Push-pull factors Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Push-pull factors are important aspects of migration theory. Since the late nineteenth century, researchers have utilized these models with increasing theoretical and statistical complexity. Push-pull factors help to explain why migrants relocate, in both contemporary times and the past.

Push-pull factors are applied by demographers, geographers, anthropologists, economists, and other social scientists who study human migrations and resettlement. Population movements may occur across regional political boundaries, such as American state lines, or between nations, such as the United States and Canada. They may involve individual migrants moving alone or migrations of entire families or larger groups. Population relocation is important to understand because of its relevance to planning decisions and the well-being of donor regions, host populations, and the new immigrants themselves. Investigation of push factors may, for example, reveal such information about a donor nation as its loss of skilled workers, while investigation of pull factors may yield insights into future issues for the host nation, such as an increase in language instructional needs among adults.Push-pull factors[push pull factors]Push-pull factors[push pull factors][cat]THEORIES;Push-pull factors[04320][cat]REFUGEES AND DISPLACED PERSONS;Push-pull factors[04320][cat]PUSH-PULL FACTORS;Push-pullfactors[04320][cat]DEMOGRAPHICS;Push-pull factors[04320]

Historians of demography typically trace the origin of migration theory and the development of push-pull factors to Ravenstein, Ernest GeorgeErnest George Ravenstein, who publishedLaws of Migration, The (Ravenstein)The Laws of Migration in 1885. Ravenstein’s concepts were further developed by Lee, Everett S.Everett S. Lee in a 1966 article titled “A Theory of Migration.” Lee suggested that pull factors are evaluated by individuals, who appraise their individual benefits at the new locations. For example, if several people consider moving to Washington, D.C., for tertiary education, such a move may be tempting only to those who are likely to be accepted into a Washington, D.C., university. In contrast, push factors often act on entire populations. For example, if a destructive earthquake were to strike Guatemala, all the people affected by the quake might try to leave the area, although only a few might succeed in reaching the United States.

American Pull Factors

While specific geographic, economic, and political conditions may have immediate application to push-pull factors and population movements, certain characteristics of the United States have influenced immigration for many years. For example, a notable long-term pull factor has been the internal political stability of the United States, which is notably different from many areas of the world. Even when the United States has been involved in major international military conflicts, the conflicts have had limited effects on the nation’s internal political stability. American stability during wartime contrasts sharply with many other nations’ experiences in world wars and other conflicts. Consequently, the United States is typically viewed as a safe refuge by many people around the world, especially members of oppressed minorities and political refugees.

Aspects of the American legal system have also appealed to people experiencing political harassment and persecution in their homelands. The United States endorses human rights protections, including freedom of religion, which is not the case in all nations. Also, American support of Cultural pluralismcultural pluralism is seen as a positive trait by people from minority communities in other countries who may not feel free to express their ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation without repercussions, sometimes even torture or death.

Another attractive long-term characteristic of the United States has been the high level of prosperity enjoyed by its citizens, with the notable exception of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when the United States actually experienced negative immigration. Economic opportunities, including advancement for skilled professionals, have been a major pull factor since the American colonies were first founded, and they continue to attract immigrants. Economic well-being in the United States also correlates with Education;as pull factor[pull factor]educational opportunities, especially in tertiary education, and with access to modern health care. Many first-generation immigrants to the United States are highly motivated to ensure that their children get first-rate educations and progress to university-level education.

As immigrant populations within the United States grow, members of ethnic communities themselves exert some pull on their compatriots overseas. For example, the significant number of Tongan immigrantsTongans living in Salt Lake City, Utah;Tongan immigrantsUtah encourages fellow Tongans living on Pacific islands to immigrate to Utah, where on arrival they can count on assistance with accommodations, language issues, finding jobs, and other concerns of new immigrants.

Push Factors in Other Countries

In contrast to pull factors drawing immigrants to the United States, many often highly specific regional issues encourage people to leave their homelands. North America was first settled by the ancestors of modern Native Americans;originsNative Americans who immigrated to the New World long before the Europeans arrived. Little is known about the push-pull factors underlying these population movements. However, in the case of later European immigration, it is possible to identity several push factors. Traditional class structures and the economic organization of the European nations kept the lower classes subordinated and living in poverty. Immigration to the American colonies allowed people to transform their socioeconomic standing for the better. In addition, some early immigrants came to America to escape religious persecution, and others to escape legal sanctions. Still others came to the New World to flee regional food shortages, such as the Great Irish Famine (1845-1852), which drove more than 1.5 million people to leave Ireland for North America.

In contrast to individuals who migrated to the United States to escape problems in their homelands, enslaved immigrants, primarily from West and central Africa, possessed almost no control over their destinies. They were forcibly moved from Africa to the American South before the U.S. Civil War. Treated as chattel, or nonpersons by local laws, many of these people strove to escape from bondage and migrate north to freedom. Despite the risks of harsh penalties, some slaves did manage to escape to the northern states and Canada. The pull of freedom in the North and economic improvement, combined with greater social freedom, became stronger after slavery was abolished when the Civil War ended. Many African Americans;Great Migration ofAfrican Americans moved north to urban locations, including Canadian cities.

