Social networks and the influence of gender: Part 2

Second installation of the network series! In this part, I’m going to get into the ways networks work with migration.

There are two important and distinct stages of social network utilization for migrants, the migration phase and the adaptation phase. In both phases, individuals’ social networks play an indispensable role in the ultimate success of their shared community. As Boyd (1989) wrote in her article exploring the role of personal networks in international migration, social networks “shape the effect of social and economic structures on individuals, families and households. Additionally, social ties transmit information about places of destination (including places of return migration) and sources of settlement assistance” (642). In this section, I will describe the specific ways that social networks can affect the structure of migration by looking at the linkages between the sending and receiving locations. Sending locations are the places migrants are coming from, and receiving locations are the places migrants are migrating to. The second phase (adaptation) will be covered in next week’s final installment of the network series!

Linkages between sending and receiving areas

The existence or absence of migrant networks greatly influences individuals’ decision of whether migrate and where to migrate. Douglas S. Massey, Joaquin Arango, Graeme Hugo, Ali Kouaouci, Adela Pellegrino and J. Edward Taylor define migrant networks as “sets of interpersonal ties that connect migrants, former migrants, and nonmigrants in origin and destination areas through ties of kinship, friendship, and shared community origin” (Massey et al. 1993, 448). The strengthening of networks between sending and receiving areas reduces the cost and risk of migration, therefore encouraging migration between the two areas.

This phenomenon of migrants following migrants is known as sequential migration and is closely related to the strength of migrant networks. Over time, social networks become self-sustaining (Massey et al. 1993, Zhao 2003, Haas 2010, Fleury 2015). A 1999 empirical study of migration between rural and urban areas in China shows this phenomenon quite clearly, finding that for every migrant with at least four years of migration experience, an additional two members of the sending community will participate in migration (Zhao 2003, 510). Although this particular study is quite dated and does not reflect how new technology and other factors have changed the landscape of migration, it still reflects the effect that migrant networks have on encouraging and reducing the risks of migration.

This trend is clearly shown in the results of my research, with the practice of “chain” migration so common that a single story does not jump to mind. My interviews have shown that most women migrating to cities have done so because a relative or friend had migrated before, and had reported back that there were opportunities and success to be had in the city. 

Contrary to common belief, migrant networks can strengthen over time, depending on the type of migration. While many scholars of migration find that with migration comes a loss, as the migrants lose touch with or sever ties with connections from home (Vega et al. 1991), this is often not the case. Circular migration, where migrants return home frequently throughout the year, serves to strengthen social networks between sending and receiving locations (Zhao 2003). For example, Chinese domestic migrants will likely return home sporadically throughout the year, including most likely during the Chinese New Year. These visits home allow migrants to refresh and maintain connections with family and friends who they might not have kept in close connection with due to distance.

New technology has drastically reduced the difficulties in sustaining relationships with family and friends. One woman, who works as a live-in maid in Shanghai and first came to Shanghai nearly 20 years ago, told me that getting in touch with her children at home was very hard during her early years in Shanghai. They would have to predetermine a time then she would use a public phone to call someone in her town that had a landline to speak to her family. Of course, she made sure to mention that oftentimes, one party forgot or mistook the time of the call, or that when they successfully connected the call quality was very poor. Today, she has a cell phone and happily reported frequent video chats with her young grandson, daughter, siblings, and old classmates. Technology has led to the strengthening of connections and networks between urban and rural migrants.


A second important connection that remains very important to the migrant experience is remittances. To send remittances is the practice of sending money from the receiving to the sending country or area, in order to sustain those in a migrant’s social network who have not migrated (Boyd 1989, Massey et al. 1993). These remittances can deeply affect the structure of the community receiving the funds, such as in the case described in Tilly (2007) where the remittances of New York based Ticuanense migrants altered the social structures of the home community. Immigration ultimately altered the organization of power and wealth, reshaping both the lives of the Ticuanenses who remained and those who migrated and creating a transnational trust network between Ticuani and New York.

