The Urban Dimensions of Migration and the Problems of Research

By Josh Tuttle and Robert Fenton.

Recently, Robert Fenton and I have been reconsidering theories of international labor migration.  We find that much of the literature on this subject (see Sassen 2001; Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002; Alba and Nee 2003; Portes and Rumbaut 2006; Saxenian 2006; Smith and Bakker 2008) has analyzed migration between countries.  Typically, these studies cite the social and economic conditions of host and sending countries when explaining international migration, with individuals emigrating from underdeveloped countries in order to find better economic opportunities in developed host countries.

These studies also suggest that individuals who decide to emigrate from their less economically-developed homelands are engaging the logic of rational-choice, which dictates that emigration—whether permanent or temporary—is the only way to realize a higher quality of life.  But the vast majority of literature analyzing international migration fails to ask why the decision to emigrate is rational.  Or to state the problem in a different way, the literature discussing international migration does not ask why the conditions of a particular country are more desirable than others.  This is the question that Robert and I are investigating, and one we think can only be answered by tackling migration through the prism of global capitalism.

Part of the problem lies in the way data is managed and collected. For one, we tend to only look at migration through the lens of people living and working (for specified periods of time) in another country. This tends to overlook massive internal and circular migrations that are difficult to capture when our objective is to understand the structures of migration. The second issue, related to the first, is that of “informal” migration, of which the vast majority the world over continues to be. It is almost impossible to get accurate information about these populations. These problems make understanding the structures of global migration difficult, but not impossible—we must create theoretical positions that cannot be reduced to empirical facts, especially if the empirics are trapped in an historical method of data collection which may not correspond to the contemporary reality.

This leads us to project from current trends: the global enclosures movement on agricultural land, “modernization” of agricultural production in the Global South, and increased global urbanization. As land has been privatized and cordoned off in the Global South, the people that once worked it are forced to leave, typically arriving in (semi)urban areas and living in “informal” conditions—some call them slums. We know a billion people—and the fastest growing group on the planet—live in these conditions (as per numerous sources). But we also know that cities across the globe, through communications, networking, transportation, etc., are now the primary sites of producing and exchanging surplus value. Our theory is derived from these assumptions, which in turn spatialize the findings we have derived: old theories of migration are inept when grasping the push-pull factors of global migration in global capitalism as they fail to highlight the urban dimensions (see Neil Brenner’s fabulous work on globalization as rescaling) of our contemporary ensemble.

Plenty of contemporary research captures, on a city by city basis, this sweeping trend, but few have put forth more general theories of this process. This means moving beyond the city, which, as Lefebvre tells us in The Urban Revolution, is an historical term that no longer holds much utility in an age of global capitalism. What we need is the concept of the urban, as a sort of planetary and general force at work in global capitalism. Forty plus years after Lefebvre, however, his call largely goes unheard beyond urban studies—but even sometimes within. However, our methods, our concepts, and our epistemologies need to catch up to practice. Our current research into global migration, we feel, is one of the ways by which we can begin this process.