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Emigration from Europe, 1815-1930

Author(s):Baines, Dudley
Reviewer(s):Wegge, Simone A.


Published by EH.NET (August 1997)

Dudley Baines, Emigration from Europe 1815-1930. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 84 pp. $10.95 (paper), ISBN: 0 521 55783 6; $34.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0 521 55270 2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Simone A. Wegge, Department of Economics and Business, Lake Forest College.

This book is part of the series commissioned by the Economic History Society entitled New Studies in Economic and Social History. As such, the author’s intent is to summarize the literature on nineteenth-century European emigration, covering both key findings and current debates, as well as unresolved questions. Professor Baines meets this objective in admirable fashion, always communicating his ideas on migration in a well thought-out manner and making them easily accessible to both historians and economists. Baines knows the data and the issues, but even more importantly what we do not know and what we cannot answer at present. Baines (Department of Economic History, London School of Economics) focuses most of his discussion on understanding the motivations of emigrants but also touches on issues related to immigration, such as the effects of labor inflows on economies of the destination countries, or the assimilation of migrants in their adopted homelands.

In the first few chapters, Baines lays out the main questions of the literature. Chief on Baines’ list is the issue of how to model and ultimately explain emigration behavior. Throughout the book Baines makes use of two models of migration to discuss emigrant behavior, the standard Heckscher-Ohlin model in international economics that explains factor mobility, and a “core-periphery” model from development economics, which states that as more advanced core countries further industrialize their demand for unskilled labor or unskilled migrants increases. Baines raises a very interesting question in his discussion of migration models: can one explain emigration with a single elegant model? Unfortunately not, as the author appropriately points out, “…one problem has been the ability of different models to obtain different but statistically significant results about the same group of emigrants” (p. 20). Baines blames this on a lack of proper data as well as the use of inappropriate models.

A heavier dose of micro models could have been added to the presentation of the material. Oded Stark’s work on the microeconomics of migration comes to mind, particularly his emphasis on risk-avoidance, family decision models, and relative-deprivation as motivation for mobility. Still, Baines encourages readers to view migration more generally as an economic decision at the individual level: whether an individual decides to emigrate or not depends on how he perceives his economic options at home and abroad. Migration models at the individual level also help us to understand how emigrants are self-selected. The historical evidence shows that emigrants are self-selected on the basis of occupation, gender, and most importantly, on the basis of youth.

Further, Baines believes that the role of information is crucial to understanding the individual decisions of emigrants. What sorts of information did emigrants have about the various destination countries, and how did they view their prospects? All very difficult, if not impossible, questions to answer. Some of this we may be able to glean from emigrant letter studies. Emigrant letters, used to study the issue of information and motivation and ultimately chain migration, however, cannot be viewed as an unbiased source. Baines notes one of these biases, that some letters may have been written with the intent of encouraging the recipients to emigrate (p. 32). There are, however, additional biases. For example, emigrants only wrote home when there was someone to write to, thus leading the examiner of letters to uncover chains and perhaps over-emphasize the influence of chain effects on emigration behavior.

These sorts of observations buttress the author’s preference for studies of migration at the lowest level of analysis possible. Emigration rates, for instance, certainly vary by country but they also vary at the intra-country level as the author discusses in Chapter 4. Here Baines, as in his other writings, advocates breaking down the country emigration rates by region and preferably by village if they are to be understood properly. Baines refers to chain migration for a possible explanation, but may too hastily claim that regions with sustained traditions of high emigration rates were places where chain migration mattered the most (p. 28). I suggest that the reader defer to future research.

In contrast to the variance in rates, nations experienced both high and low points in the rate of emigration at similar points in time. Baines argues that there were enough differences between countries, and thus we must base this on the cyclical nature of the destination countries’ economies. The reader should note that the evidence for this (Brinley Thomas’ Migration and Economic Growth, Cambridge, 1973) is mostly for the decades after 1870. Here, Baines supports his argument on an examination of possible factors in European nations that might contribute to emigration, including high population growth rates, a fixed supply of land, political discrimination, and so forth. This exercise, he argues, does not help us to understand why more Europeans did not leave. Therefore, we should look at the various peculiarities facing potential emigrants in their hour of decision. Wage and unemployment rates are discussed, but according to the author future mileage might be gained by getting a hand on internal and return migration, as well as using cross-sectional rather than time series data. Baines should stress that we also need more studies of those who stayed.

Return migration is briefly considered in Chapter 5. Why did more people not return to their homelands? Indeed, more emigrants did return in the post-1860 era of cheaper transport. A more complete answer has to do with emigrants’ ages, the degree to which emigrants were economically connected with their family and community back in the homeland, and whether they were male. The percentage of men among the returnees was higher than among the emigrants (p. 36).

Emigration changed in other important ways over the nineteenth century, as Baines notes in Chapter 6. Early migrations tended to be composed of many families, while later migrations contained more single individuals. This is as of yet not completely understood, but Baines suspects that the decline in transport costs had the effect of making emigration decisions less final and more attractive to individuals who planned to return within a short period. But more simply, the drop in the real price of passage made emigration also more possible for a larger segment (younger) of the European population.

Baines discusses how industrialization over the nineteenth century made a difference for emigrants in Chapter 8. Many economists might think that little or no economic growth will induce high emigration rates, as the cases of Ireland and Italy demonstrate. But we also have England, which experienced heavy economic growth and high rates of emigration, making for a contrasting case study. Baines draws on the Scandinavian literature and his own work on Britain to expand this into a discussion on stage migration and internal migration. He argues that stage-migration is more important for Scandinavia than for England (p. 53).

Cross-country comparisons and almost two centuries of immigration experience provide a fertile backdrop in Chapter 9 for a discussion on the economic effects of immigration. In an environment where resources were abundant and laborers scarce, most destination countries did not experience a reduction in the rate of income growth over the historical period of analysis. When labor markets were affected, unskilled workers in industries with few economies of scale bore the brunt of wage declines, while “immigration allowed other workers to be upwardly displaced … into sectors that did have increasing returns” (p. 55). Hence, economies of scale, the ability of destination countries to increase investment, and the degree of segmentation of labor markets all played a part in determining whether immigrants were welcomed or disdained.

For the scholars and students wishing a concisely worded statement on the economic history of emigration, this is the book to read. Baines has a deep and thorough understanding of emigration and addresses many of the interesting and relevant questions in the literature. His intimate knowledge of the primary sources underlying emigration studies is well apparent in his advice to the reader about the biases and the quality of existing historical sources of migration data. Typical of other studies in this series, the bibliography contains short descriptions for many of the works cited, making for a helpful reference guide. Finally, those familiar with Baines’ other writings on emigration, in particular his book on British emigration, Migration in a Mature Economy (Cambridge, 1985), may wish that this little book had been quite a bit longer and contained even more of his insights into nineteenth century European emigration.

Simone A. Wegge Department of Economics and Business Lake Forest College

Simone Wegge is author of a dissertation entitled “Migration Decisions in Mid Nineteenth-Century Germany,” completed in May 1997.


Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century