Migration (Anthropology)

The study of migration has been and continues to be an important area of innovation in anthropological theory. It is an area of research which by its nature focuses on change and which has frequently challenged preconceived notions of society and culture. Some have argued that the study of migration was well established by the end of the nineteenth century in the works of "Marx, "Engels and "Weber (Eades 1987). Yet, for much of its history, migration has remained at the periphery of theoretical developments in the subject.

Early studies of migration to urban areas in North America by Wirth and the Chicago sociologists reflected a certain ambivalence about the results of these movements. The American anthropologist, Robert Redfield, developed the ideas of Wirth and suggested the notion of a folk-urban continuum. He argued that the distinction between the city and the countryside corresponded to distinctions between developed and underdeveloped, modern and traditional. The migrants who move from the countryside to the city were, according to his analysis, progressive types, who through their move contributed to development and the breakdown of tradition. Oscar Lewis, in research which followed the informants of his early field-work in rural areas of Mexico to the cities and shanty towns, began to find inconsistencies in the Wirth-Redfield model of urbanization. Lewis suggested that urbanization could take place without development necessarily following and talked in terms of ‘peasants in the city’.

British anthropologists working in Southern and Central Africa, such as Audrey Richards and Isaac Schapera, were similarly critical of the results of migration, describing a situation of a failure of social ties and a decline of tradition. As the economic climate improved after 1945, others began to make more positive evaluations. Members of the Manchester school like J. Barnes and J.C. Mitchell, working out of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in the Central African cop-perbelt, pointed to the importance of networks of family and friends in these newly emerging settlements. Their studies described the processes by which existing networks of social ties were maintained and utilized in urban situations — an on-running theme in the anthropology of migration which continues today (see for example articles in Eades 1987 and the work of Gardner 1995). According to Eades (1987) this work by British and American anthropologists marked a shift from the use of a simplistic notion of modernization to a more realistic analysis of the social and economic contexts within which migration took place.

Political and economic events of the 1960s and 1970s forced further re-evaluations in the anthropology of migration and also prompted a renewed interest in the work of Marx. French theorists such as Althusser and "Meillassoux inspired new Marxist approaches to the study of small-scale societies. Meillassoux’s classic study of migration in colonial West Africa, Maidens, Meal and Money (1981), sought to identify and characterize the different modes of production that existed in precolonial times and to analyse their reaction to each other and to the colonial impact. He describes the way in which the indigenous domestic economy was maintained within the sphere of circulation of the capitalist mode of production in order to be exploited for commodities and particularly labour power. Other writers, such as Wallerstein and Frank, developed macro-models of the world system. Their theories of underdevelopment described the ways in which underdeveloped countries operated within capitalist economies. Such analyses brought about a critical evaluation of the neocolonial processes of modern capitalism and of anthropology’s role in these processes.

At the same time anthropologists turned their attention to the communities of migrants who had come to the industrialized West in the 1950s and 1960s to work. Fieldwork was carried out throughout Europe, examining for instance, communities of Turkish migrants in Germany and Scandinavia. In Britain work such as Watson’s collection Between Two Cultures (1977), looked at the differences between groups of migrants in terms of social structure and culture. Research on minority communities in Britain continues today and can in some senses be said to have marked the starting point of anthropology at home, the process of bringing anthropological fieldwork closer to the study of the anthropologist’s own society.

The 1980s and 1990s saw renewed interest among anthropologists in global migration, looking, for example, at the huge movements of workers from Asia to the Arab Gulf states. Much of this work was based on detailed analyses of the social and economic contexts that migrants, their families and communities operated in (see for example Ballard, Marx and Mascarenhas-Keyes in Eades 1987). This work challenged the economically determined and macro-models of migration in which individuals are ‘pushed’ and ‘pulled’ by the forces of capitalism. More recently there has been a greater interest in the cultural contexts of migration, examining the ideas and values around which migration is organized and the changes in these ideas and values that migration brings.She comments directly on recent theories of globalization, challenging notions of homogenization, which she argues are a trendy substitute for modernization. Gardner analyses the very local responses to global processes and thus seeks to draw together macro and micro approaches to the study of migration. Similarly, the Comaroffs, working in those areas of Southern Africa where migration has become an inescapable feature of everyday life, have drawn out the complex historical and cultural mediations involved in people’s understandings of the meaning of migration (Comaroff and Comaroff 1987).

When anthropologists habitually thought of the world as divided into neat, discrete ‘cultures’, ‘societies’ or ‘tribes’, migration presented, if nothing else, something of an embarrassment. As such, it became a marginal topic, often confined to the theoretical dustbin of ‘social change’ or ‘applied anthropology’. When, in the relentlessly postmodern 1980s, it became de rigueur to challenge earlier assumptions about a world of bounded, internally homogeneous cultures, migration suddenly emerged into the limelight of full theoretical fashion. Now spoken of in terms of ‘transnational’ processes and ‘diaspora’ communities, migration became crucial to arguments about identity and hybridity (see, for example, Clifford 1994; Rouse 1995). Such work is in fact merely the continuation of the trend of the anthropology of migration challenging accepted notions of society and even of change. Though often viewed as peripheral in the past, the anthropological study of migration has now finally been acknowledged as a valuable source of innovation.

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