A Glass Half Full? Gender in Migration Studies



Another special issue on gender? Haven't there been enough of those? When we decided to present the findings of the Social Science Research Council's Working Group on Gender and Migration2 in a special issue, we were certainly familiar with the many special issues and literature reviews focused on women and gender published over the past twenty years. Still we felt that scholarly research on migration and feminist theory had changed so considerably in the past decade that the time was right for again taking stock. Until the mid-1990s, most reviews of scholarly literature focused on single disciplines and on research on women migrants. In the intervening years, in part as a result of the efforts of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the study of immigration and migration has become more self-consciously interdisciplinary, and women-centered research has shifted toward, and to some degree has been supplanted by, the analysis of gender.

Accordingly, ours is a multidisciplinary review that focuses on gender rather than on women, distinguishing it from its pioneering antecedent, the 1984 IMR special issue, “Women in Migration” (Morokvasic, 1984). We include here surveys of anthropology, geography, history, law and society, political science, psychology, sociology, and sexuality studies, undertaken by scholars whose geographical specialties reach beyond the United States to Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Europe.

Our change in perspective reflects two important developments. First, scholars (including those in the 1984 special issue) have succeeded in bringing female migration out of the shadows in many disciplines. Indeed, with demographers claiming that, globally, female migration is now virtually equal to that of males, the phrase “the feminization of migration” is gaining currency. Second, and perhaps more important, many migration scholars now insist that migration itself is a gendered phenomenon that requires more sophisticated theoretical and analytical tools than studies of sex roles and of sex as a dichotomous variable allowed in the past.

In this introduction, we point toward some of the largest challenges and greatest rewards of gender analysis. We survey the development of gender analysis historically and across some important disciplines in migration studies. In doing so, we seek to explain why some disciplines – notably anthropology – have generated theory that has influenced neighboring disciplines, creating firm grounds for interdisciplinary discussion. We conclude by looking to the future and pointing to how research design and mixed methodologies might more truly foster interdisciplinary gender analysis of a wide variety of topics of theoretical interest to migration scholars.


Today, many associate gender analysis with postmodernist philosophy and with a methodological linguistic turn that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To a limited degree this association is justified: most of the earliest scholarly work on gender was done in linguistics, and it focused on the analysis of languages. Still, even a quick survey of studies published in the twentieth century reveals that, by the mid-1970s, the term “gender” was already widely used in the social sciences. At that time, social scientists from a wide variety of fields were exploring gender differences and relationships through use of conventional methodologies, such as surveys, ethnography, archival research, and participant observation, and some clearly exhibited awareness that gender was a social construction, different from biological sex.

One consequence is that a significant body of literature on gender roles emerged. Studies focused on how different societies assigned and established roles for men and women in different realms of the economy, politics, cultural/expressive arts, religion, and home. Part of the literature explored the demarcation of public and private spheres, with women mostly located within the latter and assigned inferior status or value. As a corollary, other studies demonstrated how the supposed opposition of nature and culture had been used to frame gender differences. Sexual divisions of labor, especially around household work and subsistence, were viewed as establishing a binary schema between male and female work; so too ethnographic ethnological analyses documented the many specific expressions of these differences. In other words, the social science literature before 1985 wrestled with the seemingly conflicting ideas of the universal subjugation of women and culturally specific articulations of gender differences.

Critiques of binary models and culturally particularistic analyses followed in the late 1980s when the linguistic turn enabled an idea of gender that was fluid and not polar, relational and performative, and therefore not merely ascribed. Social theorists such as Judith Butler and historians such as Joan Scott opened the door toward understanding gender as a subjective process rather than as a given or assigned status. However, only after 1990 did gender analysis become associated with discursive analysis and critiques of structuralist or positivist methodologies.

Collectively, contributors to this special issue demonstrate how widely (although not universally) a new, relational understanding of gender has been applied to the study of migration. This is not to say that studies focused exclusively on men or exclusively on women have disappeared or that analyses that compare male and female patterns of employment, movement, or political incorporation have no value. Still, advocates of gender analysis have pointed to shortcomings in these forms of analysis. Many see male- or female-centered studies or bivariate analyses that compare men and women as useful first steps toward gender analysis, but insist they are too limited in what they tell us about gender as a way of structuring power in all human relationships, including those among people on the move.

Most gender analyses assume that maleness and femaleness are defined in relationship to each other, as other axes of power and difference (class, race, and ethnicity) are. Rather than viewing gender as fixed or biological, more scholars now emphasize its dynamic nature: gendered ideologies and practices change as human beings (gendered as male or female, and sexualized as homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual) cooperate or struggle with each other, with their pasts, and with the structures of changing economic, political, and social worlds linked through their migrations (Brettell and deBerjeois, 1992; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 1994, 2003; Mahler and Pessar, 2001). Migrants often become particularly aware of the relational and contextual nature of gender as they attempt to fulfill expectations of identity and behavior that may differ sharply in the several places they live.

