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Migration Theory

Migration Theory

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Published by: windito on Aug 31, 2009
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A radically different interpretation of migration was provided as of the 1960s by the historical-

structural paradigm on development, which has its intellectual roots in Marxist political econ-

omy and in world systems theory (Castles & Miller 2003:25). Contemporary historical-

structural theory emerged in response to functionalist (neo-classical) and developmentalist-

modernizationist approaches towards development. Historical-structuralists postulate that

economic and political power is unequally distributed among developed and underdeveloped

countries, that people have unequal access to resources, and that capitalist expansion has

the tendency to reinforce these inequalities. Instead of modernizing and gradually progress-

ing towards economic development, underdeveloped countries are trapped by their disad-

vantaged position within the global geopolitical structure.

As in most fields of social science, historical-structuralism has dominated migration research

in the 1970s and most of the 1980s. Historical structuralists have not developed a migration

theory as such, but perceive migration as a natural outgrowth of disruptions and dislocations

that are intrinsic to the process of capitalist accumulation. They interpret migration as one of

the many manifestations of capitalist penetration and the increasingly unequal terms of trade

between developed and underdeveloped countries (Massey et al 1998:36).

Andre Gunder Frank (1966a; 1969) was the frontrunner of the “dependency” theory, which

hypothesized that global capitalism (and migration as one of its manifestations) contributed

to the “development of underdevelopment” (see also Baran 1973). The dependency school

views migration not just as detrimental to the economies of underdeveloped countries but

also as one of the very causes of underdevelopment, rather than as a path towards devel-

opment. According to this view, migration ruins stable peasant societies, undermines their

economies and uproots their populations. Emmanuel Wallerstein’s (1974; 1980) world-

systems theory classified countries according to their degree of dependency, and distin-

guished between the capitalist “core” nations, followed by the “semi-peripheral”, “peripheral”,

and isolated nations in the “external” area, which were not (yet) included in the capitalist sys-

tem. In this perspective, the incorporation of the peripheries into the capitalist economy is

associated with putting a (migration) drain on them, exactly the opposite of factor price

equalization presumed by neo-classical theory. Instead of flowing in the opposite direction of

capital as predicted by neo-classical category, the idea is that labour follows where capital


Historical structuralists have criticized neo-classical migration theory, stating that individuals

do not have a free choice, because they are fundamentally constrained by structural forces.

Working Papers – Center on Migration, Citizenship and Development


Rather than a matter of free choice, people are forced to move because traditional economic

structures have been undermined as a result of their incorporation into the global political-

economic system. Through these processes, rural populations become increasingly deprived

of their traditional livelihoods, and these uprooted populations become part of the urban pro-

letariat to the benefit of those core areas that rely on cheap (immigrant) labour.

Historical structuralists have been criticized for being too determinist and rigid in their think-

ing in viewing individuals as victims or “pawns” that passively adapt to macro-forces, thereby

largely ruling out individual agency. Moreover, rigid forms of historical structuralism have

been refuted by recent history, as various formerly developing and labour exporting countries

have achieved sustained economic growth in the past decades despite – or perhaps thanks

to – their firm connection to global capitalism (Sen 1999). For most southern European coun-

tries and some “Asian Tigers”, the incorporation into global capitalism and, possibly, high

labour migration have apparently worked out well, despite gloomy predictions some decades

ago (Almeida 1973; Papademetriou 1985).

There is increasing consensus that capitalism as such cannot be blamed for the problems of

underdevelopment, but that the specific developmental effects of incorporation of a region or

country into the global capitalist system seems to depend much more on the conditions un-

der which this takes place, that is, how the incorporation is embedded into wider institutional

structures as well as the internal socio-political cohesion and economic strength of countries

and regions. Thus, depending on these circumstances, the incorporation into global capital-

ism can have both positive and negative effects in different areas of development and on

different groups of people within society. In the same vein, (labour) migration cannot auto-

matically be interpreted as a desperate flight from misery, not only because it is seldom the

poorest who migrate, but also because we can at least not logically rule out the possibility

that migration facilitates development through reverse flows of capital (remittances), knowl-

edge, ideas, attitudes, and people (return migration).

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