Peggy Levitt sociologist, author and professor

Research & Activities

My research continues to build on my work on transnational migration. While more and more people live aspects of their lives across borders, the pension, health care, education, and social welfare systems that serve them do not. How might we have a different kind of conversation about a different kind of nation that does not end at the border? Where would the cultural building blocks come from with which to imagine, let alone create, new kinds of institutions that reflect people’s mobile lives? Where do we learn the values and skills that allow us to engage in communities beyond our own?

These questions are behind Artifacts and Allegiances: How Museums Put the Nation and the World on Display. Museums have long played a starring role in creating nations and representing communities, so in today’s global world, what kinds of citizens are they creating and why? Can museums inspire an openness to difference, whether it be next door or across the world? What is it about particular cities and nations which helps explain the answers? My findings are based on fieldwork in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Copenhagen; Boston and New York; and Singapore and Doha. 

Similar questions animate my current research. A first set of projects builds upon my work on museums as sites of global citizenship creation by looking at other venues where cosmopolitan values are shaped and disseminated. Pál Nyíri and I co-edited a special volume of Ethnic and Racial Studies (“Books, Bodies, and Bronzes: Comparing Sites of Global Citizenship Creation”) that examined how international music competitions, UNESCO world heritage sites, and overseas university campuses, among others, are places where this work gets done. Our book project looks more closely at efforts to spread cosmopolitan values to young people from the global north and the global south through such things as school curriculum and texts, children’s television programming and publishing, youth volunteer programs, and international sports competitions.  

A second set of projects explores the relationship between cultural institutions and the communities they serve. When and how do cultural institutions help create successful diverse communities and instill cosmopolitan competencies? Who and what is depicted in the representation of the nation? What gets anointed as part of the global art, music, or literary canon? My work in this area includes Putting the Next Helsinki on Display (with Hanna Snellman and Hanna Forssell), Who Owns King Tut?: Putting Africa Back into Egyptian Nationalism (with Alexandra Parrs); and The Americas and Asia Societies: Using Cultural Diplomacy to Remap the World (with Rebecca Selch and Sarah Smith). 

A third set of projects, which is the focus of my work as the co-director of the Transnational Studies Initiative (TSI) at Harvard is to understand, map, and evaluate the new forms of social protection that are emerging in response to our “world on the move.” When people live, work, raise families, and care for elderly relatives in multiple places at the same time, what kinds of new institutional arrangements and policies are created to protect and provide for them? Who do they serve and who gets left out? TSI is building an international network of scholars to work on these issues. We held a workshop in February 2015, funded by the Radcliffe Institute, where a small group met to frame a research agenda, specify methods to carry it out, and discuss preliminary research findings. These articles will be published in a special volume of Oxford Development Studies that I will co-edit.  

A fourth set of projects continues to refine and develop the concept of social remittances and to explore their role, and the role of return migrants, in development. With Thomas Lacroix and Ilka Vari-Lavoisier, I am editing a special volume of Comparative Migration Studies, (forthcoming 2016), “Social Remittances: Understanding Migrating People and Migrating Culture in the Context of Global Cultural Circulation.” I also continue to work on the role of return migration and social remittances in reforming the health and education sectors. 

Finally, I continue to work on questions of religion. One project looks at the role of religion in rescaling localities. With Renee de la Torre, I am working on how the rising popularity of Santo Toribio, the patron saint of Mexican migrants, has transformed the Jalisceño landscape. A second project looks comparatively at how religion gets taught about, displayed, and managed at universities around the world and the ways in which this is shaped by and shapes racial and ethnic diversity management.