Topic 21

Social Remittances

Over the past 10-15 years, the concern with social and cultural impacts of migration have tempered the optimistic functionalist literature of the 1980s and early 1990s, that tended to emphasize the positive economic consequences of remittances on origin societies. In 1998 Levitt coined the term “social remittances” to refer to the normative structures, systems of practice, and social capital that are transferred by migrants from host to sending communities. They accompany monetary remittances but also range far beyond them in terms of the characteristics of their transmission and the time over which they operate, as well as their bi-directionality. Social remittances are closely tied to the paradigm of transnationalism, which specifies a broad set of interchanges by which migrants and their families live in two societies at the same time.

Economic and social remittances share some of the same features. In both cases, as pointed out by Levitt and Lamba-Nieves (2011) in their study of two villages in the Dominican Republic, they may be individual as well as collective; may be transmitted by interpersonal contact or electronic means; and have multiplier effects that extend beyond their original spatial concentration on the family or the village (e.g., regarding social remittances, the “scaling up” of repatriated practices from the local to the regional and national). As these authors point out, however, social remittances may of themselves be negative as well as positive for the recipient (this is not the case with economic remittances, which almost always directly benefit the recipient, even though from a broader societal perspective they may generate inequality, dependency, etc.). They may also move in both directions, which barring an extreme reversal of fortunes, is not true with monetary remittances.

Another way in which social remittances are different is that they continue to shape origin societies long after monetary remittances cease. This occurs, in particular, through the mechanism of return migration. At the level of the individual, return migration truncates monetary remittances but continues and facilitates social remittances (i.e., their application is enhanced by the physical presence of the migrant to implement them). In a study of international migration from the Valle Alto, Bolivia, Jones (2010) focuses on household work, consumption, and investment patterns that distinguish return migrant households from other households, and that are likely to lead to economic growth through multiplier effects in local village economies. In returnee households, a higher proportion of members work, own a family business or a farm, purchase more business inputs locally, and make more business or farm sales outside the municipio, than in active migrant households. Social remittances, in the form of skills learned abroad and “modern” attitudes, in addition to greater local embeddedness, provided an explanation for this conclusion. However, as shown by De Bree, Davids, and de Haas (2010) for northeast Morocco, the successful re-integration of return migrants may just as likely be hindered by negative social remittances in the form of experiences abroad that compel the return. These experiences are themselves contingent upon the demographic profile of migrants. Males returning because of unemployment or divorce, and dependents forced to return due to decisions of household heads, integrated less successfully than males returning to retire or invest.

Social remittances include political attitudes and political participation in home country electoral and non-electoral politics. Guarnizo et al. (2003) document this for a large cross-sectional sample of Colombian, Salvadoran, and Dominican migrants in the United States. Higher educational levels, legal status, and greater economic mobility in the U.S. are associated with more participation rather than less, as would be predicted by the traditional assimilation model. Nevertheless, as pointed out in other research, political participation does not necessarily equate to progress; the reinforcement of power asymmetries and conflict between competing groups may tip these social remittances to the negative side. Nor do political attitudes, which clearly change as a result of migration, necessarily lead to more democratic and participatory stances on the part of migrant families and return migrants—even when migrants return from working in societies more nominally democratic than those they left. Rother (2009), interviewing returnees to the Philippines from three Asian employment destinations, finds no relationship between support for democratic ideals and the level of democracy in the country of destination based on Freedom House ratings. Positive experiences of the migrants in the enclaves where they work may result in their evaluating the country’s regime positively on measures of human rights and transparency, despite their undemocratic nature based on objective criteria.


Topic 22 – Articles

de Bree, June, Tine Davids, and Hein de Haas.  2010.  Post-Return Experiences and Transnational Belonging of Return Migrants: A Dutch–Moroccan Case Study. Global Networks 10(4): 489-509. (Publisher Link)

This article summarizes results of a non-random sample of 14 Moroccan return migrants assisted by a Dutch foundation in their re-entry to Morocco, and 9 other returnees (not seeking such assistance) located by chain referral sampling, in northeast Morocco in 2006-2007. It addresses the question of how transnational experiences in the host country (the Netherlands), as mediated by age, gender, and motivation for return, shape feelings of transnational belonging upon return to Morocco. Detailing economic and social dimensions of transnational behavior through the lens of a typology of return migration pioneered by Cerase, the authors find that return migrants are not automatically re-accommodated into Moroccan society. Instead, they must renegotiate their position in it. Men who returned involuntarily due to unemployment, divorce, or illness found themselves alienated but nevertheless considered themselves superior to native Moroccans, Dependents who returned involuntarily experienced problems being accepted in Moroccan society. Men who returned voluntarily, however, maintained their social networks and had a positive view of the host society, looking to their retirement or investment there. They maintained supportive social and economic infrastructures in Morocco and used their positive social capital and ties to the Netherlands to better their position back home. Social remittances from their Dutch experience were parlayed into their successful re-integration.

