Ravenstein's Laws of Migration

[T]he inhabitants of the country immediately surrounding a town of rapid growth flock into it; the gaps thus left in the rural population are filled up by migrants from more remote districts, until the attractive force of one of our rapidly growing cities makes its influence felt, step by step, to the most remote corner of the Kingdom [E. G. Ravenstein, quoted in Griggs 1977]1

Ravenstein's Laws of Migration Ravenstein's Laws of Migration

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    People move. We have been doing it since we became a species. We move to the city; we move to the country. We cross the oceans, never to return to our native lands. But why do we do it? Is it just because we are restless? Are we forced to migrate?

    A European geographer named Ravenstein thought he could find the answers by poring over censuses. He counted and mapped the destinations and origins of migrants all over the UK and later in the US and other countries. What he discovered became the basis of migration studies in geography and other social sciences. Keep reading to learn more about the Ravenstein's laws of migration model, examples, and more.

    Ravenstein's Laws of Migration Definition

    Ravenstein published three papers in 1876, 1885, and 1889, in which he set forth several "laws" based on his examination of 1871 and 1881 UK census data. Each paper lists variations of the laws, leading to confusion about how many of them there are. A 1977 synopsis1 by geographer D. B. Grigg helpfully establishes 11 laws, which have become the standard. Some authors list up to 14, but they are all derived from the same works by Ravenstein.

    Ravenstein's Laws of Migration: A set of principles derived from work by 19th-century geographer E.G. Ravenstein. Based on UK census data, they detail the causes of human migration and form the basis for many population geography and demography studies.

    Ravenstein's Laws of Migration Model

    You will sometimes see the laws numbered, but the numbering varies based on which author you read. Referring to "Ravenstein's 5th Law" can therefore be quite confusing if you don't know which Ravenstein source is being referred to. Below, we rely on the work of D. B. Grigg. We comment on whether the Law is still applicable today.

    (1) Most Migrants Go Only Short Distances

    Ravenstein measured migration between UK counties, which showed that 75% of people tended to migrate to the closest place where there was sufficient reason to go. This still holds true in many cases across the world today. Even when the news focuses on international migration, domestic migration, which often isn't well-tracked, usually includes far more people.

    Assessment: Still Relevant

    (2) Migration Goes by Steps (Step-by-Step)

    Ravenstein is responsible for the concept of "Step Migration," whereby migrants move from place to place, working as they go, until they eventually end up somewhere. This existence of this process has been called into question repeatedly but does occur in certain circumstances.

    Assessment: Controversial but Still Relevant

    (3) Long-Distance Migrants Prefer to Go to Big Cities

    Ravenstein concluded that about 25% of migrants went long distances, and they did so without stopping. In general, they left their place of origin and went directly to a city like London or New York. They tended to end up at these places rather than continuing on, which is why many port cities became and perhaps continue to be major migrant destinations.

    Assessment: Still Relevant

    Ravenstein's Laws of Migration, Ellis Island, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Migrants waiting at Ellis Island in 1900

    (4) Migration Flows Produce Counter-Flows

    Ravenstein called these "counter-currents" and showed that in places most people were leaving (emigrants or out-migrants), there were also people moving in (in-migrants), including new residents as well as returnees. This important phenomenon is still being studied.

    Assessment: Still Relevant

    (5) People from Urban Areas Migrate Less than Rural People

    This idea of Ravenstein has been discarded as untenable; his own data could be interpreted the opposite way.

    Assessment: Not Relevant

    (6) Females Migrate More Inside Countries; Males Migrate More Internationally

    This had to do partly with the fact that females in the UK in the late 1800s moved to other places as domestic workers (maids) and also that when they married, they moved to their husband's place of residence, not vice versa. In addition, men were much more likely than women to migrate overseas at the time.