Collectively, too, our contributors reveal that gender analysis is no longer exclusively limited to the analysis of families, households, or women's lives. Increasingly, the entire migration process is perceived as a gendered phenomenon (e.g., Grasmuck and Pessar, 1991; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 1994; Boyd and Grieco, 2003). Scholars now analyze gender in the lives of both female and male migrants, in the politics and governance of migration, in the workplaces of immigrants, in neoliberal or welfare state policies toward migration or foreign-born populations, in diasporas, and even in the capitalist world system. In short, gender analysis of migration is being undertaken across a wide variety of spatial scales, from the local and familiar to the national and global, leading anthropologist theorists Sarah Mahler and Patricia Pessar to imagine a “gendered geographies of power” that explains migration as it links all these domains (Mahler and Pessar, 2001). The persistence or transformation over time of geographies of power may be a focus of future work. Alternatively, scholars may respond to historians’ insights about the interconnectedness of temporal scales by seeking to understand how gender shapes the intersection of family cycles and individual, biographical, and national historical time – represented, for example, by processes such as industrialization, war, diplomacy, or policy making.


Based on our reading of reviews in many social science disciplines, we are pleased to report that the state of gender and migration studies is fundamentally healthy. While many earlier publications, including the IMR special issue of 1984, lamented the paucity of research on women or gender and challenged readers to fill the gaps, we have been impressed instead by the veritable tidal wave since the late 1980s of research on issues related to gender and human mobility. This outpouring reflects in part the changing composition of scholars in migration studies, where women represent almost two-thirds of the youngest cohort of scholars (Rumbaut, 2000). In our literature review across the disciplines, female researchers are also somewhat more likely to undertake both women-centered and gendered studies of migration than are men. Furthermore, although some have moved flexibly back and forth between gender analysis and women-centered studies in the last decade, others have opted decisively for one or the other and see fundamental tensions between the two approaches – notably that focusing on women suggests too much uniformity within a group that shares some essential, yet usually unspecified, characteristics. Still others have decried the tendency to conflate gender with women.

While happy to point to a fundamental increase in research on gender and migration, we sought also to analyze the recent outpouring with a critical eye. Which disciplines have generated theory about gender? Why have some disciplines embraced gender analysis more enthusiastically than others? What has been the impact of gender analysis across the many disciplines that contribute to the study of migration? Even more important, what has been the theoretical impact of gender analysis? As Charles Hirschman has pointed out, “The field of migration studies as a whole . . . has remained marginalized because of the lack of a theoretical core” (Hirschman, 2001). In one sense, it would be surprising for a single theoretical core to unite a field to which so many disciplines now contribute – and contribute from diverse theoretical and methodological perspectives. Still, it is important to point to theoretical work on gender and migration that is now influencing empirical research in a number of related disciplines and to understand which disciplines are theorizing, or responding to theorizing, across disciplinary boundaries.

We were pleased to discover an ongoing and widening interdisciplinary dialogue about gender that could, conceivably, contribute to new advances in both migration and gender theories in the years ahead. Nonetheless, our survey of the earliest history of gender analysis in the study of migration suggests how the gendering of the disciplines themselves, along with decidedly gendered professional and scholarly practices within disciplines, consistently worked to sidetrack or to marginalize theories and findings about gender. In presenting our own review of gender analysis across the many disciplines that contribute to migration studies, we hope to prevent a similar outcome in our own times.


Although we asked contributors to this special issue to focus on recent work and on international (rather than “internal”) migrations, the scholarly study of both short- and long-distance movements has a rather long history. And that history was itself gendered. A gender analysis of past scholarship suggests where, when, and by whom particular modes of thinking about migration earned the imprimatur of theory, and why work by female researchers on women or gender so rarely achieved that status. Understanding the gendering of past migration scholarship can, we believe, help us identify potentially comparable developments in our own times.

The male geographer usually cited as the first theorist of migration, E. G. Ravenstein, explicitly accepted a notion of dichotomous gender – theorizing, for example, that women were more migratory than men, at least over short distances (Ravenstein, 1885). Surprisingly, however, few scholars subsequently tested his gendered laws of migration. In the 1920s, financial assistance from the SSRC permitted Willcox and Ferenczi to compile a monumental survey of international migration statistics (Willcox, 1929). In this work, they noted variations in gender ratios among migrants (at a time when international migrations were heavily male-dominated, as Ravenstein would have predicted), but they did not offer to explain them.

Surprisingly, the subsequent and rapid midcentury feminization of international migration – a sharp violation of Ravenstein's theoretical work – seemed of no interest to anyone. And when a group of U.S. government statisticians (Houstoun et al., 1984) finally called attention to this transition from male- to female-dominated international movements, their explanations, too, generated little further research among mainstream migration scholars (but see Donato, 1992; Gabaccia, 1996). Why? At least two reasons come to mind: it may have been that existing explanations were seen as not theoretical, or it may have been that the academy still had too few women to evaluate existing explanations.

