Is International Mobility Unifying or Dividing the World?

Rechhi_illuMention globalization to an economist and she will most likely hear ‘foreign trade’; ask a sociologist and he’ll tell you about ‘international mobility’.

More than sociology, originally it was human geography that dealt with the role of movements in the functioning of the social fabric. And it was human geographers who proposed the crucial notion of ‘time-space compression’ as the distinctive feature of the contemporary age, engendered by the joint effect of progress in transport and telecommunications and the worldwide spread of the capitalist organization of the economy. This compression constitutes the essential premise of globalization. Only at the beginning of the millennium, sociology – pioneered by John Urry’s somewhat visionary work – came to surmise that the enhanced movement of persons, objects and images is the hallmark of our age.

Advances in technology are the backbone of the expansion of international mobility. But rising prosperity, higher literacy and foreign language proficiency, a legal culture progressively enlarging citizenship rights (including the right to exit one’s country, stated in the 1946 UN Declaration of Human Rights) and a mounting prevalence for travel as leisure furnish the additional key ingredients. By 2013, international journeys reached 1.1 billion annually, according to UNWTO statistics. Their vertiginous growth has seen no exception since 1950, when there were 25 million a year. Overall, travel and tourism are a most thriving global industry recklessly challenging any economic downturn.

This mobility revolution is a structural process, but cultural change feeds it as well. A desire to move is part and parcel of the process of individualization. Across the board, more and more human beings are craving for personal freedom, for mastering their own destiny, for entitlement to basic rights. Men and women from all cultures and origins also imagine experiencing the world outside the community where they were born and grown up. The wish to relocate abroad is shared in all corners of the planet – in less developed as well as developed countries. No surprise that one third of adults in sub-Saharan Africa want to migrate to another country; but this is also the case for about 30 per cent of Britons (while in fact often opposing immigration across the Channel). At all latitudes, people like to project themselves elsewhere. This human drive to mobility is pervasive, in spite of the immense inequality of material conditions on earth in the early 21st century. It is common for both asylum-seekers escaping war or persecution, migrants who leave behind destitute communities, and global middle and upper classes who dream of evading the alienation and stress of banal everyday life through wanderlust. Spatial mobility is possibly the clearest epitome of Zygmunt Bauman’s liquidity in social life.

In policy terms, the increase of world mobility poses two major problems. The first one is the management of borders and, even more severely, settlements across countries – that is, international migration (which accounts for an unknown portion of cross-border flows of population). One of mankind’s chief inequalities is nationality-based visa rights. National citizenship grants Britons visa waivers to 175 countries, but only 40 to Bangladeshis, 30 to Somalis, 29 to Iraqis, and 25 to Afghans. As for migration, the issue is not only access and integration policies but also socially widespread controversies about its limits. What if the world were a borderless space? Since Immanuel Kant’s time, this is the cosmopolitan’s utopia. The only concrete approximation to it, so far, has been the EU’s free movement regime. Nothing alike exists elsewhere, in spite of the proliferation of international agreements and alliances in different regions of the globe. The European experiment of freedom of movement across sovereign member states stands out as a historically unique achievement – but one which is now in peril.

The second problem of increased human mobility is its environmental sustainability. When the first ecological concerns emerged in the 1970s (like the Club of Rome’s report on ‘The Limits to Growth’), the recurrent warning was: what if every Chinese household had a car? The vehicle/population ratio in China has now reached 128 (per thousand). This corresponds broadly to a car (or van, or truck) every two households. Overall, transportation contributes to 14 per cent of earth’s greenhouse gas emissions. If global warming is to be fought, this should be reduced – as well as all other sources (think of the 24 per cent due to deforestation, crops and livestock). But perhaps a change in eating habits – especially, reducing ecologically wasteful meat – is easier (and healthier) than stopping mobility.

In spite of its relevance, we still know surprisingly very little on international mobility and its social morphology. How many people move? Who are they? Has access to international mobility become more equal? Or, in contrast, has the gap between the rich moving internationally and the less privileged who stay put locally widened?

The cultural effects of mobility experiences are equally little known. Some research evidence points to an association between mobility and cosmopolitanism. But aren’t there counter-reactions, especially if – as it seems – these experiences are not evenly spread across social classes and categories? Could international mobility be polarizing societies along some new version of the Mertonian ‘local/cosmopolitan’ cleavage? Does this cleavage overlap with the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of globalization? Are different mobility patterns across social groups the source of an increasingly salient ‘cosmopolitanism vs. nationalism’ ideological confrontation?

The world we will live in in the future – more united and cooperative or rather divided and confrontational – depends very much on the answers to these questions. And thus, ultimately, on the social bases and effects of human mobility. It is worth trying to understand them better.

Recchi_profileEttore Recchi is a professor of sociology at Sciences Po, Paris and a member of the Observatoire Sociologique du Changement. His main research interests are mobilities (in their different
forms), social stratification, elites and European integration.


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