Sociology of Immigration

Abstract: Immigration is a highly complex sociological phenomenon, it is affected by a number of factors including international law, sovereignty, borders, security and power dynamics. Additionally, immigration, as it stands today, differs greatly since the first wave of mass immigration in the 1800s. Through tracing the history of mass immigration and paying attention to two major socio-political events, namely the September 11 attacks and BREXIT, this paper attempts to take a timestamp of the sociology of immigration today.

Sociology of Immigration

Defining Immigration & Immigration Theory

In the mid-1800s, Europe saw one of the largest cases of wide-scale immigration in human history, resulting in the displacement of nearly 40 million individuals. The reason for this flow can be traced back to the conditions brought about by the industrial revolution which caused a stark divide between the prosperous and impoverished regions. Nation-states such as Ireland witnessed levels of mass starvation due to famine, whilst England and other European nations thrived (crashcourse, 2019). As an extension, immigration theory is rooted in the sustained demand for an elastic supply of labour (Stenum, 2011). It sees this international flow of individuals from poverty-ridden nations to more ‘advanced’ nations in search of jobs and ultimately a higher standard of living (Portes & Borocz, 1989).

While this approach to analysing immigration was relevant to the Europeans in the 1800s, immigration has evolved throughout the centuries to account for multiple other facets such as sovereignty, borders, safety and culture. Today, immigration is dictated based on a country’s relationship with sovereignty; which attempts to navigate the line between state control and democratic independence, within a country’s defined political borders. Hence, this perspective on immigration needs to be looked at from two sides. One side of this argument is rooted in morality- everyone, including those in power, should uphold the human rights of others. However, the other side of the argument is that governments are required by law to protect their citizens, and the importance of the rights of their own citizens outweigh the importance of others.

Sovereignty & Borders

Sovereignty is where a nation’s authority and control are rooted, decisions regarding law and policy are dictated by the government on the basis of maintaining national order and security. At the turn of the 21st century the events of  September 11, 2001 (on the World Trade Center) changed the relationship between a nation’s borders and its sovereignty; ultimately challenging the nature of immigration theory. According to political theorist Mathew Longo, the attacks of 9/11 resulted in states beginning to widen their border spaces, projecting surveillance far from the literal border itself in both directions, creating webs of infrastructure and law enforcement that extends bi-nationally (Longo, 2017). Thus, Longo concludes that borders now may be better understood as frontiers. As the notion of sovereignty hinges on the concept of borders ie. that sovereignty is territorially circumscribed, the latter changing implies a consequent change in the former, as well; sovereignty without borders is imperium. The concept of an imperium is far from contemporary, in fact, the concept most notably dated back to the Roman Empire. The empire exercised imperium instead of sovereignty due to having zonal frontiers as opposed to borders. Thus there could be no clear logic of interiority and exteriority, thus allowing for Roman authority and control to be exercised internationally[1]  (Longo, 2017).

Also Read: Sociological Perspective on War and Society

Countries with the highest rates of immigration are democracies, sovereignty in the age of imperium and democracy has a profound effect on society. The smooth functioning of a democratic society- ie. sovereignty, hinges on achieving control while also straddling the line of respecting individual autonomy- ie freedom (Mbembe, 2003). For example, violence in the form of assault, amongst other reasons, hinders societies ability to function, hence making it illegal but more importantly making it the societal norm- the agreed-upon expectations and rules which govern everyone’s behaviour in society (cliffnotes). Hence, while sovereignty may use policy-making and other judicial agencies as tools in order to gain control, sovereignty is not synonymous with laws, rather, sovereignty is about creating norms so as to not impair an individual’s autonomy.

Immigration in the Contemporary World

The events of 9/11 changed the way one understands borders and sovereignty, BREXIT- the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, once again challenges these concepts. The arguments for Britain to leave the EU are many, of these arguments immigration and by extension sovereignty are central. In fact, in 2018 then Prime Minister Theresa May stated “Free movement will end, that is one of the key elements, I believe, of the vote in the referendum that we need to ensure we deliver for the British people” (Adam & Booth, 2018). Additionally, May has vowed to reduce overall immigration, from 100,000s annually to 10,000s in Britain (Adam & Booth, 2018). Hence, the concerns over immigration main driving force of the 2016 referendum vote, however,[2]  in the four years since the referendum the British publics’ concerns over immigration has shifted, from both sides.[3]  The reasons for this change in perception can be traced to alterations in political marketing and news coverage; that once relied on fear-mongering using slogans such as Migrants Rob Young Britons of Jobs. This sentiment has since been replaced with a new fear of how Britain may be losing valuable immigrant labourers which will negatively affect the British economy (Adam & Booth, 2018).