    Assessment: No Longer Relevant as a "Law", but gender diversity in migrant flows should be considered

    (7) Migrants Are Mostly Adults, Not Families

    In the late 1800s UK, migrants tended to be individuals in their 20s and older. In comparison, few family units migrated overseas. Currently, most migrants are 15-35, something often seen in areas where large migrant flows are documented, such as the US-Mexico border.

    Assessment: Still Relevant

    (8) Urban Areas Grow Mostly from In-Migration, not Natural Increase

    In other words, cities added population predominantly because people moved to them, not because there were more people being born than dying.

    The world's urban areas today continue to grow from in-migration. However, while certain cities grow much faster from new migrants than from natural increase, others are the opposite.

    For example, Austin, Texas, has a booming economy and is growing at over 3% a year, while the natural growth rate (for the US on average) is only about 0.4%, meaning over 2.6% of Austin's growth is due to net in-migration (in-migrants minus out-migrants), confirming Ravenstein's law. But Philadelphia, which is only increasing by 0.48% annually, can attribute all but 0.08% of its growth to natural increase.

    India has a 1% natural population growth rate but its fastest growing cities grow between 6% and 8% a year, meaning that almost all growth is from net in-migration. Similarly, China's rate of natural increase is only 0.3%, yet its fastest-growing cities top 5% per year. Lagos, Nigeria, however, is growing at 3.5%, but the rate of natural increase is 2.5%, while Kinshasa, DRC is growing at 4.4% a year, but the natural growth rate is 3.1%.

    Assessment: Still Relevant, but Contextual

    Ravenstein's Laws of Migration, Delhi, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Delhi, the fastest growing large urban area in the world, is a major migrant destination

    (9) Migration Increases as Transport Improves and Economic Opportunity Increases

    Though Ravenstein's data couldn't really prove this, the general idea was that more people moved as trains and ships became more prevalent, faster, and otherwise more desirable, while at the same time more and more jobs were available in urban areas.

    Though this may remain true in some cases, it is worthwhile to remember that massive flows of people moved across the western US long before adequate means of transportation existed. Certain innovations like the railroad helped more people migrate, but in the age of highways, people could commute distances to work that they previously would have had to migrate for, reducing the need for short-distance migration.

    Assessment: Still Relevant, but Highly Contextual

    (10) Migration Is Mostly from Rural Areas to Urban Areas

    This forms the basis of the idea of rural-to-urban migration, which continues to occur on a massive scale across the world. The opposite flow of urban-to-rural is typically quite minimal except when urban areas are devastated by war, natural disasters, or a state policy of moving people to rural areas (e.g., when the Khmer Rouge depopulated Phnom Penh in 1970s Cambodia).

    Assessment: Still Relevant

    (11) People Migrate for Economic Reasons

    Ravenstein didn't mince words here, claiming that people migrated for the pragmatic reason that they needed a job, or a better job, meaning one that paid more money. This is still the major factor in migration flows worldwide, both domestic and international.

    Assessment: Still Relevant

    Overall, then, 9 of the 11 laws still have some relevancy, explaining why they form the bedrock of migration studies.

    Ravenstein's Laws of Migration Example

    Let's look at Austin, Texas, a modern-day boomtown. The state capital and home of the University of Texas, with a burgeoning tech sector, Austin was for a long time a mid-sized US urban area, but in recent decades, it has exploded in growth, with no end in sight. It is now the 11th most populous city and 28th largest metro area; in 2010 it was the 37th largest metro area.

    Ravenstein's Laws of Migration, Austin, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Austin's growing skyline in 2017

    Here are some ways Austin fits Ravenstein's laws:

    • Austin adds 56,340 people every year, of which 33,700 are from the US and mostly from Texas, 6,660 are from outside the US, and the rest are via natural increase (births minus deaths). These numbers support laws (1) and (8).

    • From 2015 to 2019, Austin received 120,625 migrants and had a counter-flow of 93,665 out-migrants (4).

