Book Summary: “Migration and Culture” by Thomas Sowell

Title: Migration and Cultures: A World View
Author: Thomas Sowell
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Sowell examines the role of culture, migration, social capital in promoting economic development.

Key Take-aways

  • Gross disparities in the “representation” of groups in different occupations, industries, income levels, and educational institutions have been the rule-not the exception-all across the planet.
  • Immigrants bring their skills and attitudes to work and risk-taking to their new country.
  • The immigrant population from a given country is often highly atypical of the population in the country from which they came, in terms of their geographical and social origins.
  • Immigrants tend to move from less productive nations to where their skills are in shorter supply and are be more highly rewarded.
  • Immigrants tend to assimilate, first with compatriots from different parts of their country of origin, and later with members of the larger society around them in the country where they settled.
  • Cities are often dominated by “minority” ethnic groups, while the “majority” ethnic groups live in the surrounding countryside.
  • Rapid accumulation of cultural capital-usually possible only by borrowing from the cultures of others, has produced dramatic economic and social changes.

Other books by the same author

Important Quotes from Book

To understand the impact of immigrants, it is first necessary to understand the cultures they take with them from their countries of origin. Sometimes it is highly specific skills which are salient.

Sometimes it is not so much specific skills as a set of attitudes toward work and toward risk-taking, which may lead the immigrants to excel in some fields in which they had no experience before immigrating… Nothing is more common than to have poverty-stricken immigrants become prosperous in a new country and to make that country more prosperous as well.

Migrations tend to be selective, rather than random, in terms of skills and ambition, as well as in origins and destinations. The immigrant population from a given country living in another country is often highly atypical of the population in the country from which they came, in terms of their geographical and social origins.

Behind such migration patterns often lay particular beginnings of a new community in a new land when one pioneering individual, family, or group of families decided to try their luck overseas. Once established, immigrants from a particular village, city, or region became sources of highly localized information about the new country and, in the case of family members especially, often provided tangible help in moving and resettlement.

In these and other cases, it is not that a particular group could exclude immigrants from other countries or exclude citizens of the country in which they settled. Rather, they simply clustered together where they could. To one degree or another, however, immigrants have also tended to assimilate, first with compatriots from different parts of their country of origin, and later with members of the larger society around them in the country where they settled.

The existence of similar geographical influences and similar social patterns in distant regions of the world-marauding and feuds among mountain men, for example-means that such patterns are not “national character” or “racial traits,” but are international in scope and geographical in origin.

A special kind of migrant has been the middleman minority. These include retailers, ranging from pushcart peddlers to international merchants, and money-lenders, ranging from pawnbrokers and petty loan sharks to international financiers. Usually there are far fewer people at the higher levels of all these occupations than at the elementary levels requiring less money, experience, or sophistication.

In one way or another, middlemen facilitate the movement of goods from the producer to the consumer, without necessarily physically producing anything themselves. Middleman minorities do this in communities where others are a majority of the population, whether in a particular ethnic enclave or in whole nations. For this to be a viable and lasting role,- there must be some cultural difference between the middlemen and those they serve. Otherwise, each community or nation would supply its own middlemen. But, however large the role of racial and cultural differences in the histories.

The middleman minority usually exists where the local population does not provide its own middlemen.

Middleman minorities have typically been urban people, even in agricultural societies.

Prior to Columbus, the great migrations were land migrations, often associated with conquest, or were migrations across the calm and enclosed waters of the Mediterranean or other bodies of water not comparable in size to the Atlantic or the Pacific.

As the change from wind-driven ships to steamships drastically reduced deaths from both sinkings and disease.

Steamships had far-reaching effects because they not only made voyages faster and cheaper, they made the timing of these voyages far more exact.

The steamship changed all that. Where the time required to cross the Atlantic on a wind-driven ship- ranged from one to three months, steam-driven ships crossed in a predictable ten days. Now emigrants could arrive in port for scheduled departures, sparing themselves the costs of long stays in dockside lodgings and the hazards of health and crime that these stays often involved. The much shorter voyage in larger ships likewise reduced both the costs and the hazards at sea, including the dangers of declining resistance to diseases when food and water ran low and exhaustion from the voyage took its toll.

Before the age of steam, destinations were constrained by the existing trade routes, since the migrants had to land wherever the cargoes landed. Steamships now made it economical to have ships designed and scheduled for passenger transport, making the Mediterranean as eligible as the Atlantic, and allowing the peoples of both regions to choose their own destinations in the New World of the Western Hemisphere.

The more general pattern was from wherever the given people were less productive to wherever they were more productive. Therefore many people with higher skills migrated to where those skills were in shorter supply and would be more highly rewarded.

In short, Germans were a major part of the worldwide and centuries old process of diffusion of skills from where they were abundant to where they were more scarce, whether those skills were agricultural, commercial, military, or the skills of many artisan occupations.

The remarkable reversal of public attitudes toward the Japanese over the years–especially in Australia, Peru, and the United States-suggests that behavior and performance are more effective ways of changing other people’s minds than moral crusades or emotional denunciations.

The overseas Chinese have often been called “the Jews of Asia,” but perhaps the Jews might be called the Chinese of the West. The overseas Chinese are not only far more numerous than the Jews, but have also played a far larger economic role in the countries of Southeast

Asia than even the considerable economic role of the Jews in Europe and America.

