POLA01H3 Chapter Notes - Chapter 05: Universalizability, Silvio Berlusconi, Capital Accumulation
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Volume 41 Number 1 (Spring 2007):75–100
© 2007 by the Center for Migration Studies of New York. All rights reserved.
Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.Oxford, UKIMREInternational Migration Review0197-9183© 2007 by the Center for Migration Studies of New York. All rights reserved.
Spring 2007411Original Article
Theorizing Migration Policy
International Migration Review
Theorizing Migration Policy: Is There a
University of Edinburgh
This article critically reviews theories of migration policy according to two
criteria: methodological rigor and explanatory plausibility. It ﬁnds that
political economy accounts are theoretically robust, but at the price of
oversimpliﬁcation. Neo-institutional theories offer more sophisticated
accounts, but fall short on a number of methodological and explanatory
counts. As an alternative, this article suggests a theory focusing on the
functional imperatives of the state in the area of migration, which shape
its responses to societal interests and institutional structures.
Recent literature on the theory of migration policy has tended to be dominated
by two overlapping themes: the question of why migration policies fail; and
attempts to explain the inclusionary tendency of migration and integration
policies. While the two issues are often treated together – and may indeed be
similarly theorized – they are in principle separable. The ﬁrst deals with the gap
between (proclaimed) policy objectives and outcomes. It seeks to explain why
states fail to achieve the goals set out in their stated migration policies
(Holliﬁeld, 1986, 2000; Castles, 2004; Cornelius
, 1992:3). The second
theme is concerned with explaining the gap between the generally protectionist
bent of public opinion in democratic states, and the more inclusionary policies
that often emerge. While this may be understood as one dimension of the
policy failure issue, it does in fact raise a rather different set of questions –
questions which may be obscured if we treat it as a subset of the ﬁrst theme.
Posing the question this second way implies a more narrow focus on the
conﬁguration of interests, ideas, and institutions that shape policy. It also allows
us to address more speciﬁcally the question of why migration policy in liberal states
does not succumb to the pressures for closure apparently endemic in democratic
and welfare state systems (Bommes and Geddes, 2000; Holliﬁeld, 2004).
While there are any number of theories for explaining the ﬁrst gap, recent
attempts to theorize the second have been dominated by two schools: neoclassical
political economy, as exempliﬁed in the work of Gary P. Freeman; and various
Many thanks to Michael Bommes, Gary Freeman, James Holliﬁeld, Mark Miller, and the
anonymous reviewers at IMR for their very helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
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neo-institutionalist approaches, as proffered by authors such as Christian
Joppke, James F. Holliﬁeld, Virginie Guiraudon, and Yasemin Soysal. Freeman’s
political economy approach is the more theoretically ambitious of the two types
of account, offering a set of generalizable propositions that are empirically
testable and have predictive potential. The price of this theoretical neatness,
though, is that the account exposes itself to charges of reductionism or unwarranted
generalization between different settings. By contrast, neo-institutionalism has
been criticized precisely for its lack of testability or predictive power. It is
a pattern theory, which can at best help us to delineate the structures that
shaped policy outcomes in past instances; we must abandon expectations
of a predictive model based on generalized laws about human behavior.
Neo-institutionalist approaches are also open to the charge of undertheorizing
the inﬂuence of liberal institutions. They provide important insights about the
nature of institutions as a mediating variable, but they often fail to specify the
source of their resilience vis-à-vis state interests – and why this varies over time,
between different states, and for different migrant groups.
Now the respective problems of the two theories are of course not unique
to the area of migration policy. They can be traced to well-worn methodological
debates in the social sciences. Two debates are particularly pertinent – both of
which, incidentally, can be characterized as trade-offs:
•The trade-off between theoretical neatness and complexity of explanation
of social phenomena. “Proper” science demands that we break down our
explanation into observable (and if possible measurable) variables which
conform to generalizable laws. Once we try to incorporate the role of ideas
or institutions, however, we will have to sacriﬁce this type of theoretical
•The (related) trade-off between a theory with a plausible account of
agency but which neglects social structures and one allowing substantial
causal weight to institutions but lacking a plausible theory of agency. Put
bluntly, political economy can explain agency but not institutions; and neo-
institutionalism correctly attributes causal weight to institutions, but in
the process foregoes an adequate theory of agency.
In this article I would like to consider whether we can we transcend these
trade-offs, and develop a theory of migration policy that is capable of avoiding
the two sets of pitfalls. Can we produce an account that is theoretically wieldy,
without being oversimplifying? And, moreover, one that does justice to the role
of institutions, without foregoing a theory of action? I shall start by teasing out
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the problems of the two main accounts – political economy and neo-
institutionalism. I shall build on this critique to suggest the core elements
of a theory in which societal interests and institutional constraints are incorporated
only in accordance with the functional imperatives of the state. I contend that this
“third way” can do a better job of explaining why states continue to permit substantial
levels of immigration, even in the face of strong political pressures for restriction.
The most convincing political economy account of migration policy has been
developed by Gary Freeman (Freeman, 1995). His model assumes that
migration policy is essentially determined by the content and relative power weighting
of organized interests in a given society. Policymakers are conceptualized as brokers
who have an interest in producing policies that mollify (inﬂuential) organized interests.
In line with most political economy accounts, Freeman argues that the more strongly
a group’s interests are affected by immigration, the greater incentive it has to
organize. Thus where the costs or beneﬁts of migration are concentrated on a
particular group or groups, they are likely to organize more effectively and thus
have a greater inﬂuence on policy (Freeman, 2005; Freeman and Hill, 2006).
Freeman originally applied this model to explain immigration policies in
industrialized countries. Freeman argued that the availability of cheap foreign
labor brings concentrated beneﬁts to employers and immigrant groups; while
the costs for the native workforce or those living in neighborhoods where for-
eign workers will live are diffuse. This implies that employers and immigrant
groups will have incentives to lobby more intensively to promote a liberal
immigration policy, while those negatively affected by the policy will have
fewer incentives to lobby against. The outcome will be a liberal policy – a
hypothesis that Freeman argued was conﬁrmed in the US case, despite the
apparently negative impact on low-skilled workers.
The model provides an excellent exemplar for examining the problems
raised by political economy approaches. It can be criticized on at least two
levels. The ﬁrst and more abstract level of critique targets the theory’s assumptions
about individual agency. Neoclassical political economy models embrace a
form of methodological individualism that attempts to reduce explanation to
a series of generalizable propositions and deductions about the behavior of
individuals. It implies commitment to a view of human agency as following
universalizable and thus predictable patterns of behavior. This theory of agency
has been the object of sustained attack from philosophers and sociologists
for at least the past hundred years, most recently manifested in the
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