Transnational Families in the Making

The Polish Experience of Living between Poland &
Finland during & after the Cold War

Acta Universitatis Tamperensis No. 1891


By: Anna Matyska
March 2014
Tampere University Press
Distributed by Coronet Books
ISBN: 9789514493263
302 Pages
$110.00 Paper original


This anthropological study addresses families that live their everyday life separated from each other between Poland and Finland during and after the Cold War, from the perspective of Polish people residing permanently or temporarily in Finland, their children who grew up in Finland and family members in Poland. The families living separated by national borders are defined as transnational families. They include biological and in-law family members, close friends and companion animals. The study is based on the ethnographic fieldwork I conducted in Finland and Poland between 2006 and 2009.

The study looks critically at the sedentary idea that people live and are naturally linked to only one country: they have one national belonging and lead their family life within one country and under “one roof”, which is considered as the moral family ideal. This sedentary idea is reflected in the popular emigration-immigration-assimilation model, which assumes that when people migrate, they severe ties with the country of origin and family members they left behind, and focus on the “assimilation” to the country of destination. In contrast, my study shows that Polish people living in Finland have continuously maintained strong ties with Poland and family members living there. Transnational life is maintained through the relatively ordered process of transnational “kinning”, including ritualized practices of technologically-mediated communication and visits, transnational emotion work and support in negotiating socioeconomic hierarchy. For my interlocutors, the transnational family life is ambivalent, rather than strictly positive experience.

Different geopolitical conditions and nation-state policies created different conditions for the kinning practices. My study shows that transnational families work through different historical periods and nation-state policies rather than being determined by them. Living across borders was more difficult across the Iron Curtain, due to the Polish communist state’s unfavourable emigration policies and ambiguous political-economic relationship with the Western world. Nevertheless, families maintained transnational contact also during the Cold War, dismantling the Iron Curtain divide. Nowadays, transnational family life, including its intergenerational continuity, seems to be easier to maintain, but it becomes difficult in new ways, emotionally and materially. Nation-state has not ceased to matter, but conditions transnational family in more subtle ways than before.

Poland is important for my interlocutors’ transnational family life, but so is Finland. In this thesis, transnational families are emplaced rather than deterritorialized, expanding their living habitat and incorporating new “Finnish” social and cultural ties into their transnational family life. Emplacement in Finland is particularly visible among the second generation of transnational family members, whom I discuss as the transnational second generation. Transnational family members of my study are thus not bounded by a reference and belonging to a single country as migration policies and nationalist ideologies assume. Physically and mentally, they live across borders, rather than within them.