Theoretical Background and Main Assumptions of Migration

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Posted on:Dec 5,2020


Migration is a social phenomenon that can be defined as the movement of people from one place to another with the aim of stability and permanent residence. Over years researchers pay more concern to migration and population mobility due to its social, economic, political, and cultural dimensions and impacts. Many theories and models have been formulated to explain the causes, patterns, and forms of human beings’ migration. Undoubtedly, migration theories have evolved significantly over time. These theories included an in-depth analysis of the migration phenomenon at the macro, meso, and micro levels. Although most of these theories were generally emerged and grown in a separate manner, they should be taken as complementary to each other. This article addresses the theoretical concept of migration as well as their role in developing an understanding of migration drivers, patterns, trends, and implications. In this article, a comparative method will be used in studying these theories in terms of their essence, strength, and the criticisms they were exposed to. In the discussion part, the researcher presents his perceptions of what is stated in these theories and discusses the interrelationships between them. He also provides a number of recommendations that enrich the theoretical dimensions of migration

Keywords: migration, sending countries, receiving countries, migration theories, migration determinants, macro and micro-level.

1. Introduction

Migration is a humanitarian phenomenon that started thousands of years ago. It has taken many and various forms and became a crucial factor that shaped the world. In general, migration has received high attention from scholars and policymakers alike due to its deep consequences on individuals and societies. This is evidenced by increasing scientific research on migration, its motives and impacts. Along the same line, policymakers have been interested to formulate policies that regulate the relationship of the immigrant with the sending and receiving countries. Historically speaking, migration has undergone changes in its trends and forms. In the past, migration often occurred in the form of mass exodus and human waves. However, in the modern era, individual movement is the most prevalent form of migration. In fact, most of the main distinguishing features of migration are common to both internal and international population movements. There are indications that the distance is beginning to diminish at the domestic and international levels in terms of people’s mobility. This means that in local migration people may travel a longer distance than that in international migration. Nevertheless, the main feature of international migration is its political dimension, which is strongly influenced by political ideology and the relationship between the country of origin and the country of destination.

Although migration was a major component of classical and modern theories, the theoretical concept of this topic has not received sufficient research attention in Arabic literature. The study of human migration without paying attention to the theoretical concept is a weakness that must be overcome in this literature. Hence the importance of in-depth research to analyze theoretical concepts of migration and its relationship to economic structure and social changes is crucial in the development of a theoretical framework for human mobility. In this article, the most important theories that contributed mainly to theorizing the concept of migration and its various dimensions will be discussed. These theories include the neo-classical theory, the new economics theory of migration (NELM), historical-structural theory, the push-pull framework, network theory, and the dual labor market theory.

Therefore, this study came as an attempt to participate in bridging the gap in this regard. This article addresses two main questions: What are the most important theoretical concepts that dealt with people migration at the macro, meso, and micro levels? What are the points of agreement and differences between them? How can they be used to understand and explain migration patterns, decisions, and effects?

2. Migration Theories

The number of international migrants increased over the years. As stated by the international migration report 2017, “the number of international migrants worldwide has continued to grow over the past seventeen years, reaching 258 million in 2017, up from 248 million in 2015, 220 million in 2010, 191 million in 2005 and 173 million in 2000”. This confirms the need to understand how different theories have dealt with this thorny topic in order to explain its drivers and causes. Although migration is as old as human existence, its theories are completely new. The earliest systematic theories on migration emerged in the late nineteenth century from a neoclassical approach. In the 1950s, migration theories shifted from pure mechanical models to more sophisticated theories. Generally speaking, migration theories can be divided into two main categories as macro-level theories and micro-level theories. At the macro level the neo-classical theory, as presented in the work of Lewis, migration is a phenomenon that “associated with the existence of labor supply and demand disparities between the sending countries and destination countries. The resulting differentials in wages cause workers to move from low-wage, labor-surplus regions to high-wage, labor-scarce regions”. It is equally important to mention that, this theory “understands migration to be driven by differences in returns to labor across markets and the resulting differentials in wages between labor-rich versus capital-rich countries”. Along the same lines, Harris and Todaro (1970) explained in depth the relation between unemployment and rural-urban labor migration and they stated: “The distinguishing feature of this model is that migration proceeds in response to urban-rural differences in expected earnings with the urban employment rate acting as an equilibrating force on such migration”. Seem to share the same, Kozak & Shengelia assert that “Traditionally (in the neoclassical theory) as the basic allocate the economic reason of the international labor migration connected with scales, rates, and structure of accumulation of the capital”.  At the micro-level, neo-classical migration theory views migrants as individual, rational actors, who decide to move on the basis of a cost-benefit calculation. Assuming free choice and full access to information, they are expected to go where they can be the most productive. Last but not least, it could be argued that “the neo-classical approach is optimistic about the impacts of migration on labour-sending counties due to high expectations of reduced poverty, unemployment and overpopulation”.

