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Michael H. Fisher. Migration: A World History. The New Oxford World History Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xiii + 149 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-976433-4; $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-976434-1.
Reviewed by Stephen Jackson (University of Sioux Falls)
Published on H-Empire (May, 2014)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed
Michael H. Fisher’s Migration: A World History makes a convincing case that “migration history is the core of world history” (p. 125). Fisher, whose earlier work on migration and British rule in India is exceptional (Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain, 1600-1858  and Visions of Mughal India: An Anthology of European Travel Writing ), has created a sweeping panorama of over two hundred thousand years of human migratory history, covering everything from the early migrations out of Africa to the post-Cold War movement of peoples in the global marketplace. This book is impressive in scope, and could serve as an adequate introduction for advanced high school students or for an undergraduate survey course. The breadth and ambition of the work are both its great strength and its fundamental weakness.
The book is divided into five chronologically organized chapters. Fisher does not articulate a reason for the specific periodization, but it is clear that the dates are meant to roughly correspond to important historical events, such as the rise of Islam and the First World War. The most ambitious chapter is the first, which covers all of human history until the year 600 CE. Fisher relies heavily on archaeological evidence throughout this chapter, but switches to recorded history seamlessly when written sources were available. The chapter is almost entirely devoted to a description of events, with very little analysis or theoretical framework to help the reader interpret the broad sweep of events. Fisher’s grasp of the subject is, however, impressive. The author manages to encompass insights from a range of perspectives and academic disciplines while constructing a narrative that marches through hundreds of thousands of years.
Subsequent chapters provide comprehensive coverage of the major trends in human migration throughout recorded history. The second chapter begins with the rise of Islam in the seventh century, and ends with a description of Mexica culture just before the arrival of Hernán Cortés. The most interesting section of this chapter is the discussion of Scandinavian exploration. Fisher provides the example of Harold Sigurdson to put a human face to the wide swath of history that he details in this chapter. The third chapter, covering the period from 1450 to 1770, emphasizes the rise of European empires as the major engines for human migration during these centuries, especially in the Americas. In the fourth chapter, Fisher describes the Atlantic slave trade. Periodization is a problem here because the author chose to place his discussion of Atlantic slavery in the 1750-1914 chapter. This is a curious decision because Atlantic slavery picked up steam in the sixteenth century and was a regular feature of world history by the seventeenth century. Periodization aside, Fisher does a great job of summing up this material for a novice audience.
The final two chapters provide an excellent introduction to the effect of modern states on human migration. Fisher points to several examples where, on the one hand, some states used migration to strengthen their credibility and power. Many states, on the other hand, sought to limit migration to prevent a weakening of their rule. While Fisher acknowledges the importance of states in limiting or encouraging migration, he is not blinded by state boundaries. He provides numerous examples of migratory experiences that were not state-led. Fisher is also very sensitive to issues of colonialism, a major focus in chapters 3, 4, and 5.
Fisher is clearly aware that a novice audience might lose focus while reading this book; to assist students in maintaining interest in this massive topic, he provides examples that illustrate larger themes. In the first chapter, for example, Fisher mentions “Ötzi the Iceman,” whose remains provided archaeologists with a valuable glimpse into prehistoric life. Each chapter has at least one similar exemplar of larger themes. While these were all well chosen and by far the most interesting parts of the narrative, their explanatory value is limited because no individual stories can represent the wide-ranging movements covered in each chapter. Within a few paragraphs after each exemple, the reader has to grapple with an entirely new cast of characters and issues that spurred yet another episode of human migration. At the conclusion of the work, Fisher does provide several helpful resources for further study. The book also includes an excellent list of websites that readers could explore to further delve into various episodes of human migration, and a very short timeline of events that provides some context.
As might be expected, the sheer scope of each chapter in this work is problematic. While the author clearly intended to create a short (the entire work is only 125 pages) narrative that covers a vast topic, the work feels strained at times; each paragraph has to cover far too much ground. Reading an entire chapter is a dizzying experience because there are so many different topics covered in a short space. Fisher’s most profound points, such as his assertion that “the creation of any new nation leads to the fulfillment of the aspirations of some people but the alienation, and often emigration, of others,” is not given adequate attention in the relentless march of events chronicled in the text (p. 110). The vast compendia of topics are often hard to follow, and there is little context between one episode of human migration and the next. The work would have benefited tremendously from more in-chapter organization, including headings and subheadings. Greater organization could have signposted the major trends, events, and people. Putting key terms in bold or posting critical thinking questions would have also strengthened the work’s pedagogical value for the intended audience of advanced high school students.
On balance, this is an impressive work that demonstrates the unbelievably important experience of migration to human history. The work could be a valuable addition to the classroom, but teachers thinking of assigning this work will need to build in some support to help students understand the context for the vast array of topics covered.
. According to the publisher’s website, the purpose of the book is to help Advanced Placement (AP) students gain a working knowledge of the subject. Oxford University Press, “Migration: A World History,” Oup.com. http://global.oup.com/academic/product/migration-9780199764334?q=migration%20a%20world%20history&lang=en&cc=us# (Accessed March 25, 2014).
Citation: Stephen Jackson. Review of Fisher, Michael H., Migration: A World History. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. May, 2014.
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