How has migration shaped our culture?

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Sam Bazzi against a blue background of lines and abstract waves

Associate professor Samuel Bazzi studies the political and cultural legacies of migration — and carries his research over into what he teaches in the classroom

UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) professor Samuel Bazzi is most drawn to research that lies at the intersection of development economics and political economy — and some of his latest research, focusing on how migration within the U.S. has shaped the country’s culture, has recently come into the spotlight. 

The project, which explores the political and cultural legacy of the Other Great Migration — the mass migration of whites from the South in the 20th century — caught the attention of some data journalists at The Economist when it was in its initial draft stages in fall 2021. 

And after the paper was accepted by the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Bazzi and his coauthors reached out to the journalists to share the final version. 

“They responded with enthusiasm, and we worked closely with them for about a week in preparing the data in a way that would be amenable to their readers,” Bazzi said. “This was an exciting opportunity for me to have a large number of non-academic readers engage with my work. And this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it was also perhaps the first time some of my family members who read The Economist believed that I was actually an economist.”

The article illuminated this particular diaspora’s legacy, using the tools of modern empirical social science and offering new insights on the rewiring of the powerful conservative movement as we observe it today. 

“Overall, this was really fun to see, and I hope it contributes to greater public awareness and understanding of how the Southern white diaspora shaped this country,” Bazzi said. 

Bazzi is now working on a complementary paper — “a prequel of sorts,” Bazzi explained — titled “the Confederate Diaspora,” which examines the much-earlier wave of migration out of the American South during and immediately after the Civil War. 

“This migration flow was much smaller in scale than the later Other Great Migration of the 1900s, but it was similarly influential in shaping the trajectory of Confederate culture, including white supremacy and racial animus, after the defeat of the Confederate States during the war,” Bazzi said. 

This new research shows how this Confederate diaspora — and especially former slaveowners therein — helped lay the groundwork for Confederate memorialization and racial norms to become pervasive nationally in the early 20th century. Their influence ran deep into local institutions, which were being forged at a critical juncture of westward expansion, postwar reconciliation and nation building. 

Bazzi and coauthors are planning to give seminar talks on the topic at universities across the U.S. and abroad. 

“My hope is that, like the recently accepted sequel, this paper will reach a wide audience and change the scope of public debate on the legacy of slavery and the Civil War,” Bazzi explained. 

Other research and teaching

Bazzi’s research does not solely focus on domestic political economy. One ongoing research project he’s involved in seeks to understand how the secular state competes with religious actors in the provision of education. 

“This work sheds new light on how mass schooling campaigns affect nation building in diverse societies,” Bazzi said. “Our results offer a new framework for understanding this pervasive feature of state and nation building throughout history and a new window into ongoing conflicts between secular and religious forces in the education sector, which remain salient in rich and poor countries across the world today.”

Bazzi has also studied migration in Indonesia, including work on how income shocks affect international migration flows, how intermediaries affect migration choices and experiences abroad, how skill transferability shapes the productivity effects of migration, and how diversity affects identity formation and conflict in newly settled communities.

“Migration is also a topic on which one cannot simply offer a few lectures; it is simply too important to public policy in both rich and poor countries,” Bazzi said. “That is why I designed a new course on migration and development that I taught for the first time at the school last fall.”

Bazzi incorporated his own research on Indonesian migration, as well as research on a number of other countries, in the migration course, which is designed for second-year GPS students. He also teaches courses on globalization and the macroeconomics of development. 

“The globalization course covers a wide array of topics related to the economics and politics of globalization, while my other course on the macroeconomics of development provides students with the theoretical and empirical tools needed to identify and remedy major bottlenecks to growth and development in low-income countries.” Bazzi explained. 

Bazzi advises all of his students as they work on research projects or papers to “get your hands dirty with data.” 

“The world is now teeming with data everywhere we look, just waiting to be systematized and organized for knowledge creation,” Bazzi said. “Employers of all stripes are looking for hires who are comfortable directly working with data to produce quantitative evidence and who are at ease interpreting it.”

The core quantitative methods sequence of courses is designed to get students to a baseline level of knowledge and practice — but, Bazzi said, the elective courses are where much of the learning-by-doing can happen.

“Don’t shy away from empirical work when given license or requirements to do so in those  elective courses,” Bazzi said. “For those looking to engage in research-based careers, they should go above and beyond the basics and capitalize on every opportunity to produce empirical research papers based on original quantitative analysis.”

A little over two years into his time at the GPS, Bazzi said he feels grateful to have such an incredible body of fellow professors to work alongside. 

“My favorite thing about working at GPS is the amazingly eclectic group of researchers working on topics I deeply care about, ranging from conflict to state capacity to diversity to migration,” Bazzi explained. “I learn so much from my colleagues, and love that I can come to work and talk about the same issues with both political scientists and economists.”

And GPS students, Bazzi noted, bring unparalleled passion and energy to the classroom.

“It is truly rewarding to see students get so invested in class projects that they go way above and beyond what is being asked, and often so far that they are able to teach me something new along the way,” Bazzi said. “This is one of the great joys of teaching, and I relish those opportunities with our motivated and eager students.”

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Virginia S. Watson is the Assistant Director of Communications for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism from Troy University.
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