Social Components of Migration: Experiences from Southern Province, Zambia

Article excerpt

Common assumptions attribute migration decisions to economic and environmental causes. This paper reveals the importance of local power structures-at community and household levels-in understanding migration. It examines migration processes in Zambia's Southern Province using data collected from two qualitative research projects. Until recently, when droughts and cattle diseases began to plague the area, Southern Province was known for its ideal farming conditions. Since the late 1980s, Southern Province farmers have begun migrating to frontier areas farther north where land and rain are plentiful. While local environmental and economic contexts factor into people's migration decisions, control over farming resources and the ability to mobilize social support networks in home villages also influence people's decision to relocate. Data presented in this paper come from the longitudinal Gwembe Tonga Research Project (GTRP) and a two-year study on employment and labor markets in Southern Province, headed by the Development Studies Center, University of Bath, England.

Key words: migration, agriculture, family, household, economy, Africa, Zambia


Common sense notions of migration tell us that people move to new places to improve their "quality of life." Interpretations of this notion typically privilege economic motivations: people move to places where they can earn more money or grow more food, and they leave places that have poor wage-earning and farming opportunities. But quality of life also includes the social environments within which people make their living. In the majority of the developing world, social structures tied to hierarchy and power relations directly shape economic opportunities, both at home and at migration-destination points. In Zambia's Southern Province, the increasing pace of migration to frontier farming areas in the north raises questions about both the causes and effects of large-scale voluntary migration. This article advances the discussion of voluntary migration by suggesting that social organization and social conflicts over access to resources play as great a role in migration decisions as do economic and ecological factors.

In Zambia, as elsewhere, landlessness and poor access to farming implements represent both economic and social issues. By highlighting the social factor in the economic framework, we challenge assumptions about cooperative and altruistic family groups. Giving attention to social conflict in discussions of migration allows a better understanding of the variety of potential relationships between migrants and their kin at home. If conflicts over resources influence decisions to migrate, we cannot blindly assume harmonious or altruistic links between home communities and distant relatives.

This clarification in our understanding of social relationships becomes particularly important when development projects target migrants and their kin at home, assuming that benefits given to one end will automatically transfer to the other. For example, if urban migrants receive higher wages, most theorists assume that relatives in the sending communities will benefit, at some level, through increased remittances. Some policy makers and development agents in Zambia believe that facilitating family members' migration to frontier regions will ultimately benefit the family that remains at home. But if causes for leaving home communities include contentious relationships that hinder economic endeavors, then development efforts and policies designed to promote transmission of wealth between migrants and their kin are fundamentally flawed. In this paper I argue that migration does not always reflect cooperative intrahousehold decision making nor provide collective benefit for the household. Migration frequently occurs when rifts and conflicts challenge household and kinship relations.

Theoretical Framework

Until the early 1990s when droughts and cattle diseases began to plague the area, most of Zambia's Southern Province was known for its ideal farming conditions. …