Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice

The Biographical Approach to Migration Research…. Some thoughts

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Can our movements be explained as responses to external conditions or are they part of our wider experiences including our values, our hopes and our fears?

Can our movements be explained as responses to external conditions or are they part of our wider experiences including our values, our hopes and our fears?

I’ve just read ‘the challenge facing migration research: the case for a biographical approach’. In this article Halfacree and Boyle argue that traditional migration research has been based on a ‘positivistic behaviourist conceptualisation of migration’ (1993: 334). Such traditional approaches tend to treat migration decisions as ‘rational’ decisions made on the basis of external ‘evidence’ and proceeding logically through certain steps (e.g. desire to move, finding a place to move to, enacting the move). Halfacree and Boyle challenge this approach by arguing that migration decisions are more complex and less linear than they may seem. Instead they suggest that migration decisions are situated within individuals’ biographies and are part of their pasts and their anticipated futures; they involve personal values and value-based decisions, and are cultural phenomena with different migration patterns being associated with different cultural norms.

This was really good for me to read, as I have been frustrated in the past with much of the migration literature which uses complex statistical techniques to correlate migration paths with individual differences. Research in this vein is always interesting, but tends to leave me with more unanswered questions than it solves. It strikes me, for example, that there will always be exceptions to rules such as ‘the lower classes are less migratory’. I am much more interested in individual differences, and how different people construct their options differently. So it was great to read a paper which opened up the possibility of researching migration from a social constructionist and biographical perspective.

Because the article itself doesn’t propose any particular kind of methodology, it also got me thinking about what this might mean for my research…. Talking about values and taking a biographical history may be relatively new in the field of migration research, however understanding values, and the social context of decisions is pretty core to the practice of careers guidance. This may be because in careers we are used to working with individuals and individual decision making processes (rather than analysing large scale trends, as is the tradition in gravity models of migration). As a result I wonder if a biographical approach to migration could maybe learn something about the tools and techniques of discussing personal and cultural values from the careers literature? I think I can see these ideas beginning to develop into a methodological approach for my research….

References: Halfacree and Boyle (1993) ‘The challenge facing migration research: the case for a biographical approach’ Progress in Human Geography 17:3, pp. 333-348

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One thought on “The Biographical Approach to Migration Research…. Some thoughts

  1. That’s so interesting! I see some very interesting research on the horizon. We went to Shetland on a wave of immigration from South when the oil arrived – and everyone had their stories – and there was a lot of overlap in the general themes…

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