Women and gender were also central in early studies of U.S. immigration. In the first decades of the twentieth century, highly educated women – many sympathetic to women's rights and the suffrage movements – were as involved in immigration research as were men, and their work was supported by research foundations then in their infancy. Like their counterparts later in the century, women researchers often focused exclusively on immigrant women, children, and family life. The influential Pittsburgh Survey of 1907 (Greenwald and Anderson, 1996) employed women researchers in part to guarantee that women workers and immigrant families and communities were surveyed (Butler, 1909; Byington, 1910). Male and female researchers alike used quantitative and statistical methods into the 1920s (e.g., More, 1907; Van Kleeck, 1913; Manning, 1930). Others experimented with qualitative methodologies (notably personal narratives, participant observation, and oral history), still widely used by scholars today. Such qualitative methods may have been particularly attractive to the mostly female full- or part-time reformers and activists of the social settlement movement (e.g., Ets, 1970).

Alas for migration theory, the female researchers most familiar with survey methodologies, along with most of the activists in the social settlement houses, found long-term employment after 1920 in local governments (as founders and administrators of social welfare and public health agencies) or in the federal Women's Bureau, rather than in the academy. Even at the University of Chicago, where an almost entirely male sociology department coexisted with the casework-oriented School of Social Service Administration (SSA) with origins in one of Chicago's Social Settlement Houses, it was the work of men in the sociology department that defined those forms of knowledge understood as theory. Edith Abbott, an early dean of the SSA (and author of so many quantitative analyses of immigrants, female employment, and criminality that she was known as “the passionate statistician”), is today better known as a founder of social work than as a social theorist or survey researcher (for an early example of her quantitative work, see Abbott, 1905).

In the years after World War I, funders of social science research, including the Russell Sage Foundation and the SSRC, began to deny funding to research projects that seemed too closely associated with either reform or with social service. Funding increasingly went to male researchers (sometimes with female assistants) with university appointments (Deegan, 1988; Yu, 2001).3 As a result, the main theory shaping U.S. immigration research for the next half-century (e.g., assimilation theory) emerged from the brains and pens of a sociology department that had separated itself from women researchers in the settlement houses and in the new applied field of social work.

In the 1960s, scholarly interest in migration reemerged alongside feminism, but this time it motivated more women to seek scholarly careers. In the 1970s, many anthropologists and social historians engaged in an early form of gender analysis, borrowing from anthropology's attention to “sex” as a fundamental element of all human societies and cultures. Theorizing about the public and private (Rosaldo and Lamphere, 1974; Yans-McLaughlin, 1977; Tilly and Scott, 1978), scholars drew on empirical studies of immigrant and minority families and argued these were places where the activities of men and women intersected and interacted. This interdisciplinary scholarship became housed in university departments of anthropology, history, and interdisciplinary women's studies and ethnic studies.

In feminist work on immigrant women in the 1970s and 1980s, we can also discern early efforts to create a multidisciplinary or even interdisciplinary field of migration studies. Unfortunately, collaborative and interdisciplinary essay collections and bibliographies on migrant women (Morokvasic, 1984; Simon and Brettell, 1986; Gabaccia, 1989, 1992) had little impact on migration studies, where women's experiences tended, at best, to be relegated to conference panels or book chapters on the family. By addressing only half (or in the case of earlier male-dominated migrations, much less than half) of the migrant population, women-centered work could be and was easily dismissed as marginal, and was more than once charged with reductionism (Leeds, 1976; Morokvasic, 1983).

Repeatedly, across the twentieth century, then, female researchers had studied immigrant women and engaged in gender analysis only to see their work (and often their places of employment) separated from the sites – sociology and other academic departments and foundations – that defined theory and value in the scholarly study of migration. In seeking to understand how the creation and defense of disciplinary boundaries (often through conflicting understandings of theory and method) influences the contemporary study of gender and migration today, it is helpful to bear in mind these patterns of the past.


Theoretical formulations of gender as relational, and as spatially and temporarily contextual, have allowed scholars in a surprising (although not unlimited) range of disciplines to create and nurture interdisciplinary dialogue about questions central to all migration scholarship. By attending to gender analysis of migration, we can also glimpse a history of the recent evolution of migration studies that may differ from others’ understanding of the past decade. For example, unlike the field-building initiatives of the International Migration Program of the SSRC – in which sociologists generally dominated numerically and provided considerable leadership – recent gendered studies of migration have again coalesced around work done in anthropology and around qualitative, relational, and eclectic methods rather than through the positivist quantitative analysis that characterizes much of sociology. One or more neighboring disciplines, including the humanities, have also influenced work on gender and migration, often as a result of migration scholars’ participation in multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary programs and publications in women's studies, american studies, ethnic studies, or other area studies (where literature specialists are well represented).

Yet such interdisciplinary field building has not been without its problems for social scientists. These have typically been raised by differing understandings of what theory is (is it prediction, explanation, or interpretation?), or about what methodologies are most likely to advance theory (are they replicable, quantitative, qualitative, rigorous, and/or eclectic?). Positivist and theory-driven disciplines (that is, those hoping to predict as well as to understand human behavior) have difficulty accepting gender analysis precisely because gender is too often theorized as relational and contextual, thus complicating its operationalization. Scholars trained in positivist and quantitative methodologies are especially likely to respond to calls for gender analysis or reviews such as ours with the “so what” question. The rapidly increasing volume and interdisciplinary nature of research on gender is not sufficient to convince such colleagues that research on gender adds theoretical value. Until gender analysis draws on the theories and methods of their own disciplines, they see little evidence that gender analysis matters.

