Topic 16

Remittances and Socio-Cultural Change

Remittances often stimulate socio-cultural change, as specific patterns of remittance expenditure engender changing tastes, values, and social norms.

In southern Morocco, de Haas (2006) found that migration and remittances have been an important avenue for upward socioeconomic mobility of low-status ethnic groups. In this case, new forms of remittance-based inequality have been partly superimposed upon the traditional forms of hereditary inequality based on kinship, skin color and land ownership. Depending on migrant destinations, migration and remittances can also affect norms regarding marriage and fertility. This is exemplified by a recent study by Fargues (2006), which found that time-series data on birth rates and migrant remittances in Morocco, Turkey and Egypt are strongly correlated, but in varying ways. While the correlation is negative for Morocco and Turkey, it is positive for Egypt. To explain this pattern, Fargues hypothesized that migration from North Africa to European countries has contributed to the diffusion and adoption of European marriage patterns and small family norms, and so has played an accelerating role in the demographic transition. In the case of Egyptian migration to conservative Gulf countries, the effect would be the reverse.

Instead of reducing inequality, remittances may exacerbate it by creating a new social stratification and by creating a juxtaposition of new and traditional cultural lifeways. Other parts of this anthology, particularly Topic 13 (Remittances, Poverty, and Inequality) and Topic 19 (Remittances and Rural-Urban Transformations), call attention to some of these disequilibrating tendencies of remittances.

A study that found remittances to have an equilibrating role is that of Akkeson (2009), who finds that remittances in Cape Verde, a West African island country with a relatively long migration tradition, are resulting in a dispersion rather than a concentration of income. The reason is a fundamental change in family structure over the past generation that has seen free-union and multiple-partner relationships replace marriage. Remittances flow not to nuclear families, but to parents and children from previous households—in Cape Verde as well as abroad. Migrants, both men and women, often form new families abroad. Thus, remittances are sent in small amounts, to several households, in several places. These are not remittances used to create an investment and retirement anchorage for the migrant back in Cape Verde, but to support obligations to dependents from previous family relationships. It is not clear to what degree these demographic trends affect other remittance-sending countries. Akkeson mentions that Mexico does not fit the Cape Verde pattern, while the Dominican Republic does. The author has raised an intriguing question on whether the developmental impact of remittances may diminish when nuclear family structures for receiving them decline.

Klooster (2005) offers another intriguing question: Can remittances preserve rural lifeways rather than leading to their demise? The literature would appear to point to a retreat in traditional ways of thinking and working as the remittance economy takes hold of a village, but he argues that in indigenous or tribal societies with strong cultural beliefs and institutions, where communal expectations are strong and extend to migrants, remittances from foreign work can support local culture and help ensure the survival of rural villages. In the Lake Patzcuaro region of highland central Mexico, a Tarascan Indian region, wage labor earnings went to fulfill cargo (communal work and giving) obligations, situate the migrant within the local village political structure, and maintain local cultural institutions. People reproduced their rural lifeways through an intimate relationship with nature, producing maize, cooking traditional foods, crafting pottery, practicing their symbiotic religion, interwoven into a web of communal tasks and enterprises.

Again, this topic awaits more research and begs for a typology of cultures that are weakened and strengthened by remittances.


Topic 16 – Articles

Åkesson, Lisa.  2009.  Remittances and Inequality in Cape Verde: the Impact of Changing Family Organization. Global Networks 9(3): 381–398. (Publisher Link)

Based on participant observation and 44 interviews on the island of Santo Antão during 2007 and 2008, in addition to ten years of ethnographical background research in Cape Verde, this study reveals how changing family structures affect the receipt of remittances (from the U.S. and Portugal) how these remittances shape social stratification in communities of origin. During the last three decades in Cape Verde, relationships between men and women have become more unstable, such that conjugal families have given way to family units composed of single adults or free unions with or without children and often containing older parents of the man or woman. Remittances do not go to spouses but to parents or children, and they are spread among several households. Migrants do not send remittances to invest in their future lives, but to fulfill obligations to dependents along their life-history trajectory. As a result, sums are small, intermittent, and have little effect on patterns of socio-economic stratification and inequality within the family or between families.

de Haas, Hein. 2006. Migration, Remittances and Regional Development in Southern Morocco. Geoforum 37 (4): 565–580.

Based on non-representative survey among 507 non-migrant, internal and international migrant households and qualitative research, this article examines the socio-economic and cultural impact of migration from a south Moroccan sending region to other regions and Europe. The study shows that international migration and remittances have significantly contributed to economic development, improved standards of living and enabled the partial emancipation of subaltern ethnic groups. International migrant households invest more than others in housing, agriculture and other enterprises. Risk spreading and income stabilisation rather than increasing incomes seem to be the prime rationale behind internal migration, although internal migration tends to facilitate the education and international migration of younger household members. Remittance expenditure and investments have stimulated the diversifying and urbanising regional economy and have triggered a counter-flow of “reverse” internal migration. However, several structural constraints prevent the high development potential of migration from being fully realised.

Fargues, Philippe. 2006. The Demographic Benefit of International Migration: Hypothesis and Application to Middle Eastern and North African Contexts. In World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4050. Washington, DC: World Bank.

This paper argues that international migration may have resulted in a smaller world population than in the non-migration scenario. The author claims that most of recent migration has been from high to low birth-rate countries, and since migrants typically adopt and send back ideas that prevail in host countries, they are potential agents of the diffusion of demographic modernity to their country of origin. To explore this issue, the author analyses time series data from three major emigration countries: Morocco and Turkey (where emigration is bound for the West), and Egypt (where emigration is bound for the Gulf). The host countries are either more (the West) or less (the Gulf) advanced in their demographic transition than the home country. The analysis article finds that time-series data on birth rates and migrant remittances (reflecting the intensity of the relationship between the emigrants and their home country) are strongly correlated. The Correlation is negative for Morocco and Turkey, and positive for Egypt. This suggests that Moroccan and Turkish emigration has been accompanied by a fundamental change of attitudes regarding marriage and birth, while the opposite holds for Egyptian migration. The broader conclusions from this paper are that migration may have caused a relaxation of demographic pressures for the world as a whole. In addition, if it turns out that emigrants are conveyors of new ideas in this area, the author hypothesizes that the same may apply to a wider range of civil behavior.

Klooster, Daniel J.  2005.  Producing Social Nature in the Mexican Countryside. Cultural Geographies 12: 321-344.

The loss of traditional culture is often cited as a by-product of international migration, as monetary remittances re-structure village life around economic goals and social remittances patterned on dominant foreign cultures. Klooster presents a counter-thesis: remittances can permit the survival of rural communities through the reproduction and preservation of cultural contexts. His study was carried out in two indigenous villages along the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, during several months of observation and fieldwork during 1998 and 1999. He found that remittances from wage labor in the U.S. and elsewhere in Mexico enabled the continuance of everyday practices of woodcutting, tending cattle, growing maize, making pottery, preparing food, taking care of children, tending the saints and their chapels, and various communal interactions with neighbors. These practices would have likely atrophied or been corrupted if they were dependent on competitive advantage in markets. As cultural activities, they continually re-created aspects of a culture that residents valued, and that allowed them to continue living in their rural communities.