An Analysis of International Migration Theories

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Justin Hsu
Essay 1: 1247 Words
Sociology 122A
An Analysis of International Migration Theories
In today’s postmodern society, international migration has truly become a global phenomenon. From 1975 to 2005, the number of people living outside their country of birth more than doubled to 191 million (Bloemraad). From 1960 to 2005, the number of countries hosting more than 500,000 migrants increased from 30 to 62 (United Nations). Furthermore, in 2006, immigrants accounted for at least ten-percent of the total population in fifty-three countries (New York Times). These extraordinary trends are the result of rapid industrialization, political and cultural developments, and drastic environmental changes.

In order to explain the evolution of international migration, scholars and social scientists have developed three central sets of hypotheses: economic theories, socio-cultural theories, and political/global power theories. These theories are all supported by statistical data, sound arguments, and the backing of well-regarded advocates. In many cases, the theories can even be combined and incorporated. I will proceed by discussing one theory from each group of migration theories.

Developed in the 1970’s, segmented labor market theory is a branch of economic theory declaring immigration as a process spurred on “not by individual decisions, but instead by intrinsic labor demands of modern industrial societies” (Massey 1999, p. 4). In sharp contrast with micro-level decision models, this newer economic theory hinges on the belief that international migration is caused by “a permanent labor demand that is inherent to the economic structure of developed nations” (Massey 1999, p. 4). In essence, migration is caused by the need for low-wage workers by developed countries, rather than cheap pay or high unemployment on the part of developing nations (Massey 1999, p. 5). Mexico, the Philippines, China, India, and Vietnam round out the five largest immigrant groups in the United States (Bloemraad). The majority of these immigrants have no option but to accept labor-intensive jobs. The four central tenets of advanced industrial societies—structural inflation, social constraints, duality of labor and capital, and the decline of the rural workforce—have resulted in the pull of immigrant workers from developing countries to modern industrial societies.

Looking beyond economic factors, the world systems theory argues that “penetration of capitalist economic relations into non-capitalist or pre-capitalist societies creates a mobile population that is prone to migrate” (Massey 1999, p. 8). The strength and influence of these strong capitalist nations consequently act to “perpetuate inequalities and reinforce a stratified economic order” (Massey 1999, p. 7). Fundamentally, wealthy nations “enter developing countries to establish assembly plants that take advantage of low wage rates,” in the process creating social unrest, imbalance, and increased migration. By the late 1990’s, seventy-percent of Nike Corporation’s line of shoe apparel was being manufactured in Chinese and Indonesian sweatshops (Moberg 1997). While Nike’s demand for factory workers benefited the local labor market, it equally devitalized “traditional productive relations” (Massey 1999, p. 8). The feminization of the workforce, along with the low wages and demanding nature of work, led to an imbalanced and unnatural societal arrangement with a “socially and economically uprooted” culture prone to migration. As a result, from 2000 to 2005, Indonesia and China lost on average 200,000, and 380,000 people respectively, each year to migration (New York Times).

Of the political/global power theories, Westphalian theory stands out as one of the most prominent. Originating from the Peace of Westphalia Treaty of 1648, the theory regards international migration as an intrinsically political process, arising from “the organization of the world into a congeries of mutually...
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