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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, "
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
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"
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:
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.
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
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.