Topic 15 – Remittances, Social Stratification, and Cultural Change


Because migration is a selective process, remittances tend to flow to particular social and ethnic groups within migrant sending communities and societies. Therefore, and depending on patterns of migrant selectivity, remittances can have profound implications for traditional forms of social and ethnic stratification. This often tends to coincide with processes of cultural change, as specific patterns of remittance expenditure also tend to engender changing tastes, values and social norms.

Migrants are often from middle-class or elite groups and, therefore, might not necessarily represent the view of the poor and the oppressed, but instead effectively sustain oppressive political systems (Guarnizo et al. 2003). Whereas elite migration tends to sustain or deepen existing inequalities, traditional social hierarchies may be fundamentally upset if lower- or middle-status groups manage to migrate internationally and obtain access to international remittances. In fact, markers of class and social stratification may change as a result of the sending and receiving remittances.

In San Pedro Pinula (Guatemala), for instance, the migration and return of Mayan residents has slowly challenged ethnic roles that have developed over the last five centuries (Taylor et al. 2006). The same seems to apply to large-scale migration from the (largely Berber) Moroccan countryside to Europe. In southern Morocco, De Haas (2006) found that migration and remittances have been an important avenue for upward socioeconomic mobility of low-status ethnic groups. In this case, new forms of remittance-based inequality have been partly superimposed upon the traditional forms of hereditary inequality based on kinship, skin color and land ownership.

Gender inequality is likely to affect intra-family allocation of remittances. This explains why several studies have found that international migration and remittances do not necessarily lead to a permanent shift in the patriarchal family structure, and may actually serve to reproduce traditional gender roles. For instance, based on empirical research in Albania, King, Dalipaj and Mai (2006) concluded that traditional Albanian gender roles are generally maintained throughout the migration cycle. They also concluded that intra-household modifications of the patriarchal power structures of Albanian families through migration and remittances are more likely to be generational rather than gender-related. Based on their research in four Guatemalan sending communities, Taylor et al. (2006) concluded that migration and social remittances may permit a gradual erosion of traditional gender roles, but that such changes are gradual because migrants run into a social structure that resists rapid change.

It is important to disentangle the effects of remittances from more general processes of social and cultural change. While the latter are often more important, migration may play an accelerating or reinforcing role in such processes. Depending on migrant destinations, migration and remittances can also affect norms regarding marriage and fertility. This is exemplified by a recent study by Fargues (2006), which found that that time-series data on birth rates and migrant remittances in Morocco, Turkey and Egypt are strongly correlated, but in varying ways. While the correlation is negative for Morocco and Turkey, it is positive for Egypt. To explain this pattern, Fargues hypothesized that migration from North Africa to European countries has contributed to the diffusion and adoption of European marriage patterns and small family norms, and so has played an accelerating role in the demographic transition. In the case of Egyptian migration to conservative Gulf countries, the effect would be the reverse.