Drivers of location decisions. Bridging quantitative and qualitative analyses
In this section, we integrate our quantitative and qualitative results in order to provide a more comprehensive understanding of locational choice. We do this by cross-checking the motivations for return, which were drawn from the literature, in the quantitative stage with motivations freely expressed during interviews with our respondents. Here it is notable that very similar factors emerge: in particular, job opportunities, amenities and social networks.
Moreover, we have further studied the relative influence of different factors and their interplay by putting them into context. On this subject, there is evidence that some motivations are overwhelmingly more important than others—professional motivations and family ties resonate far more strongly with our interviewees than do locational characteristicsFootnote 10 and while family ties may not have proved statistically significant in the full model, it was a topic to which our interviewees dedicated a great deal of attention to in our discussions. Moreover, the analysis indicates that social networks play a key role in shaping access to opportunities, both in the sending and in the receiving countries. Our findings challenge the idea that locational decisions are linear and support the notion that choice is partly shaped by prior migration experience, life course (path dependence) and partly by unpredictable interactions with contingent factors (serendipity). Contingent factors are filtered by the individual, who then takes migratory decisions based on his or her perception of opportunities and constraints choosing to locate where they ‘feel’ better off rather than where objective conditions suggest they would be. This is consistent with the quantitative results, which showed that the perception of constraints and opportunities was more important than the objective economic conditions in alternative locations.
Within the black box of decision-making: the individual dynamics of the location decision
According to the analysis of our in-depth interviews, locational decisions unfold over time and depend on individual perceptions of external opportunities and constraints. Moreover, they are contingent on past migration and on general life experience, which determine how constraints and opportunities are perceived (see, for instance, Geddie 2010). Serendipity has an important influence, since contingent factors interact with individual agency and lead to unexpected or undesired locational outcomes. This complex interplay between different factors makes migration look more like a ‘trajectory’ than as the linear process supposed by the studies reviewed earlier.
To illustrate this, we can take the story of one respondent, a female currently located in Sardinia who provides evidence that many contingent factors can shape the location decision and their interplay can lead to repeat migration. Her account shows that the presence (or the absence) of social networks can significantly affect migration. In addition, we also see that locational decisions are a matter of individual perception of constraints and opportunities, which can vary over time as a function of new information and life experiences. As a matter of fact, I can say that there was no choice in my decision to return to Sardinia because of my contingent situation. I studied in Florence, continued my studies there [Master’s] and worked there; I spent 15 years of my life in Tuscany. I was very comfortable, it was like home and I liked everything about Florence: opportunities, multicultural environment [...] and also as far as work was concerned it didn’t go too badly. I had my life and I was happy, [I had] friends and business networks. At a certain point of my life, [I made] a series of choices which, if not wrong, were at least untimely. For instance, leaving for a work experience abroad penalized me instead of rewarding me [...].Footnote 11 In short, after a year abroad, she wanted to return to Florence (not to Sardinia), but reintegration in the labour market was very hard since she had partly lost her business networks and since the economic crisis had reduced job opportunities. However, unexpectedly, after six months of unemployment, she was offered a position in Sardinia where she has remained for the last three years. So, despite a sincere desire to return to Florence, she feels bound by work opportunities in Sardinia.
This example is quite peculiar since she is the only interviewee who had never thought of returning to Sardinia after her Master’s. However, her account is insightful since it shows that the migration decision is a nonlinear process. Instead, individual agency interacts with contingent factors, which are specific in place and time. The combination of these can lead to completely unexpected or unwanted location outcomes. For instance, in the above case, work experience abroad (generally seen as a career asset) transformed into a constraint due to the economic crisis. Moreover, leaving Italy, if even for a relatively short time, resulted in a substantial loss of her social networks and therefore reduced the opportunities of reintegration. As a result, she found herself caught between a desire to live in her preferred location and an overriding need to work. Interestingly, and something that is neglected in mainstream migration studies, she highlighted the role serendipity played in determining her migration outcome.
The unpredictability of migration trajectories and their dependence on contingent factors also emerges clearly in the story of a male European public relations specialist currently located in Sardinia. He comments that, on completion of my Master’s in Rome I did an internship in a theatre [...]. I realised that in Rome there were few job opportunities for me. I was in contact with friends in Dublin who convinced me to join them and I spent four very important years there. Afterwards, I kind of got tired of that job and a friend of mine informed me about some job opportunities that were opening in Sardinia.
Footnote 12 So, he eventually returned to Sardinia. In this case, as in others, it is clear how migration can be shaped by contingent factors. Additionally, social networks can be seen as vital linkages to work as we see in his trajectory from Rome to Dublin to Sardinia—always on the advice of friends.
Overall, in these and other examples we find evidence of a decision-making process that is influenced by individual preferences, but constrained by objective limitations. Key here is that the balance between preferences (micro-level) and constraints (macro-level) is mediated by the role played by social networks (meso-level).
