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Culture, Cities and Migration Flows

An interconnected triad

BOP Associate Ulrike Chouguley on what we know about the cultural and social connections between world cities

As part of my PhD research, which builds on BOP’s World Cities Culture Report, I’ve recently been looking at whether it is possible to discern a network of global cities from a cultural perspective. I am interested in knowing which places are connected to each other, whether they’re the same as in the world of finance, and how these connections come about.

One way to address this question is to look at flows of people. Migration has become a reality for many and on a much larger scale than in the past. Not uncommonly, people do not only migrate to the next big city, but to a different continent altogether. Migration matters as people are one of the most important vehicles of cultural exchange. Examples of this abound – from centuries ago, where Asian traders brought porcelain and spices to other countries which influenced local cuisines and eating habits; to European empires shaping the look of architecture in their colonies; or media companies today investing in cable TV providers in foreign markets based on the size of particular diasporic communities.

A great data visualisation tool on migration flows – based on UN data – was published this year by the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital and it’s a goldmine of interesting facts. With a bit of thought, one might have guessed that the single largest migration flow between 2005 and 2010 was from Mexico to the USA (1.9 million people), but it would be harder to have guessed the next largest migration, which was from India to UAE (1.1 million people).

You can find lots more details here but there are broadly three trends emerging from the data:

What this shows is that economic considerations are only one factor when migrants make the decision to move. Others factors, such as immigration laws, colonial ties, geographic proximity and cultural factors (e.g. language, religion, shared cultural values and norms) all play a role too.

  • The largest migration flows are ‘regional’ (e.g. within the African continent)
  • While some migration flows are spatially very focused (e.g. Latin Americans mainly migrate to North America), others cover virtually every region in the world (especially migration in and out of Europe)
  • While ‘regional’ migration is most prominent, long distance migration (especially from poorer to richer countries) is still significant.
  • But what about my initial question about the cultural city network? In my previous life as a consultant I might have given you a straight answer, but in my new academic persona, I have to say: ‘It’s complex!’ What the data at least suggests is that the cultural city network created by people movements is different, and much larger, than the ‘usual suspects’ included in most global city rankings. For instance, there were significant migration flows from almost every country in Latin America to the US, rather than just from the ‘global economy’ of Brazil.

    In addition to this analysis of people flows, I am planning to look at other types of cultural transactions to get a more definitive answer to my question, so watch this space…