This paper studies how increasing migration changes the character of migrant
streams in sending communities. Cumulative causation theory posits that past migration patterns determine future flows, as prior migrants provide resources, influence,
or normative pressures that make individuals more likely to migrate. The theory
implies uniform patterns of exponentially increasing migration flows that are decreas-
ingly selective. Recent research identifies heterogeneity in the cumulative patterns and
selectivity of migration in communities. We propose that this heterogeneity may be explained by the differential accessibility of previously accumulated migration experience.
Multi-level, longitudinal migration data from 22 rural Thai communities allow us to
measure the distribution of past experience as a proxy for its accessibility to community
members. We find that migration becomes a less-selective process as migration experience accumulates, and migrants become increasingly diverse in socio-demographic
characteristics. Yet, selectivity within migrant streams persists if migration experience is not uniformly distributed among, and hence not equally accessible to, all community members. The results confirm that the accumulation and distribution of prior migrants’ experiences distinctly shape future migration flows, and may lead to diverging
cumulative patterns in communities over time.
Previous working paper version dated January 2003. Download PDF
In an age of migration, anticipating, directing, or stemming migration flows is a leading dilemma for policy makers confronting a broad range of concerns. A critical research finding is that migration flows can develop a self-sustaining momentum that is difficult to redirect. This phenomenon, predicted by cumulative causation theory, hypothesizes that migration flows gain momentum and eventually become self-sustaining due to the accumulation of migration experience in the form of migrant social capital. Migration studies evaluating the theory are substantial, especially for the Mexican-U.S. case, but also for other sites, powerfully demonstrating how macro social structures influence behavior and vice versa. However, recent research also shows that rather than uniformity in the macro-micro migration dynamic, instead there is still substantial heterogeneity in migration patterns at both the community and individual level. We propose that this heterogeneity in patterning can be explained by further theorizing the mechanisms that underlie cumulative causation. Specifically, we propose that migrant social capital evolves differently depending the historical continuity of migration flows to and from a particular destination and the social proximity of migrants to potential migrants in origin communities. We examine longitudinal data from Thailand to test this theoretical modification by estimating migration models to substantively different destinations, observing migration experiences at multiple levels of social proximity (individual, household, and community). Our models also include a gender account of these patterns, since gender is a fundamental social organizing mechanism. We find significant cumulative differences in migration patterns that can be explained by historical continuities to destinations and social proximity within origin communities. In addition, men’s and women’s accumulated migration experiences, differential social proximity, and differential access to migrant social capital demonstrate that heterogeneity in migration flows is also driven by gender.