Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron, Meera Balarajan (2011), Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future

Princeton University Press

The aim of this publication is to contribute towards the contemporary discourse on migration policy and to put it in a wider, historical and international context. The point of departure for the analysis is to what extent the increase in international migration flows is to be seen as ‘undesirable’. The main thesis of the book is that advantages of migration outweigh its disadvantages. As Goldin, Cameron and Balarajan show, migration laid out foundations for major civilisations, it links labour markets, has a positive impact on the global economy and contributes to social diversity in receiving states. Moreover, as the authors predict, in the coming decades the West will need migrants more than ever before.

Published in the years of the economic crisis, the books tries to allay the fears of the increased immigration in contemporary societies, as well as to inform the reader about the misconceptions and fears about the consequences of immigration. It offers a broad analysis of migration movements, put in a long-term historical perspective.

The book is arranged into three chronological parts. The first one titled Past depicts the history of long-lasting human migration. It starts with population movements prior to 1500, which are discussed through the prism of general developments in human history, stressing their role in the circulation of ideas and technologies on the one hand, and in establishing economic links between different population clusters in various parts of the globe one the other hand. It perfectly catches the contemporary connection between the role of migrants and the economic growth. The analysis continues with the emergence of the relatively unconstrained massive migration flows until the outbreak of the First World War, when the rise of nationalism and the modern nation states, and the spread of xenophobia resulted in launching restrictive immigration policies.

In the second part (Present), the authors begin with the well-known socio-economic explanations of what motivates people to migrate between countries. They investigate the interdependencies between international migration trends and the contemporary migration policies, which, in comparison to those at the beginning of the 20th century, have launched even greater constraints against free mobility in the era of globalisation, free flow of remittances and information. This part also enters into the debate on the influence of migration on sending and receiving economies. The authors seem to be very convinced of its benefits for all the participants involved. As they summarise, even modest increases in the rate of migration would produce significant gains for the economy. Both rich and poor countries would benefit from increased migration, with developing countries benefiting the most (p. 162).

The last part of the book makes inferences about the future of migration and the level of migration flows, which the authors find likely to be unavoidable. The greater size of migration flows will result from decreasing costs of transportation and, thus, better connectivity and maintenance of migrants’ networks. The authors also argue that demographic considerations play a major role. The demand for both high-skilled and low-skilled workers in lowest-low fertility rate countries such as those in Western Europe, or in rapidly ageing populations such as the U.S. or Western Europe, would stimulate immigration from rapidly growing national populations from Asia and, mainly Africa, towards a more equal distribution of labour force. The book is a manifesto for global and unconstrained migration flows, a risky and unorthodox stance to promote in the years of the global economic recession. It finishes with a five-point agenda that would enable the progressive movement towards the global open borders policy in the future, calling for international cooperation between states, international organisations and various social and political groups (p. 270-281). These are: 1) extending migrants’ transnational rights (portability of pensions and other social and economic benefits, political rights), 2) promoting social and economic advancement of migrants to prevent their social exclusion (recognition of the skills gained in the country of origin, support in learning the language of the receiving state), 3) launching amnesty programmes for undocumented migrants, 4) combating discrimination to ensure migrants have full participation in receiving societies, and 5) improvement in data collection to ensure their consistency and enable comparative analysis.

Exceptional People is rich in relevant statistical data, skilfully presented. The main strength of this book is that it does take into account the impact and the relevance of migration on human development in a long-term historical perspective. The main drawback, however, apart from the lack of a clear general conclusion, is repeating well-known, old reasons for liberal migration policy and stepping short of providing new arguments. For instance, the argument of the positive contribution of migration towards cultural development has been widely known among migration historians and discussed in the works of Dirk Hoerder (2002), Christiane Harzig, Dirk Hoerder and Donna Gabaccia (2009) or Patrick Manning (2005). Economists should not be surprised if they do not find anything new about the economic impact of migration, as the authors mainly summarise the prior findings of George Borjas, Jeffrey G. Williamson, Timothy J. Hatton or Oded Stark, and others. Lastly, the authors seem to neglect the political consequences of mass immigration and the role of migrations in international relations. 

Exceptional People is a well-written, informative piece of work. However, it is rather a compendium for the interested readers to follow up than a new contribution to migration research.


Christiane Harzig, Dirk Hoerder, Donna Gabaccia (2009). What is Migration History. Malden Mass.: Polity Press.

Dirk Hoerder (2002). Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millenium. Durham: Duke University Press.

Patrick Manning (2005). Migration in World History. London: Routledge.

Małgorzata Radomska
Sciences Po – Paris