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This paper elaborates an aspirations–capabilities framework to advance our understanding of human mobility. Arguing in favour of conceptual eclecticism to bridge disciplinary and paradigmatic divides, the paper conceives migration as an intrinsic part of broader processes of social transformation and development. In this perspective, theoretical assumptions are seen as contextualised statements rather than mutually exclusive truth claims. On the macro-level, such conceptualisation of migration requires embedding the analysis of migration into broader theories of social change without reverting back to the top-down causal determinism of many historical-structural and functionalist theories. To develop a more meaningful understanding of agency in migration processes, and building upon Carling’s (2002) earlier work, the paper proposes a meta-theoretical conceptualisation of migration as a function of aspirations and capabilities to migrate within a given set of opportunity structures. Drawing on Sen’s capabilities approach, this paper defines human mobility as people’s capability (freedom) to choose where to live, including the option to stay. While distinguishing between the instrumental (means to an end) and intrinsic (directly wellbeing-enhancing) dimensions of human mobility, this conceptualises moving and staying as complementary manifestations of the same migratory agency. This allows to move beyond the rather futile debate over whether migration or sedentary behaviour is the norm and to overcome dichotomous and simplistic classifications such as between forced and voluntary migration. The paper draws on Berlin’s concepts of positive and negative liberty to conceptualise the complex and non-linear ways in which structural conditions shape migration aspirations and capabilities. The resulting expanded aspirations-capabilities framework is used to elaborate a theoretical categorisation of five ideal, typical mobility types. The concepts of positive and negative liberty (as manifestations of different structural conditions under which migration occurs) are used to elaborate a categorisation of four contextual migration categories, to which different migration theories have different degrees of explanatory power.



Working paper


International Migration Institute

Publication Date




Total pages



migration, aspirations, capabilities