GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

7.4. Migration Motivations and Impacts on Identity


As Cresswell points out in Chapter 1 of his book, the term “mobility” has evolved over time. Early on in its history, being “mobile” had certain stigmas associated with it. To be stable and have “roots” was seen as more beneficial than to be moving through space. However, with the advent of technological innovations in transportation and communication, mobility is at times seen as a privilege and as a sign of freedom, especially with consideration to tourism. This positive view of mobility; however, may change depending on the type of migration. Stigmas may still surround some migrants, such as refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, or employment seekers. The evolution of the term “mobility” has influenced migration and its motivations, as well as the impacts that migrant mobility has had on individual and group identities.

Migration Motivations

The motivations for migration are as varied as there are migration types and individuals; however, researchers have created a variety of conceptual frameworks to explain the rationale for migration. It’s easy to try to pinpoint one reason for a person or group’s decision to migrate: employment opportunities, educational opportunities, conflict, environmental disaster, etc. The reality is significantly more complex and relies on the interplay between individual characteristics and macro characteristics, and how those interact at a variety of different scales (global, regional, local, etc) (Piche, 2013). The accumulation of this research differentiates the variety of scales where motivations lie, as well as characterize them in terms of push and pull factors, to describe migration as “multifactorial” and “multidimensional” (Piche, 2013).

Attempts to identify rationale for migration began at the individual, identity level looking at the costs and benefits to an individual for migrating, the push and pull factors (Piche, 2013: Sjaastad, 1962; Lee, 1966). The conditions at the origin could influence (or push) a person to want to migrate: poor employment or educational opportunities, lack of access to resources, etc. While at the destination there are factors that influence a person’s desire to migrate there (or pull them there), such as the perceived notion of plentiful jobs, greater income, or a more stable environment if they’re coming from a war torn area. Pull factors often have an inherently geographic nature, as the migrant chooses to migrate to a specific place. This choice is often based on the perception of this place and the opportunities it presents, or the comforts. For example, if a person is faced with leaving their home in Syria due to the conflict, they may be “pulled” to Lebanon or Turkey because of language, familial ties, employment opportunities, etc. In addition to considering the individual costs, benefits and desires, a potential migrant must have the means to make the journey, whether large or small: transportation options, money, a social network to rely on at the destination and intermediate locations, etc.  They must also have the means to overcome potential obstacles that may arise throughout the journey and at the destination.

Which leads to another important aspect of the migration progress: conduits and barriers. Conduits are factors that help migrants in the process of migration. Barriers are factors that limit their mobility. Barriers and conduits can manifest themselves in a variety of different ways, including but not limited to: individual characteristics, characteristics of the physical landscape, and socio-political factors. Examples of conduits could include permissive border policies allowing free transit, well-maintained routes and travel routes, extensive social networks along the route, and inexpensive travel options. Examples of barriers may include restrictive entry and exit policies, lack of financial means, and few travel options.

These individual factors are simply one piece of a complicated pie. There are also what Piche (2013) refers to as macro-structural factors to consider as well, seeking to explain migration from a different scale from the individual scale. Piche (2013) identifies the work of Akin Mabogunje (1970) as a seminal work in trying to understand migration as a “system” not independent of the individual characteristics but in concert with all of the factors at the structural level that interplay with them including technology and political factors. Piche’s (2013) conceptual framework diagram attempts to integrate all of these components and many others, such as gender, for a more holistic understanding of migration motivations and processes. Please pay close attention to the diagram on page 156 for a visual explanation of this framework (Piche, 2013).

Impacts of Migration on Identity

Just as the motivations for migration and mobility vary by the individual, so too do the impacts of migration on one’s identity. One thing is for certain: one’s identity is impacted in some way shape or form through the migration process. Recall from Lesson 3 that identity is a process, and everything a person encounters and experiences has an impact on their identity. Migration is no different. In no way is this discussion meant to encapsulate all the possibilities with reference to the impacts of migration on identity, but instead to present a snapshot of some possibilities to get you thinking about the impacts migration can have on identity. 

In the process of migration, one leaves behind many of the facets of their identity, including but not limited to “social status, family, and social networks” (La Barbera, 2015). In some migrants, this loss may manifest itself in feelings of loneliness and anxiety, in an unfamiliar place, potentially forcing them to reimagine, rebuild, or rewrite (or some combination of these) their identity to gain acceptance in their new locale (La Barbera, 2015; Ramelli et al., 2013). Some migrants may also be more or less likely to engage with locals when they arrive, potentially seeking instead to connect with anybody who may have also migrated from their origin (Berry, 1997).

In addition to reimagining their identity in a new place, migrants also may also reimagine their expression of their identity as they seek to adapt to a culture that may be different from their point of origin. Consider a migrant moving from a predominantly Muslim country to a predominantly Christian one. How they self-represent may lead to misunderstandings. La Barbera (2015) uses the example of female migrants in a non-Muslim country wearing hijab. To the female migrant, this may be an expression of her religion and a source of comfort for her in an unknown place. To others, however, they may view her hijab as a “symbol of oppression.” This is not just true in religious contexts, this is also true when thinking about one’s self-representation and expression of their identities in terms of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, among many other facets (La Barbera, 2015). Migrants in these cases may feel compelled to alter their expression of their identities to seek acceptance in their destination location.

The manifestations of the identity process may also differ with respect to the type of migration the individual is experiencing. An internal migration will face different situations than an international migrant, where language and culture for the international migrant could be significantly different from their point of origin. A forced migrant may have different sentiments towards the destination than a migrant seeking greater employment opportunities. These different experiences will also likely impact the identity process.

In many cases the identity process includes a hybrid mixture of elements of an individual’s identity that are manifestations of their identity at their point of origin and at their destination. All of the experiences go into their identity and their expression of that identity. La Barbera (2015) summarizes the literature on migrant patterns of identification as varying, “...ranging from identification with one’s country of origin, religion or mother tongue to [the] receiving country, neither or both.”


Berry, J. W. (1997). Immigration, acculturation, and adaptation. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 46(1), 5-34.

Cresswell, T. (2006). On the move: Mobility in the modern Western world. Routledge.

La Barbera, M. (2015). Chapter 1: Identity and migration: An introduction. In M. C. La Barbera (Ed.), Identity and migration in Europe: Multidisciplinary perspectives (pp. 1-13). Springer International Publishing.

Lee, E. (1966). A theory of migration. Demography, 3(1), 47-57.

Piche, V. (2013). Contemporary migration theories as reflected in their founding texts. Population, 68(1), 141-164.

Ramelli, M., Florack, A., Kosic, A, and Rohmann A. (2013). Being prepared for acculturation: On the importance of the first months after immigrants enter a new culture. International Journal of Psychology, 48(3), 363-373.

Sjaastad, L. A. (1962). The costs and returns of human migration. Journal of Political Economy, 70(5), 80-93.