Social networks serve a variety of functions in the migration process including providing information about the receiving society, offering sponsorship as a means of entry, and facilitating adaptation to the host society through social, economic, and psychological support. The study of social networks in migration reveals the importance of social relations in migratory behavior. It provides insight into the origins, composition, direction, and persistence of migration flows.
Social scientists have long been engaged in studying how individuals are connected and how action is constrained or achieved through interpersonal ties. The term used to refer to this social action is social networks. The concept of social networks is both seductive and intuitively simple. Unlike some other social science concepts, the idea of social networks seems to link readily with the way in which individuals routinely live and understand their lives. There are few individuals who are indeed truly isolated. Each individual can be linked, in a variety of ways and with varying degrees of significance, to a set of other people, and these, in turn, may sometimes be linked to others outside this original network.
In the literature on migration, social networks are viewed as critically important to the migration process. The existence of social networks linking migrants with each other across space and time challenges atomistic accounts of social action, where individuals act out of short-run self-interest with little regard for the situations of others. In contrast, the concept of social networks forces one to understand that migration decisions are seldom made by atomized individuals. Instead, the decisions to move or stay, and the choice of destination, are likely to occur within networks of kin and friends and to involve at least some degree of collective decision making. Social networks are indispensable in helping individuals provide aid to migrate, manage initial settlement, and find work.
Social networks and the resources they provide can be drawn upon for many instrumental purposes, one of which is to aid migration. Since the first part of the twentieth century, studies have found that people with extensive social networks are more likely to migrate than those without. Social networks based on kinship, friendship, and community of origin allow migrants to draw upon obligations implicit in these relationships to gain access to assistance at their points of destination, thus helping to facilitate migration. Social networks act both as conduits of information and filters of that information, thus influencing who migrates and where they go.
Over time, as more and more individuals are involved in the migration process, the costs and risks associated with migration decline, which, in turn, enables more people to migrate. The development of a network makes migration a self-perpetuating phenomenon, with ties to settlers diffusing so broadly that almost everyone in the sending society enjoys access to a contact in the receiving society. In this way, migration builds momentum independent of the initiating conditions. Thereafter, ongoing migration is no longer dependent on the condition that initiated the migratory process.
On arrival in the receiving society, migrants face many obstacles, and their hopes for a better life are usually unfulfilled in the short term. Social networks are fields both for linking back to the past and for beginning the process of managing initial settlement in a new society. Newly arrived migrants are completely unfamiliar with the institutions, laws, and people of the foreign country they choose as their destination. Seeing themselves alone in new surroundings and not being able to seek much help from the host society, migrants seek help from kin and friends who are already living in the receiving society.
Mutual aid through social networks is a significant dimension of communities among migrants. Communities with well-established networks provide newcomers with emotional and cultural support and various other practical resources, such as advice on initial housing and food; tips on the best places to shop; information on how to access support and formal services such as health providers, social services, and community organizations; knowledge of employment opportunities; and general information about the host society, its culture, its institutions, and much more. In these relationships, migrants and nonmigrants are connected to one another through dense network of reciprocal social relations that carry mutual obligations of assistance and support.
Social networks are useful not only in providing aid to migrate and settling in a new community, but also in helping new immigrants find employment. The majority of individuals who make the decision to migrate to a new destination society go with one objective in mind: to work. Migrants cross borders, risk their lives, leave loved ones behind, and are confronted with the combined stresses of migration to a new environment in order to find work. They rely on social networks to achieve that goal. Social networks can provide reliable and up-to-date information on the availability of jobs, and they often even provide personal references. These references by kin or friends help remove uncertainties associated with finding a job with an unfamiliar employer. For migrants, social networks are of much greater importance than for the general population because of the low levels of social and human capital that these individuals typically possess. By being enmeshed in a multifaceted social network, they are able to compensate for limitations of this nature.
There are a number of benefits for employers who use migrant networks to fill their labor needs. Aside from ensuring access to an ample low-cost workforce and having established workers train new workers, employers can count on a certain level of control because the permanent workers can actually control the behavior for those whom they refer.
Hagan, Jacqueline M. Deciding to Be Legal: A Maya Community in Houston. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994. This ethnographic study of Guatemalan immigrants living in Houston illustrates how community networks operate to limit women’s ability to attain legal status in the United States while enhancing men’s ability to do so. Mahler, Sarah J. American Dreaming: Immigrant Life on the Margins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Study of Central and South American immigrants living in Long Island, New York, contending that poverty, marginality, and undocumented legal status influence the quantity of resources that can be shared among network ties. Massey, Douglas, Rafael Alárcon, Jorge Durand, and Humberto Gonzalez. Return to Aztlán: The Social Process of International Migration from Western Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Classic study on Mexican migration to the United States emphasizing the importance of social networks for sustaining migration flows. Menjivar, Cecilia. Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant Networks in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Study provides an especially thought provoking explanation for why social networks may falter among Salvadoran immigrants living in San Francisco, highlighting that the context of reception must be taken into consideration. Waldinger, Roger, and Michael Lichter. How the Other Half Works: Immigration and the Social Organization of Labor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Insightful study that contributes to the understanding of how and why immigrants gain employment in Los Angeles. Examining social networks reveals how immigrants obtain footholds in different industries and explains employers’ rationale behind their hiring decisions.
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965