In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rural-Urban Migration

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Rural-Urban Migration and Urbanization
  • Rural-Urban Migrants
  • COVID-19 and Rural-Urban Migration

Urban Studies Rural-Urban Migration
Cindy Fan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0057


Rural-urban migration refers to the movement of people from rural to urban areas. Defining migration is not easy; the same can be said for “rural” and “urban.” All three of these concepts include many patterns and processes, and our perceptions of each can vary over time or geographical context. Importantly, the literature on rural-urban migration is concerned with multiple forms of mobility, including circular and return migration, and of immobility—that is, of not being mobile, staying behind or being left behind. Rural-urban migration may be internal or international. This article’s focus is primarily on internal rural-urban migration, for three reasons. First, the bulk of rural-urban migration occurs as internal migration. Second, the literature on migration focuses disproportionately on international migration, even though internal migration is much more sizable. Third, the subject of international migration is already dealt with thoroughly in several Oxford Bibliographies in Geography, Sociology, and Anthropology, respectively: Geography of Migration, Migration, and Migration. Most developed countries have undergone rural-urban migration that fueled industrialization, urbanization, and economic growth. For example, the mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to Northern cities in the early 20th century was one of the key internal migration streams in the United States. While rural-urban migration has been considered a “natural” process of modernization in the Global North, it is largely seen as a problem for the Global South, as, for example, a reason for unemployment and other urban ills such as slums. In addition, today rural-urban migration is much more pronounced in less developed countries, as many are in the middle of the urban transition. Therefore, much of the research selected for this article is drawn from the Global South. Although the article focuses on internal migration, namely migration that takes place within a national border, it is informed by studies on international migration that are relevant to the processes and outcomes of rural-urban migration, such as migration selectivity, multilocality, and impacts on gender and children. This article begins with works that provide overviews of internal and rural-urban migration, followed by sections on urbanization, migration theories, and circular and temporary migration and multilocality. Impacts of rural-urban migration constitute the bulk of the second half of the article, which concludes with a short section on COVID-19.


Most recent book-length and comprehensive volumes on migration focus on international migration, with chapters on or some attention given to internal migration and rural-urban migration. While many international migrants do originate from rural areas and move to urban areas, the bulk of rural-urban migration in the world takes place as internal migration. In some countries, notably China and Vietnam, as Chan and Ren 2020 (cited under Impacts on Children) and Locke, et al. 2012 (cited under Impacts on Gender) note, respectively, a parallel exists between internal rural-urban migrants and international migrants because of their shared experiences, in that their political and social rights are tied to the place of origin, not the place of destination. Most of the publications selected for this section are relevant for migration studies in general, across the geographic scales of international, internal, and rural-urban, but they all pay special attention to rural-urban migration, especially labor migration. Clark 1986 is an early and classic volume that succinctly summarizes the fundamental concepts and methods for migration research. Boyle, et al. 2014 provides a good overview of data, definitional and methodological issues, as well as specific themes of migration. The difficulties in defining migration, securing quality data for migration, and ensuring comparability of definitions and data across countries are amplified in rural-urban migration, due to unstandardized and inconsistent definitions of rural and urban across regions and countries and over time. See also McGranahan and Satterthwaite 2014 (cited under Rural-Urban Migration and Urbanization). Mavroudi and Nagel 2016 provides a comprehensive overview of migration across the world, with important emphasis on migrant labor and experiences. Elmhirst 2017, Fan 2020, Mazumdar 1986, and White and Lindstrom 2005 are all entries in encyclopedias or handbooks of geography, population, or regional and urban economics, and they each highlight internal and rural-urban migration and migrants, including trends, urbanization, policy, economic and social themes, structural and household perspectives, and impacts of internal and rural-urban migration.

  • Boyle, Paul, Keith Halfacree, and Vaughan Robinson. Exploring Contemporary Migration. New York: Routledge, 2014.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315843100

    Originally published in 1998, this is a comprehensive book on migration. It reviews migration definitions and measures, various theoretical approaches and quantitative and qualitative methods, and discusses migration patterns via specific themes, including employment, life course, quality of life, social engineering, forced migration, and culture. Much of the book is highly relevant to rural-urban migration, such as chapters that analyze labor migration and the “lure of the city.”

  • Clark, William A. V. Human Migration. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1986.

    One of the earliest volumes overviewing migration studies, this book is still highly usable today because of its comprehensive coverage of migration definitions and data, reasons, models, and theories. By including the entire spectrum of migration from residential mobility to regional migration to international migration, it also describes and explains rural-urban migration.

  • Elmhirst, Rebecca. “Migration: Internal.” In International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology. Edited by Douglas Richardson, Noel Castree, Michael F. Goodchild, Audrey Kobayashi, Weidong Liu and Richard A. Marston, 1–10. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118786352.wbieg0809

    This article provides a detailed overview of the field of internal migration, which has been relatively neglected compared to international migration, despite the former’s numerical importance worldwide. It discusses migration theories, links between internal and international migration, and government policy, and it highlights rural-urban migration, including industrialization, urbanization, and economic development as well as migration’s economic, social, and cultural dimensions, such as gender, identity, inequalities, and household livelihood strategy.

  • Fan, C. Cindy. “Migrant Workers.” In International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. 2d ed. Vol. 9. Edited by Audrey Kobayashi, 73–80. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-08-102295-5.10286-0

    This article provides an overview of labor migration in the world, focusing on its economic geography, management, and impacts. It includes discussion of rural-urban migration as an instrument of household economics and strategies, circular migration and those left behind, and the demographic, economic, and social impacts on the sending and receiving areas.

  • Mavroudi, Elizabeth, and Caroline Nagel. Global Migration: Patterns, Processes, and Politics. London: Routledge, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315623399

    Written for students as well as instructors of courses on migration, this book provides an overview of historical patterns and contemporary trends of migration over the world. While the focus is on international migration, with numerous case studies, the book’s discussion of the importance, theories, and history of migration, migrant labor, and migrants’ experiences, among other topics, is at the heart of research on migration whether international or internal.

  • Mazumdar, Dipak. “Rural-Urban Migration in Developing Countries.” In Handbook of Regional and Urban Economics. Vol. 2. Edited by Edwin S. Mills, 1097–1128. Elsevier, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1574-0080(87)80014-7

    This chapter provides an overview of rural-urban migration in less developed countries; considers over-urbanization; reviews the literature on the factors of migration, including economic and non-economic factors; and discusses urban labor market segmentation and whether rural-urban migration is socially efficient in terms of equalizing economic outcomes among households, regions, and rural and urban areas.

  • White, Michael J., and David P. Lindstrom. “Internal Migration.” In Handbook of Population. Edited by Dudley L. Poston and Michael Micklin, 311–346. New York: Springer, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1007/0-387-23106-4_12

    This chapter in a handbook on population provides an overview of internal migration, including definitions and relationships with other kinds of mobility, data and methods, substantive findings, and issues with respect to higher-income countries and to lower-income societies.

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