Given our findings on the decision-making process, we wondered whether the resulting migration is a permanent or a temporary phenomenon. As we remarked in the literature review, several scholars have argued that highly skilled migration has become more and more temporary. Often the highly skilled have international careers and experience mobility a number of times: for learning, work or personal reasons. In this regard, the concept of ‘brain circulation’ has made its way in migration studies, since it is able to depict the circular and temporary nature of modern migration flows (Baláz et al. 2004; Gaillard and Gaillard 1997; Saxenian 2005). Indeed, given our interviewees’ responses, there is strong evidence of brain circulation as many of them have experienced mobility several times and are willing to be mobile again. Some of those currently located in Sardinia are willing to migrate again; many of those currently located outside Sardinia wish to return; and finally, several interviewees live peripatetically between countries or regions.
As might be expected, being currently located in Sardinia but wishing to leave again is experienced by people who are unhappy with their employment and therefore want to find an alternative occupation elsewhere. Of course, though the willingness to leave does not necessary result in migration, it makes it much more likely. A male researcher in biology provides us an excellent example. Although he has strong personal ties in Sardinia, he is very critical about the local labour market in his field and is planning to migrate abroad: It is really hard [to make up my mind], but I’d like to find a [job] opportunity abroad [...], I have even thought of [moving to] emerging countries like Brazil.Footnote 13 In short, this interviewee wants to leave since he is unsatisfied with his employment and this motivation seems to be stronger than the presence of family and friends in Sardinia.
We also see a cohort of individuals located outside of Sardinia who, through lack of employment, feel forced to migrate yet are bound to the region through strong social and cultural ties. These individuals are ready to return as soon as more favourable professional conditions are found. A female philologist working in Lyon states, I really would have liked to return to Sardinia [on completion of my Master’s], but when I realised that there were more opportunities for pursuing a doctorate in France than in Italy, I opted to stay in France. However, I have done a double Ph.D. programme, French-Italian, since my idea was to complete my doctorate in France and then see if any opportunities presented themselves in Sardinia. I still keep an eye on Sardinia, but I haven’t seen anything encouraging so far [...].Footnote 14 Currently, this interviewee works in France, but still wishes to return to Sardinia for personal reasons. It must be stressed that many others interviewees—almost all of them— tried to return on completion of their studies, but, since they could not find a suitable employment, they were forced to extend their migration. Naturally, as time goes by, the likelihood of returning decreases, since adjustment in the host country increases and bonds to the sending region weaken.
Finally we also encountered a number of respondents for whom living across countries had become the norm due to professional and personal ties in both the destination and sending region/country. About 20 % of our interviewees fell into this category as they repeatedly experienced migration between Sardinia and the country where they studied. These stories are significant as they highlight the very contextual and fluid nature of migration.
In our first example, a male engineer who studied in Spain returned briefly to Sardinia to take the state examination to become a professional engineer and then left again to Barcelona where the economic conditions were good at that time and where he started a long collaboration with an engineering firm. Nevertheless, he also kept strong social ties in Sardinia since his family was there and since he hoped to open his own engineering firm exploiting his social networks in Sardinia. During the peak of the economic crisis, he returned to Sardinia for a couple of years and then left again for Barcelona. Currently, he works both in Sardinia and in Spain. His family is in Sardinia, his girlfriend lives in Barcelona and he is happy living in both. As he states: I believe that in my profession keeping in touch with different societies is important [...]. I do not see why I should only work in Sardinia when the most important design firms work in various continents.Footnote 15
Another example can be found in male architect also located in Barcelona and Sardinia. Upon completion of his Master’s in Barcelona, he tried to ‘keep his feet on both sides’. He wanted to return to Sardinia since that is where his family was, and he also wanted to start his own business there. At the same time, he was attracted by professional opportunities in the more challenging and creative environment of Barcelona. Currently he is professionally tied to both Sardinia and Barcelona and in the future, he says, ‘with some friends [we are] trying to open a [design] studio in Barcelona comprised of people of various nationalities, which gives us contacts in each of our respective countries’.Footnote 16
A final example is provided by a male social scientist, who upon completion of his M&B experience in the Netherlands returned to Sardinia where he felt most at home. Despite his return, his current work activity requires frequent contacts with professional collaborators outside Sardinia. He currently works for the University for Cagliari as a researcher, which brings him into daily communication with colleagues outside of Sardinia. He also collaborates with his brother, who is partner in a firm specialised in solar panel installations. To perform this work, he needs to constantly coordinate his activities with another partner of the firm who is German and lives abroad. When asked about the reason why he values so much exchanging ideas with contacts outside Sardinia, his reply was: [Being connected with people outside Sardinia is important since] it makes it easier to access ideas at the professional and personal levels. It is important to be close to the technological frontier, so every place where there ideas circulate enriches us both professionally and personally. Whatever your job is, you can improve it if you work with others and if these others belong to your broader social networks.Footnote 17
In summary, all of these examples provide evidence of brain circulation. For personal and professional reasons, the lives of these interviewees are currently articulated in multiple geographical locations. There is evidence that having good social networks in multiple countries is a key condition for the occurrence of brain circulation. In fact, social networks provide access to job opportunities that would not otherwise be accessible. To conclude, these examples of brain circulation challenge the idea of migration as a one-off decision and open up new possibilities, in particular for lagging regions, to reap the returns to their investment in human capital, even if proper return migration does not take place. In fact, various studies have provided evidence that highly skilled individuals coming from lagging regions could benefit their sending regions, even if they do not return, through the generation of inward knowledge flows and FDI (see for instance Baláz et al. 2004; Le 2008; Saxenian 2006).