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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

Migration Theory: Talking Across Disciplines. Edited by Caroline B. Brettell and James F. Hollifield. New York: Routledge (2000). 239 pp.


Reviewed by Ellen Percy Kraly, Department of Geography, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York


Migration Theory is a welcome contribution to the field of migration studies, which, as the editors state in the Preface, "…cries out for an interdisciplinary approach" (p. vii). As several of the authors included in the volume demonstrate through literature review, the study of migration has often been inter- and multidisciplinary. But the editors are asking for greater analytic articulation of the conceptual value of interdisciplinarity within scholarship on migration. One of their three goals for the book is to foster a ‘spirit of dialogue’ among migration scholars. This is offered as one means to the dual ends of "gaining greater insight into the phenomenon of international migration" (p. vii) through multidisciplinary and comparative research (p. 20) and of "moving toward a more unified field of study" (p. vii). These analytic goals are highly relevant given the ever more significant role of international population movements in contemporary social, economic, political and environmental change - at all geographic scales: local, national, regional and global.

In the jointly authored Introduction, the editors provide a superb synthesis of the analytic characteristics of migration studies from the perspectives of particular disciplines. Brettell and Hollifield compare how different academic disciplines frame and implement research questions. They offer critical insight to the theoretical and methodological traditions as well as empirical emphases of each of the fields and, in the process, help to identity the major bodies of knowledge about international migration that have developed in many of the social sciences. This is a fine organizing chapter. It concludes with a presentation of specific research questions or areas that would benefit from interdisciplinary exchange and collaboration. For example, Brettell and Hollifield "foresee exciting collaboration on the question of citizenship between the political scientists and political sociologists who frame the in relation to the nation-state and the rights of a democratic society, and the anthropologists who frame the questions in relation to ethnicity and the construction of identity" (p. 19).

Each of the individual chapters provides a critical review of the theoretical and research literature within the respective social science disciplines represented in the volume: history, demography and population studies, sociology, anthropology, economics, political science and legal studies. Each author makes his or her own decisions about emphasis. Diner considers the receptivity of historians to theoretical models and hypothesis testing. Keely underscores the awareness among demographers about issues of data reliability and cohort versus period effects. Chiswick summarizes the economic literature concerning the issue of migrant selectivity and notes the policy implications of differing interpretations of empirical findings. In her excellent summary of the sociological literature on immigrant incorporation, ethnicity and citizenship, Heisler reveals the many different conceptual frameworks and methodological approach adopted among her colleagues. Brettell too provides a rich discussion of the ways in which the anthropology of migration has deepened to consider issues of identity and culture within the context of globalization and transnationalism. Hollifield identifies what he considers three central issues concerning the politics of international migration (national sovereignty and the control of migration; national security; and immigrant incorporation and polity) and looks as how scholars in other social sciences have addressed these issues. Schuck discusses how legal studies can illuminate critical immigrant policy concerns including the demand for immigration, and policy and program enforcement and administration. In a similar vein, but using the lens of economics, Chang focuses on four U.S. immigration policy issues: labor competition and labor market effects; distributive justice; public goods and resources; immigration law and policy reform.

Each of the chapters in this volume stands on its own by offering critical synthesis of disciplinary scholarship on international migration. Each discusses, in different ways, both the contributions and to some extent failings of the discipline to insights about the phenomenon of international migration and population movements. As a collection of papers organized to meet the goals set forth by the editors, however, I see two important limitations. First, most of individual papers do not identify clearly, or clearly enough, the ways in which interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research on international migration might proceed. For example, Chiswick concludes his chapter by discussing the various dimensions of immigrant selectivity and social and economic mobility that might, we presume, be considered in research by non-economists. But the fostering of an interdisciplinary perspective and research program on immigrant selection remains implicit at best. Hollifield presents a detailed, well conceived agenda of research for political scientists, a "call for research" that I hope might be considered seriously by a foundation or other funding organization. But the agenda focuses specifically on work to be done within the field of political science that benefit both the discipline as well as the store of knowledge about the politics of international migration. The connections to other disciplines are not as clearly evident as one might hope given the goals of the book.

