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The notion of a migration system is often invoked but it is rarely clearly defined or conceptualized. De Haas recently provided a powerful critique of the current literature highlighting some important flaws that recur through it. In particular, migration systems tend to be identified as fully formed entities, and there is no theorization as to how they come into being and how they break down. The internal dynamics which drive such changes are not examined. Such critiques of migration systems relate to wider critiques of the concept of systems in the broader social science literature, where they are often presented as black boxes in which human agency is largely excluded. The challenge is how to theorize system dynamics in which the actions of people at one time contribute to the emergence of systemic linkages at a later time. This article focuses on the genesis of migration systems and the notion of pioneer migration. It draws attention both to the role of particular individuals, the pioneers, and also the more general activity of pioneering which is undertaken by many migrants. By disentangling different aspects of agency, it is possible to develop hypotheses about how the emergence of migrations systems is related to the nature of the agency exercised by different pioneers or pioneering activities in different contexts.

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Journal article


Journal of Critical Realism

Publication Date



11 (4)


413 - 437

Total pages



agency, critical realism, emergence, migrant networks, migration systems, pioneer migrants, social capital,