In addition to the sharp separation between southern slave states and northern free states before the Civil War, other regional differences influenced immigration patterns. For example, the American Northeast was settled by English-speakers, and other northern Europeans, while the Southeast was initially populated by the French and the Spanish, and the Southwest by the Spanish. These broad trends were augmented by other settlement patterns as the nation grew in geographical extent, political cohesion, and total population. For example, after the 1880’s, there was a massive influx of southern and eastern Europeans, including many Jewish people, into the United States. This was the result of social, economic, and political upheaval in Europe that motivated people to leave, although they were often delayed and frustrated by the restrictive U.S. immigration policies and selective naturalization acts typical of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Twentieth century push factors continued to be poverty, often augmented by civil unrest, or wars, which resulted in many specific populations immigrating in high numbers immediately after regional warfare or disasters. For example, after the communist Cuban Revolution of 1959, hundreds of thousands of Cubans immigrated to the United States. The disruptions of World War II impelled many Pacific Islanders to immigrate to the United States. Many Hungarians fled their homeland after its Hungarian Revolution of 1956invasion by the Soviet Union in 1956. Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees came to the United States during the 1970’s, after the Vietnam War. Somali immigrantsSomali civil wars during the 1990’s resulted in major movements of refugees and displaced people to the United States.

In addition to civil unrest, natural and human-made disasters have prompted movements of people. In addition to the Great Irish Famine, other examples include a massive earthquake and tidal wave that prompted departures from Italy in 1908, the Halifax explosion in Canada in 1917, and a series of late twentieth century famines in Africa.

Population Movements within the United States

Push-pull factors may also play a role in interstate population movements within the United States. The United States is highly diverse geographically, culturally, and economically, so many of the same types of factors that encourage people to change countries may also induce Americans to migrate across state boundaries. Americans are frequently drawn to new regions by work and educational opportunities. Climate differences also help drive internal migrations. For example, many retirees flee the frigid winters of northern states by migrating to the South. Indeed, northerners who migrate to Florida have been dubbed Florida;"snowbirds"[snowbirds]“snowbirds.” Health needs can also drive internal migration, as people with lung disorders might seek out less polluted or drier regions.

The massive migrations of African Americans;Great Migration ofAfrican Americans from the South to northern cities dramatically altered the demographic profile of many American states. Another example was the movement of Pacific Islander immigrantsPacific Islanders from Hawaii to the mainland, especially California, during the mid-twentieth century.

Americans have also been Natural disasterspushed to leave regions because of natural disasters. The devastation left by Hurricane KatrinaLouisiana;Hurricane KatrinaHurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods and civil unrest in 2005 resulted in New Orleans;Hurricane Katrinamassive emigration from New Orleans and other affected areas of Louisiana. Many people resettled in Baton Rouge and other locations in Louisiana, and in Texas and Mississippi. People with family or connections in other parts of the United States moved to be near their kin. It was expected that New Orleans would require many years to recover from its population loss.Push-pull factors[push pull factors]

Further Reading
  • Boisson, Steve. “When America Sent Her Own Packing.” American History 41, no. 4 (2006): 20-27. Study of the Great Depression, anti-immigrant sentiment, and other push factors that resulted in a massive migration of people southward into Mexico from the United States.
  • Grigg, David B. “E. G. Ravenstein and the ’Laws of Migration.’” Journal of Historical Geography 3, no. 1 (1977): 41-54. Covers the early history and application of Ernest George Ravenstein’s push-pull theory.
  • Lee, Everett S. “A Theory of Migration.” Demography 3, no. 1 (1966): 47-57. Definitive article that formulated the concept of push-pull factors for understanding migrations.
  • Parrado, Emilio A., and Chenoa A. Flippen. “Migration and Gender Among Mexican Women.” American Sociological Review 70, no. 4 (2005): 606-632. Article examining the complex push-pull involved in individual decisions of Mexicans who immigrated to Durham, North Carolina.
  • Syed, Nadir Ali, Farhad Khimani, Marie Andrades, Syeda Kausar Ali, and Rose Paul. “Reasons for Migration Among Medical Students from Karachi.” Medical Education 42, no. 1 (2008): 61-68. Results of research with final-year medical students in Karachi, Pakistan, documenting their reasons for remaining in Pakistan and the factors encouraging them to depart for the United States and other destinations.
  • Yaukey, David, Douglas L. Anderton, and Jennifer Hickes Lundquist. Demography: The Study of Human Population. 3d ed. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press, 2007. Excellent text for learning about demography, and the application of push-pull factors in population research.

Chain migration

Economic opportunities



Great Depression

Health care

Natural disasters as push-pull factors

Religion as a push-pull factor

Settlement patterns

Categories: History Content