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Studies in Migration Worldwide


Introduction to the Forum on Studies in Migration Worldwide

Patrick Manning, Guest Editor


     The study of migration reveals both the deepest continuities and the latest twists in human history. Research continues to emphasize the importance of human movement and connection, so that migration remains important in both conceptualization and narrative of world history.1 The five articles in this forum combine to emphasize three themes in the history of migration: the "materiality" of migration, focusing on the material traces of human mobility; long-term continuities in migration; and the social conditions and institutions of recent migrations, showing how migrations become steadily more complex.

     The articles are presented in chronological order. Patrick Manning's contribution emphasizes long-distance migrations of early times. It describes agricultural migrations of between six thousand and one thousand years ago, comparing them briefly with more recent migrations. It develops the concept of "mid-Holocene migrations," an argument that world history of this era was more than the rise of river-valley civilizations, and that migrants could also be farmers, not just nomads. In the second essay, Jack Bouchard describes a substantial Atlantic migration from the fifteenth century to the seventeenth century that rose and declined without involvement of the state. Fishermen from northwest Europe sailed to the coast of Labrador each summer to catch and process whales and fish, exchanging goods with Algonkian visitors to the same coast. His analysis pairs the concept of seasonal migration with attention to portable tools as the key possessions of migratory workers.

     Two articles address the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century era of oceanic migration. Tiffany Trimmer focuses on British colonial rule in Malaya, exploring the official ideology that all wage labor should be performed by immigrant workers, especially from India and China. As she shows, a sudden "labor famine" in 1903-1904 revealed that the migrants themselves and the self-appointed recruiters were as influential as the government in determining labor flows. Torsten Feys shows that in this same world of mass migration—apparently led by steam technology and great states—shipping companies too were influential intermediaries. Focusing on migration to the United States across both Atlantic and Pacific, he argues that the size and direction of migrant flows depended very much on the influence of European-based shipping companies and not only on the migrants and the U.S. government.

     In the final essay, Bennett Sherry considers twenty-first-century migration of refugees. Refugees, escaping political oppression, found that their lives were still conditioned by states and international organizations. Nevertheless, as the article emphasizes, the migrants still exercised agency in their movements and in their cultural identity: Sherry deploys the concept of "layering" to portray the complex shifts in identity among Bhutanese refugees, and encourages historians to join in developing archives to preserve the experience of such migrant groups.

     These and other such studies are combining to make migration history into a significant subfield within world history. Beginning with stories of migration that had previously been treated in isolation, world historians are knitting them together to reveal the global fabric of human movement. The results show the continuity of human migration, the ways that migration has nurtured contacts among societies, and the ways that new migratory patterns develop even as the old ones persist.


1 For an important new statement, see Globalising Migration History: The Eurasian Experience (16th-21st Centuries), Jan Lucassen and Leo Lucassen, eds. (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

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