Feminist scholars rightly insist that attention to gender typically delivers analyses that differ from male-centered, women-centered, or gender-blind approaches. Here we point briefly to examples of research that refined or reconfigured popular theories. By simply including interviews with women as well as men about work, community formation, and return, anthropologists working with sociologists’ theories of labor migration – ones that employed dichotomous categories of laboring that distinguished temporary “birds of passage” from “settlers” (e.g., Piore, 1979) – set in motion a sequence of theoretical revisions that ultimately culminated in the early 1990s in theorizing about gendered transnationalism (e.g., Grasmuck and Pessar, 1991; Pessar, 1995). Second, discoveries (e.g., Portes and Jensen, 1989; Light, 2002) that ethnic entrepreneurship provided immigrants an escape from racially discriminatory labor markets, and thus a solid foundation for upward mobility, were subsequently stripped of some of their positive and even celebratory implications for immigrant incorporation when feminist scholars spoke with the women and children workers in these typically family-based enterprises. Their lives suggested the hyperexploitation and hard lives of labor that facilitated strategies for household mobility (Gilberson, 1995).

A third example of how gender analysis can redirect theory comes from the Mexican Migration Project (MMP), which since the early 1990s has been a source of substantial scholarship on Mexico-U.S. migration. A multidisciplinary and binational research effort designed to study and document the process of Mexico-U.S. migration, the MMP has gathered data from residents in Mexican origins and U.S. destinations using an ethnosurvey approach that borrows from anthropological and sociological research methods. These data have yielded important theoretical insights about men in the process of Mexico-U.S. migration. Key among them is: 1) although their migration is initially motivated by economic conditions, soon after it begins, it becomes an institutionalized and cultural way of life in origin communities; 2) migration is an intergenerational process passed down from grandfathers to fathers to sons; 3) women largely remain in communities of origin and rely on remittances sent from men; and 4) social networks are powerful and gendered, and maintain the institutionalized process of migration.

In the substantial body of MMP scholarship, few studies until recently have considered the role of gender.4 They now illustrate how adding gender has theoretical value for the study of Mexico-U.S. migration, revealing processes that we would not otherwise see. Generally speaking, although more women are migrating than in the past, traditional explanations for men's migration do not apply to women. Decisions to migrate are made within a larger context of gendered interactions and expectations between individuals and within families and institutions. Therefore, gender is critically important to consider before the development of theory about who migrates from Mexico and its consequences.

A final example draws on recent scholarship on immigrant incorporation. Most of the major theories of incorporation devote almost no attention to gender (see examples such as Portes and Zhou, 1993; Portes and Rumbaut, 1996, 2001; Rumbaut and Portes, 2001; Alba and Nee, 2003; Bean and Stevens, 2003). Portes and Rumbaut (2001:68) do include gender as a component of their segmented assimilation model, but it is discussed only briefly in the narrative, referring to the ways that different socialization of adolescent boys and girls affects their educational aspirations and achievement. The authors report significant gender gaps, often of ten percent or more, and in some cases, greater than the difference attributable to social class or ethnic background, in educational aspirations, engagement, and attainment, as well as in self-esteem and language acquisition. Yet there is almost no exploration of the gendered home or school processes that produce these differences.5

Gendered analysis in immigrant incorporation does appear in other studies, however. For example, López (2003) examines the ways in which gendered childrearing and expectations, combined with race/ethnic stereotypes among teachers and counselors in New York public schools, contribute to the much higher female graduation rate among West Indian and Dominican students. Newer work also shows that, despite the overall advantage of women in educational terms, gendered expectations in the family have a complicated effect on attainment. For example, although keeping girls indoors means they are more likely to do their homework, some immigrant parents will not let their daughters travel out of the neighborhood to better high schools or out of the city for college, so that often they do not attend the best schools. At the same time, men and women of the same race and ethnicity also perceive different responses from teachers, counselors, and employers that shape their educational and employment experiences (Kasinitz et al., forthcoming).

To sum up, scholarship on women, gender, and migration has progressed through several stages. Researchers have attempted to fill in the gaps that resulted from decades of research based predominantly on male migrants and immigrants. Recent studies have taken the next, crucial step and sought to reformulate migration theory in light of the anomalous and unexpected findings. Our review of the essays in this volume suggests that future breakthroughs from gender analysis will be the product of heightened collaboration across disciplines and innovative ways of combining quantitative and qualitative methods that understand gender to be relational and contextual, power-laden and also dynamic.


Collectively the essays presented in this special issue make possible a number of broad observations about the field of migration studies and the place of gender analysis within it. First, the recent explosion of interest in gender analysis cannot be attributed, as it sometimes is, to the emergence of postmodernist philosophy and the methodological linguistic turn in the late 1980s. On the contrary, most of our authors suggest that social scientists in their respective disciplines turned toward gender analysis largely as an intellectual strategy for ending the marginalization of the women-centered work perceived and descried in the 1984 IMR special issue. Contributors also document the rising importance of interdisciplinary dialogue in scholarship on gender; indeed many found they could not draw exclusively on authors from their own disciplines, because research in other disciplines (notably sociology and anthropology) so often crossed over into their own.

