How do social networks affect migrations?

The complexity of contemporary migrations has fostered new studies to apprehend the various aspects and types of migrants, territorial moves, temporalities whether at the individual or collective level and the modalities of movement (circulation, settlement, going back, in transit…). In a globalized world, these changes brought about by increasing mobilities remain a complex issue for Nations-States. The latter are affected in their borders and identities in a political and territorial context which is growing tougher and endangering human lives.  

These transformations give rise to new types of social ties, sometimes reactivate former ones, foster new migrating strategies and new routes. Practices, representations diversify as well as the ways of appropriating the space, from the street and district of origin to the metropolis. The combination of these various scales helps better understand that these situations are vehicles for social changes.



Social science and migrations

The notion of network, often referred to in social science, particularly in works dealing with migration, is often used as a key word, even sometimes as a handy language piece, to describe multiple social ties. But the notion is very rarely questioned as such. And yet, because of the multiplicity of its uses, it falls under several research traditions. For instance, the theories of integration (each migrant should become a citizen), are too often confused with that of peremptory assimilation (everyone is required to live by French codes of behaviour whether in the public space or private sphere) or with trans-nationalist theses (see box). The notion of network actually enables to go beyond the scope of the host society alone.

The point is not to review the great number of studies on migrations. As early as the 1990s, several researchers dropped the binary approach of migrants/Nation-State to study mobilities, circulations (Tarrius, 1992), crossed spaces (Bredeloup, Pliez, 2005), but also the places impacted by changing migration routes, which affect migrants’ individual or collective paths.

Fostered by an increasing transnationalist approach (Glick Schiller, Basch, Szanton-Blanc, 1992), research work now focuses on the strategies migrants devise and the economic and social dynamics they develop to be able to span national borders. Studies also highlight the part played by diasporas in immigration countries and the way these social groups recreate a territory of their own through their connections, imaginaries and social practices.


  • Bredeloup S., Pliez O., 2005, « Migrations entre les deux rives du Sahara», Autrepart, n°36, 3-20.
  • Glick Schiller N., Basch L., Blanc-Szanton C., 1992, « Transnationalism : A New Analytic Framework for Understanding Migration », Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol.645, Issue1, 1-24.
  • Tarrius A.,1992, Les fourmis d’Europe : migrants riches, migrants pauvres et nouvelles villes internationales, Paris : Éditions L’Harmattan.

Spaces, ties and social networks

As early as the 1980s, social science started analysing migration spaces through groups and their ties, using the concept of « migration field » or spatializing underlying social networks, thus uncovering both the social and spatial contexts shaping social networks (Doreian, Conti, 2012). The migration flow keeps transforming these spaces as well as associative, family, entrepreneurial, religious networks. Therefore, analysing these networks enables to grasp the ties actors have constructed with the places and territories they have crossed and made their own.

The analysis of migrant social networks has gradually replaced the prevailing cultural approach of the 1970s in France. This North American sociological trend, which originated in the 1920s, developed the idea that migrants would retain cultural differences preventing them from fully integrating host countries.  

The concept of « total network » was actually put forward to move away from migrants’ community background made up of members who see themselves and are seen as a « we » versus other « we ». Indeed, analysing individuals through their networks does not restrict them to the set of ties they are supposed to belong to. In order to thoroughly understand migrants’ ties and relations, countries of transit or of settlement, transnational, multi-local or circular dimensions, some authors, among whom Georges E. Marcus, have devised a method of « multi-sited investigation ».

This methodological approach is useful to fully comprehend international migrations that have been little studied so far. But the usage of the word « network », remains confusing as it is often used as a metaphor and not as an analytical tool.


  • Doreian P., Conti N., 2012, « Social context, spatial structure and social network structure », Social Networks, 34, 32-46.
  • Marcus G.E., 1995, « Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography », Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 95-117.
  • According to Georges E. Marcus, multi-sited ethnography is a methodological necessity to deal with globalization. This challenge implies continued empirical work, in which the unity of « the » ethnological fieldwork is broken up as the researcher is led to study the multiple sites and levels of individuals and objects. This approach also turns him into a « multi-sited » researcher so as to take multiple stands and view fieldwork from several perspectives. This theoretical and methodological proposal therefore comes from the actual inadequacy of conducting a single-sited approach of social processes in an ever-changing globalized world.

