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Migration and development: A theoretical perspective by Hein de Haas

This paper aims to put the debate on migration and development in a broader historical perspective of migration theory in particular and social theory in general. The scholarly debate on migration and development has tended to swing back and forth like a pendulum, from developmentalist optimism in the 1950s and 1960s, to structuralist and neo-Marxist pessimism and scepticism over the 1970s and 1980s, to more nuanced views influenced by the new economics of labour migration, “livelihood” approaches and the transnational turn in migration studies as of the 1990s. Such discursive shifts in the scholarly debate on migration and development should be primarily seen as part of more general paradigm shifts in social theory. The shift that occurred over the 1990s was part of a more general shift away from grand structuralist or functionalist theories towards more pluralist, hybrid and structuralist approaches attempting to reconcile structure and actor perspectives. However, attempts to combine different theoretical perspectives are more problematic than sometimes suggested due to incommensurability issues and associated disciplinary divisions.

Since 2000, there has been a remarkable, and rather sudden, renaissance of optimistic views, in particular in the policy debate, as well as a boom in empirical work on migration and development. This has coincided with the rediscovery of remittances as a “bottom up” source of development finance and the celebration of the transnational engagement of migrants with the development of their origin societies. However, such optimism has tended to go along with a striking level of amnesia of decades of prior research. Migration and development is anything but a new topic. The accumulated empirical and theoretical evidence stress the fundamentally heterogeneous nature of migration-development interactions as well as their contingency on spatial and temporal scales of analysis and more general processes of social and economic change, which should forestall any blanket assertions on migration-development interactions.

Current policy and scholarly discourses naively celebrating migration, remittances and transnational engagement as self-help development “from below” also shift attention away from the relevance of structural constraints and the important role states and other institutions play in shaping favourable general conditions for social and economic development to occur. This raises the fundamental question whether the recent shift towards optimistic views reflects a veritable change in (increasingly transnationally framed) migration-development interactions, the use of other methodological and analytical tools, or is rather the deductive echo of a general paradigm shift from dependency and state-centrist to neoliberal and neoclassical views in general.

The lack of theoretical rootedness and largely descriptive nature of much empirical work has haunted the improvement of theories. As a result of the general lack of a common theoretical thread, most empirical work – especially from outside migration economics – remains isolated, scattered, and theoretically underexplored. Real progress in the understanding of the factors determining the fundamental heterogeneity of migration and development interactions is only possible if more empirical work is designed to test theoretically derived hypotheses and, hence, to improve the generalized understanding of migration-development interactions.

Keywords: Migration theory, development theory, social theory, remittances, neo-Marxism, developmentalism, transnationalism.

Download the working paper