Geography Geography of Migration
Wei Li, Emily Skop, Adriana Morken
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0038


Migration—a spatio-temporal process that evolves over space and time—involves the continual reshaping of place as persons move between various origins and destinations. Geographers are especially interested in the process because of the interconnections and spatial linkages that are formed when people move. The numbers of flows and channels that are created as a result of migration have risen dramatically in the past two centuries, and the result is the constant transformation both of sending and receiving areas. The patterns, causes, and consequences of migration are innumerable and include complicated, multiscalar economic, political, cultural, and demographic effects, all of which are studied by geographers.

General Overviews

Numerous comprehensive overviews of migration are available. Some works, such as Mavroudi and Nagel 2016; Castles, et al. 2014; Samers 2010; Brettell and Hollifield 2014; Massey, et al. 1993; and Sassen 1990, examine the global character and patterns of international migration and also theorize about the underlying causes of the process, including migration’s fundamental links with globalization, development, poverty, human rights, social justice, conflict, and national security. Since the 1960s especially, multiple theories have emerged to try to explain the root causes of human migration patterns, whether permanent, cyclical, or temporary in nature. Proponents of world systems theory argue that migration emerges in response to capitalist penetration into noncapitalist or developing societies. Rather than viewing it as a product of individual or household decisions, Massey, et al. 1993 uses this theory to explain migration as “a structural consequence of the expansion of markets within a global political hierarchy” (p. 41). At the other theoretical extreme, the microeconomic version of neoclassical theory posits that the decision to migrate is ultimately based on an individual’s rational, self-interested calculation of the social, economic, and personal costs and benefits involved. According to this theory, individuals who migrate do so because the anticipated advantages of geographic relocation outweigh any potential disadvantages. Unsettled by the inadequacy of research and theoretical frameworks that privilege either individual migrants (usually conceived of as males or genderless) or global structures and processes, Brettell and Hollifield 2014 takes great strides toward incorporating analyses of gender, social networks, and intrahousehold power relations into migration theory. Other studies (e.g., Hirschman, et al. 1999; Portes and DeWind 2008; Koser 2016) assess these issues as well; additionally, they explore the multiple consequences of migration, including both positive and negative outcomes for sending and receiving societies, as well as for migrants themselves. Readers interested in immigration issues may also read the Oxford Bibliographies in Sociology article “Immigration” by Irene Bloemraad and Edwin Lin.

  • Brettell, Caroline B., and James F. Hollifield, eds. Migration Theory: Talking across Disciplines. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2014.

    Many social science disciplines are involved in migration analysis, including anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, history, and geography. This edited volume brings together a number of well-known scholars to articulate how a wide range of different disciplines study migration. The goal is to provide multiple perspectives, and to familiarize the reader with a broad overview of how scholars think about migration.

  • Castles, Stephen, Hein de Haas, and Mark J. Miller. The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. 5th ed. New York and London: Guilford, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-36639-8

    This book examines how modern patterns of migration are rooted in historical relationships and are shaped by a multitude of political, demographic, socioeconomic, geographical, and cultural factors. It is perhaps the most cited work on migration and is frequently used as a textbook in upper-division undergraduate courses and graduate seminars because of its wide scope and depth.

  • Hirschman, Charles, Philip Kasinitz, and Josh DeWind, eds. The Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999.

    This volume includes six introductory chapters by leading scholars who discuss theories explaining root causes of human migration, including the neoclassical economic approach, the household approach, world systems theory, social network theory, cumulative causation, and transnationalism. The remaining chapters focus on the US experience, especially the impact of migration that is felt both at the individual and societal levels.

  • Koser, Khalid. International Migration: A Very Short Introduction. 2d ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780198753773.001.0001

    What sets apart this overview of migration is its concise nature. It takes the huge topic of migration and provides a succinct synopsis of the ways in which scholars define, measure, and conceptualize the migration process. The tone of the book is especially accessible, making it valuable to many audiences, and the interspersing of various case studies makes the process real to the reader.

  • Massey, Douglas S., Joaquín Arango, Graeme Hugo, Ali Kouaouci, Adela Pellegrino, and J. Edward Taylor. “Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal.” Population and Development Review 19.3 (1993): 431–466.

    DOI: 10.2307/2938462

    Most scholars focus either on the structural, institutional, or individual factors that lead to migration. This groundbreaking work concludes that all these factors are influential and are supported in some way or another by the available evidence. This conclusion serves only to underscore the point that migration is a very complex process.

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

    This addition to the migration literature provides broad understanding of global migration patterns and processes, but also detailed case studies drawn from numerous international case studies. The authors are geographers, thus highlighting the ways that migration reinforces current intercultural dynamics and global interconnectedness.

  • Portes, Alejandro, and Josh DeWind, eds. Rethinking Migration: New Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives. New York: Berghahn, 2008.

    This volume includes fourteen chapters from well-known migration scholars. Part 1 provides a discussion of various conceptual and methodological developments. Part 2 examines the complexity of migration policymaking. Part 3 deals with transnational communities and immigrant entrepreneurship, and Part 4 delves into unauthorized immigration and intergenerational dynamics. Part 5 discusses the role of religion in migrant incorporation.

  • Samers, Michael. Migration. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

    This overview illustrates the unique spatial concepts that geographers bring to the conversation on migration, by including place, space, borders, scale, and territory throughout the book. Also helpful is the glossary of terms and extensive bibliography provided at the end of the text.

  • Sassen, Saskia. The Mobility of Labor and Capital: A Study in International Investment and Labor Flow. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    This groundbreaking work utilizes world systems theory to argue that migration emerges in response to capitalist penetration into noncapitalist or developing societies. Rather than seeing it as a product of individual or household decisions, this book seeks to explain migration as a structural consequence of the expansion of markets within a global political and economic hierarchy.

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