Migration, Rural To Urban

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Migration, Rural To Urban





Rural to urban migration has historically been the most classic pattern of human migration. This form of migration began in preindustrial times and persists into the mid-2000s. Nevertheless, despite the movement of people to urban areas, there have been periodic exceptions over the last several decades.

Gideon Sjoberg (1960) provides an exceptional account of the formation of cities extending back to preindustrial times. He argues that such cities emerged because of an ecological base favorable to the development of agriculture, improved technology, and a complex social organization. Cities at this time represented the hub of social, economic, political, religious, educational, communication, and family activity. Sjoberg notes that preindustrial cities depended heavily on ruralurban migration for their growth.

Similarly, E. G. Ravensteins (1885) laws of migration, drawn from analyses of the 1871 U.K. census, identify the prevalence of rural-to-urban migration and the influence of technology and economic factors on this movement. His laws of migration include the following: (1) migration takes place in steps, in short distance from remote areas toward the city; (2) long-distance migrants move to the centers of commerce and industry; and (3) urban inhabitants are less migratory than their rural counterparts.


The movement of people from rural to urban areas has been re-created throughout the world beginning at varying periods alongside industrialization and economic development. Over the period from 1950 to 2005, the percentage of the worlds inhabitants living in urban areas increased from 29 percent to 49 percent (United Nations 2006). Yet there is great variation in the degree of urbanization, with 74 percent of people in more developed regions (MDRs) living in urban locations in 2005 compared to only 43 percent of those in less developed regions (LDRs) and still fewer (27 percent) people in the least developed countries (LDCs) (United Nations 2004). As a whole, the most urbanized countries are located in the following regions: Australia/New Zealand (88 percent), northern Europe (84 percent), South America (82 percent), North America (81 percent), and western Europe (77 percent) (United Nations 2004).

The massive growth of urban areas has been associated with a variety of problems ranging from overcrowding, pressures on the environment (e.g., demand from natural resources, noise pollution, air pollution, and sanitation problems), lack of housing, and increasing inequality between different segments of the population. In addition, rural areas often lack social and economic infrastructures to support their dwindling populations.


Throughout most of the twentieth century the United States consistently witnessed the net movement of people from rural to urban areas. However, demographers and rural sociologists were surprised in the 1970s when this trend reversed. Indeed, during this period, rural areas were net importers of migrants while urban areas were net exporters (Brown and Wardwell 1980). Terms such as rural renaissance and rural turnaround were used to describe this unprecedented phenomenon. While the 1980s returned to historic migration patterns, the 1990s witnessed a new non-metropolitan migration rebound with renewed migration gains in these areas (Johnson 2003).

Many explanations have been proposed to account for this anomaly (Fuguitt et al. 1998). Frey and Speare (1992) group these explanations into three main categories: period effects, regional restructuring, and deconcentration explanations. Common to these explanations are two types of underlying causes: restructuring of employment opportunities and changes in residential preferences. The most important cause of the rural turnaround appears to be the restructuring of industries, especially manufacturing, which brought jobs to rural areas during the 1970s (Hawley and Mazie 1981). The development of infrastructure and narrowing wage differences between rural and urban areas facilitated migration to rural areas during this period.

Furthermore, the rural turnaround also seems to be associated with peoples continued romantic attachments to bucolic settings. It has been suggested that the overcrowding of large cities and concomitant social problems during the 1960s and 1970s drove people out of central cities, especially when transportation and communication technologies made it possible for them to realize their residential preferences (Campbell and Garkovich 1984). Moreover, migrants have consistently been attracted to rural communities in scenic areas, such as those located near mountains and bodies of water.

More recently, rural communities in the South and the Midwest have experienced significant growth associated with the movement of Latino immigrants. Jobs in such industries as meat processing and construction have attracted these newcomers to new destinations for Latinos (Millard and Chapa 2004; Saenz et al. 2003; Zuñiga and Hernández-León 2005).


There is a major and expanding literature on rural-urban migration. We conducted a literature search using the following combination of terms in Sociological Abstracts : rural or nonmetropolitan or nonmetro; urban or metropolitan or metro; and migration. We identified 1,542 entries (based on journal articles, book chapters, dissertations, papers presented at professional meetings, and a few books) between 1950 and 2005. Yet, the first entry that we identified was published in 1934 an article titled Rural-Urban Migration in the Tennessee Valley Beyond 1920 and 1930, which appeared in Social Forces (Hamilton 1934).

