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Book Review


Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron, and Meera Balarajan, Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. Pp. xv + 371. $35.00 (Cloth), $22.95 (Paper).


     Over the last few decades, migration has become an increasingly rich and interesting field in the social sciences; the greater attention to movement and travel in World History textbooks is just one evidence of the flourishing area. Migration policy is hotly debated, but discussions too often turn on myths, anecdotes and cultural biases rather than history, sociology or economics. The ambitious goal of Exceptional People is to marshal the fruits of that now-mature scholarship in the service of policy, and to shift the debate to a more productive direction. To that end, Goldin, Cameron, and Balarajan have produced a comprehensive, if not energetic, data-driven survey of the history, social science, and policy issues around migration, to support the thesis that international migration is deserving of more coordinated attention and greater support. While the material is not terribly surprising to someone who has been part of the migration studies discourse, the thoroughness of the presentation means that scholars and teachers should find new material and ideas here; the primary audience seems to be social scientists and policy experts, but it would be a useful primer for educators and a good introduction for undergraduate or graduate students.

     Exceptional People is divided into Past, Present, and Future sections, though the sections might be more accurately labeled historical background, recent decades, and policy. "The Past" starts off with an eminently forgettable chapter on pre-Columbian migration which fails to distinguish between migration, trade, invasion, the spread of disease, and cultural transmission. This section is intended to bolster the authors' claim about the fundamental necessity of migration in human development, but it is so peripheral to the argument of the rest of the work that the authors would have been better off skipping it.

     However, readers should not allow the historical incoherence of this beginning to put them off the rest of the work. The chapter on pre-twentieth century migration is much more substantial, though the discussion of imperialism still conflates political and economic interaction with other kinds of movement. These first chapters suffer from being clearly outside of the expertise of the authors: the citations are often to other survey works; the material is weakly integrated and often dated. The notable exception is the discussion of the nineteenth century "free migration" era, which draws on more recent scholarship like that of Adam McKeown, and effectively sets up the chapter on the twentieth century's "managed migration" era. In chapter three, the policy and political science skills of Goldin, Cameron, and Balarajan become more evident. The underlying thesis of the book starts to become more obvious, as the regulation of migration is clearly, and accurately, described as a political process mostly driven by nationalism, democratic interest-group pressure, and the increasingly powerful surveillance state. Their economic argument comes into focus here as well, with the free migration era described as one of rapid economic development, compared with the tumultuous and constrained economic history of the managed migration period.

     The "Present" section is the heart of the book, containing a thorough, up-to-date, carefully-structured discussion of the current state of migration and migration policy since the 1970s. Rich in data, and often presented in mostly effective grayscale charts and diagrams, these three chapters analyze the process of migration, in many permutations and variations, across the globe. Using a great mass of social science scholarship, these chapters run through the social, political, economic, and legal aspects of migration, from overseas student visas to human trafficking, guest laborers, and diasporic networks. The "Leaving Home" chapter was very nicely done, divided into personal, social, and political level analysis—here termed "micro," "meso," and "macro"—and carefully complicates the simplistic model of poverty-driven decision-making that dominates many immigration debates. The discussion of social networks and diasporas as a system is likely to be the most eye-opening to migration studies beginners. The chapter on migration effects, or "impacts," makes a strong case for migrants as productive, culturally invigorating elements of human society. There is a judicious presentation of negative effects as well, including xenophobia, violence, exploitation, and fiscal pressure, that is carefully contextualized, but rarely quantified. The overall thesis of this section, like the first, is that migration is a net benefit to migrants and to both sending and receiving countries.

     Quantification, the measurable social science result, is the foundation of this book's methodology. The authors consider numerical data to be the highest form of evidence; emotions and experiences are evaluated through survey data, and events matter when the chartable data says they matter. Diversity, for example, is a good thing because of measured benefits in corporate creativity, and any downsides can be mitigated by pro-multiculturalist policies. Ambitious coverage of a complex subject like migration, from the origins of humanity to the present, complete with proscriptions for the future, means that there is little time for ambiguity. Social science results are rarely questioned or even quibbled with. Even economic projections, guesswork from a field whose macroeconomic wisdom has been severely questioned in recent years, are only weakly qualified. Because Goldin, Cameron, and Balarajan hope to have an effect on their audience of generalists and policy-makers, methodological disputes or ambiguous data would be a distraction. Teachers who assign this work should consider carefully the implications.

     The "Future" section of Exceptional People is two chapters, one economic and the other political. "The Future of Migration" chapter looks at possible developments in the global economy through the lens of demographics and political economics, and concludes that more migration would be better for almost everyone, though there would be some political cost, and that migration will almost certainly increase over time. Some of that will result from refugee migration caused by global climate change, but more will be driven by aging populations in the developed world. The final chapter, "A Global Migration Agenda," argues for a GATT/WTO-style coordinated effort toward more freedom of movement across international borders and better social and political infrastructure for supporting migrants. Some of their suggestions are highly creative—the portability of Social Security-style national pensions across international borders, for example—but implausible in the short term. The authors realize, though, that this is a long-term process: the freedom of trade movement took decades to come to its current state of affairs, and there isn't even a consensus on its direction yet. So the ultimate goal of this book is to shift the tone of the debate away from "migration control" to "migration enabling" with the hope that it becomes a priority for enough governments that some sort of productive collaboration might take place.

     It is ironic that the most beloved American monument to immigration, the Statue of Liberty, sits on Ellis Island, where migration control and limitation was implemented. This book makes a strong case that the United States was built on immigration, and that immigration control is strangling economic development and limiting social growth in the present. Migration is, as the authors argue, a necessary component of a healthy global society, a net social and economic benefit that has been irrationally limited by attachments to the least attractive habits of twentieth century politics. This is a careful and thorough re-examination of migration in modern society which demolishes most of the substantive arguments against greater support for international migration. It is less useful as a work of history, but the excellent survey of contemporary migration studies will enable historians of migration to draw connections across time and space. The historical chapters would actually have been better if they had been written less chronologically, or perhaps presented after, and in the context of, what we know about migration in the present.

Jonathan Dresner teaches Asian and World History at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. His research primarily concerns modern Japanese migration, including overseas labor migration. He can be reached at


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