Taken together, the articles in this issue reveal how migration studies, like other interdisciplinary fields, can function as a powerful site of scholarly creativity. Still, disciplinary boundaries are not likely to disappear any time soon, and even the most casual reader of these articles will note wide variations in the practice and acceptance of gender analysis across, and sometimes also within, disciplines. These variations can be attributed to sharp disciplinary differences about epistemology, theory, and method. Our authors show, for example, that anthropologists have often led the way in creating interdisciplinary dialogue, while psychologists and political scientists have been more hesitant to engage in discussions of gender, both within or across disciplinary lines.

While certainly influenced by postmodernist philosophy, anthropology had made analysis of sex central long before 1970. In a sense this discipline prepared the way for both feminist studies of women in the 1970s and gender analysis in the 1990s. Given the historical development of the discipline, furthermore, it is not surprising that anthropologists proved especially important in nurturing interdisciplinary dialogue within migration studies and in encouraging gender analysis not only across disciplinary but also within area studies boundaries. In “Gender Matters,” Mahler and Pessar point to tensions between qualitative and quantitative research methods and concepts as shapers of the field of migration studies. They highlight the contributions of feminist ethnography in both anthropology and sociology in pushing scholars in both fields to consider an epistemological debate about the limited possibilities for quantitative, positivist methods to capture the subjectivity and agency of migrants as they mediate and act upon the world. However, Mahler and Pessar do not blindly champion qualitative methods, but clearly express the need to create a bridge between qualitative and quantitative methods that meaningfully brings together the limits and possibilities of both. Mahler and Pessar emphasize how ethnographic methods can be used at many scales of analysis and highlight recent scholarship on households, kinship, and social networks; employment and its consequences for gendered relations and practices; refugees and human rights; migration and the social construction of subjects and identities; gender, sexuality, and the second generation; and transnationalism. The authors point to gaps in the literature and provide examples of missed opportunities (such as studies of recruitment) that would have benefited from a gendered analysis.

The influence of anthropology on neighboring disciplines becomes particularly obvious in the remaining contributions. Silvey's “Geographies of Gender and Migration: Spatializing Social Difference” focuses on a small discipline whose theoretical interest in scale, place, and borders sometimes encouraged methodological eclecticism, benefiting the development of gender analysis. The geographers whose work Silvey surveys seem to have engaged in a productive cross-disciplinary exchange at least since the late 1980s. In fact, it is geography's theoretical interest in space and scale that Mahler and Pessar urge upon migration specialists with their concept of “gender geographies of power.” While early feminist geography scholarship from the 1980s focused mainly on household analysis, recent studies have been more interested in examining the gendered relationships between identity, place, and community among migrants and in how gender is policed in particular locations, from the local to the global, creating borders. As Silvey's list of references also suggests, geographers trained in the United Kingdom have pioneered gendered analyses of migration worldwide; as in anthropology, they are not limited to the United States.

In “Gender and Migration: Historical Perspectives,” Suzanne Sinke describes history too as a discipline of both eclectic methodologies and relative openness to interdisciplinary exchange. Throughout the thirty years under review in this essay, immigration historians of gender and women have worked within interdisciplinary fields (notably American studies, women's studies, and ethnic studies) and absorbed insights from other disciplines, especially sociology and anthropology. Sinke foregrounds historians’ research on earlier migrations and on migrations outside of North America and notes historians’ frequent sense of déjà vu when reading social scientists’ findings about contemporary migrations to the United States. Historical work can thus both point to the persistence of gendered patterns over long periods of time (raising questions about the limits of the fluidity many gender analyses posit) and demonstrate the fluidity of gender as migrants move through time as well as across space. Whether historians can convince their colleagues in the traditionally ahistorical social sciences of the importance of theorizing time as well as space in order to understand migration remains to be seen.

Calavita's “Gender, Migration, and Law: Crossing Borders and Bridging Disciplines” discusses a scholarly field – law and society – that is itself interdisciplinary and supportive of gender analysis. Those who have studied immigration policy and gender have borrowed methods and insights from history and sociology as well as legal studies. Calavita acknowledges the importance of treating gender as relational, fluid, and contextual, but she also points to the very powerful ways in which law works to naturalize gender as a dichotomous binary of male and female. Based on her recent research on Italy and Spain, Calavita also insists on the complex ways in which differing systems of law and welfare states interact with migrants and local economies and societies around issues of gender. She is especially critical of broad-brush theories found in migration studies and calls for theory that better accounts for the diversity and complexity of interacting variables that most empirical gender analyses reveal.

