Migration and Theory

In International Migration and Social Theory, I introduce the key theories and concepts that have been used to understand migration, and I examine how they have been used to explain various different migrations around the world.  The book then draws on structuration and practice theories to tell practice stories about: British Migration to Spain; Mexican Labour Migration to the US; Filipina Domestic Labour Migration to Hong Kong; and Refugee Children in the UK.

International Migration

International migration affects millions of people across the globe every day, both migrants and non-migrants. It can arise as a result of rupture in people’s lives, cause upheavals in communities, and reunite families. It can provide much-needed resources for sending and receiving countries, or it can put great strain on destinations or shatter the economies and daily lives where migrants leave. It can lead to emotional individual, media and policy responses. It is often discussed using the emotive language of floods, tides, and influxes, but it also sometimes warmly welcomed, even encouraged. Migration cuts to the very heart of who ‘we’ and ‘they’ are, and raises profound issues around identity, home, belonging, and the sharing of resources.

Migration is by no means a new phenomenon; humans have moved as individuals and groups since they first populated the earth. However, there is little doubt that international migration has been increasing, especially in the past 30 years. It has been said that if all the migrants lived in one nation, it would be the tenth largest nation in the world. As a result, migration has become a topic of great interest for academics, especially for social scientists.

Social Theory

Migration has been theorised using a host of perspectives and concepts, some developed specifically for migration studies (substantive theories) and others more generally applicable to a range of social processes.

Economic theories attempt to explain, at an individual (or micro) level, which economic factors impel migrants to leave some places and which attract them to others; alternatively they outline, at a broader (or macro) level, those forces that create the economic differences between places that lead to migration. These theoretical perspectives are often based on wider social theories that assume individuals act on conscious and rational choices; they therefore give migrants a lot of agency, or free will. On the other hand, those that explain migration in terms of global relations of power  suggest that migrants have no free will at all. In what is known as the new economic theories, economic explanations are combined with sociological theories to include social processes – the role of families and networks, for example – in understanding migration. But they still assume migrants are free agents driven especially by a fundamental desire for economic gain.

Migration systems and networks theory is more sociological. It argues that all migration needs to be understood within the wider context of the system (the social and economic relationships between different countries in different regions), and with attention paid to the role families, friends and other contacts play in assisting or resisting migrants, helping them settle, maintaining their links to home, and so on. Other substantive theories, such as segmented assimilation theory, and globalisation theory, have been used in migration research to understand settlement of migrants, especially issues of integration.

These approaches, however, tended to see migration as one-off moves, by men, to new places where they would settle indefinitely. More recently, it has become clear that migration is more fluid and complex than that. Contemporary approaches therefore theorise such things as gender and migration, transnationalism (or the to-and-fro of ideas, people and things across borders), and multi-locality, translocality and flows.

While there are a lot of substantive migration theories there is something of a vacuum when it comes to a single theoretical framework providing coherence for the field of migration. International Migration and Social Theory therefore proposes that migration studies are framed within a theory of practice.

Practice theory is a meta-theoretical framework, a way of viewing how the world works, that underpins, but does not replace, other theories and approaches. Using the framework of practice theory, students can understand various migration trends by piecing together coherent practice stories about them. A practice story understands a series of linked events as a process. It is a complex, sociologically-informed way of understanding phenomena that avoids one-dimensional, static, or narrow explanations.

2 thoughts on “Migration and Theory

  1. I wonder if you could share some references on the more contemporary approaches, such as “transnationalism (or the to-and-fro of ideas, people and things across borders), and multi-locality, translocality and flows.”

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