Social networks, a methodological challenge

Concurrently, from the 1950s onwards, anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists went on constructing a set of concepts and methods and conducted empirical research, which gradually formed what has now become the sociology of social networks. Among these authors, the American sociologist Mark Granovetter, as early as 1973, developed a theory known as  « the strength of weak ties », which differentiates weak ties (in terms of low frequency of interactions, few services provided, low emotional intensity and intimacy) from strong ties. When researchers in the field of migration refer to networks and want this reference to be backed by structuring models, they often have this theory in mind. Mark Granovetter’s work on the labour market and other studies using the same approach have led to the definition of « relational chains » which permits to grasp the concrete mobilisation of interpersonal relations for accessing resources.

From that basis, researchers have pursued different avenues. Some devised an original methodology centred on quantified narratives (see box) so as to identify successive interpersonal relations which enable accessing family, friendly, religious resources…

The method of quantified narratives is especially well « suited to capturing dynamics » (Grossetti, 2011). It aims at capturing the process through which individuals or small groups join existing relational chains. The notion of relational chains therefore brings together diversified fieldworks in social sciences all related to the issues of local, national and transnational migrations.


  • Grossetti M., 2011, « Les narrations quantifiées. Une méthode mixte pour étudier des processus sociaux », Terrains et Travaux,n°19, pp. 161-182.

Social networks and migration

Places and social networks take on a multiplicity of forms: trading posts, shop keeping areas, cross-border passages, markets, enterprises, workshops, circulating objects (holy pictures, for instance), as well as in the private sphere (bedroom, daily objects such as the radio set…)

To think out the articulations between social networks and migration, one needs to reconsider mobility resources. In order to move, migrants call on various networks starting with the family, community or religious circles.  When settling down, they strive to access resources, employment, accommodation of course, upward social mobility, but also spiritual resources. Thus, networks are inherent to migration moves and are constructed either simultaneously or at the crossing. They provide either opportunities for social climbing, or the possibility to leave a network to access another one, or to access the « sticking-to-my-own- kind » level of the network to bypass social boundaries.

It is also necessary to consider the articulations between social networks and the newly acquired competences transformed and valued by and in the course of international mobility. Whatever sectors migrants are involved in, through their networks, whether entrepreneurs, employees or in associations, migrants move from ordinary mobilities to longer-term mobilities. This highlights the close connection between social and spatial networks as well as the significant part played by weak ties which enable migrants to free themselves from their close environment to opt for a transnational future. Skilled migrants also use weak ties to access transnational space when they wish to move on to formal transnational associative ties.

All these situations do not erase the tension that may exist between networks and background community. It may cause migrants to exit a network, distance from their main network to retain only part of it within a specific territory. Migrants choose places and projects according to available resources. Therefore, destinations are mapped according to the priority given to community networks, through a religious prism in some cases, under the influence of the media in other cases, or else by relying on long-standing networks in order to move on beyond geopolitical constraints.

Network analysis can no longer be restricted to the classical study of family or community networks. The diversity of migration networks uncovers dense social territories that are constantly being incorporated into the dynamics of mobility, with the objective of leaving, upgrading one’s social and professional status, but also of possibly going back better off here or elsewhere.

Crédits images en CC : Pixabay Geralt, EDPS Europa, Patrick Mignard pour Mondes Sociaux, Pixabay slightly_different, Pxhere


Hasnia-Sonia Missaoui, Stéphanie Lima, Jérôme Lombard

Hasnia-Sonia Missaoui, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, LISST UMR 5193 (hasnia.missaoui@univ-tlse2.fr), Stéphanie Lima, NU Champollion, LISST UMR 5193 (stephanie.lima@univ-jfc.fr), Jérôme Lombard, Univ. Paris 1, UMR Prodig, IRD (Jerome.Lombard@univ-paris1.fr)

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