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Migration And The Family

Explanatory frameworks premised on the push-pull hypothesis tend to overemphasize the role of the individual in the migration process. Critics of this perspective argue that the decision to migrate is based on group experience, in particular the costs and benefits to the family. Rather than being an isolated calculation, an individual's decision to migrate is conditioned by multiple social and economic factors. For example, a member of a rural family may be motivated to migrate if urban employment translates into the diversification and amelioration of the family economy, or if rural productive resources are not enough to sustain an extended family. Such out-migration probably would not occur if it was likely to produce an economic deficit for the family unit. Apart from this, the decision to migrate is not calculated from an exclusively economic standpoint. An individual can have an economic opportunity in another place, but not take it up if their departure would cause emotional hardship in the sender community. In Sarah Harbison's words, the family "is the structural and functional context within which motivations and values are shaped, human capital is accrued, information is received and interpreted, and decisions are put into operation" (1981, p. 226).

The family is the crucial agent of an individual's capacity and motivation to migrate. Harbison argues that the complexities of the family structure characterize the migration process because the family unit mediates between the individual and society, and thus it can prioritize its needs over the individual's in many instances. Three factors give the family unit significant importance in the migration process (Harbison 1981; Boyd 1989).

  1. Because migration requires resources for transportation and to establish a new home, family support is paramount, especially because most migrants are young and lack sufficient personal savings to finance a move. In most cases, the family unit is the essential unit of economic production and thus determines the allocation of resources to individuals and specifies economic roles. Apart from the economic needs of the family, differential access to family resources and the social division of labor have important implications for individual mobility. The socioeconomic framework of the family can facilitate or restrict migration. In a situation where males control family resources, and females are assigned strict domestic roles in the division of labor, women's mobility will be structurally limited or at least determined by men.
  2. The family is the primary socializing unit. Through the framework of kinship, customs, values, social obligations, and the like, the family unit conditions the individual to fill a basic role in society. For example, in societies where migration is crucial for the putative well-being of the group, patterns of socialization will develop to prepare certain individuals to migrate. The primogeniture system—under which real estate passes to first-born sons—assisted the mobility of later-born sons because they were often provided an education or military placement in lieu of inheritance.
  3. The family is an enabling economic and social network. The geographic dispersion of kin members partially determines the migration destination. Many people move to where they have family members (rather than where economic opportunities are most fruitful) because they can be relied upon to provide food, shelter, and information, which help them cope with their new environment. The presence of kin will also reduce the psychological impact of culture shock through the perpetuation of old customs in the new place. For these reasons, ethnic groups have tended to concentrate in specific regions and neighborhoods.

Harbison (1981) points out that while the family's function as a subsistence unit, agent of socialization, and support network shapes the motivations and incentives for migration, these are also conditioned by sociocultural factors, such as marriage rules and kinship rights. Of particular importance is the gender division of labor. For the most part, migration studies have been gender-blind, and this obviously has serious implications from both a theoretical and an empirical perspective. Many studies (Bjerén 1997; Chant 1992; Kelson and DeLaet 1999) have shown that women's migration experience is fundamentally different from men's. Because gender is a primary organizing principle of the family and society, it follows that gender structures the migration process to a significant degree.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaOther Marriage & Family TopicsMigration - Types Of Migration, Theories Of Migration, Migration And The Family, Migration And The Global Economy