AJPS Author Summary: Do Rural Migrants Divide Ethnically in the City?

By Tariq Thachil

AJPS - Do Rural Migrants Divide Ethnically in the City?Across the globe, poor villagers are increasingly moving to cities. Yet we continue to know little about the political and social attitudes of burgeoning urban migrant populations. Do village-based ethnic identities continue to divide poor migrants in the city? Or are such differences obscured by shared poverty and class status?

Existing scholarly opinion is sharply divided. Classical theories of modernization expect migrants to quickly break ties with their parochial homelands, and adopt more modern attachments in cosmopolitan cities. Skeptics counter that intense competition between poor migrants for urban jobs and housing will harden ethnic divisions between them. Between these two poles lie arguments predicting intra-class ethnic divisions will neither be uniformly inconsequential nor entrenched. Instead, these divisions will be muted in contexts that trigger a shared identity among poor migrants, but remain salient otherwise.

This paper tests these disparate predications among a large sample of over 3000 poor migrants in urban India. Constructing a large sample of migrants is challenging, given they are mobile, lack fixed urban addresses, hold informal jobs, and circulate between village and city. To overcome these obstacles, I develop a unique worksite-based sampling strategy for surveying migrants at informal labor spot markets at which they assemble to find work.

A vignette-experiment embedded in this survey assesses the salience of intra-class ethnic divisions. Respondents were presented with three vignettes, each centered on a fictitious migrant, whose ethnicity was randomly varied. Respondents were asked to evaluate this migrant with respect to a specific type of interaction: competing with them for work, cooperating with them in sharing housing, and deciding whether to support them as an informal labor market leader. A fourth vignette assessed migrant support for a fictitious local candidate in a destination city election. To ground each vignette in the words and experiences of my informants, I drew on extensive ‘street-ethnography’ conducted at specific migrant labor markets.

Across these arenas, I find intra-class ethnic divisions are neither uniformly irrelevant nor uniformly salient. Instead, ethnic divisions are muted when migrants come into contact with urban political and economic elites who perceive and treat them in shared class terms. However, ethnic divisions remain highly salient when migrants interact away from this unifying elite presence. For example, migrants divide ethnically in their support for an informal migrant leader at their labor market, but not in their support for an urban political candidate.

Theoretically, the situationally variable salience of ethnicity cautions against sweeping portrayals of poor migrant communities as cosmopolitan utopias or hotbeds of ethnic strife. Instead, my study suggests these communities are open to both ethnic and class-based mobilizing strategies in the city. The comparative potential of the framework and findings presented here are aided by the fact that the conditions my informants face – poverty, informality, and spatial concentration into diverse worksites and settlements- are hardly unique to Indian cities. Yet much more must be done. Indeed, this paper concludes by calling for broadening our focus from nativist attitudes towards migrants to the understudied attitudes of migrants themselves.

About the Author: Tariq Thachil is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. His article, “Do Rural Migrants Divide Ethnically in the City?” in now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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