Interest in ruralurban migration increased significantly in the 19751979 period, reflecting the rural-turnaround era, when the number of entries (145) nearly tripled compared to those (54) in the 19701974 period. The overall upward trend in interest on the topic can be seen by examining the average number of entries across five-year periods (6 in the case of the 20002005 interval) beginning in 1950: 19501954, 4.2; 19551959, 11.8; 19601964, 6.0; 19651969, 10.2; 19701974, 10.8; 19751979, 29.0; 19801984, 19.0; 19851989, 32.0; 19901994, 40.8; 19951999, 58.2; and 20002005, 72.0. Two trends emerge from this literature review. First, nearly half (47%) of all entries appeared since 1995. Second, there has been a shift from works based almost exclusively on the United States toward a greater representation of international settings.

Economists have also made important contributions to the understanding of ruralurban migration. For example, Harris and Todaro (1970) developed a modelthe Harris-Todaro modelto understand the flow of workers in tropical Africa from rural to urban locales. This movement challenged traditional thinking in economics because it involved the movement of rural workers to urban areas in light of the existence of employment in agriculture in rural settings and relatively high levels of unemployment in urban areas. The Harris-Todaro model points out that such migrants are behaving rationally because the expected wages in urban areaeven in the presence of high unemploymentare higher than in rural areas. While the Harris-Todaro model focuses on individuals maximizing their utility without taking into account other members of their households, other economists have pointed out that migration is a household, rather than individual, decision. For example, in their study of rural-to-urban migration in Kenya, Agesa and Kim (2001) focus on the household unit maximizing its utility through various forms of migration. They observe that because of large households, including numerous dependents, the majority of rural-to-urban migrants engage in split migration. In this form of movement, the husband typically moves to an urban area initially without his family. The rest of the household joins him only after he has accumulated enough money to afford the move

SEE ALSO Cities; Harris-Todaro Model; Migration; Urbanization


Agesa, Richard U., and Sunwoong Kim. 2001. Rural to Urban Migration as a Household Decision: Evidence from Kenya. Review of Development Economics 5 (1): 6075.

Brown, David L., and John M. Wardwell, eds. 1981. New Directions in Urban-Rural Migration: The Population Turnaround in Rural America. New York: Academic Press.

Campbell, Rex R., and Lorraine Garkovich. 1984. Turnaround Migration as an Episode of Collective Behavior. Rural Sociology 49 (1): 89105.

Frey, William H., and Alden Speare, 1992. The Revival of Metropolitan Growth in the United Sates: An Assessment of Findings from the 1990 Census. Population and Development Review 18 (1): 129146.

Fuguitt, Glenn V., Calvin L. Beale, John A. Fulton, and Richard M. Gibson. 1998. Recent Population Trends in Nonmetropolitan Cities and Villages: From the Turnaround, Through Reversal to the Rebound. In Research in Rural Sociology and Development, ed. H. K. Schwarzweller and B. Mullan, 121. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Hamilton, C. Horace. 1934. Rural-Urban Migration in the Tennessee Valley beyond 1920 and 1930. Social Forces 13: 5764.

Harris, John R., and Michael P. Todaro. 1970. Migration, Unemployment and Development: A Two-Sector Analysis. American Economic Review 60 (1): 126142.

Hawley, Amos H., and Sara Mills Mazie, eds. 1981. Nonmetropolitan America in Transition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Johnson, Kenneth M. 2003. Unpredictable Directions of Population Growth and Migration. In Challenges for Rural America in the 21st Century, ed. D. L. Brown and L. Swanson, 1931. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Millard, Ann V., and Jorge Chapa. 2004. Apple Pie and Enchiladas: Latino Newcomers in the Rural Midwest. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ravenstein, E. G. 1885. The Laws of Migration. Journal of the Statistical Society of London 48 (2): 167235.

Saenz, Rogelio, Katharine M. Donato, Lourdes Gouveia, and Cruz Torres. 2003. Latinos in the South: A Glimpse of Ongoing Trends and Research. Southern Rural Sociology 19 (1): 119.

Sjoberg, Gideon. 1960. The Preindustrial City: Past and Present. New York: Free Press.

United Nations. 2004. Urban and Rural Areas 2003. New York: United Nations, Population Division.

United Nations. 2006. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision Population Database. New York: United Nations, Population Division.

Zuñiga, Victor, and Rubén Hernández-León, eds. 2005. New Destinations: Mexican Immigration in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Rogelio Saenz

Isao Takei

Xiaodong Wang

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