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This paper will take its cue from recent work in international migration, particularly the writings of Ewa Morawska and Karen O’Reilly, that has explicitly placed structuration theory at its heart in analysing issues of causality. While firmly endorsing this work, I argue that it is possible to further strengthen the use of structuration in international migration studies by paying more attention to certain tenets of strong structuration theory (SST), synthesised with aspects of critical realism. This entails closer engagement with issues of epistemology and methodology, and also a more fine-grained approach to ontological concepts, the relationships between them, and their use in empirical analysis. The device of a ‘theorised contextual frame’ is introduced as a reference point that can be used to systematically evaluate the status and adequacy of individual migration studies. The device combines attention to the structural context or field relevant to a particular migration issue with the systematic focus demanded by a specific research question or objective. In sketching out the structural context, I draw out the relationship between critical realism’s emphasis on plural causal mechanisms or ‘planes of analysis’, and strong structuration theory’s emphasis on clusters of position-practice relations. The device is also designed to highlight the phenomenological and interpretative dimensions within particular causal processes, while insisting that such dimensions need to be grounded within the relevant structural aspects of the contextual frame. Two ideal types of ‘hermeneutic-structural’ text – contextualising and floating – are presented to help sharpen a sense of how to employ the theoretical model to heighten critical awareness of the status and quality of particular research accounts of international migration. Finally, I conduct a close analysis of Ewa Morawska’s recent structuration-inspired account of large-scale migration across the Atlantic from Polish villages in the longue durée from the 1870s to the 1930s. This is undertaken in order to illustrate, clarify and exemplify the strengths of the approach.



Working paper


International Migration Institute

Publication Date




Total pages



theorised contextual frames, hermeneutics, structuration theory