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Migration in World History

Global Versus Nationalist Perspectives

Research has only recently achieved a global perspective on migration. Into the 1970s, nationalist historians assumed that emigrants depart from a nation-state and arrive as immigrants in ethnic enclaves of the receiving nation-state. Since then, this dichotomous perspective and terminology has been replaced by the neutral term migrant: People may move over short distances, for example, from rural to urban environments; or seasonally, as harvest laborers, from infertile hilly regions to farms in fertile valleys and plains; or to urban positions as female domestics, apprentices, or day laborers. People migrate over medium distances to specific segments of labor markets or to available agricultural lands within a state (internal migration), in borderlands (intercultural migration, for example, from China to Mongolia), or across international borders. Because nation-states counted migrants only at such borders, international migration caught the attention of nation-state socialized scholars much more so than the less documented internal migration. The latter, however, included the whole process of urbanization, marriage migration, and industrialization and has been far more voluminous. Population registers of cities, parish records, and marriage lists provide the evidence.

The emigration–immigration dichotomy also assumed one-directional, one-time moves. Migrants, however, may move seasonally, for several years or for their working life. They may return regularly or occasionally. They may repeat the process of migration several times. Some migrations, such as those of early modern European artisans, Chinese transport laborers, and women earning money for a dowry, are circular: the migrants traverse short or long distances but finally return to their community of origin. Some migrations occur in stages, with a part of the intended trajectory undertaken at a time, for example, first to a nearby market city, then, with new wage earnings, to a port city, and finally to an overseas destination. Given that migration is costly, not only because of the cost of transport but also because during the voyage no income can be earned, many families decide to send one member with high earning capacity first. Then, in sequential or chain migration, other family members or friends follow whenever the "first-comer" is able to send money for travel or, at least, provide temporary shelter and access to a job. Such "free" migrations occur within economic and social constraints in the society of origin. Migrants pursue better options in their selected receiving society; for women this often involves less restrained gender roles.

Forced migrations, which encompass slavery, contract labor, and forced labor on the one hand and refugee migration on the other, have been studied separately. The distinction is both justified and misleading. Forced migrants have few opportunities to acculturate according to their own interests, whether within the slavery system in the Americas or in twentieth-century German, Russian, and Japanese labor camps. But in order to survive forced labor regimes, they have to develop strategies to make conditions physically and spiritually bearable. Refugees are "unwilling" migrants and often look back to the expelling society in hopes that changes will occur permitting their return. Because they are often not welcome in receiving societies and frequently receive no material support, they—like voluntary migrants—have to insert themselves into the receiving economy.

A further fallacy of the nationalist approach to migration has been the assumption that people are essentially monocultural. Such scholars have considered migrants to be uprooted, in limbo between cultures, and incapable of adjusting to their new sociocultural environment. Since the 1980s, however, sociological and historic research has shown that while involuntary migrants may be uprooted, voluntary ones develop individual and social capital and act in supportive networks that permit continuity as well as change. They live transculturally rather than ensconced in ethnic ghettos; they need the ability to function in more than one society.

Thus, many societies across the ages have sought migrants as innovators, connectors, or simply additional human capital. Many migrants, in turn, have sought independence from parents, constraining social norms, and dire economic circumstances by moving between one state or society to another.


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Dirk Hoerder

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Methane to Molecular clockMigration in World History - Patterns Of Migration, Governmental Policies, Global Versus Nationalist Perspectives, Bibliography