Ravenstein’s Laws of Migration

Ernest George Ravenstein’s Laws of Migration are based on the data in Census of Great Britain. He was the pioneer demographer who provided the theoretical framework for understanding the spatial movement of migrants. He was a fellow at Royal Geographic Society and presented his paper in 1885 at Statistical Society of England. All other theories of migration are inspired from the Ravenstein’s Laws of Migration.

Ravenstein’s Basic Idea

  • Primarily, he aimed to define the forces and laws which govern the inter-state and intra-state migration.
  • He could not explain the changes in the population size and composition of the United Kingdom through intra-state migration. Therefore, he used birthplace data from the Census of Great Britain (1871 & 1881) to establish the source of immigrants. His endeavor also yielded certain laws which determine the movement of people over space.
  • His central idea lies in the Concept of Absorption and Dispersal.
    • The country of absorption refers to a country which has greater population than the original inhabitants or native population or ethnic citizens. It means that the total population is more than the total number of people who took birth in a country. It is so because a lot of people immigrate to such countries for work, education and lifestyle. Hence, a country of absorption is a destination country.
    • The country of dispersal refers to the country which has a lower population than the original inhabitants or native population. It means that the total population is lower than the total number of people born in a country. It is so because many people emigrate to other countries or states for work, education or socio-political problems. Thus, a country of dispersal is a country of departure.
    • Within a country or state, people move from less favorable areas towards the more favorable areas. For instance, people from rural areas migrate to metropolitan areas for work, education and services.
  • In short, the population flows from the country of dispersal towards the country of absorption.

Laws of Migration by Ravenstein

Based on his study of migratory patterns and analysis of birthplace data, Ravenstein propounded many laws of migration. These laws provide a general explanation of causes and patterns of migration. These laws are relate to the following factors.

1. Migration and Distance

Ravenstein provided two laws concerned with distance.

Fig. 1: Principle of Distance Decay
  • Firstly, he states that the volume of migration experiences Distance Decay. It means that the total number of migrants, between two places, declines with distance. Hence, people migrate more to nearby places and vice-versa as we see in Gravity Model of Migration.
  • Secondly, people prefer large cities while migrating longer distances. It means that although people migrate less to farther places but if they do migrate to farther places, they will migrate to large cities (Fig. 1).

2. Migration by Stages

  • Ravenstein theorized that people migrate in stages.
  • People don’t migrate directly to metropolises from villages.
  • Rather, they first migrate from villages to the small town, from small towns to cities and from cities to the metropolis. Hence, migrants cover the large distance in steps and stages (See Fig. 2).

    Fig. 2: Stepped Migration

3. Streams and Counter-Steams

  • Every stream of migration has a counter-stream of migration.
  • This law suggests that the flow of migration between two places is never unidirectional.
  • If the people emigrate from one place to another, some of those people return. For example, many Indians go to the U.S.A. and Canada but many of them come back to India and establish their own business.

4. Rural-Urban Differential of Migration

  • The rural people have a higher propensity to migrate than the urban dwellers.
  • This law states that the inhabitants of villages have a higher likelihood of migration than the city dwellers. It is so because the cities offer better health services, education and work opportunities than the rural areas.

5. Preponderance of Females Among Short Distance Migrants

  • Women migrate more than men for the short distances.
  • During the industrial revolution in Europe, women used to go to factories and rich neighborhoods for work from nearby rural areas for a short period. Their migration was greater than men for short distances.
  • Similarly in India, women migrate after marriage from their  maternal homes in villages to in-laws’ homes in other villages. Therefore, they also dominate the short distance migration in India.

6. Technology and Migration

  • There is a positive relationship between volume of migration and technological development.
  • This means that the increase in availability of good information regarding educational and work opportunities leads to an increase in migration.
  • Further, the betterment in modes of transport accelerates the flow of migrants between places.

7. Economic Motives are Primary

  • Primary motive of migration is increase in economic welfare. This means that the fundamental reason for any kind of migration is to earn money.
  • If a country is economically poor but socially advanced, a migrant from a socially backward country will not migrate to such a socially advanced country because of lack of economic inducement.
  • For example, Kenya is a socially and culturally rich nation. However, low caste workers from India will not migrate to Kenya because there is no economic inducement.

8. Larger Towns, Greater Immigration

  • Larger towns receive a greater number of migrants. Therefore, the immigration has become the main reason for the expansion of large metropolitan cities.
  • For instance, all the metropolitan cities of the world such as London, New York, Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai etc. grew due to immigration.

Assessment of Ravenstein’s Laws of Migration

Ravenstein’s laws provide a simple and logical explanation of the direction of migration. These laws have certain strengths and weaknesses. 

Strengths of Ravenstein’s Laws

  • We can test some of these laws empirically. For instance, migration between two cities may be analyzed to verify the applicability of distance decay law through birthplace data from Census of India.
  • Although these are eight separate laws, they show a coherent  picture of migration. In simple words, these laws say that people are more likely to migrate to nearby places, primarily for economic motives and better modes of transport and communication accelerate this migration.
  • Ravenstein’s idea on step-by-step migration pattern show the spatial dimension of his laws.

Despite simplicity, rationality and coherence of these laws, there are certain weaknesses of these laws.

Weaknesses of Ravenstein’s Laws

Some of these laws are too general to have practical usage. The over-generalization exposes some weaknesses of these laws which are as following.

  1. Ravenstein’s laws completely ignore geographic reality. In the case of the principle of distance decay, we can only explain the volume of migration between two places when the land is plain. However in reality, there are geographic barriers which may induce a migrant to travel to a farther city. For example, a large river valley in the mountain will discourage the interaction between people living on its left and right banks even if they are very close.
  2. Economic motives do not matter after a certain age and economic stability. A lot of young people achieve financial freedom through investments from a young age. They leave the cities and live off-grid for a peaceful and greener environment. Therefore, economic motives are nullified.
  3. Technology does not only promote migration, it may also discourage it. The improvements in communication technologies eliminate the need to migrate to a large degree.  For instance, people work from home through high speed internet using Zoom, Google Meet etc.
  4. The fast modes of transport enable the workers to commute to longer distances rather than migration. The Mobility Transition Model by Wilbur Zelinsky demonstrates the impact of the modern transport and communication methods on migration in a more nuanced manner.
  5. Preponderance of females in migration flows from rural to urban areas is a western phenomenon. In India, mostly men migrate from rural to urban areas due to patriarchal society.


In short, Ravenstein’s laws of migration laid a strong foundation for building sophisticated migration theories such as Lee’s Intervening Obstacles, Stouffer’s Intervening Opportunities, and Mobility Transition Model by Wilbur Zelinsky. Despite many weaknesses, these laws show the interplay between many factors of migration. These laws were made for 19th century Europe and explain the migratory pattern of that time suitably.