Although the neoclassical theory sought to discuss migration among countries by focusing on the differences in wages, labor surplus, and capital accumulation which lead to the creation of attractive and repulsive regions and countries that determines the directions of migrants movements to maximize their expected return, it has been criticized for “reducing migration determinants, ignoring market imperfections, homogenizing migrants and migrant societies and being historical and static. It generally ignores the effects of home and host states and leaves out the importance of politics and policies”. Despite the neoclassical approach concentrates basically on the relative supply and demand for labor, but what may be more important is productivity. Higher productivity means higher wages, and this may be attractive for people working in similar areas in other countries. However, the main limitation of this model is that migration will have an effect on the relative labor supply and demand. “As a result of this movement, the supply of labor decreases and wages eventually rise in the capital-poor country, while the supply of labor increase and wages ultimately fall in the capital-rich country”. Theoretically, this process should result in equalization of wages.

Even though individual decision to migrate increases with the level of development, with the goal to make benefits, “empirical study shows that it is rarely the poorest people from the least-developed countries who move to the richest countries; more frequently the migrants are people of intermediate social status from areas which are undergoing economic and social change”. However, Observed migration patterns tend to be therefore hump-shaped in which migration rates accelerate with the growth of a country’s wealth as more individuals or households are able to fund migration. This means, that the level of migration is the largest not for the least developed countries. Migration increases with the level of development of GDP/capita but reaches its maximum at a higher development level; this makes migration less attractive. One of the recent criticisms of the neo-classical approach is that “the household conditions are not always very favourable; non-migrants may sometimes stay at home for socio-cultural reasons such as hierarchical power relations. Also, parents might decide against out-migration in the interest of their children’s education, security, mental health, etc..

In order to bridge the gaps and introduce a wider range of factors into economic research alternative approaches have been proposed to explain migration. The most important of them is the new economics theory of migration (NELM). “Unlike the neoclassical theory which considers migration as an individual decision for income maximization, this theory identifies a broader number of variables involved in the location decision of labor (migrants)”. The main proposition of this theory is that “migration decisions are not made by isolated individual actors but by a larger unit of related people, in which people act collectively not only to maximize expected income but also to minimize risks and to loosen constraints associated with a variety of market failure”. Clearly, the decision to migrate is often taken collectively by the emigrant and his or her family. Furthermore, the new economist theorists claim that “income is not homogeneous good, as assumed by neoclassical economics. The source of the income really matter and households have significant incentives to invest scarce family resources in activities and projects that provide access to new income sources, even if these activities do not increase total income”. In a very important sense, Czaika & de Haas contend that “NELM hypothesizes that people and households migrate not only to improve income in absolute terms but also to increase income relative to other households”. Additionally stark highlights that this theory also offers reasons for the migrant and the family to enter voluntarily into a mutually beneficial contractual arrangement with each other and identify conditions under which the contract is self-enforcing. NELM has assumed that remittances are a key part of this mutual agreement. This collective arrangement on the level of the household offers another approach to control risks “by diversifying the allocation of household resources, such as family labor. While some family member can be assigned economic activities in the local economy, others may be sent to work in foreign labor markets where wages and employment conditions are negatively correlated or weakly correlated with those in the local area”. Therefore, it can be said that NELM challenges the neo-classical approach only to the extent that it pays attention to the structural conditions of the individual, and not just the labour market. To sum up, the new economics theory of migration view migration as a result of a joint decision to minimize risks and increase the benefits of migration. Indeed, the wage differentials proposition of the Neo-classical approach is surpassed by the collective role of the households in the NELM. In the absence or weakness of the private insurance market or unemployment and compensation governmental programs in developing economies as is the case in developed countries, the motives of the family to participate in global migration increased.  Notwithstanding, this theory “has been criticized for sending-side bias and for its limited applicability due to difficulties in isolating the effects of market imperfections and risks from other income and employment variables”.

Another migration theory that emerged after the Second World War, known as historical-structural theory (world system theory) concentrated on the relationship between migration and changes in the global market. It emerged in response to the shortcomings of the neo-classical theory.  This approach provided a different explanation for global migration and “seen it as the interaction between migrants’ expectations, on the one hand, and structures such as access to employment, markets, education, and power, on the other hand”. According to this approach, migration induces brain drain and increases inequalities among countries as  “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”. Thus Structuralists approaches argue that migration is a natural outgrowth of disruptions and dislocations that inevitably occur in the process of capitalist development”. Moreover, this theory argues that “penetration of capitalist’s economic relation into non-capitalist or pre-capitalist societies create a mobile population that is prone to migrate”.