In the context of my research, remittances are the most important thing that migrants exchange via social networks. The majority of the women I talk to transfer the majority of (if not the entirety) of their salary to family members. These remittances take the form of direct transfers via WeChat, the purchase of apartments for their children (most often in order to raise a son’s marriage prospects), the subsidization of school fees for children, the gift of cash to the elder generation over the New Year, or the purchase of food, clothes or medicine for family members.

The story of a woman named Shi Zhang helps illustrate these transfers. Shi is in her mid-50s and works as a hourly cleaner, working long hours every day cleaning people’s homes. One day, Shi told me about how her daughter is currently traveling abroad, in Bali, Indonesia. She showed me with pride the pictures her daughter had posted on WeChat, staying at this gorgeous resort on the beach. While the daughter had paid for the trip herself, Shi went on show me how she had transferred her daughter $1,500 USD just because she wanted her daughter to enjoy herself, and not be stressed about money.

In some cases, sending remittances can even threaten the financial security of those doing the remitting while also sending misleading information about their quality of life in the receiving location. Citing Suro et al. (2002)’s report on a Pew Hispanic Center study, most Hispanic immigrants place the importance of sending remittances home above their own bills and financial needs in the United States. Anecdotally, the case with Chinese domestic migrants appears similar, with many migrants placing their children’s needs ahead of their own financial stability.

A live-in maid named Liu serves as an example. In most of China today, raising a son is quite expensive. In order for a man to attract a bride considered worthy, they must have at least a house and a car. Liu has been working in Shanghai for close to 20 years, all in order to finance her children’s education and her son’s house and car. Before his marriage a few years ago, they managed to buy a house on credit from the bank, and Liu and her husband are going to be paying off their loan on the house for the foreseeable future, despite being in her mid-50s. Those are productive years of wage-earning put toward the mortgage of her son’s home rather than preparation for her own inevitable retirement. The practice of remitting has the potential to harm the financial stability of the remitters, but migrants often feel that their purpose for migrating was to support their network of relatives and friends.


The two major ways that social networks connect the receiving and sending areas are through reducing the unknowns involved in the migration process and transporting resources, particularly of financial nature through remittances. These are very important functions, as they inspire more migration to occur, in effect strengthening the networks themselves. In addition, remittances ensure the well-being of members of the network.


  • Boyd, Monica. 1989. “Family and personal networks in international migration: recent developments and new agendas.”  International migration review 23 (3):638-670.
  • Fleury, Anjali. 2015. Understanding women and migration: a literature review. In Cross-Cutting Theme on Gender, edited by Rosemary Vargas-Lundius: Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development.
  • Haas, Hein de. 2010. “The internal dynamics of migration processes: a theoretical inquiry.”  Journal of ethnic and migration studies 36 (10):1587-1617.
  • Massey, Douglas S., Joaquín Arango, Graeme Hugo, Ali Kouaoci, Adela Pellegrino, and J. Edward Taylor. 1993. “Theories of international migration: a review and appraisal.”  Population and Development Review 19 (3):431-466.
  • Suro, Roberto, Sergio Bendixen, B. Lindsay Lowell, and Dulce C. Benavides. 2002. Billions in motion: Latino immigrants, remittances and banking. edited by The Pew Hispanic Center: Inter-American Development Bank.
  • Tilly, Charles. 2007. “Trust networks in transnational migration.”  Sociological Forum 22 (1):3-24.
  • Vega, William A., Bohdan Kolody, Ramon Valle, and Judy Weir. 1991. “Social networks, social support, and their relationship to depression among immigrant Mexican women.”  Human organization 50 (2):154-162.
  • Zhao, Yaohui. 2003. “The role of migrant networks in labor migration: the case of China.”  Contemporary economic policy 21 (4):500-511.

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