Human Migration: Definition, Reasons & Theories

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  • 0:00 Migration
  • 0:52 Defining Human Migrations
  • 3:19 Modern Migrations
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Human populations relocate for various reasons, and social scientists have explained these through a variety of theories. Explore several reasons and theories for migration, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Every year, we see geese flying overhead during the fall, migrating south for the winter. Aren't you glad we don't do that? I mean, I love traveling, but most of us don't have to relocate every single season, retired RVers excepted.

However, just because most humans don't migrate every season, doesn't mean there aren't human migrations. A human migration is the movement of people with the goal of long-term relocation, so commuting and vacations don't count. Generally, we don't consider a move down the street to be a migration either; this term is usually applied to a significant relocation. Throughout human history, people, communities, and entire societies have migrated for various reasons. Turns out, migrating isn't just for the birds.

Defining Human Migrations

Historically, human societies have engaged in several major migrations, from Moses telling the Pharaoh to let his people go, then wandering around the desert for 40 years, to the mysterious abandonment of advanced Amerindian cities like Chaco Canyon.

So why do people migrate? The most basic way to divide up the many reasons is into categories of push and pull. Push factors are those which force people to leave their current home. Across history, push factors have included a diverse range of situations, including drought, famine, war, invasion, disease, lack of job opportunities, lack of religious or personal freedoms, or discrimination. You'll notice that these are all pretty unpleasant things.

The other category of reasons to migrate are somewhat nicer. Pull factors are things that attract people to a new area. Things that are attractive enough to make people want to migrate could include job opportunities, education opportunities, freedom, safety, food, climate, or established networks of family and friends. Humans are a pretty stubborn species, so getting us to migrate usually requires a combination of push and pull factors. Things can be great somewhere else, but generally, they also have to be pretty bad where you currently are. That's the basic recipe for a migration.

One other important distinction between types of migration is the idea of voluntary versus involuntary. It's a pretty basic idea: if you make the choice to move, based on whatever push and pull factors matter most to you, it's a voluntary migration. But if you are physically forced to relocate, that's an involuntary migration. The most obvious example of this is slavery. A group of people are forcibly taken from their home and relocated, with no ability to decide where they are going. That's an involuntary migration. For better or worse, each of these forms of migration have been important throughout history, moving people into new areas, mixing gene pools, and integrating cultures.

Modern Migrations

Obviously, people have been migrating for a long time, otherwise we'd all still be living in Africa, and things would be getting pretty crowded. But human migration wasn't just a phenomenon of the past. Migrations are still an important part of modern society, and most modern theories believe that 21st century migrations are primarily related to economic factors; In other words, where people can find work and where they can afford to live. There are still migrations for other reasons, such as political freedom and education opportunities, but work seems to be the most common.

Let's look at some modern ideas about migration. The dual labor market theory explains this as the result of technologically developed societies dividing labor into high-skilled and low-skilled labor, but refusing to work in low-skilled positions. This creates an abundance of job opportunities that others will gladly pursue.

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