Piper's essay, “Gendering the Politics of Migration,” also points to the relative dearth of gendered analysis of migration by political scientists. Although every aspect of the migration process is shaped by political factors and migration presents many political challenges on the domestic and international levels, the attention of political scientists in the United States and Europe has been limited to a few topics, including control over entry and exit, and issues of incorporation and citizenship. Work that employs a gender perspective constitutes an even smaller body of work, and is mostly concerned with differences in electoral behavior, perhaps partly because of the emphasis on quantitative methods among most political scientists. In considering the contribution that political science could make to our understanding of gendered migration, Piper points both to some pioneering studies of gendered patterns of migration and incorporation and to the growing concern with gender among international organizations and policy makers. Interestingly, it is scholars in neighboring disciplines – such as Piper herself, and not political scientists – who have more often taken up these questions of governance and the development of gender-fair policy toward migrants. Piper's essay raises interesting questions about the relationship between disciplinary boundaries and topical areas and also about the ways in which regional contexts shape the nature of scholarly inquiry. She especially emphasizes that scholarship on governance in Asia has a different focus from that in the United States because temporary migration is much more common there and because citizenship remains out of reach.

Suárez-Orozco and Qin reach similar conclusions about the lack of gender analysis in their article, “Gendered Perspectives in Psychology.” (We suspect, furthermore, that had we included an article on economics, the analysis would have pointed in a similar direction.) Suárez-Orozco and Qin focus on studies about immigrant youth and provide a convincing case for the potential of psychology to make major contributions to the field of migration studies. But they nevertheless emphasize obstacles to the development of gendered perspectives. Because developmental psychologists insist firmly on a scientific methodology that emphasizes validity, reliability, and experimental designs, gender has been treated mainly as a dichotomous variable. Psychologists often document that sex does or does not make a difference, but they find themselves unable to explain how, when, and why it makes a difference to be female or male. Moreover, their interest has been focused almost exclusively on processes of adaptation rather than on those factors that may initially have propelled immigrants to leave their countries of origin. As a result, citing work by specialists outside psychology, they echo a common theme: the need for, and promise of, interdisciplinary scholarship on gender and migration.

As the largest group of scholars in migration studies, sociologists form a difficult discipline to categorize simply. On the one hand, feminist sociologists spearheaded early work on migration as a gendered system (e.g., Grasmuck and Pessar, 1991; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 1994; Sassen, 1996). This important early research has informed subsequent research and theory development on gender and migration across the disciplines. Still, “Mapping Gender and Migration in Sociological Scholarship: Is It Segregation or Integration?” by Curran, Shafer, Donato, and Garip, describes a contested intellectual terrain within the discipline. The authors note a move over the decades from an additive approach (i.e., studies that include women and men or concentrate on women alone) toward qualitative research that conceptualizes gender as a central social category organizing the identities, social practices, and institutions influencing migration. Although qualitative scholarship initially focused on the units of households and families, it has more recently expanded to consider workplaces, labor markets, immigrant associations, nation-states, and transnational social networks. Ultimately, however, the authors lament the slow advance of gender analysis in quantitative research. Their review of four flagship sociology journals (along with IMR) is indeed sobering. They find that a substantial portion of the sociological studies published in these journals both neglect to include information on the sex composition of sample respondents and fail to consider migration as a gendered process. They conclude that a substantial divide remains among sociologists working with differing methodologies and that this creates obstacles for the publication of studies on gender and migration in the major journals of their discipline.

Manalansan's “Queer Intersections: Sexuality and Gender in Migration Studies” concludes our special issue with an illustration of a new interdisciplinary dialogue that emerged from gender analysts’ insistence that sex is just as relational and mutually constituted as gender. Manalansan challenges scholars in migration studies to question their assumptions that sexuality is dichotomous and fixed, causing them to overlook the sometimes important role that sexuality and desire play in the migration process (for example, when people migrate to be able to pursue queer lives and identities). Whereas analyses of other disciplines in this special issue seems to suggest that gender analysis first developed in the universities of wealthy, northern, or western “first world” nations, Manalansan traces the origins of studies of sexuality in gender and migration research to Third World feminists who challenged universalist notions of women's experience and to the growth of gay and lesbian studies outside the academy. In this newly developing research field, studies of migrants often provide particularly telling examples of how sexuality, as culturally situated and relational, can be rapidly transformed by individuals’ moves across borders. The interdisciplinary mix that Manalansan finds in this research (anthropology, history, and sociology, and to a lesser degree, social psychology, with ongoing dialogue also with the humanities) underscores trends toward cross-fertilization noted by other contributors.

Collectively the essays suggest why some disciplines have been more receptive to gender analysis than others. Among gender and migration scholars, guiding concepts and analytical frameworks have been drawn more frequently from anthropology and qualitative sociology than from the otherwise more influential body of knowledge produced by quantitative sociologists. We view the contributors’ reports of, as well as calls for, increased borrowing, collaboration, and elaboration across disciplinary divides as healthy developments in the project of migration studies. In the section that follows, we conclude by exploring, first, how to better navigate the divide between quantitative and qualitative methods, and second, how to fruitfully assemble a multidisciplinary team to study broad-ranging migration topics.


