From Kentucky to Mongolia, geography professor Holly Barcus studies how people migrate.


GEOGRAPHY PROFESSOR Holly Barcus studies migration and rural geography, with much of her recent research focused on the migration patterns of ethnic Kazakhs in and outside rural Mongolia. Her courses include Population 7 Billion, Contemporary Mongolia, and Rural Landscapes and Livelihoods. Her senior capstone seminar—Migrants, Migration, and the Global Landscape of Population Change—builds on the premise that the world has entered an unprecedented “age of migration.” Macalester Today sat down with Barcus to learn more.

What does it mean that we’re living in an age of migration?
Humans have always migrated, but now political borders are much more contested spaces, so we have more statistics about people who are seeking to cross borders. We also have more global crises and economic disparity causing new or larger flows from some parts of the world to others, and we have a global system of labor exchange. The idea of an “age of migration,” a concept (and book) from migration scholars Stephen Castles and Mark Miller, speaks to this notion that people are moving both long and short distances, and it’s never been catalogued quite as much as it is today.

There’s an ongoing academic conversation about how we define migration and where we draw the lines between migration and other forms of mobility. Have you migrated if you change residence for only three months? If you study away, is it migration or temporary mobility? In some cases with greater affluence, second home ownership, tourism, and moving for retirement represent additional forms of mobility or migration. It’s this whole continuum of movement that we’re all engaged in.

When did this current age of migration begin?
Major world events such as the end of World War II or the breakup of the Soviet Union greatly alter geo-political boundaries, often creating new migration flows. In the 21st century, we are witnessing refugee movements from environmental and political crises and economic disparity. There’s also movement from the simple desire, and often need, to work in other places, companies’ recruitment efforts, and countries seeking labor from other countries.

The age of migration doesn’t have explicit boundaries, but in the past 20 or so years, we see all of these big processes coming together to facilitate and push migratory behaviors. For example, the ongoing European migration crisis highlights how conflict, poverty, and inequality drive migrants from their home communities in search of safety and economic potential to support their families. It also illustrates how challenging such large movements of people can be for the destination communities. We can also consider female labor migration from the Asia-Pacific region to the Middle East, for example, and how the decision to work abroad, while leaving families at home, is seen as essential to the families’ survival and heart-wrenching to the women who must be away from their young children for long periods of time.

How has technology shaped these changes?
Cell phones have changed the face of migration. Lots of the decisions are still made in the same ways—through discussions with friends and family—but what’s changed is opportunity and access to information. Migrants can stand in western Mongolia, one of the most remote places on earth, and text people in China, Kazakhstan, and Russia to learn what job opportunities are out there.

When I was in Mongolia in 2009, we stayed in a yurt with a family, and at a certain time each night, everyone would disappear. We found out that everyone was going to the yurt next door to watch a soap opera from Kazakhstan, because that yurt had a satellite dish that pulls in stations from all over the world. Now the imagination of children in a remote community changes dramatically because they’re watching a soap opera from a developed, modern place that stands in stark contrast to their own experience. It’s not so much that technology has just changed the way people migrate, but it also changes how they think about migration and, in some cases, their life expectations and aspirations.

What similarities exist between your work in rural Mongolia and migration elsewhere?
Before my work in Mongolia, I worked in eastern Kentucky. My co-author and I kicked around the idea of place elasticity: the idea that people could move out of a place but remain very strongly connected to it. For example, in many remote communities in Appalachia, we saw significant migration in the early and mid-twentieth century to cities in the manufacturing belt, such as Detroit. And yet many people had strong desires to return home to the mountains. That’s very similar to what we see in western Mongolia. These are vastly different places at different points of development. Yet we see similarities in how people think about where they live and how they become attached to that place, and what it means to migrate away from that place or return to it.

What do these individual case studies tell us about migration more broadly?
We learn a lot about migration from a case study like Mongolia or Appalachia or right here in the Midwest, because we’re asking questions that seek an individual’s rationale: how they think about migration and why they choose to migrate or remain in place.

The generalization that happens in the press, for example, is just that: a generalization. Simply knowing that thousands of people moved from one place to another doesn’t tell us anything other than that the migration had a big impact on both places. Individuals decide to move, and understanding their reasoning and decisions is how we understand migration flows. If we don’t understand what’s driving migration, we can never smooth the route or address the challenges people face that may have compelled them to migrate. The fact that there are human faces to migration is one of the most important lessons to remember.

October 30 2018

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