Assimilation Theory & Pluralism

Assimilation is a process wherein individuals of differing ethnic heritage- ie. minority groups,  become a part of the dominant culture of a society (Pauls). The process of assimilating involves taking on the cultural attributes of the dominant culture. This assimilation is taken on to a degree that the assimilating group becomes socially and culturally indistinguishable dominant society (Pauls). The argument for assimilation is that allows a society to maintain its stability that is only possible if individuals assimilate to the dominant culture (Leon-Guerrero, 2019). However, if the goal of assimilation is racial-ethnic stability critics argue that pluralism is an alternative to attain racial-ethnic stability. Pluralism is the philosophy, wherein each ethnic or racial group maintains its own unique culture while still co-existing with the dominant group (Leon-Guerrero, 2019). According to this philosophy, the co-existence of each ethnically diverse group under the shared goal of seeking protection (Farley 2005). In some ways, assimilation and pluralism are opposing philosophies, however, they do undoubtedly have similarities. Additionally, it is not uncommon that minority groups follow some aspects of assimilation and some aspects of pluralism simultaneously. Lastly, some minority groups may be assimilating as others are maintain their differences (Healey, 2014).

The mass immigration in the mid-1800s saw millions of individuals immigrate from Europe to America (in addition to immigrating from one European country to another), the manner in which these immigrants incorporated themselves into American society greatly differs from today (Healey, 2014). During this wave of immigration, assimilation was the primary way of maintaining racial-ethnic stability, however, the form of assimilation was unique, most likely due to the sheer number of immigrants, the form of assimilation took on that of a melting pot (Healey, 2014). Wherein,  different groups come together and contribute in equal proportions to ultimately a new, unique society. However, the conversion of borders to imperium and the increased importance given to sovereignty, means that contemporary society rarely sees mass immigration on the scale of the 1800s. Today, the melting pot process of assimilation has been replaced by a more one-sided form of assimilation that can be described as americanization or westernization.

Understanding Assimilation through Conflict Theory

The need to assimilate or ‘voluntary’ assimilation to the newly immigrated countries norms, can be understood through conflict theory[4]  (crash course, 2017). Conflict theory is a sociological perspective, which looks at society as a constant struggle for power between two groups. This struggle is considered the driving societal change. In the context of immigration and assimilation, power is held by those who are domicile to that state. Hence, in order to accrue the socio-cultural and economic power held by the dominant group (ie. domicile citizens) immigrants, either consciously or unconsciously, feel the need to assimilate. Assimilation allows for countries with a large migrant population such as the United States to maintain elements the culture considers important. This sentiment is best summed up in a statement by Theodore Roosevelt “We have room for but one flag, the American flag. . . . We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language . . . and we have room for but one loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people” (Healey, 2014).


  1. YouTube. (2019). Migration: Crash Course European History #29. YouTube.
  2. Stenum, H. (2011). Migration management at the margins. Transnationalized and localized government of marginalized migrants in Denmark: Au pairs and destitute EU citizens. SPIRIT. Spirit PhD Series No. 26
  3. Portes, A., & Borocz, J. (1989). Contemporary Immigration: Theoretical Perspectives on Its Determinants and Modes of Incorporation. International Migration Review, 23(3), 606.
  4. Longo, M. (2017). From Sovereignty to Imperium: Borders, Frontiers and the Specter of Neo-Imperialism. Geopolitics, 22(4), 757–771.
  5. Mbembé, J., & Meintjes, L. (2003). Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1), 11-40.
  6. Adam, K., & Booth, W. (2018, November 17). Immigration worries drove the Brexit vote. Then attitudes changed. Washington Post
  7. Adam, K., & Booth, W(2018). British farmers worry who will pick the fruit after Brexit. Washington Post.
  8. Pauls, E. (n.d.). Assimilation. Encyclopædia Britannica.
  9. Leon-Guerrero, A. (2019). Social problems: community, policy and social action. SAGE Publications, Inc.
  10. Healey, J. F. (2014). Diversity and society: race, ethnicity, and gender. SAGE Publications.
  11. YouTube. (2017). Karl Marx & Conflict Theory: Crash Course Sociology #6. YouTube.

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Natasha D'Mello is currently a communications and sociology student at Flame University. Her interests include graphic design, poetry and media analysis.