In fact, in my review, only two papers in the collection succeed at explicitly and concretely discussing the potential interdisciplinary ‘dialogue’ about research on international migration. Interestingly, Hania Diner discusses at length the inherent difficulties in promoting interdisciplinary research on migration that would involve historians and other social scientists. She draws a decidedly ominous conclusion: "…the nature of history as a field, the particular perspective of American history, and the inner dynamics of American immigration history as a field has militated against a conjoining of the study of immigration to the United States and migration theory. The two have gone their separate ways. While they both may be the poorer for it, there is no reason to predict that in the immediate future they will find common ground" (p. 39).

In contrast, but addressing the same goal of "interdisciplinary dialogue," Barbara Schmitter Heisler concludes her chapter on sociological studies of international migration by setting out a "constructive" agenda for research. She suggests more scholarly connections among sociologists drawing from different emphases within the discipline, specifically between "Americanists" and "Comparativists/Globalists". Because the latter more often adopt an interdisciplinary perspective, such dialogue will ultimately move analysis in a variety of new analytic combinations. Schmitter Heisler identifies transnationalism as a focus of interdisciplinary dialogue between sociologists and anthropologists as macrosociological processes emerge on all levels of human society. Similarly, according to Schmitter Heisler, the study of state sovereignty is an opportunity for interdisciplinary analysis between sociologists and political scientists given different assumptions about the significance of nation states in migration and settlement processes. Finally, Schmitter Heisler discusses the need for interdisciplinary and comparative dialogue about processes of immigrant assimilation, integration and incorporation and for critical assessment of biases inherent in the conceptual models. This chapter seems to me to accomplish the goal for "talking across disciplines" set forth by the editors.

The second limitation of the collection is the omission of professional geography from the social scientific map. The movement of humans is a spatial process and a major force of landscape and hence social geographic and environmental change. The subfield of population geography is virtually defined as the study of human migration and geographic mobility; in the past decade economic, cultural and feminists geographers studying globalization and development has given close and critical attention in field studies to the roles of transmigration and transnationalism in the ‘relationships between people and places.’ The work of Victoria Lawson (1998; 2000) is particularly notable in this regard.

Beyond significant theoretical and empirical contributions of geographers in the study of migration of all forms is the longstanding awareness among geographers of the need for disciplinary integration in the study of human-environmental interactions. Intellectual integration and synthesis is considered by many of us who teach the discipline at the collegiate level the analytic signature of the discipline. Among geographers Kevin McHugh (2000) has made a most clear and eloquent argument for interdisciplinary perspective, and also multi-method approach, in the study of migration, in his call for incorporating ethnography in the geographic analysis of migration and spatial processes:

Geographers – steeped in thinking in terms of space, place and connection – are well posed to explore and elucidate peoples, place and societal implications of migration and circulation systems. This challenge requires openness to multiple epistemologies and perspectives, as intellectual life across the social sciences and humanities is becoming increasingly defined by what Geertz (1983) term blurred genres in social thought. … Cultivating ethnographic approaches will help enliven migration studies in geography and foster linkages with other branches of the discipline, opening up new vistas in migration, culture and society (pp. 85-86).

The editors of this good volume of theory and practice in migration scholarship would have done better to include the theoretical vantage and empirical insight of colleagues such as Lawson and McHugh in promoting conversation across social scientific disciplines about the study of migration.

References Cited:

Geertz, C. 1983. Local knowledge: Further essays in interpretive anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Lawson, V. 1998. Hierarchical households and gendered migration: Feminists extensions to migration research. Progress in Human Geography 22: 39-53.

Lawson, V. 2000. Questions of migration and belonging: understandings of migration under neoliberalism in Ecuador. International Journal of Population Geography 5: 261-276.

McHugh, K. 2000. Inside, outside, upside down, backward, forward, round and round: A case for ethnographic studies in migration. Progress in Human Geography 24: 71-89.