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Push and pull factors and the three revolutions that bring them closer

The article outline Philip Martin's thesis of two inequalities and three revolutions to explain contemporary international migration

This article recaps the dynamics that generate international migration according to migration expert Professor Philip Martin who is based at the University of California at Davis in the United States.

Philip Martin argues that international migration is motivated by two inequalities combined with three ‘revolutions’.

Demographic inequality is clear to see. Almost all population growth today occurs in the world’s poorer countries, while the population of the 30 wealthiest countries is expected to remain stable.

Economic inequality is also relatively straightforward. Worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) was 62 trillion US dollars in 2010 which is the equivalent of an average annual income of US$9,000 per person. The 30 most industrialised countries possessed roughly one sixth of the world’s population but two thirds of the world’s economic output. Here the average annual income translates as US$39,000, which is 12 times more than the US$3,300 average income of the poorest 170 countries.

Demographic and economic inequalities function like the positive and negative poles of a battery: they provide the potential for migration but not necessarily the path. The demand (or pull factors) that attract migrants need to meet the supply (or push factors) that motivate people to move in search of better life and work opportunities. According to Martin, the ‘bridge’ that brings the push and pull forces together are the three ‘revolutions’ in communications, transportation and human rights.

Technological developments have facilitated information flows across borders. The massive expansion of internet and email since the late twentieth century has revolutionised communications and has essentially replaced the international postal and telegraph system that emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The transportation revolution refers to the easier, faster and cheaper modes of travel that are available today.

In the late nineteenth century a ticket on a ship crossing the Atlantic was prohibitively expensive for many prospective migrants and often led them to sign contracts that obliged them to repay their fare over four to six years of work on arrival in New York City.

Today, the cost of travelling to almost anywhere in the world is less than US$3,000 (and usually a lot cheaper), while even getting into a much larger debt with a migrant can be repaid back over one or two years. (Nevertheless, the degree to which today’s travel options are easy, fast, cheap (and safe) can differ very markedly according to a person’s geographical origins, personal circumstances and, most important of all, legal status.)

The third revolution identified by Philip Martin is the rights revolution, notably the expansion of political, social and economic rights in most destination countries. On paper, human rights conventions and national laws grant basic civil and political rights to all people, while labour conventions protect all workers. As the communication and transportation revolutions cannot be rolled back, one way for governments to curb unwanted migration flows is to reduce, for instance, migrants’ access to welfare systems and related socio-economic rights.

Do you think Philip Martin’s ‘two-inequalities-three revolutions’ thesis offers a helpful framework for explaining migration? To what extent are the ‘three revolutions’ – communication, travel and rights – important for the cases that you are familiar with? Are they all equally significant? Or is one of these three elements more crucial than the other two? Do any other major changes come to mind that influence migration today? Share your thoughts with your fellow learners.

© European University Institute
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