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Who Migrates? Previous Next
Digital History ID 3306


Even in societies with high rates of emigration, not everyone migrates. Who chooses to stay and who goes?

Migrants are rarely a random cross-section of the population. Rather, migrants usually share certain social characteristics, including age, sex, marital status, occupation, and ethnic background. Thus, for example, many early 20th century Italian migrants were unmarried men in their teens or twenties; most early-20th century Russian migrants were Jews.

Migration often takes place during a particular stage of the life cycle. It is particularly common for individuals to migrate during adolescence or early adulthood or at the time of marriage.

Many studies of migration have emphasized the idea that migrants have a different psychology than those who decide to remain behind. Some speculate that migrants are less tradition-bound, more restless, or more aspiring than non-migrants. Many scholars distinguish between the true "innovators," the first individuals in a particular society to migrate to a new area, and those who follow in their footsteps.

In some instances, it seems clear that migrants are traditionalists who seek to preserve an older way of life. During the mid-19th century, many German emigrants to the United States were motivated by a desire to maintain pre-industrial crafts in the face of disruptive social and economic changes linked to the rise of industry. Many migrated to rural areas in the U.S. Midwest, where they set up farms or engaged in crafts.

What, then, are the effects of migration on their community of origin? Migration often entails the loss of people with certain characteristics--age, sex, social attitudes, education, religion, ethnicity, and income. Because migrants often consist of a disproportionate number of young men, migration tends to reduce a community's population growth rate. Recently, many economically underdeveloped societies have expressed a fear that migration has resulted in a "brain drain"--a loss of the society's most educated and highly skilled members--to wealthier countries.

  • Innovators: The first individuals in a society to migrate to a new area.
  • Traditionalists: Immigrants who seek to preserve an earlier way of life.

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