Migrations and Cultures: A World View

Migrations and Cultures: A World View

Vecoli, Rudolph J

Migrations and Cultures: A World View. By Thomas Sowell. New York: Basic Books, 1996. Pp. 516. $30.00.


University of Minnesota

In previous writings, Thomas Sowell has addressed the issue of the comparative economic success of immigrant/ethnic groups in the United States. In this ambitious work, which spans centuries and continents, he pursues the same theme on a global scale. Although describing this project as carried out over the course of twelve years and supported by grants totaling a half million dollars, Sowell arrives at conclusions identical to those which he first advanced in his Race and Economics (1975). In a nutshell, his thesis is that the “human capital” (skills, values, work habits) immigrants bring with them is decisive in determining their economic fates in lands of settlement. Such human capital is not a product of race (biological inheritance), but a consequence of the environmental and historical forces which shape the cultures of various peoples. Because of variations in these cultural endowments, differences in patterns of economic adaptation and achievement result.

Sowell expounds, documents, and reiterates this thesis in almost 400 pages of text. Chapters on the migrations of Germans, Japanese, Italians, Chinese, Jews, and Indians comprise the bulk of the book. These capsule histories are informative for anyone who wishes to have an overview of the respective migratory histories. However, the reader is advised that Migrations and Cultures is based on secondary literature which is not always the most current or critically read. For a more comprehensive and authoritative treatment, one is referred to The Cambridge Survey of World Migration (1995), edited by Robin Cohen (Sowell does not refer to this basic source).

Although conceived of as a comparative study, comparisons of the experiences of the various groups are not carried out rigorously. Rather, Sowell offers impressionistic observations regarding patterns which he perceives to be common among them. Given his initial query (why do some ethnic groups prosper in new lands while others do not?), he seeks to identify the factors which contribute to economic success. The migrants’ human capital (entrepreneurial skills, frugality, industriousness, sobriety, positive attitude toward education) eventually enabled them to prevail over adversity and attain higher levels of well-being than indigenous populations. Although all the groups examined were “successful,” Sowell particularly extols the accomplishments of those (Chinese, Jews, and Indians) which fit the model of middleman minorities.” He portrays their typical path to success from peddling to retailing to commercial/industrial enterprise, followed by the pursuit of higher education and professional occupations of succeeding generations. Sowell notes that such success was not contingent on cultural or biological assimilation or on the achievement of political power. But he also identifies the xenophobia which middleman minorities encountered (because, he argues, of undeserved resentment as exploiters) from other ethnic groups, resulting in punitive policies, discrimination, and violence.

As in Sowell’s earlier writings, his manifest purpose in this work is to demonstrate that the way for American minorities to achieve economic well-being and social acceptance is not through protest politics, but through the practice of what used to be called “the Protestant ethic.” In the final chapter, Sowell’s own ideological agenda, muted in the earlier chapters, becomes explicit in his polemical attack on “cultural relativism” and the “ideological radicals” who propagate such views. In what appears to be thinly-veiled comment on AfricanAmerican leadership, he characterizes cultural relativism as “at best, a polite evasion of otherwise embarrassing differences in performance and, at worst, a distraction from the task of acquiring the requisite human capital behind other people’s good fortune . . .” (p. 378). Sowell’s (Benjamin) Franklinian exhortation, which is at odds with his emphasis upon the influence of geographical and other material conditions on human culture, leaves us with a paradox. Moreover, to this reviewer the author’s advice to eschew politics appears naive and at odds with my reading of how various immigrant groups have historically advanced themselves in American society

Copyright Center for Migration Studies Summer 1998

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