Theses Doctoral

Vietnam's Rural-to-Urban Migrant Families: Educational and Social Inequalities in a Transitional Society

Sawamoto, Akiko

This dissertation explores the challenges, especially those relating to education and to social marginalization, that are being faced every day by underprivileged migrant families residing in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. It also reveals the coping mechanisms they must devise in order to stay afloat financially in a nation that is rapidly urbanizing and thereby changing at a dizzying speed. Drawing primarily upon my interviews with and observations of migrant families and associated community members, and secondarily upon scholarly and governmental research, this study shows how these families' survival strategies reveal those patterns of resource mobilization that are intimately linked to their social relations to, and ties with, others in the destination area.

In the wake of the economy's marketization that began in the mid-1980s, Vietnam has undergone massive social changes, including a vast upsurge in free migration, an increased bargaining power of cash, and rising levels of social segregation. On the one hand, the advent of the market-oriented economy and nominal relaxation of the state controls over population mobility have opened up new paths down which migrants can pursue economic opportunities in their urban destinations, and have given people on the move some room for negotiation with the state. On the other hand, their status as non-permanent residents of Hanoi has continued to hinder them from gaining access to public services and government-sponsored care, equal to that enjoyed by their permanent-resident counterparts. Perhaps the chief consequence of the latter adverse trend is that migrant children not meeting the financial and/or regulatory conditions that all students are expected to meet if they wish to enter mainstream, formal education are inclined to seek learning opportunities in the other sphere of alternative, informal education. Thus migrant families have essentially been trapped, socioeconomically, in the informal sector; they have little prospect of upward social mobility, and they are compelled to adopt a stance of self-reliance with respect to resource mobilization. Then too, the everyday and governmental discourses that too often portray migrants as being disorderly at best and criminal at worst, and thus as constituting a deleterious social presence, have served not only to vindicate the state's ongoing adherence to the preexisting household-registration system but to disguise its ineffectiveness at managing rural-urban migration and its failure to redress Vietnam's ever-widening social inequalities and increasingly inequitable resource distribution. The permeation of such discourse among the city residents, and its internalization by the migrants themselves, have only served to exacerbate the stigmatization and peripheralizing of migrants.

Serving to at least somewhat counteract the latter negative trend is the migrants' resourcefulness in settling into the city and forming social safety-nets, mutual-aid arrangements often based on sharing the same village of origin. Unfortunately, the social solidarity of village-based relations often goes hand in hand with exclusivity and thus with discrimination against all those who fall outside the inner circles, thereby further distancing the migrants from the mainstream of city life. Ultimately the study points to the need for some structural transformations in the Vietnamese government, changes reflective of the fact that migrants are not mere "social evils" but to the contrary, part and parcel of the state's growth. Only when such steps have been taken will the discourse about migrants shift from vilification to praise or even concern, and will Vietnamese society no longer be "transitional" because it has become inclusive and cohesive.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Sawamoto_columbia_0054D_12142.pdf Sawamoto_columbia_0054D_12142.pdf application/pdf 1.77 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Anthropology and Education
Thesis Advisors
Comitas, Lambros
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014