    • While exact data are lacking, economic reasons figure at the top of the reasons why so many are moving to Austin. Texas has the US's largest GDP and Austin's economy is booming; a lower cost of living relative to the number one outside state migrants come from, California; real estate is less expensive than in other states; taxes are lower. These suggest a confirmation of (11) and, partially, (9).

    Strengths of Ravenstein's Laws of Migration

    The numerous strengths of Ravenstein's work are the reason that his principles have become so important.

    Absorption and Dispersion

    Ravenstein's data gathering was focused on determining how many and why people left a place (dispersion) and where they ended up (absorption). This is closely related to and influential on the understanding of push factors and pull factors.

    Influence on Urban Growth and Migration Models

    Ravenstein heavily influenced work that measures and predicts which, where, and how cities grow. The Gravity Model and the concept of Distance Decay can be traced to the Laws, for example, as Ravenstein was the first to provide empirical evidence for them.


    You might think that Ravenstein made sweeping statements, but in reality, you have to read hundreds of pages of text with dense figures and maps to get to his conclusions. He showcased the use of the best available data, providing inspiration to generations of population scholars and planners.

    Weaknesses of Ravenstein's Laws of Migration

    Ravenstein was criticized at the time and then consigned to obscurity, but his work was resuscitated in the 1940s. Nevertheless, one should still be cautious. Here's why:

    • "Laws" is a misleading term as they are neither a form of legislation nor some sort of natural law. They are more properly termed "principles," "patterns," "processes," and so forth. The weakness here is that casual readers may assume these to be natural laws.

    • "Females migrate more than males": this was true in certain places in the 1800s, but should not be taken as a principle (though it has been).

    • The "laws" are confusing in that he was quite loose with the terminology throughout a series of papers, lumping some with others and otherwise confounding migration scholars.

    • In general, though not a weakness of the laws per se, the tendency of people to misapply Ravenstein in an improper context, assuming that the laws are universally applicable, can discredit the laws themselves.

    • Because Ravenstein was biased toward economic reasons and what could be uncovered in the censuses, his laws are not appropriate for a full understanding of migration driven by cultural and political factors. In the 20th century, tens of millions migrated for political reasons during and after major wars, and for cultural reasons as their ethnic groups were targeted in genocides, for example. In reality, the reasons for migration are simultaneously economic (everyone needs a job), political (everywhere has a government), and cultural (everyone has culture).

    Ravenstein's Laws of Migration - Key takeaways

    • E. G Ravenstein's 11 Laws of Migration describe principles governing the dispersion and absorption of migrants.
    • Ravenstein's work lays the foundation for migration studies in geography and demography
    • The main strengths of Ravenstein's work are its influence on major urban population and migration models such as distance decay, the gravity model, and the concepts of absorption and dispersion
    • The main weaknesses of Ravenstein's works are the fact that they were labeled "laws" and the downplaying of the roles of politics and culture in favor of economics.


    1. Grigg, D. B. E. G. Ravenstein and the "laws of migration." Journal of Historical Geography 3(1):41-54. 1997.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ravenstein's Laws of Migration

    What do Ravenstein's laws of migration explain? 

    Ravenstein's laws explain the dynamics of human movements across space; these include reasons why people leave their places and origin and where they tend to migrate to.

    What are Ravenstein's five laws of migration? 

    Griggs derived 11 laws of migration from Ravenstein's work, and other authors have derived other numbers. Ravenstein himself listed 6 laws in his 1889 paper.

    How many laws are there in Ravenstein's laws of migration? 

    Geographer D. B. Grigg derived 11 laws from Ravenstein's three papers written in 1876, 1885, and 1889. Other authors have derived between nine and 14 laws.

    What are the 3 reasons stated by Ravenstein why people migrate? 

    Ravenstein stated that people migrate for economic reasons, to the nearest available place where they can find work, and that females migrate for reasons distinct from those of males. 

    Why are Ravenstein's laws of migration important? 

    Ravenstein's laws are the foundation of modern migration studies in geography, demography, and other fields. They influenced theories of push factors and pull factors, the gravity model, and distance decay.

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