Jones, Richard C. 2010. “The Local Economic Imprint of Return Migrants in Bolivia: a Case of Embeddedness and Social Remittances.  Proceedings of the Conference on Trans-Atlantic Perspectives on International Migration: Cross Border Impacts, Border Security, and Socio-Political Responses. The University of Texas at San Antonio, March 4-5. (Publisher Link)

Drawing upon Granovetter’s notion ofembeddedness and Levitt’s concept of social remittances, the author argues that return migrants are able to mobilize social capital to induce local multiplier effects and contribute to the economic base of their communities. The research is based on a 2007 survey of 417 randomly-selected households from three municipios in the Valle Alto of Bolivia, near Cochabamba. Return migrant households (those in which at least one member worked abroad in the past, but none were active at the time of the interview) were more likely to work locally, to own a family business, to purchase business inputs locally, and to sell products or services outside the municipio, than were active migrant households. This was true in spite of the fact that returnees were older, less-educated, and earned less abroad than active migrants. This “negative selectivity” was unimportant vis a vis their family and business contact networks in Bolivia and the systems of practice and social capital with which they returned from abroad and which furthered their economic involvement in Bolivia.

Guarnizo, Luis, Alejandro Portes, and William Haller. 2003. Assimilation and Transnationalism: Determinants of Transnational Political Action among Contemporary Migrants. American Journal of Sociology 108 (6): 1211–1248.  (Publisher Link) 

This study is derived from the Comparative Immigrant Enterprise Project (CIEP), and based on qualitative and quantitative data gathered from 353 key informants in areas of immigrant concentration in the United States and 1,202 adult family heads in the countries of origin: Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador. The conclusions refute the traditional assimilational model that poses stronger home-country political ties for less-educated, less-mobile migrants with shorter residence times at that the destination—finding relationships that are just the opposite. Most significant are differences by nationality. Colombians want little to do with their country’s politics, having escaped a situation of profound instability, official corruption, and widespread violence. The return to social peace in El Salvador and the relative political stability in the Dominican Republic facilitate regular cross-border ties by their expatriates. The authors caution that based on their analyses, transnational political action is regularly undertaken by a small minority, is socially bounded across national borders, occurs in quite specific territorial jurisdictions, and appears to reproduce preexisting power asymmetries.

Levitt, Peggy, and Lambda-Nieves.  2011. Social Remittances Revisited. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Forthcoming.

This article is based on continuous research by the first author in one Dominican community in Boston, coupled with semi-structured interviews and observations carried out by the second author with 50 members of this and an adjacent community, both in Boston and in the Dominican Republic. To bring the original concept of social remittances into line with much recent research, they discuss cultural as well as social remittances, collective remittances, the interplay between positive and negative flows, bi-directional flows, and the scaling out (or multiplier) effects of remittances in the context of their Dominican case study. A key idea is that migrants bring pre-existent skills and interests, for example community organizational capacity and a passion for baseball; refine these in the host setting; and remit these refined attitudes and skills back home (for example, accountability and efficiency in the implementation of a community ambulance service and a sports complex). Unlike the case of economic remittances, social remittances may be positive (calls for government transparency) or negative (conflicts stemming from disagreement on how collective funds should be spent) and they may be bi-directional (starting with pre-selected traits of the migrants). Finally, political accountability at the local level may spread upward to higher levels of governance.

Rother, Stefan. 2009. Changed in Migration? Philippine Return Migrants and (Un) Democratic Remittances. European Journal of East Asian Studies 8(2): 245-74.

The inculcation of democracy as a social remittance is still indeterminate in the migration literature. The author compares attitudes in support of democratic principles for 1000 return migrants and 1000 pre-trip contracted migrants from the Philippines (as controls), matched on a “statistical twins” design for three Asian destinations during 2005-2008. These destinations were specifically chosen to test the expectation that returnees from the most democratic state (Japan) would display the strongest support for democratic ideals, and those from the least democratic (Saudi Arabia) would show the least support, with those from Hong Kong (moderately democratic) falling somewhere in between. All respondents rated democratic structures less favorably in the Philippines (it was viewed as a ‘defective democracy’) than in any of the three destinations. In general the results were quite contrary to expectations, with declines in support of democratic ideals (between pre-trip and post-trip cohorts) for returnees from Saudi Arabia and Japan, and no change for returnees from Hong Kong. The author explains this by the particular demographics and experiences of the migrant groups: (1) male construction workers to Saudi Arabia saw the material progress of the country and thus rated autocracy positively; (2) female migrants to Japan saw the government make no effort to protect them in the exploitative night-club enclaves where they performed, and rated democracy negatively; (3) female Hong Kong domestic workers found both good working conditions and government activism on their behalf, and rated democracy positively. Thus, migrants’ own backgrounds, and their ‘specific support’ of democracy based on its outcomes for them, may be more important than ‘diffuse support’ for democratic ideals.