Article Access: Waldinger and Soehl’s The Political Sociology of International Migration

Intersections by JISJ
5 min readApr 20, 2022

By Chidera Olalere

The Political Sociology of International Migration is an article that was published by Waldinger and Soehl in 2010 to present the idea that politics is vital to the conversation of international migration but that it remains an underdeveloped topic in migration studies. This follows on from the work of Professor Zolberg on the relationship of international migration to history and political systems. This belief that ‘international migration is an inherently political phenomenon’ (p. 3) is made evident from the very beginning of the article before Waldinger and Soehl go on further to explain the basis for this claim.

They define international migration as when migrants choose to leave their home for another country for reasons that include, but are not limited to, access to better resources. In this situation, migrants become foreigners in the new country they are entering, but also in the home country that they have left behind and so international migration highlights the capacity of a state to keep people and to control its borders.

Waldinger and Soehl mention two main reasons for why politics tends to be left out of international migration conversations despite its influence. One of these is assimilation and it is explained as being ‘the most influential approach to the migrant experience’ (p. 3). However, politics is hardly ever explicitly mentioned in this approach; political boundaries are seen to involve formal conditions of legal status and citizenship and as long as migrants remain outside the body politic, they have limited ability to influence “who gets what” let alone “who is what”. The other reason is transnationalism and it is an alternative to assimilation that suggests that international migration creates cross-border connections which link migrants to those who decided to stay at home. Similarly to assimilation, transnationalism highlights migrant agency, but it goes back to the origin of the story because it notes that the motivations that impel migration make it a survival strategy for those left at home, rather than just concentrating on the receiving end of the border. However, just like assimilation, it neglects the structures which might make engagement with the body politic left behind difficult.

From this point on, Waldinger and Soehl begin to dive into the different processes involved in international migration, the first of which was termed ‘the receiving context’. Under this process, citizenship is understood to be a multidimensional concept touching on rights, legal status, participation in the polity, membership and belonging. This context introduced citizenship as having two faces: an internally exclusive one (where legal equality is established for all members of the state) and an externally exclusive face (where only citizens possess unconditional access to the territory and full political rights). The receiving context also considered how territory was linked to the rights that people experienced and explained how greater efforts at border control were linked to intensified efforts at internal control, that is, unauthorized migrants having narrowed margins of rights and legal residents being better protected. Finally, Waldinger and Soehl used the receiving context to explain how the policies toward citizenship differ amongst countries and how citizenship could not necessarily be equated with equal rights since membership of a state could take on multiple dimensions.

Consequently, although the presence on the territory of a democratic state provides the opportunity for political participation, that opportunity is contested by the intrinsically foreign heritage of the migrant. This introduced the idea that the nature of a regime could dramatically alter the migrant experience. They mention that controversies surrounding international migration, especially in rich democracies, can also affect this experience. But ironically, the adverse responses to immigration tend to serve as catalysts to ethnic responses in migrants, where they learn the ropes of the country in which they reside and aspire towards membership. Nonetheless, immigrants and their descendants tend to remain socioeconomically and geographically distinct, making ethnicity an effective means of political claims-making and mobilization. Waldinger and Soehl introduce the ‘political opportunity structure (POS)’ as a perspective that proposes that States view people through their immigrant background and this is then used to shape the way immigrants make claims, as well as their social and political identity. Waldinger and Soehl concede that, in principle, POS should analyze the interdependence between migrant political actors and their contexts, but in practice, it tends to ignore how the opportunity structure actually affects claims and identities amongst immigrants.

When looked at from the viewpoint of the receiving society, Waldinger and Soehl affirm that international migration imports a foreign element that generally remains outside the polity. This was referred to as ‘the sending context’ in the article. Furthermore, they suggest that even though cross-border connections are strong initially, as migrants begin to possess and achieve rights and resources that they previously did not have access to, the pressure to detach from home matters intensifies. Nevertheless, many immigrants retain emotional attachments to their home as social identities change slower than social connections are formed.

In conclusion, Waldinger and Soehl summarize the message of their article: cross border movements are propelled by a desire to get ahead and access resources and this movement (migration) changes the location of the movers. These immigrants start off outside the polity in their new country and try to engage in emigrant politics — lobbying host states on behalf of home states and participating in home state elections. In response to this, politics of emigration involve resolving the problems of citizens living abroad or reconnecting emigrants to the place they came from. They close out the article affirming that no one can escape the political consequences generated by movements across state borders and by emphasizing the fact that the political sociology of migration needs to be studied further.

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Waldinger, R. D, & Soehl, T. (2010). The Political Sociology of International Migration: Borders, Boundaries, Rights and Politics. UCLA: International Institute. Retrieved from

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Chidera Olalere is a student at Scarborough College studying the International Baccalaureate programme. She is author and creator of Dera’s Diary, an online blog exploring social issues on a personal and societal level.

Originally published at on April 20, 2022.