Nonetheless, the structural theory has been criticized for considering migration as an inevitable decision due to the distortions of the international labor market and economic inequalities’ among countries. “it is too determinist and rigid in their thinking in viewing individuals as victims or “pawns” that passively adapt to macro-forces, thereby largely ruling out individual agency. Meanwhile, Reniers stated that “both neo-classical and historical-structural theories of migration generally fail to explain why some people in a certain country or region migrate and others do not”. Therefore, a new analytical framework for migration has been introduced namely the push-pull framework. The decision to migrate under this framework is basically linked to two main causes: internal, or “push” factors, and external incentives, called “pull” factors. “They can be expressed by economic conditions in both the sending and receiving countries. Recovery of economic conditions considers an attractive factor, while the recession and economic stagnation consider as a repulsive factor”. This explains the directions of migration through the world, it occurs mostly from “specific places at the origin to specific places at the destination, not only because opportunities tend to be highly localized but also because the flow of knowledge back from destination facilitates the passage for later migrants”. According to IOM the economic factors are considered the most important driving forces of migration, especially among highly skilled people, mainly due to salary discrepancies and the differences in working conditions. In general terms, however, “for those countries that have proved unable to generate jobs and wage growth at home, the migration option offers a critical safety valve”. Despite the ability of the push-pull model to provide a general perception of people’s mobility and on factors that affect their decision to migrate, it suffers from some shortcomings.

It does not allow for assigning relative weights to the different factors affecting migration decisions. Neither do they allow for empirical tests on the role and importance of factors that have been included or excluded. Push-pull models also tend to ignore the heterogeneity and internal stratification of societies, while general contextual factors habitually defined as either push or pull factors are likely to work out in a differentiated way on the individual level, and might subsequently encourage some people to leave and others to stay. Another fundamental weakness of this model is that push and pull factors are generally mirrored in each other.

According to Lee, “people respond differently to “plus” and “minus” factors at origins and destinations and have different abilities to cope with the intervening variables”. Seem to share the same, Salt claims that “despite the crucial role of economic factors as one of the root causes of migration, and the fact that people tend to move to places where the standards of living are better, these motivations alone cannot explain the actual shape of migration patterns”.

The fifth theory that will be discussed in this regard is network theory. Actually, migrant networks work as one of the factors influencing the migration decision by facilitating the flow of information back home. As defined by Massey et al. migrants’ networks are “sets of interpersonal ties that connect migrants, former migrants, and non-migrants in origin and destination areas through ties of kinship, friendship, and shared community origin”. It is interesting to note that, networks made migration less costly and less risky, as “the first migrants usually have enough resources to absorb the costs and risks of the trip, family and friends then draw on ties with these migrants to gain access to employment and assistance in migrating, substantially reducing the costs and risks of movement to them”.  According to this theory, the size of migration among countries “is not strongly correlated to wage differentials or employment rates, because whatever effects these variables have in promoting or inhibiting migration are progressively overshadowed by the falling costs and risks of movement stemming from the growth of migrant networks over time.”. Although network theory facilitates the mobility of people and involved them in a different way to remain in contact with their origin societies. Critics, however, say that “labor migration movements do often tend to decrease or cease when the fundamental causes of migration disappear, and legal and physical barriers to migration can have an important influence on the magnitude and nature of migration, although not necessarily in the intended direction”. Moreover, “settled migrants are not always willing to act as bridgeheads for prospective migrants. They sometimes act as more like gatekeepers.”.

One of the relatively modern theories is the dual labor market theory. According to this approach, international migration is caused by a permanent demand for immigrant labor that is inherent to the economic structure of a developed nation. Migration is not caused by push factors in sending countries, but by the pull factors in receiving countries. The dual labor market theory ignores the micro-level decisions such as an individual’s cost-benefit analysis. Nevertheless, it sought to explain migration by linking it to the global labor demand factor. However, the dual labor market theory has been criticized because some of its assumptions contradict macro-level models, especially regarding the demand-driven nature of international labour migration. According to the dual labor market theory “the demand for migrant workers is generated from structural needs of the economy, rather than by wage differentials or wishes of households or families”.

