources of her own, relied on the domestic landline to communicate abroad and used the Line as an efficient means, while Mariana used free computer and phone applications in a Circle pattern of communication to contact her family abroad.

My findings focus on four different TICCs that highlight digital literacy and language issues and paint a complex picture of transnational family communication that fills a gap in the literature on immigrants, transnational families, and ICTs:

• The Rescue Chain (Line) provided emergency support for a family member in need. Like a grapevine, one member tells another and they remit to the person in need at a just-in-time rate. Voice calls were used to determine the felt need. Yet because of the step-by-step oral/aural calls, those members at the end of the chain could receive confusing messages. This was Josefina’s case

• Mother Tongue (Star) is when members of a family who do not converse with one another communicate with a key person in the middle, whom I call the “operator.” S/he negotiates interactions, filters information and gives advice. The conversations, often oral/aural, may include exchanges of visual artifacts and text-based messages and follow vernacular scripts

• The Family Dinner Table (All-Channel) is multi-vocal and textual, relying on oral speech, images, and literacy-based interactions. Several family members interact in real time in order to ‘be’ together from afar. Therefore it is ‘noisy’ because no one mediates interactions. It can also promote performing because it is highly visual. It occurs over video conference calls that allow members to display expressions and eat while talking. They may pause to write chat messages and send pictures

• The Walls (Circle) are short text-based messages exchanged through social media. While this chain accommodates a greater volume of information that can be added and replaced, messages are deferred and have an anonymous quality. Examples are Facebook Walls and Newsfeeds. The communication is indirect, which may threaten members’ perceptions. This chain illustrates Mariana’s case

The TICC model focuses first and foremost on the fact that most immigrants like the participants in the study cannot cross borders to physically be with their families and they rely on new technologies as the primary way to be together, share news, and deliver support. Letters and gifts are often considered to be too unreliable and delayed. TICCs, then, are a response to political constraints and they carry implications for immigration, welfare, and school reform, especially for the intergenerational repercussions of family separation. Consider Josefina’s son. The tension resulting from his mother’s separation from his grandmother affects his wellbeing. Second, the TICC model highlights the ingenuity of immigrants in accessing (or not) the new technologies. This has implications for equitability within national and international communications and development policies. Third, the TICC model demonstrates different ways that immigrants communicate with their families and for different reasons, based on their affordances and social classes. Altogether the findings demonstrate that some groups, with greater social affordances, have clear advantages and that the digital divide is indicative of larger social structures.


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