Ravenstein Revisited: The Analysis of Migration, Then and Now

  • Philip Rees School of Geography, University of Leeds
  • Nik Lomax School of Geography, University of Leeds
Keywords: Ravenstein’s laws of migration, Definitions and measures of migration, Migration Flows and counter-flows, Migration and distance, Migration and urbanization, Migration differentials by sex, age, education, socio-economic status and ethnicity, Models of migration flows, Projection models


In 1876, 1885 and 1889, Ernst Ravenstein, an Anglo-German geographer, published papers on internal and international migration in Britain, Europe and North America. He generalized his findings as “laws of migration”, which have informed subsequent migration research. This paper aims to compare Ravenstein’s approach to investigating migration with how researchers have studied the phenomenon more recently. Ravenstein used lifetime migrant tables for counties from the 1871 and 1881 censuses of the British Isles. Data on lifetime migrants are still routinely collected but, because of the indeterminate time interval, they are rarely used to study internal migration. Today, internal migration measures from alternative sources are used to measure internal migration: fixed interval migrant data from censuses and surveys, continuous records of migrations from registers, and “big data” from telecommunications and internet companies.

Ravenstein described and mapped county-level lifetime migration patterns, using the concepts of “absorption” and “dispersion”, using migration rates and net balances. Recently, researchers have used lifetime migrant stocks from consecutive censuses to estimate country to country flows for the world. In the last decade, an Australian-led team has built an international database of internal migration flow data and summary measures. Methods were developed to investigate the modifiable areal unit problem (MAUP), in order to design summary internal migration measures comparable across countries. Indicators of internal migration were produced for countries covering 80 percent of the world’s population.

Ravenstein observed that most migrants moved only short distances, anticipating the development of “gravity” models of migration. Recent studies calibrated the relationship between migration and distance, using gravity models. For mid-19th century Britain, Ravenstein found the dominant direction of internal migration to be towards the “centres of commerce and industry”. Urbanization is still the dominant flow direction in most countries, though, late in the process, suburbanization, counter-urbanization and re-urbanization can occur. Ravenstein focussed on place-specific migration, whereas today researchers describe migration flows using area typologies, seeking spatial generality. Ravenstein said little about migrant attributes except that women migrated more than men. In recent decades, the behaviour of migrants by age, sex, education, ethnicity, social class and partnership status have been studied intensively, using microdata from censuses and surveys.

Knowledge about processes influencing internal and international migration has rarely been built into demographic projections. Scenarios that link migration with sub-national or national inequalities and with climate or environmental change are influencing the design of policies to reduce inequalities or slow global warming.

* This article belongs to a special issue on “Internal Migration as a Driver of Regional Population Change in Europe: Updating Ravenstein”.

How to Cite
Rees, P. and Lomax, N. 2020. Ravenstein Revisited: The Analysis of Migration, Then and Now. Comparative Population Studies. 44, (May 2020).
Research Articles