by Steven Mintz

In trying to understand why people migrate, some scholars emphasize individual decision-making, while others stress broader structural forces. Many early scholars of migration emphasized the importance of "push" and "pull" factors. According to this viewpoint, people decide to leave their homeland when conditions there are no longer satisfactory and when conditions in another area are more attractive.

In recent years, many scholars have argued that a thorough understanding of the decision to migrate involves looking at various levels of explanation: the individual, the familial and the structural-institutional. The first level of explanation--the individual or the psychological--focuses on individual perception and asks what advantages individuals hope to obtain by migrating. These often include the prospects of increased economic opportunity or a higher standard of living or escape from social turmoil.

A second level of explanation focuses on family needs. Often, the decision to migrate is not simply a personal but a family decision, reflecting the desire of a larger family unit to enhance its security or improve its well-being. Many family or kin groups receive "remittances"--cash payments that help to support family members--from relatives who have migrated to another area.

A third level of explanation--the structural and institutional--focuses on the broad social, political and economic contexts that encourage or discourage population movement. Factors that stimulate migration include improvements in transportation and communication or income differentials between more economically advanced and less advanced areas. War, too, often induces migration. Factors that inhibit migration include immigration laws restricting exit or entry or laws or social practices that tie farmers to the land (such as sharecropping or debt peonage which prevented many African Americans from leaving the post-Civil War American South).

  • Push Factors: Factors that repel migrants from their country of origin--include economic dislocation, population pressures, religious persecution, or denial of political rights.
  • Pull Factors: Factors that attract migrants to move, including the attraction of higher wages, job opportunities, and political or religious liberty.
  • Uneven Development: Disparities in income, standards of living, and the availability of jobs within and across societies.

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