Since the late 1970s the topic of family migration has increasingly been examined by sociologists, geographers, economists, and demographers. Studies of family migration have clearly become a wide ranging, interdisciplinary endeavor, with discussions cross cutting the social sciences. Although family migration occurs at many geographic scales, from the neighborhood to the global, academic discourses within the developed world have tended to focus on the movement of family units over long distances at a subnational level. Kofman (2004) and Smith and Bailey (2006) argue, for example, that the ‘‘family’’ has been lost from accounts of population movements between European states, or across wider international boundaries, respectively. In addition, there is limited interchange between accounts of family movements within the developed and developing world, with the latter often being absorbed within wider development studies.
North American and European studies of family migration have generally focused on the outcomes of family migration (Halfacree 1995). More specifically, there has been an emphasis on pinning down the socioeconomic effects, which are often measured by the post migration employment or occupational status of family migrants. There has been less concern with the non-economic outcomes of family migration (e.g., quality of life, caring, family forming, marriage). At the same time, there have been limited empirical explorations of how and why family migration unfolds, or the subjective dimensions which underpin the decision to move the family unit.
This longstanding perspective is tied to an epistemological and methodological engagement, with many scholars of family migration drawing upon the tenets of positivism. As a result, researchers of family migration have tended to adopt quantitative research methods, particularly statistical modeling, and utilize large scale aggregated data sets to test hypotheses about the general patterns and trends of family migration (Smith 2004). Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s there were a number of defining hallmarks associated with studies of family migration. First, one of the major conventions was to view labor motivations as the primary stimulus of family migration. To investigate this dimension hypotheses were often constructed from the theoretical models of neoclassical economics, and the a priori behavior of economic rational actors (see Bailey & Boyle 2004). Second, there was an under lying assumption that family migration is triggered when the movement of the family unit yields an increase in total family income, irrespective of the impacts on the employment earnings or career aspirations of individuals within the family. Third, family migration was often viewed as being induced by the male partner, in order to enhance his career development. This normalization of family life and behavior is clearly influenced by the taken for granted model of the traditional ‘‘male breadwinner/ female homemaker’’ couple. Many early studies therefore asserted that the employment aspirations of female partners are often ‘‘sacrificed’’ (i.e., unemployment or economic inactivity) or ‘‘satisficed’’ (i.e., part time employment) following the movement of the family. Such a disenfranchisement of female partners within the labor market is borne out by the widely used terms ‘‘female tied migrant’’ and the ‘‘trailing spouse.’’ Importantly, since the early 1990s this treatment of family migration has been widely critiqued, and theorizations and conceptualizations of family migration have shifted in three important, and interconnected, directions.
First, within quantitative studies of family migration there has been a more critical thinking to the ways in which family migrants are conceptualized and categorized. Traditionally, and tied to the limitations of data sets, analyses of family migration were predominantly based on aggregations of family migrants, with family migrants generally treated as ‘‘homogeneous lumps.’’ With this in mind, some recent studies have constructed more nuanced categorizations of family migrants, which are more sensitive to intra familial differences and diversity. One example is Boyle et al.’s (2002) use of microdata from the 1990 US and 1991 UK Census to reconstruct family units by linking together male and female partners. This technique allows an examination of the relational characteristics between migrant partners, and a consideration of the effects of different family and household arrangements and relations. In addition, early studies of family migration tended to focus on wholly moving family units (i.e., male and female partners moving together), which implicitly treats family migration as a simplistic ‘‘neat’’ event.
Understandings of the links between family migration and processes of family and house hold formation were therefore, until recently, extremely limited (Smith 2004). This point is integral to Smith and Bailey’s (2006) manipulation of UK Census microdata to explore how migrant families use different strategies which involves partners joining or moving together, and how these different strategies influence the post migration labor market status of both partners. Moreover, the above studies clearly adhere to Halfacree’s (2001) call for scholars to be more reflexive when establishing taxonomic classifications of family migrants.
