A note on migration as “development”

A post by Josh Tuttle:

Recently I’ve been working with several colleagues on a project that investigates the relationship between migration and economic development.  This project – which can be characterized as an ideology critique – takes the theory of “brain circulation” (See Saxenian 2006) as its central focus.  Brain circulation, which is the newest installment in the brain drain/brain gain literature, conceptualizes transnational migration as a form of “decentralized economic growth,” and supposes that transnational communities of technically skilled immigrants precipitate levels of unprecedented economic development in the developing and developed world alike.  Thus the theoreticians of brain circulation are able to champion this neoliberal theory of transnational development as “proof” of Thomas Freidman’s (2005) “world is flat” thesis.

But as we’ve read deeper into braincirculation it has become apparent that this theory is rife with problems. To begin with, brain circulation presupposes that economic development, as a function of migration, is largely precipitated by relatively affluent transnational citizens.  While this is true in many respects, brain circulation’s preponderance with technical labor causes its theoreticians to completely overlook the role that relatively disadvantaged migrants – who are often forced into patterns of transnational migration – play in the game of global economic development.  But what’s even more troubling, however, is brain circulation’s ability to reduce concrete individuals to mere commodities.  Through its deep neoliberal assumptions, brain circulation frames transnational citizens as economic resources who are useful only in respect to global capitalist aspirations.

These problems – which are conveniently overlooked by brain circulation’s proponents – become painfully obvious as streams of transnational migration pass through the prism of the global city.  It is in the global city that transnational migrants, whether affluent or disadvantaged by comparison, come to live and work, and it is only through this cohabitation that the global urban environment – which is the true location of capitalist development at any level – is able to reproduce itself.  Unfortunately these disadvantaged migrants, who can be referred to as a transnational underclass, are often overlooked or ignored in this production process, and come to be shuffled into states of hyper-exploitation as a result.  Their jobs – which are over-represented in the service industry- are tenuous at best, and they are frequently underpaid for their labor.

The transnational underclass are not the only victims of exploitation, however.  Those technically skilled migrants – which brain circulation theorists laud as the drivers of capitalist progress – exist in a similar state of exploitation.  True, they are certainly insulated from the realities of economic necessity in comparison to the transnational underclass, but these technical workers are also underpaid, overworked, and denied the prospect of upward mobility in their respective vocations.

And while these processes of commodification and exploitation occur amongst the backdrop of the global city (such as Washington D.C), the policy-makers on Capitol Hill are only too eager to adopt brain circulation as a schematic for comprehensive immigration reform.  The newly proposed bill – which mainly favors those technically skilled migrants and their immediate family – promises to aggravate these states of exploitation and commodification by institutionalizing the shortsightedness of brain-circulation’s theoreticians.

If you are reading this and would like to become involved with the current debate surrounding immigration reform – which, given its shaky foundation, will likely continue beyond the ratification of a bill – you can do so at the third annual Public Sociology Graduate Conference at George Mason University.  This conference, which encourages submissions that are critical of mobility, migration, and development, will feature a number of workshops that interrogate the issues outlined above.  Please click here for more information about this conference.

  1. Saxenian, Annalee. 2006. The New Argonauts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  2. Freidman, Thomas. 2005. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux