Overall, the sociology of immigrant families represents a significant lacuna in the research on international migration. Although migratory flows have been interpreted as complex negotiations involving a diversity of actors including the individual, the family, social and kin networks, the market, and the state, other topics have polarized the attention of the social sciences. The political, demographic, and economic conditions of sending and receiving countries, on the one hand, and the patterns and corresponding consequences of migration movements for societies, in particular the survival or the elimination of ethnicity, on the other hand, have been the major concerns of classical migration research.
The neglect of the immigrant family is related to various factors. In the first place, sociologists underline the fact that immigrants were for a long time mostly workers and men. Women immigrants and children were few and only attracted attention when the intensity of family reunification, the settlement of families, and the integration problems of second generation migrants came to the forefront. Secondly, research shows that the feminization of migration and the diversification in women’s patterns of migration have only recently become a noted trend. As Castles and Miller (1998) point out, women over the last decades became increasingly vital in all forms of migration in many regions and across the globe. Lastly, the linkages between sociology of the family and sociology of migration have been weak. The former has focused on family change and organization in general rather than seeking to understand family trajectories and dynamics in the context of immigration. In contrast, gender studies have taken up the issue of migrant women and of women left behind more systematically, thus approaching the impact of immigration on family life from the perspective of women.
The invisibility of the family is, of course, relative. Indirectly, the immigrant family under pins many of the well-known works on immigration, past and present. For example, Thomas and Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-20) analyzes the subjective experience and the integration of Polish immigrants – mostly young male workers but also married men who left families behind – by reference to the peasant family in Poland and to the maintenance of kinship ties, viewed as promoting adaptation, in the receiving country. The life stories also focus on the difficulties of the new nuclear families, labeled as marriage groups in order to distinguish them from traditional multigenerational families, in educating and controlling their children without the authority of the extended primary group. Changing family relationships and obligations, alongside the assertion of individualization in the host country, are thus a subtle but constant thread of interpretation woven into the analysis of the experiences of immigrant individuals.
In conceptual terms, immigrant families have been defined rather broadly as families that have one or more members who moved from another country: it may include only one member or both members of the couple (or a lone parent), and all, a few, or none of the children, as some may stay behind and others are born in the host country. A second approach is to define the immigrant family as one that relates to migration through a variety of movements between countries: some immigrate, some stay in the sending country, some come and go, others (children) go back temporarily. This type of multilocal and multinational immigrant family has become more frequent in a world of transnational mobility and communications. For labor immigrants, it is also stimulated by policies which are often restrictive in relation to family reunification and legalization. Members come or stay behind, remittances flow, and the family overarches two parts of the world, one rich, one poor. A third approach is to define an immigrant family as one where everyone in the family is an immigrant. This is the most restrictive definition and is probably less useful methodologically as fewer families meet this definition. Depending on the objectives of research, however, it is important to keep in mind the diversity in the criteria of definition as they are strongly related to the immigrant family’s organization and identity.
The conceptual issue has not been high on the research agenda. Instead, research on migration and the family has traditionally worked along four main areas: the motivations of family migration; the forms of migration (how the family moves to another country); demographic trends; and the assimilation of immigrant families.
The decision to migrate is one of the oldest themes in migration research. Moving on from the simplistic idea of a push-pull model, research developed typologies which account for a variety of subjective and objective reasons, such as redundancy, poverty and hardship, aspirations based on the idea of searching for a better life, social rejection and political persecution, the wish to study or to specialize, starting a new life after divorce or single parenthood, the decision to marry or to obtain health care in another country, working for multinational firms or responding to offers for qualified labor in another country. All these reasons may apply to individuals or families, but immigrant families in mass migration have traditionally been linked to two motivational categories: hardship and the search for better life conditions.
Findings remind us, however, that family migration is a selective process and that the reasons leading up to the decision are frequently linked to other factors, such as close relatives who have already migrated – family networks stimulate and facilitate the migration process -or social contexts, such as the Caribbean or the Cape Verde islands, where, over the centuries, emigration has acquired the quality of an all pervasive norm perceived as the only way of ”making a life” (as L. Akesson describes it in her 2004 book of that title). Moreover, rather than searching for isolated motivations, research has emphasized that family immigration is linked to an ongoing project involving various aspects of family life: saving up, finding stable jobs in order to be able to build or buy a family house, having children and giving them a better education and opportunities, helping elderly relatives in the home country, returning to the sending country with better living conditions (which may involve setting up a family business, buying farmland, or building a house in view of future retirement). The concept of a migration project has the advantage of underlining not only initial motivations but also the meanings of family immigration over time. These change and develop, depending, among other factors, on living conditions in the host country and on marital and parent-child relationships. Women from rural settings usually hesitate in returning after experiencing more egalitarian marital relationships and holding down full time jobs in the receiving society, whereas children often feel they belong to the host society where they were born or educated. As a result, parents may decide to return without adolescent or adult children, thus initiating a new coming and going between the countries. In summary, to understand family immigration as a process it is essential to analyze the migration project in time as well as the tensions and differing meanings of immigration within the family.
The forms of family migration have been roughly mapped out but inadequately analyzed concerning their impact on families. Family immigration is commonly associated either with joint family migration or a man first migration in which the male breadwinner arrives first and the family comes later (often referred to as chain migration). In the latter case, however, there may be various pathways into family immigration: the male worker, who may be married or single, arrives first, finds work and a home; if married, then the wife, with or without the children, comes later; if single, the worker either marries in the host country or returns home to find a wife. The impacts of the various man first forms of migration on the immigrant family may be quite diverse: for example, coping with marital separation entails a great deal of strain, but living with enforced separation from young children is highly stressful and leads to emotional and cultural tensions between parents and children. Other pathways may be mentioned: the male worker may form a new family in the receiving society while maintaining bonds with the family in the country of origin. On the other hand, single women, lone mothers, and wives now frequently immigrate alone. In highly skilled couples, it is frequent for the wife to find a job first and for the husband to come later. In poor countries, unskilled single and divorced mothers are among the first to emigrate alone, often illegally, to work as domestic employees and health workers in order to improve the living conditions of children left behind with a grandmother. Unskilled lone working mothers may become lone mothers again in the receiving country, a situation often linked to immigrant lone parent poverty.
The demography of immigrant families has privileged the analysis of fertility, a research topic which has currently gained ground due to the policy issues surrounding aging populations in the receiving societies. Immigrant worker families have a high birth rate compared to the population of the countries they are living in. The migrants are young, and in the age group most likely to have children. They also come from countries where birth rates are high, although immigrant women tend to have lower fertility rates than comparable age groups in their home countries and that decrease over time. Analysis of immigrant family households has also shown that immigration stimulates the formation of extended horizontal families (young couples who lodge and support young relatives) rather than vertically extended families.
The permanence of ethnic minorities and the noted existence of female immigration and participation in the labor market led, in particular from the 1970s onwards, to more research on the assimilation and differing ethnicity of families and the children of immigrants (usually referred to as second generation immigrants). Regarding the process of assimilation, most research thinks in terms of a partial blending of cultures, with significant differences, nevertheless, according to the stronger or weaker ethnic contrasts (social, cultural, familial, racial) of the immigrant families in relation to the majority population group. Other theories have sought to go beyond the theory of assimilation or mutual acculturation. For example, Portes’s notion of segmented assimilation (Rumbaut & Portes 2001) suggests that the children of immigrants assimilate to particular sectors of American society, with some becoming integrated into the majority middle class and others remaining in the inner city underclass. Rather than a mix of old and new, this research shows that second generation migrants follow diverse trajectories into the receiving society.
Research related to immigrant families has thus centered essentially on the theoretical question of their integration or marginalization in the receiving societies, even if some work is also emerging on family dynamics. A recent study on the reconciliation of work and family in immigrant families in Europe showed that the first generation ones lack kin networks to support childcare as well as information on childcare facilities. Class and ethnic status cut across reconciliation strategies: skilled immigrant families resort to paid informal or formal care whereas unskilled labor families with low resources may have to manage by leaving young children alone, with other children, or taking them to work (Wall & Sao Jose 2004). Research on the dynamics of mixed couples has also been a recent topic of interest. Differences in culture, religion, and attitudes to family and gender roles often exacerbate the internal difficulties of married life (Barbara 1993).
Future directions in research, theory, and methodology are linked to the above mentioned development in the sociology of immigrant families. In methodological terms, systematic treatment of the typologies concerning motivations and forms of family immigration is needed if their impact is to be adequately understood. More emphasis on comparative work, across countries and different national origin groups, such as the research by Rumbaut and Portes (2001), is also to be expected in the context of continued and intense movements of families across the globe. On the other hand, diversification in research topics and theoretical approaches, considering the emphasis laid over the last decades on the paradigm of assimilation, represents an important challenge. Understanding patterns of marital, family, and intergenerational dynamics through the migration process may be one direction; stimulating linkages between gender studies, family studies, and migration research may be another pathway toward diversification.
- Barbara, A. (1993) Les Couples Mixtes. Bayard, Paris.
- Booth, A., Crouter, A. C., & Landale, N. (Eds.) (1997) Immigration and the Family: Research and Policy on US Immigrants. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.
- Castles, S. & Miller, M. (1998) The Age of Migration. Macmillan, London.
- Fernandez de la Hoz, P. (2001) Families and Social Exclusion in the EU Member States. European Observatory on the Social Situation, Demography, and Family, Austrian Institute of Family Studies, Vienna.
- McAdoo, H. P. (Ed.) (1993) Family Ethnicity: Strength in Diversity. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.
- Morokvasic, M. (Ed.) (1984) Women in Migration. Special issue. International Migration Review 18.
- Pflegerl, J., Khoo, S.-E., Yeoh, B., & Koh, V. (Eds.) (2003) Researching Migration and the Family. Asian MetaCenter for Population and Sustainable Development Analysis, Singapore.
- Rumbaut, R. & Portes, A. (2001) Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America. Russell Sage Founda¬tion, University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Suarez-Orozco, C. & Suarez-Orozco, M. M. (2001) Children ofImmigration. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Wall, K. & Sao Jose, J. (2004) Managing Work and Care: A Difficult Challenge for Immigrant Families. Social Policy and Administration 38: 591 621.
- Zehraoui, A. (1999) Familles d’origine algerienne en France: Etude sociologique desprocessus d’integration. L’Harmattan, Paris.