The contribution of J.R. Commons to migration analysis

  • Franklin Obeng-OdoomEmail author


The complexities of migration have exposed fundamental problems in how mainstream economists understand migration and shown the limitations of the neoliberal migration policies typically proposed as panacea to overcome the migration crisis. Therefore, political economy must provide both a critique of and alternative to mainstream economics theories and policies of migration. Yet, while the canon of mainstream migration theories is vast, the radical political economy challenge is relatively undeveloped or narrowly centred on structural Marxist political economy. To broaden the radical challenge to the mainstream, this essay highlights and clarifies a simple institutional economics framework based on the notes provided by J.R. Commons in his 1907 classic: Races and Immigrants in America. Commons’ approach is radically different from the mainstream in terms of its unit, scale, and concept of labour. Grounded in trans-actions rather than homo economicus and multi-scalar and historical instead of mainstream ahistoricism and spatial separatism, this approach does not consider labour as ‘capital’ in which to ‘invest’ to produce more goods or commodity merely to be sold. In turn, its policy orientation is also entirely different. This institutional framework has much in common with the Marxist alternative, for example, in terms of emphasising the class basis of migration. However, it is sufficiently different from the Marxist approach to constitute a distinctive paradigm that can help to better understand and transcend migration. Although the institutional economics framework has major drawbacks, including its sympathies with eugenics or ‘scientific racism’, these problems can be addressed without losing the essence of the approach: offering a critique of and alternatives to mainstream economics while evolving into a full-scale institutional economics migration approach.


Migration Institutions Production Distribution 

JEL Classification

B52 O1 O2 R2 



To Prof. Emeritus Yagi, Editor of EIER, and two EIER anonymous reviewers, I would like to borrow from Commons (1934/1964, p. 4) in saying that, ‘I have gained too much credit for what they got for me’, so I must ‘…at least [be] as scrupulous as possible in giving to them credit for what they have contributed’ by thanking them for very helpful comments on various drafts of this work without implicating them.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Japan Association for Evolutionary Economics 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Built EnvironmentUniversity of Technology SydneySydneyAustralia

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