Cultures of Migration: The Global Nature of Contemporary Movement
by Jeffrey H. Cohen and Ibrahim Sirkeci
University of Texas Press, 2011
This book began as a discussion between Cohen and Sirkeci over the meaning of migration. We started by email, talking about our work. Cohen had spent several years looking at the patterns of migration in rural southern Mexico, while Sirkeci had followed patterns of migration in the Kurdish parts of Turkey. Later, we shared papers and began to compare the outcomes we noted in the populations we studied. Sirkeci also began “Migration Letters” a journal focused on migration research from around the globe, and he invited Cohen to join him as co-editor. Our work with the many authors contributing to “Migration Letters,” as well as our ongoing investigations from two similar fields – anthropology and geography – suggested to us that there were strong parallel currents between the migration experiences of very different populations.
The parallels in the patterns and processes we discovered among Mexican and Kurdish migrations have fueled an ongoing conversation over the meaning, scope, and outcomes of human mobility. Our work here is a part of that conversation, an attempt by us to frame migration in a way that builds upon earlier work but that also lays out what we see as a new foundation for continued analysis and debate. Specifically, we develop a cultural framework or a culture of migration that acknowledges the various ways in which migration decisions are made and how individual decisions are rooted in the social practices and cultural beliefs of a population.
Put another way, we argue that the choice to migrate is not driven by economic need alone, nor is a desire to leave a natal home sufficient to promote border crossing. It is culture—in other words, the social practice, meaning, and symbolic logic of mobility—that must be understood along with economics if we are to understand patterns of migration. We are certainly not alone in our belief that economics is not a sufficient explanation. This is widely accepted in migration literature. Thomas Faist (2000a: 17) describes the challenge facing migration research as understanding the meso-level outcomes of mobility, or the outcomes that take place in the social universe of the mover. Faist’s approach contrasts with micro-level analyses that focus on the psychology of the migrant and the desires, drives, and practices of movers on the one hand (Bougue 1977; Douglass 1970; Gamio 1969; Koch 1989; Mahler 1995) and macro-level analyses that define migration for a nation and region on the other (Taylor, et al. 1996).
Our focus on the meso-level is important to better understanding how migrants talk about and frame their experiences. Nevertheless, the decision to migrate is a profoundly personal one, and it reflects personal strengths and desires. Migrants make their sojourns to better themselves, to satisfy needs, and to care for their families and homes. They also migrate to escape undesirable conditions. For example, many Mexican women migrate to escape familial violence, turning their backs on homes and parents in an effort to find a safer environment in which to live. Kurds in the Middle East and many groups in Iraq also flee homelands, not simply to find prosperity, but to escape insecurity brought on by ongoing conflicts within their homeland (Sirkeci 2005; Sirkeci 2006a; Sirkeci 2006b). Even the North African who seeks economic opportunities unavailable at home moves for social, cultural and political as well as economic reasons (Castle 2009).
A focus on the migrant, or a micro-level analysis, runs the risk of ignoring macro-level as well as meso-level outcomes. First, while sojourns are personal decisions, they are also typically decisions made in response to economic troubles at home; social processes at home and abroad; and judgments concerning treatment abroad. Second, understanding the push and pull of local economic life and how local political life ways frame the migrant’s negotiation of security are critical to understanding migration outcomes. Third, decisions are always bigger than the individuals involved. For example, personal choice does not fully explain why Filipinos are driven to join nursing programs and train to become caregivers in the US. The reality is that children who join the program often do so in response to the insistence and direction of their parents (Kingma 2005).
In a similar fashion, macro-level analyses that are focused on the national or global economic and political forces that drive migration outcomes do not account for social and cultural practices that can increase border crossing or sometimes check migration patterns. What do we mean? Think about a typical Mexican migrant from the state of Oaxaca’s central valleys, the site of most of Cohen’s studies. Oaxacan migrants to the US are young men, and typically they migrate to support families and their households. Women are not well represented in the Oaxacan migrant stream to the US, yet when it comes to internal moves, women and men travel at nearly the same rate (Cohen, et al. 2008). To understand this pattern, we must look beyond macro-level forces (in fact, at a national level, Mexican women outnumber men as movers to the US) and toward cultural beliefs and social patterns that influence migration decision making. Following traditional Oaxacan beliefs, women should not migrate to the US. Oaxacans believe that women belong at home and caring for families, this set of beliefs as well as fear of sending women alone to unknown places, limits the percentage of women who cross the border in search of work in the US.
Our analysis of the social and cultural basis of migration is not meant to replace micro- or macro-level understandings of mobility. Instead our goal is to introduce a complementary model of movement that focuses on social practices and patterns, and cultural beliefs even as we recognize migration’s economic and political drives. Again, our goal is to add to the debate on human movement and suggest that a culture of migration exists in nearly all migrant and refugee settings. Cultural traditions and practices frame and reframe and finally form responses and outcomes that allow people to make sense of what is going on around them (and see Bourdieu 1977 on the concept of habitus). It is our hope that our approach of bringing together anthropological and geographic sensibilities as well as sociological and economic models can help advance our understanding of migration and mobility outcomes.
The study of migration is an important current in our fields, and while its roots may be somewhat deeper in geography, understanding why and how people move is critical to both the anthropologist and the geographer. At the same time, we believe there is a renewed urgency to studying and understanding migration. Too often, migration is misunderstood as something that challenges the cultural fabric of a society and disrupts social and economic life. In fact, migration is simply movement, nothing more or less. Humans, like many other animals in this world, migrate. And while prehistoric movement lies beyond the scope of our inquiry, our very evolution as a species is linked to our ability to move and adapt to new environments (on early human migration and settlement see Cavalli-Sforza and Cavalli-Sforza 1995). In the contemporary world many humans continue to migrate annually. Some migrations are motivated by an urge to escape a situation, and sometimes migration is nothing more than the need to escape colder winters, such as the Englishmen who crowd the beaches of southern Europe. Others move to seek temporary or seasonal employment and supplement low incomes and limited opportunities, and here, we can think of the migrants that Cohen studies in southern Mexico.
Anthropology is replete with the stories of pastoralists as well as pilgrims-both are in a sense migrating groups of people, different in quality, but at their core movers (Massey, et al. 1998). Yet, at present, contemporary migration is often seen as something unique, new, and often threatening. And while some migrants travel freely and others are refugees, we should not assume that migrants have no home and that they seek to displace others. The reality is far from this dangerous caricature. Migrants are people who move—some move for reasons of employment, others for reasons of pleasure. Some seek to escape from something—fear and a lack of security—while others seek to find something—stability and belonging. Understanding these patterns is critical and our goal.
This book then is meant as part of a step in the continued dialogue between the fields of anthropology and geography, but also a dialogue about places and people. Unlike the work we have both done as individuals—Cohen with Mexican Oaxacans and Sirkeci with Turkish Kurds—this book brings many different examples together from many different parts of the globe. We follow people who are moving from the west to the east and from the south to the north. Our examples include Mexicans and Turks, but also people from Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific, and many parts of Asia. Our goal is to show the cultural basis of this movement and the human dimensions of global mobility. We do not purport to have all of the answers, nor can we cover all of the examples of migration. Nevertheless, we believe our contribution is an important one that builds upon work in the social sciences and defines a new path to understanding the culture of migration.
Cultures of Migration: The Global Nature of Contemporary Movement