Re-thinking Residential Mobility

In his 1955 classic, Why Families Move, Peter Rossi showed that changes in household structure- such as the birth of a child- often alter people’s housing and neighbourhood preferences and motivate moving to a more suitable dwelling. Much of this residential mobility takes place over surprisingly short distances, with less than one third of British movers relocating more than 10km (Bailey and Livingston 2007).

By demonstrating that moving is a goal-oriented process that is often triggered by demographic events, Rossi’s work has deeply influenced how several generations of scholars have understood and examined residential mobility. This is an important area of applied social research. With roughly 10% of Britons moving every year, understanding why people move can contribute to a raft of public policies, from the planning of services and infrastructure development to forecasting local housing demand.

On the sixtieth anniversary of Why Families Move, it seems appropriate to step back and consider whether we know as much as we think about why people change residence. In the rest of this post I explain how two developments, namely new research evidence and new social realities, require re-thinking and re-examining people’s motivations for residential mobility.

1. New research evidence

Recent studies suggest that it is much trickier than we might expect to identify why people move. Survey data show that some reasons for wanting to move are much more likely to lead to relocation than others. People who want to move for ‘targeted’ reasons like job opportunities or to establish their own household are over twice as likely to move as those who report wanting to move for more ‘diffuse’ reasons relating to area preferences(Coulter and Scott 2015).

Moreover, self-reported reasons for moving are not necessarily stable through time. Many people do not report the same reason for wanting to move as they subsequently report for having actually moved(Coulter and Scott 2015). In part this may be because we need to distinguish factors that enable residential mobility, such as having sufficient income and continuity of employment, from factors that subjectively motivate residential moves (e.g. a desire for more spacious accommodation or a wish to live near a good school) (Morrison and Clark 2011). Enabling factors may not be motivations and vice versa.

Evidence highlighting the complexity of people’s motives for residential mobility suggests that it will be difficult to predict how contemporary changes in demography (e.g. delayed partnership and later fertility), education systems (e.g. increased enrolment in higher education), labour markets (e.g. greater job insecurity or later retirement) and housing systems (e.g. falling rates of homeownership) will interact to impact on residential mobility over the longer term. Researchers are already finding it difficult to explain long-term trends in internal migration rates (Cooke 2013) and predicting future patterns of residential mobility is likely to be equally challenging.

The difficulty of identifying why people move also has implications for survey design. Rather than asking people to choose from a closed list of reasons for having moved, it may be more profitable to use open-ended questions that allow multiple reasons to be reported while also gathering rich data about other events in participants’ family, work and social lives. This will allow analysts to identify, integrate, compare and contrast various enabling and motivating factors to build a more nuanced picture of moving decisions.

2. New contextual realities

Decisions about residential mobility are not made in a contextual vacuum. Changes in social norms and public policies shape who moves, why they move and where they move in ways that are frequently overlooked and often poorly understood.

Grappling with these issues is critical for understanding social inequality in contemporary Britain, where policy interventions are increasingly politicising residential mobility and tying it to broader attempts to reshape the welfare state and the nature of responsible citizenship (Coulter, van Ham and Findlay 2015). On the one hand, some types of move are supported by ‘carrots’ from central government. For example, the Help to Buy scheme provides government backed equity loans and mortgage guarantees to support moving into owner-occupied housing.

At the same time some big policy ‘sticks’ are being used to stimulate other forms of residential mobility. Capping housing benefit support and applying the bedroom tax are two of the most obvious ways in which government has intervened in the residential mobility decisions of poorer households and social tenants in recent years.

Residential mobility decisions are thus influenced by inequalities in social and economic power as well as by individual preferences. This is often neglected by researchers concentrating more on the individual and household level dimensions of moving decisions, or on the impact of objective housing and labour market characteristics like unemployment rates or house prices.

To conclude, new evidence and new realities both challenge researchers to re-consider why people move and how this should be examined. Sixty years after Why Families Move, the time is ripe for demographers to build on Rossi’s insights by re-thinking and re-examining residential mobility in ways that will allow us to better understand, critique and address contemporary social challenges.


Bailey N, Livingston M. 2007. Population Turnover and Area Deprivation. A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. York: JRF.

Cooke, TJ. 2013. Internal migration in decline. The Professional Geographer 65:  664–675.

Coulter R, van Ham M, Findlay AM. 2015. Re-thinking residential mobility: Linking lives through time and space. Progress in Human Geography OnlineFirst.

Coulter R, Scott J. 2015. What motivates residential mobility? Re-examining self-reported reasons for desiring and making residential moves. Population, Space and Place 21: 354-371.

Morrison P, Clark WAV. 2011. Internal migration and employment: Macro flows and micro motives. Environment and Planning A 43: 1948-1964.

Rossi P. 1955. Why Families Move: A study in the Social Psychology of Urban Residential Mobility. Glencoe IL: Free Press.

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Rory Coulter

About Rory Coulter

Rory Coulter is a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. He received his PhD in Geography from the University of St Andrews in 2013. Rory currently holds an ESRC Future Research Leaders award for a project examining the role of families in young adults’ transitions into homeownership. He is also involved in studies of residential mobility preferences and neighbourhood change.

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