The primary source of the overseas Chinese emigration were the two southern provinces of Fukien and Kwangtung.

Although the overseas Chinese have become widely known as a middleman minority, Chinese immigrants seldom began overseas as businessmen. In the era of mass Chinese immigration, most of these immigrants began overseas as coolie laborers-destitute, illiterate, unskilled workers, often in debt for their passage and indentured to whoever paid for it. Early Chinese immigrants almost always began in the lowliest unskilled task -often jobs considered too dirty, difficult, dangerous, or “menial” for the local peoples to accept.

Like the overseas Chinese, the Indians come from a country of ancient glory and modem poverty, but they often prosper among poor indigenous peoples in many countries around the world… Many-in some countries, most–of those who came from India did so as indentured laborers… The story of the overseas Indians is in many countries the story of how they rose to prosperity, sometimes affluence, and occasionally considerable wealth. It is also the story of how they transformed the countries in which this happened.

In short, Indians in some countries have been middleman minorities, and in others not. Where they have been businessmen, their commercial success has to varying degrees tended to be reflected in rising levels of education over time and in a movement into the professions, much in the pattern of the overseas Chinese and the Jews. Also like these other middleman minorities, Indians in these roles have tended to keep a low political profile. Few have pursued political careers overseas, and politics has had little or nothing to do with their rise to affluence in foreign lands. Often politics has been an obstacle to that rise and, especially in post-colonial times in Africa and Asia, politics has been a threat to positions already achieved in the economy.

One of the clearest facts to emerge from these worldwide histories of various racial and ethnic groups is that gross statistical disparities in the “representation” of groups in different occupations, industries, income levels, and educational institutions have been the rule-not the exception-all across the planet. Moreover, many of these disparities have persisted for generations or even centuries.

Another worldwide study of multiethnic societies found “few, if any” which even approximated proportional representation of the different ethnic groups in different levels or sectors of the economy.

The racial, ethnic, or national minorities who have owned or directed more than half of particular industries in particular nations have included not only the six groups considered here but also the Lebanese in West Africa, Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, Britons in Argentina, Belgians in Russia, and Spaniards in Chile.

Nothing has been more common than for cities to be dominated by one ethnic group–either demographically or economically, or both while the population of the surrounding countryside has been predominantly of a different ethnic group.

If there is one pattern that emerges from all these histories it is that each group has its own cultural pattern-and that these patterns do not disappear upon crossing a border or an ocean. Nor are these patterns always coextensive with national or racial groups.

Expectations of similarity are inconsistent with the fact that differences lie at the heart of migrations. There would be no point in crossing an ocean if things were the same on both sides. There would usually be no point in incurring the high costs and high risks of migrations if everyone were equally productive where they were and where they were going. Even refugees flee because of differences in safety at different locations. When people come from different worlds, it can hardly be surprising that they differ in their new worlds. Nor can all these differences be reduced to things for which the new society can be blamed.

Cultures do not exist as simply static “differences” to be celebrated but compete with one another as better and worse ways of gelling things done—-better and worse, not from the standpoint of some observer, but from the standpoint of the peoples themselves as they cope and aspire amid the gritty realities of life.

The importance of politics, and especially of protest politics, in advancing groups economically receives little or no support from the histories we have surveyed.

The cultural histories sketched here provide revealing glimpses of the enormous role of cultural heritages and their far-reaching implications. Cultures cover a broad spectrum of human concerns, from things as superficial as modes of dress to things as deeply felt as what one is prepared to die for. What some people think of as culture, or as “high culture” art, music, literature—-is only a small part of the vast spectrum of skills, values, traditions, and unarticulated habits of thought and action encompassed by a given culture.

Cultures are not merely customs to which people have a sentimental attachment, or badges of “identity” which permit them to engage in breast-beating. Cultures are particular ways of accomplishing the things that make life possible—-the perpetuation of the species, the transmission of knowledge, and the absorption of the shocks of change and death, among other things. Cultures differ in the relative significance they attach to time, noise, safety, cleanliness, violence, thrift, intellect, sex, and art. These differences in turn imply differences in social choices, economic efficiency, and political stability. Though cultures transcend race, particular cultures are obviously often associated with particular racial and ethnic groups.

Conversely, a rapid accumulation of cultural capital-usually possible only by borrowing from the cultures of others, at least initially-has also produced dramatic economic and social changes. In modem times, the sudden bursting of the Scots upon the world scene as leading figures in a variety of fields of endeavor.

It may sound noble to say that cultures are merely different, not better or worse in any way, and that it is all a matter of perceptions and preferences. But this argument contradicts itself by saying that one way of looking at cultural differences is better-the way of cultural relativism preferred by a fringe of contemporary intellectuals, rather than the way preferred by the vast majority of other human beings around the world and down through the centuries.

These cultural differences do not matter only if cause and effect do not matter.

Dramatic rises from poverty to prosperity, whether among nations or among various immigrant groups in countries around the world, undermine the notion of “haves” and “have-nots” as enduring categories of people frozen into their respective positions by social and economic forces. Indeed, the histories reviewed in the preceding chapters suggest that a more fruitful dichotomy might be between the doers and the do-nots.

If you would like to learn more about migrations and culture in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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