Finally and most importantly, it is clear that each theory has its own proposals and shortcomings in the absence of a comprehensive approach to migration. This is to be expected since migration is a complex and mixed phenomenon that encompasses a wide range of areas. Therefore, researchers and academics who study migration and examine the factors that affect human mobility came from different disciplines, primarily from economics, sociology, geography, political science, etc. Moreover, a comparison of the impact of these factors in a systematic manner is still lacking. It is also noticeable that, while the traditional literature has focused more on macro and micro level factors as determinants of migration, recent literature has broaden their scope to encompasses new  factor called Meso-level determinants. Although this literature places more emphasis on Macro-level determinants, it stressed that Meso-level factors should not be neglecting. According to Kuhnt the Meso-level factors “have been shown to impact strongly on an individual’s migration aspiration and decision”, and they include migration culture, networks, and information, technology, migrant smugglers, and geography and infrastructure. While geography does not appear to play a major role in the migration decision, there is some empirical evidence on the relationship between networks, technology, and smuggling A long the same line, Adams and Kay underline the role of meso-level determinants and they called them as non-material drivers. According to this approach “motivation for human mobility is not always maximizing economic benefit but is also driven by many cultural, psychological, social, and emotional factors that can offer little external reasoning and appear to defy generalization”. Nevertheless, these non-material drivers of migration are extend to include human needs as mentioned in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs such as social relationships, feelings of security, and self-realization. All of these factors are essential to human well-being and neglecting them leads to failure to explain drivers of migration, as well as in policymaking related to human mobility. One of the models used to bridge the gap of the absence of non-material components in the mentioned theories is Agent-based model. Thober et al., found that this model focused on certain attributes, these include, but are not limited to, social networks, income, number of neighbours, behaviours of neighbours, population size, and migration experience.

All in all, although migration theories placed more emphasize on the macro-level determinants such as economic conditions and conflicts as a major drivers of migration, the recent literature over the past few years became more inclined to include a meso-level drivers such as environmental and non-material factors as a facilitator factors that play a mediator role for macro and micro level factors. Figure 1 shows the different factors at macro-level, meso-level, and miro-level.

Overall, a person’s decision to migrate is influenced by many factors at the three-mentioned levels, which exposes people to different costs and benefits from their mobility. These factors interact in an unsteady way to influence the decision to migrate. For example the IOM found that the main reason for the displacement of young African men was violence and conflicts. However, it is important to note that taking individual decisions into account is critical to understanding why some people move while others do not even in a violent situation and thence to explain heterogeneous movement decisions.

3. Discussion

It is interesting that this article shows the multiplicity of theories and models that attempt to explain the drivers and determinants of migration.  By reviewing the theoretical concepts of human migration one can notice a certain level of variation among these theories. This is can be due to the fact that the phenomenon of migration has undergone shifts in its patterns, trends, and decisions over time; As a result of economic, social, and political changes witnessed by societies at the local, regional and global levels. However, this diversity indicates the extent to which it is difficult to separate migration from its socio-economic context. Moreover, despite some convergence among these theories in some respects, in the end, they led to divergent conclusions. Actually, these theories lack coherence and evolved in isolation from one another. To be more specific, Massey et al., outlines that “understanding of contemporary migration processes will not be achieved by relying on one discipline alone, or by focusing on a single level of analysis. Rather, their complex, multifaceted nature requires a sophisticated theory that incorporates a variety of perspectives, levels, and assumptions”. This underscores the need to build on what has been achieved so far to develop an integrated model that can explain the different aspects of migration.  However, the following conclusions can be drawn in terms of the theoretical concepts of human migration:

• Historically speaking, theories that addressed migration so far can be classified according to the level they focus on into three main parts: theories at the macro level, theories at the micro-level and theories at the meso-level. For example, the push-pull framework which is one of the main micro-level theories focus on how the individuals make their decision based on benefits and losses calculations taking into consideration the socio-economic factors in both the sending and receiving countries. Indeed, individual decisions are normally driven by his or her expectations, willingness, and desire to enhance the standard of living. On the other hand, the macro-level theories, like the neo-classical theory, examine factors related to the collective level such as economic structure, income levels, and employment opportunities. It is noticeable that the theories of migration mostly focus on the factors of one or two of the three levels while neglecting the others, which makes them unable to address all the factors affecting the migration decision in a comprehensive manner. Moreover, most migration theories have dealt with factors affecting migration but have paid little attention to the impact of migration and its productivity. In fact, this topic has not received adequate attention in macro-level theories nor in micro-level theories.

• The pull and push factors have been extended to include economic, social, political, and environmental. This model view migration as a decision that is influenced by the socio-economic environment in both sending and receiving countries. However, it can be pointed out that the decision to migrate is not individual, but extends to include the entire family. This decision is based on benefits and losses calculations aimed at minimizing risks and increasing the benefits of migration. Furthermore, migration does not often encompass the poorest, but it attracts all individuals who wish to migrate and can afford to travel.

