Review of new book on migration history

Christiane Harzig and Dirk Hoerder with Donna Gabaccia, What is Migration History? Malden, MA: Polity, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7456-4336-6.
The global history of migration can be summed up as the free migration of Europeans, the slave migration of Africans, and the coolie migration of Chinese to “America.” This, at least, is the image of global migration history that scholars had created by the 1960s. As this book demonstrates, it is a myth. Scholarship since the 1970s, with roots stretching back half a century, has developed a much more complex story. This book tells both the story and the way it has been brought about.
In this slim volume, the late German migration historian Christiane Harzig and her colleagues Dirk Hoerder and Donna Gabaccia introduce readers to the concept of migration history and provide a concise survey of global migration history (ch. 2). Yet, this book is more than an introduction to migration history. It is a guide to an approach – I am almost tempted to say, to a school of thought – that has informed several generations of migration historians around the world.
The first premise of this influential approach to the study of migrating men and women is the notion that we must understand the history of people’s lives in their countries of origin before we begin to study their lives as in-migrants. This is what Frank Thistlethwaite in 1960 described as the need to break through the “saltwater curtain” that separated European emigration and American immigration historiographies.
The approach’s second premise is that not all migrants intend to be or end up being immigrants, that is, permanent settlers in their country of destination. Rather, migrants in the past as well as in the present often took circuitous routes that lead them to temporary stays as well as onward, return, or circular migrations. Sometimes, migration routes were shaped by the seasons, at other times by career decisions, and then again by family considerations and kin networks.
The third premise of migration history is that while myriad social, cultural, mental, demographic, and political factors get people on the move, it is fundamentally economic factors that we must study to understand migration. Rather than going through a list of push and pull factors that are rooted in an understanding of migrants as free economic agents that make decisions on the basis of cost-benefit analyses (chapter 3 provides an in-depth critique of this neo-classical theory), migration historians begin from a systems approach (explicated in chapter 4). This approach is best able to account for the multiple interconnections between the “culture of origin and departure, the actual move, and the process of insertion/acculturation into the receiving society” (xxi). The systems approach does not, however, study migrants as particles of a “flow” or “wave.” Migrants are agents; they make decisions, albeit within the constraints of their life worlds. The systems approach, developed in the 1980s, is here expanded to include more recent studies of the intersectionality of gender, class, and race as well as new studies of transnational networks and transcultural life.
The three historians are detached observers, but they also write as politically engaged scholars. Underlying the theoretical approach and the multiple case studies are important messages to policy makers and societies more generally. Migration is part of human culture and, as such, has been going on since homo sapiens spread across the continents. Ethnically homogenous nation states are an invention of the 19th century, created at intolerable costs to humanity (just think of the Nazis’ attempt to create an “Aryan Third Reich”) that continue to haunt us in Europe (e.g. the former Yugoslavia) as much as in Africa (e.g. Rwanda) and other places. Hence, it is this racial nationalism rather than the cultural, economic, social, and demographic intermingling of many different peoples that is to be feared.
The book is an important reminder of the obligations of societies that import labour migrants: “Recruiters of body parts [i.e. of migrant workers] never expect ‘foreigners’ to protest inhuman treatment” (4). In Canada, Filipino “guest worker” protests in Vancouver against their exploitation by immigration legislation that privileges industry over human rights and by employers that privilege profit over decency remind us that we are far from ensuring basic rights, equality, and social justice for people on the move.
The authors take the argument beyond its traditional Atlantic boundaries, extending both case studies and theories to the South Atlantic and Pacific migrations to write a truly global history and historiography. Thus, readers learn about sophisticated analyses of migration and transculturation developed by students (often migrants themselves) from Algeria, India, Cuba, Brazil, and other places, and going as far back as the very early 20th century.
An extensive index and a detailed table of contents help readers navigate the book. This is an excellent textbook for undergraduate surveys of global migration history; it will also serve seminar discussion in upper level undergraduate and graduate courses; and it will be a handy reference tool for even for the most seasoned migration historian.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg