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« Tuna 2 / 2016

From Assimilationists to Transnationalists — the Research of Migration in the 20th and 21st Centuries

On the one hand, the 20th century has, first and foremost, been called the century of refugees, bearing in mind the refugee flux due to WWI and WWII. However, if one adds voluntary migration to this, both linearly from emigration countries to immigration countries, as well as rotating and circulating migration flows, then from a wider perspective, one is then facing an era of migration. On the other hand, migration has been called a phenomenon of the postmodern world. It can be noted that the diaspora experience that has previously been described as rootlessness and alienation has currently become a classical phenomenon.

In this paper, the most noticeable trends in 20th and 21st century migration studies are examined. It illustrates how research paradigms resonate with general societal developments. It begins with a brief overview of characteristic developments in the migration studies of earlier decades.

Earlier migration studies understood migration as a unidirectional process directed from the country of emigration to the country of immigration. Research usually concentrated on either the country of emigration (migration studies, including history, geography, demography) or the country of immigration (diaspora studies, including ethnology, sociology, politology, psychology, etc.). Migration was designated as the process of leaving the homeland, and adaptation and integration in the country of immigration. Assimilation was, for a long time, seen as a phenomenon of individualisation expressed through renouncement of old ties with ethnic communities, including their values and traditions. The ideology and politics preaching assimilation were replaced with those of cultural differences (multicultural turn) during the 1970’s. Nevertheless, the turn to multiculturalism was soon followed by a turn to postmodernist relativism: the culture and ethnicity of migrants are treated as dynamic in recent research, independent of the context. Instead of unidimensional assimilation models, multidimensional movements are considered between the country of origin and the country of residence. This paper illustrates which societal changes brought about new trends in migration studies. The concept of transnationality is investigated, observing what transnationality research questions focus on and probing for the boundaries and limitations of transnational migration studies. A special focus is on problems of territoriality and locality. The paper argues that ideas of globalisation have strongly overemphasised the tendency of de-territorialisation in modern society. It concludes that traditional ideas of culture and its boundaries and ties to a locality are still viable and that there are no reasons to ignore them in migration studies.