Our contributors’ reviews of their own disciplines hint at the existence of a distinction – whose boundary is perhaps clearest in the somewhat divided discipline of sociology – between scholars who analyze gender as a dichotomous (male and female) variable that is easily included in quantitative models and those who consider that the situational and relational character of gender – as with variables such as race and class – makes it difficult to capture without recourse to qualitative methods or to theorize on a grand or universal level. This means that one of the largest challenges of furthering analysis of gender in migration studies is to find ways to benefit from the tension between these methodological approaches and to draw upon what each contributes.

Within each of these methodological approaches, there are some steps that can be taken to improve our ability to capture the role of gender. Although it may sound obvious, it bears repeating that both quantitative and qualitative researchers need to make sure that gender-related data are collected (as they would with class, race, or ethnicity) even if gender is not initially a primary focus of their inquiry. This means, for example, finding alternatives to standard research practices in survey work, such as interviewing only heads of households in cultures where they are predominantly male. Researchers must routinely ask whether views or behaviors apply to both men and women and to sons and daughters, and sample sizes must always be large enough to allow for the analysis of gender in association with other variables. Furthermore, either the presence or absence of gender differences constitutes a positive research finding and should be reported, as would the presence or absence of differences among ethnic, racial, or national groups.

Our second recommendation goes beyond this, and is based on the belief that collaborative, multidisciplinary research teams, working in innovative ways and combining quantitative and qualitative methods, can do the most to advance gender analysis of migration beyond its current state. In the process of editing this volume, our most intensive discussions have focused on what disciplines committed to either quantitative or qualitative methods could learn from each other and from the findings and theorizing of disciplines that have tolerated a fair amount of methodological eclecticism (history, sociology, geography, legal studies, women's and ethnic studies).

We have noted that scholars working with quantitative methods do sometimes undertake limited ethnographic or historical research (or turn to the appropriate literatures from those disciplines) either during or once they have completed their analysis. Generally, however, they seek vignettes or anecdotes to illustrate conclusions reached mainly through quantitative analysis. At the same time, qualitative researchers may contextualize their work with reference to the findings of quantitative work.

There are several ways to expand this limited form of interdisciplinary dialogue. Ethnographic and historical research can generate questions to be answered more systematically and for much larger populations by survey or other quantitative methods. (As an example, see Nelson Lim in Gabaccia and Leach, 2003.) Conversely, qualitative methods can test survey findings, especially when explanations for the presence or absence of gender (or other) differences are not easily explained by the theory that originally drove the quantitative research agenda. Use of ethnographic research methods by those engaging in world systems analyses of the mobility of labor, capital, and ideas provides one illustration of the type of mixed method research we envision.

A fuller illustration is found in a new and promising recent publication. Its authors, Parrado and Flippen (2005), use qualitative and quantitative binational data to examine how labor, power, and emotional attachments inside Mexican families vary by migration and U.S. residency. The key finding from this work is that, although women are more likely to work after migrating northward and their employment is likely to yield economic benefits that may facilitate gender equality, at the same time migration disrupts the social bonds and support present in the home country and promotes husband-wife dependence. This creates difficulties, particularly for women, who face considerable obstacles in reconstructing their lives and networks after migration, when they are often separated from their own families and more dependent on their husband's relatives. Therefore, in contrast to findings from prior studies, Parrado and Flippen (2005) argue that women's structural position in U.S. employment undermines their well-being and relationship power. Migration itself does little to change gender inequality, and the connection between migration, employment, and female independence is not necessarily direct and unidirectional. It varies and develops in different ways among Mexican families in U.S. destinations.

This study represents a pioneering contribution to the literature on gender and migration in two respects. It is pioneering in part because of its interdisciplinary nature. Rather than emphasize processes that operate only in households or in labor markets, this work moves quantitative research into a new domain – relationships – to examine the effects of migration, drawing on psychology to construct a series of sensitive gender questions about relationship dynamics and the effects of Mexico-U.S. migration. A second key strength of the work is its innovative mixed method approach. The authors themselves are formally trained as demographers in quantitative methods, but the research team included a small group of community participants who helped design the survey, implement it, and then analyze the data it generated. The result was a study that provides a much more nuanced and culturally situated understanding of the ways in which migration affects gender dynamics than is usually achieved in survey research.

As this suggests, analysis of gender can be pushed to another level through interdisciplinary collaboration that pursues research across multiple scales. In many disciplines, scholars still typically associate gender with research on immigrant and migrant women and turn most often to gender analysis in order to theorize about women, families, or households. We argue here that future scholarship must take seriously the insistence of gender theorists that gender structures all human relationships and all human activities – not only for men and women but also across the many chronological and spatial fields of migration that Pessar and Mahler (this issue) have described as “gendered geographies of power.” An important challenge in deepening and extending gender analysis is to see gender at work, in the so-called public arenas of politics or immigration policy or in the global arena of international governance, for example, of refugee movements. This again requires special efforts to make gender analysis more compatible with quantitative studies and the development of interdisciplinary, or mixed method, research projects that draw on the strengths of different perspectives and methods. What shape and direction might such research take?