Second, ideas from social theory are now more fully embraced by scholars of family migration. One fruitful development has been a more critical perspective of the gendered dimensions of family migration, linked to critiques of the substantive relevance of human capital hypotheses to explain tied migration. A pioneering work here is Halfacree’s (1995) commentary of how and why female tied migrants are, in part, reproduced through the ‘‘structuration of patriarchy.’’ This structurationist reading of family migration explicitly draws upon the writings of Anthony Giddens and Sylvia Walby, and demonstrates how theorizations of family migration can be usefully informed by wider social theories. In a similar vein, other recent studies have provided insights of the ways in which diverse familial arrangements and relations mediate family migration. Important accounts include Cooke’s (2001) investigation of the effects of the onset of parenting and childrearing, and the presence and different numbers of dependent children; Bailey et al.’s (2004) assessment of how childcare and the care of elderly family members allow and constrain family migration; and Bonney et al.’s (1999) examination of the implications of marriage events and the rise of cohabitation on family migration. All of these studies incorporate a deeper level analysis of the impacts of gendered power relations, and gender role ideology and task allocation on family migration decision making and behavior.
A third development, and linked to the above, has been the implementation of post positivist, inductive approaches within studies of family migration. Recent theory building endeavors have involved the use of in depth, qualitative research methods and the gathering of rich qualitative data to tease out the decision making processes and behavior of family migrants. In the British context, for example, Hardill et al. (1997) and Green (1997) utilize biographical methods to explore the complex intra familial negotiations, compromises, and tradeoffs which take place between male and female partners within dual career couples. These studies draw attention to the importance of non-economic and cultural concerns (e.g., locational and residential preferences) within family migration decision making processes, particularly quality of life aspirations, and stress that family migration is not always motivated by labor related issues. In doing so, recent qualitative studies also reveal that family migration is not a straightforward, neat event. Rather, family migration is identified as a complex and experiential process, which involves many com promises, stresses, and anxieties for family members. One particular benefit of such qualitative research is that it is possible to more accurately assess changes in the pre and post migration status of family migrants, therefore providing a precise understanding of the effects of family migration when compared to quantitative studies using cross sectional data sets (e.g., US and UK Censuses).
The above three interconnected developments have undoubtedly enabled scholars to capture the diversity of the processes and effects of family migration. However, one general commonality between recent findings is that family migration often has a negative impact on women’s labor market status. On the whole, the female tied migrant thesis is reaffirmed by recent studies; although it is important to note that many of the interpretations are based on short term measures (i.e., within one year of move) of post migration labor market participation. Indeed, in a cross national study of the effects of subnational family migration on the labor market status of female partners in the US and UK, Boyle et al. (2002) reveal that the socioeconomic effects are remarkably similar for women in both contexts, despite major institutional and ideological differences. Likewise, studies in the Netherlands and Sweden point to family migration having a negative effect on women’s labor market status. It would appear, therefore, that despite rising levels of female employment in Europe and North America, family migration continues to be detrimental to women’s labor market participation. Nevertheless, some recent studies disrupt the tied migrant thesis, and have demonstrated that geographical contingencies (e.g., labor market opportunities, childcare support, public transportation) have a major impact on post migration labor market status of male and female partners. For example, Cooke and Bailey (1996) show that long distance migration can have a positive effect on female labor market status in some contexts within the US. It is contended that this positive effect is tied to family migrants moving into economic growth areas. Importantly, this interpretation overlaps with other migration studies which have examined links between rising female occupational status and movement into specific locations, such as Fielding’s (1992) conceptualization of London and the southeast of England as an ‘‘escalator’’ region. In essence, these studies beg questions of the wider geographic pertinence of the tied migrant thesis.
Overall, the shifting treatment of family migration since the early 1990s has stimulated a vibrant interdisciplinary research agenda, with scholars now posing a broader range of research questions to investigate the diversity of family migration. This includes a richer appreciation of the influence of sociospatial contingencies on processes and outcomes of family migration. Tied to this is a growing interest with the ways in which family formations, ethnicity, race, age, life course, sexuality, class, and culture cross cut with different expressions of family migration. Another useful entry point for future research is the inclusion of other types of family structure, such as lone parent, single adult, multi person, and same sex couples within analyses of family migration, and the need to transcend the considerable focus on heterosexual nuclear families.
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