In the best of circumstances, seeking a new home in another country involves sacrifice and uncertainty. Immigrants who pursue a job opportunity or join family members in another nation leave behind family and friends, familiar customs, and places steeped with memory and meaning. The sacrifice that immigrants make for themselves or for their children is part of a larger story that is often told about immigrants: that those who take the risks and make the sacrifices generally end up better off, socioeconomically, than if they had not.
“In migration studies there’s a lot of talk about the sorts of things that accrue to migrants through migration,” says Tristan D. Ivory, International and Comparative Labor. “We say that the act of migrating leads to various positive outcomes for migrants and their families. But we know that migration is a rare event, and the people who do it are a pretty select population who stand out compared to the folks who stayed behind. So maybe those who migrate would have experienced these gains regardless of whether they stayed or left.”
To understand the socioeconomic consequences of migration, Ivory compares the outcomes for immigrants in their new societies to the situation for those with comparable backgrounds who stayed in their country of origin.
He has set up a long-term, multifaceted research project in Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa. The three countries are similar in their Anglophone, British-style educational systems and their expanding access to higher education, Ivory says. They also each boast a growing middle class, which is important because Ivory and his collaborators hope to zero in on the immigrant experience for those in the middle strata of society.
Socioeconomic outcomes for people in the middle are often used to measure the health of a nation, he points out. “We look to see if there’s a lot of mobility in the middle, if people are able to have a better life than their parents and then give those advantages to their children,” he says. “If that seems to be working, we generally say that a country is doing fairly well. When that upward mobility starts eroding, that’s generally a bad sign.”
Tracking the Long-Term Effects of Migration
Ivory’s project, now in its initial phase, begins with high school students who are one year away from graduation. He and his collaborators surveyed students about their socioeconomic situations and support networks. They then moved to personal interviews of a select group of 1,500 people across the three countries who fit the parameters of the study.
“Maybe those who migrate would have experienced [similar socioeconomic] gains regardless of whether they stayed or left.”
Participants were asked about their perspective on the future: whether they plan on going to a university, what kind of job they think they’ll have, and their opinions or beliefs about migration, Ivory explains. “We designed these baseline interviews to get on record where students are at this point in time,” he says. Over the coming decades, he intends to follow the students—through surveys and repeat follow-up interviews every five years—as they navigate young adulthood, careers, and raising a family.
“My hope is that by year 15, some nontrivial number of these people will have migrated,” Ivory says. “This project will then give us a comparison group who have not migrated, so we can start to look into these inferences about the effects of migration and see whether they hold any water.”
Eventually, Ivory hopes to give control of the project to researchers from the three countries who have worked with him as graduate students and beyond. “To be an honest steward of the data, I need to make sure people in the countries where it’s being collected have discretion and buy-in to the project itself,” he says. “I don’t want to just sit on the data and not do anything with it, or extract it and keep it under lock and key in the United States.”
Immigrant Women in the Labor Force
Ivory’s interest in mobility and labor market inequality has led him to ask questions about the immigrant experience and marriage—particularly trends for women who marry native-born men in their new host societies. To investigate labor-force reception for immigrant women in the United States, Sweden, and Japan, he worked with Guilherme Kenjy Chihaya Da Silva (then at Umeå University in Sweden, now at Nord University in Norway) and Hirohisa Takenoshita (Keio University in Japan).
“A lot of research tends to treat integration into the mainstream of society as unambiguously positive for labor-market outcomes,” Ivory says. “When you pay attention to gendered context of reception, particularly in a more traditional society like Japan, you find that there are all sorts of mechanisms designed to push women out of the labor force.”
Marriage and Xenophobia
Ivory and graduate student Chuling (Adam) Huang, PhD ’25 International and Comparative Labor, decided to explore a slightly different question. According to Ivory, immigrants who marry a native-born individual are generally thought to have better job-market outcomes. The immigrant’s spouse provides access to networks of people, shared resources, and increased linguistic fluency, Ivory says. Ideally, the native-born spouse also advocates on the immigrant’s behalf.
Ivory and Huang wanted to learn what happens to these benefits with a rise in xenophobia or nationalism. The researchers looked at labor force surveys across all European Union member states, many of which have been marked by a recent upsurge in anti-immigrant sentiment.
“We found that the context of reception in the receiving country can significantly alter the value of being married to a native-born individual,” Ivory says. “As attitudes about immigration get worse, the protection, or buffering, of being married to an insider starts to erode because these avenues and abilities for people to engage in mobility start to close off. At that point, there are fewer options at the immigrant’s disposal.”
An Eclectic Finds a Home in Sociology
Ivory was drawn to sociology because it fits his own diverse interests. He is eclectic in his tastes, across everything from music to travel to food, and that carries over into his research interests as well, he says. Sociology gives him the freedom to do things in the way that feels best for him.
“There are so many subfields in sociology that cross over into so many other disciplines and ways of thinking,” he says. “I like being a member of a group where there are other people who are open to the way I’m trying to approach a problem. I don’t have to worry too much about being told I can’t do something the way I want to do it. As long as the methods are reasonable for the question, I can use them to approach the answer. That pleases me immensely. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored.”
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