We offer one illustrative example, although the possibilities are many. One important project could examine the problem of gender ratios, focusing on questions about who migrates, why, where, and over what distances and periods of times. At least since geographer Ravenstein's early work, scholars have intermittently observed sharp variations in gender ratios among the mobile, yet there has been little concerted effort to fully document and explain these differences. Relatively long series of statistics on emigration and on immigration have differentiated between male and female departures and arrivals, as do census listings of internal or “domestic” migrants, thus opening up good possibilities for quantitative, bivariate analyses at many scales (from the global to the domestic or local). To explain why some villages or regions export men, while others export women, and to explain why some cities, counties, or nations attract more women or men requires careful attention both to gendered access to education and to gendered divisions of labor in sending- and receiving-country labor markets, as well as to the gendered dimensions of state regulations of the mobile. In the case of refugee migrations, researchers would need to carefully examine the structures of interethnic violence and the gendered impacts of violence, conflict, and war. The collaborative project would also require analysis of migration histories, transnational networks, and how foreign employers, adoptive parents, or state agencies work to recruit migrants, including the role of human subjectivity, perceptions, and decision making.

In short, an analysis of gender ratios requires the perspectives and methods of many disciplines. A GIS-trained geographer and a world historian with quantitative skills could work together to map and then theorize about variations in gender ratios over the long term; alternatively they could create testable typologies of male-dominated, female-dominated, and gender-balanced migrations of work seekers, settlers, refugees, tourists, or highly educated technical or business personnel. A political scientist or legal specialist could interpret these findings based on their understandings of the gendered implications of policy toward the mobile, perhaps distinguishing between state-sanctioned and “illegal” or “undocumented” flows. An ethnographer, perhaps working with a sociologist, could develop a survey that could capture gendered perceptions and better explain actual decision making in a series of migration case studies with vastly different gender, age, and class composition. An ethnographer and a demographer could probe the impact of migrant gender ratios on rates of fertility in both sending and receiving societies.


Research on women, gender, and migration has fundamentally expanded and changed since it was last surveyed in IMR in 1984. Studies of gender and migration have opened new avenues of empirical inquiry and theorizing while also problematizing the meaning of theory and the relationship of theory and methodologies in an increasingly interdisciplinary field. Our review suggests why the spread and acceptance of gender as an analytical category has varied sharply across the disciplines. In some disciplines, we have found a divide between scholars who view gender as both relational and constitutive of all human behavior and thought, and those whose methods require them to analyze gender as dichotomous, bivariate categories of male and female. In some disciplines, too, scholars treat gender as situational, making it difficult to capture without recourse to qualitative methods or to theorize on a grand or universal level that predicts for all times and places. Overall, the openness of any given discipline to qualitative research and to methodological eclecticism seems to be the key factor in drawing gender analysis from the margins into the disciplinary mainstream. In fact, gender analysis has often entered disciplines from neighboring social science fields (notably anthropology) or even from the humanities (especially through work in ethnic and women's studies). We thus see a willingness to tolerate methodological diversity and interdisciplinary dialogue as crucial to the further development of both gender analysis and migration studies.

Studies of gender and migration have, in the past, made a special contribution to building the interdisciplinary field of migration studies. By tackling more consciously the continuing divide between quantitative and qualitative methodologies, and by experimenting with collaborative research strategies, specialists in this field can help to carry the field as a whole to the next stage of theorizing, interpretation, and understanding. In the absence of interdisciplinary experimentation, the possibilities for gendering as male or female particular methodologies, particular types of theorizing, or even particular disciplines – something that clearly happened in the past to the detriment of scholarship as a whole – remains a constant threat.


  • 1

    This special issue is the product of the Gender and Migration Working Group of the International Migration Program of the Social Science Research Council. The editors would like to thank Josh DeWind, Director of the International Migration Program, the members of the Program Committee, and all the colleagues who participated in the various phases of the Working Group. Funding was provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

  • 2

    Historian Donna Gabaccia (a specialist on the Atlantic migrations of the nineteenth century) first proposed the formation of an SSRC working group called “Gender and Migration Theory” in Spring 2002. In late 2003, Katharine Donato, a sociologist who worked with quantitative methods to study migration from Mexico, and Martin Manalansan, an Asian-Americanist ethnographer actively engaged in dialogue with the humanities through ethnic studies and queer studies, joined the working group, followed later that year by anthropologist Patricia Pessar and political scientist Jennifer Holdaway. Together this team then recruited contributors for the special issue. By paying attention to the disciplines, preferred methodologies, and area specializations of the original team and of the contributors, we hoped to achieve a kind of balance in the scholarship reviewed and the assessments reached.

  • 3

    The state of current historical research does not allow us to conclude that theoretical or quantitative work undertaken by University of Chicago or Columbia University sociologists came to be gendered as male during these years, only that these approaches seemed less tainted by politics, public policy, and human emotion. For a discussion of how contemporary theory has been gendered as male, see Lutz, 1995.

  • 4

    In large part, this is related to the male bias among respondents and the practice of interviewing only (or largely) male household heads (see Curran et al. in this issue for more details on this point).

  • 5

    Stepick (2001) gives a fuller treatment of gender in his chapter in Ethnicities.