The Environment of Human Capital: 6th Global Migration Lecture Provided Fresh Perspective

What happens with skills and expertise, when people settle in a new environment? When societies, companies or administrations value those skills differently? When on the other side, opportunities arise to acquire new, different skills that qualify for an unforeseen career? In the 6th Global Migration Lecture, Heba Gowayed, the Moorman-Simon Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University, presented findings of a comparative ethnography in the US, Canada and Germany.

Interested in migrant families from Syria she met people who were 'skilled or semi-skilled but not highly credentialed'. Perceptions of gender, race and social value in host countries often contribute to an uncanny context. Challenges and opportunities vary inside as well as across countries. She sees migration as a process disruptive of human capital and her comparative approach highlights the specific role of national governance procedures in re-shaping this – or whatever – human capital. Gowayed developed a strong methodology, combining comparative ethnology with a transnational perspective informed by economic sociology in scrutinizing selective processes in specific social configurations. Adding to this, she spent three years to participatively observing more than 50 Syrian migrant families in different countries. In 'Refuge. How the State Shapes Human Potential', a monograph, recently published by Princeton University Press, Gowayed combines these compelling stories (and pictures) about the life of Syrian migrant families in search for a new living with in-depth methodological considerations about what happens with human capital, with skills, abilities and experiences in a different context. Anja Weiss, Chair in Macrosociology and Transnational Processes, University of Duisburg-Essen, who read the book 'breathless like a novel', in her comments appreciated especially this link between a human centered and a structural perspective.

If the lecture, and the book, is a call, it seems to address states who should be aware of the potential but also of the potential of failure of their regulatory power – by incorporation policies, national approaches to social welfare usf. – to structure human capital. Addressing migration of Syrian families in the 'West', Gowayed has developed a theoretical approach with implications beyond that.

One of the stories Gowayed told during the lecture, was about a woman who in Syria had abandoned any idea of a job outside the house and who in the new context after emigration now starts to have an unforeseen job opportunity. Many other stories go the other way around. Skills, certified or not, may melt in the sun in the new labor market puzzle. Walter Benjamin, who emigrated from Nazi Germany, once wrote that it can be an advantage to have less baggage during processes of rapid change.    

Martin Wolf

6th Global Migration Lecture