• The concept of disparity plays a fundamental role in explaining international migration. Inequality resulting from uneven development in the economy due to unequal distribution of primary resources, energy, and technology and the consequent distribution of economic and political power among countries. Thus, international migration is a logical response to this great disparity between countries. In order to bridge this great disparity between countries, there is a need to redistribute global inequality in the capital by transferring capital and investing in developing countries rather than the movement of labor from developing countries to more developed countries. This provides people with opportunities to access more resources and reduce the level of inequality between sending and receiving countries.

• It is important to note that there is a clear relationship between the mobility of people and the mechanisms of globalization. However, these theories did not place more emphasis to elucidate and explain this relationship. Indeed, the relationship between globalization and international migration was obvious since the first wave of globalization (1870 -1913), which involved substantial international mobility of people, reflecting the openness to goods and capital under the policy regime of the gold standard and low tariffs. During this period people migrated from labor-abundant countries to the capital and resource-abundant. Furthermore, Castles and Miller emphasized the mutual and interrelated relationship between migration and globalization and they stated “Globalization remains a crucial context for understanding twenty-first-century migration. On the one hand, globalization drives migration and changes its directions and forms, while on the other hand, migration is an intrinsic part of globalization and is itself a major force reshaping communities and societies”. Apparently, international migration is a complex and multidimensional societal phenomenon. It stems not only from local and regional factors, but it is also the globalization tendency that fuels this phenomenon. Undoubtedly, the world today is flattened and globalization has facilitated communications among people and provided equal opportunities for those who have the intention and abilities to change and keep pace with scientific and technological progress. However, it should be noted that “the current process of globalization is producing unbalanced outcomes, both between and within countries.” Actually, “the exchange of knowledge between developed and developing countries is quite asymmetric and the exodus of qualified personnel from the South is often seen as a serious obstacle to development and as a loss for the home countries.” Ultimately, this led to a disparity in knowledge distribution and accumulation among countries.

• Although the former literature pays more emphasis on low- skilled labor migration from developing countries to developed countries, their interpretations remain inadequate and do not include all forms and patterns of migration such as skilled migration, and illegal migration. Therefore, there is an urgent need to produce and develop theoretical concepts related to skilled migration and illegal migration to keep pace with developments in these categories of migration, especially from developing countries to developed countries.

• There is a relationship between geographical location, political and colonial relations between sending countries and receiving countries. This factor plays a clear role in determining migration trends. Achiume explained how the legacy of colonial-era shapes the relationships between the people of the former colonies and their colonial countries as “particularly strong and special cultural relationship between colonial powers and their former colonies gives them a right to migrate to the specific former colonial nation-state whose national identity they have co-constituted”. Seem to share the same; Van Lottum explained the relationship between immigration from one side and decolonization and industrialization in Indonesia on the other side as: “colonial rule, decolonization, and industrialization, the three phenomena that to a great extent shaped Indonesia in the twentieth century are all factors that have a potentially strong effect on population movement”.

• There is no doubt that immigration has occupied a fundamental place in the social sciences, and this has been demonstrated through many theories that have dealt with and explained this human phenomenon. However, the gender dimension has not received sufficient attention in these theories. There is an ignorance of the women as an actor in migration issue and mostly they are mentioned as accompanying their husbands or their fathers. This is no longer compatible with the roles that women have come to play, including migrating independently for work or study.

• Migration is a complex phenomenon linked to interrelated factors, the most important of which are social, economic, political, and psychological. Therefore, it is a multi-motive and multi-dimensional phenomenon. Indeed, migration trends are not static but change according to multiple factors such as economic growth income levels; political stability, and security. This means that current sending countries may become receiving countries in the future.

4. Conclusion

Migration has been a hot topic of research for many years. However, it can be stated that, despite the theoretical and experimental efforts that have been made, there is no comprehensive theory of migration. Indeed, it is still unclear why some people migrate while others not. There is a lack of knowledge of what makes people live in the same place of origin to migrate while others not despite the openness of opportunities for both. This creates the need for more theoretical research on this migration phenomenon, in terms of its drivers, patterns, and consequences. Moreover, more theorizing is needed with regard to skilled migration as it is constantly increasing and its consequences greatly affect the sending and receiving countries as well. Developing and updating current theories, taking into account professional and scientific changes and patterns of people’s movement, is vital in this regard. The effective link between certain concepts such as migration, development, globalization, and human capital is an important issue that must be taken into consideration in the process of developing migration theories.


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Saqer Sulaiman
University of Public Service, Doctoral School of Public Administration Science