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The New Economics of Labor Migration: Beware of Neoclassicals Bearing Gifts

Alexandre Abreu ()

Forum for Social Economics, 2012, vol. 41, issue 1, 46-67

Abstract: Until the emergence of the New Economics of Labor Migration (NELM) in the 1980s, migration scholars were largely divided into two main theoretical camps, viz. the neoclassical and historical-structural approaches to migration. Against this background, the NELM presented itself as a theoretical ‘third way’ between the two latter approaches, and purported to reconcile agency and structure in a way previously unachieved by either of them. While those pretensions gained a fair amount of acceptance and popularity, this paper argues that they are fundamentally misleading, and that the NELM is little more than a slightly more sophisticated avatar of the neoclassical approach to migration, whose fundamental weaknesses it has not, and cannot, shed. This paper further argues that, in so doing, the NELM effectively constitutes migration theory's own instance of economics imperialism, i.e. the attempt to advance the fundamental tenets of neoclassical economics (methodological individualism and the assumption of optimizing rationality) within the context of the study and interpretation of various social phenomena. In order to put forth these arguments, this paper provides a summary presentation of the standard neoclassical theory of migration, the historical-structural heterodoxy and the NELM; highlights why it is that the NELM should be regarded as a ‘reworked’ version of the neoclassical theoretical framework and discusses its inception in the context of the ‘information-theoretic revolution’ in economics; and argues for a new and improved ‘historical-structural synthesis’ as a more satisfactory alternative to both the NELM and the standard neoclassical theory.

Date: 2012
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DOI: 10.1007/s12143-010-9077-2

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