Migration, Creativity, and the Construction of Knowledge

Sketches of unfamiliar animals prepared by a German-American during his travels across the northwestern territories of the United States in 1891. In the nineteenth century, contemporaries often included such drawings of their discoveries in their correspondences with relatives and friends in Europe. Source: Harvard University Houghton Library (HHL), MS Am 1322, Paul Lindau to Henry Villard, July 1, 1891.

Christian Bönsel emigrated to North America in the early 1860s. The move, he later recalled, was not an easy one. America left much to wish for: business appeared perennially depressed, “prices are high,” well-paying jobs always scarce, and the spiritual care of corrupt, “sophistic” ministers seemed like a bad joke. Meanwhile, since ’61 a bloody war was underway. Thousands of young German immigrants who had come to North America so as to avoid becoming cannon fodder in other people’s wars now found themselves serving as foot soldiers in the Union’s armies. Nevertheless, Bönsel declared himself a happy man. In the summer of 1863, he composed a letter in which he assured relatives in Europe that “I have not regretted being here” and that it “is good when you go out in the world, then you learn and see how it goes in the world, it is not like staying with your parents, you have to take care of yourself.”1 In Bönsel’s view, the trials and tribulations of nineteenth-century America were all well worth it. Seeing the world had made him understand things better, had forced him to be independent, to be smarter, and ultimately to know more.

Bönsel’s reflections touch on a theme that I find myself encountering again and again as I read the sources left behind by nineteenth-century migrants in the Atlantic World: namely, the idea that migration enhances an individual’s stock of knowledge. Most emigrants seemed convinced that this was true, and who could really blame them? When they boarded ships that ferried them across the vast Atlantic Ocean they were, in fact, seeing a world that many generations before them could scarcely have imagined. But there was more to Bönsel’s argument than this. In celebrating his ability to “see the world,” he echoed the cosmopolitanism that had undergirded European Enlightenment thought since the eighteenth century. Luminaries like Goethe, for instance, had long urged their contemporaries to wander and explore, both as a means for individual self-improvement and as a way to discover their long-lost sense of national identity. And so, in a century saturated with Enlightenment ideals concerning humanity’s capacity to shape its own destiny, movement was widely celebrated, no matter its challenges, as one of the surest pathways to human progress—or, one might say, toward the expansion of human knowledge.2

Of course, we today have come to understand that the relationship between “seeing the world” and the history of human knowledge is more complicated than that. One major problem is that knowledge is not cumulative: unlike information, one cannot simply have a lot or a little of it. There are many different types of knowledge about the same basic phenomenon, ranging from the deep and specific and provincial to the broad and general and universal. Itinerants like Bönsel might see the world, but they could still fail to grasp its essence. One could go so far as to argue that Christian Bönsel’s knowledge of the world resembled the kind of distant knowledge that actually makes us ignorant rather than enlightened: it is like that distant reading of society that rendered James C. Scott’s “high-modernist” state such a spectacular failure.3 In other words, there is no straight line between mobility and knowledge. On one hand, movement surely improves our stock of knowledge, or at least the amount of information and facts available to us; on the other hand, “seeing the world” can also make us liable to false universalisms and, at its worst, it can lead us to disregard local complexity and nuance. It is why more data is not always better: sometimes—oftentimes—the more information we have, the less we know.

How, then, are we to think about the relationship between migration and knowledge? In mulling over this question, I recently found myself turning to William H. Sewell Jr.—particularly an essay he published in 1992 in the American Journal of Sociology.4 Although that piece is concerned first and foremost with matters of human agency and structure, Sewell nevertheless has a few interesting things to say about knowledge. Specifically, in Sewell’s view knowledge is not something one can accumulate but rather a human trait or characteristic, much like physical strength or dexterity. In any given social context, he argues, individuals use these traits in order to manipulate “resources” in their environment—for example, a hammer or more abstract things like information, skills, or rules. That, in essence, is how we practice agency. Knowledge is therefore best understood as the human ability to think and act creatively:

In ordinary speech one cannot be said to really know a rule simply because one can apply it mechanically to repeated instances of the same case. Whether we are speaking of rules of grammar, mathematics, law, etiquette, or carpentry, the real test of knowing a rule is to be able to apply it successfully in unfamiliar cases. Knowledge of a rule or a schema by definition means the ability to transpose or extend it—that is, to apply it creatively.5

It seems to me that there are at least two points worth highlighting in this definition of knowledge. First, knowledge is contingent. It cannot be stored or accumulated; rather, it emerges in practice, in social interaction, in real time. Second, the formation of knowledge requires individuals to cross boundaries, to enter unfamiliar environments that will force some sort of creative response. Both of these points are, I think, useful for defining more clearly the relationship that exists between migration and the history of knowledge. Needless to say, migrants are by definition boundary crossers. By virtue of their movement through space, they belong to a subset of the population that is much more likely than other subsets to find itself confronted with unfamiliar environments. To migrate, then, could mean to act creatively, and hence to develop new knowledge. Of course, not all migrants cross boundaries in the sense of entering an unfamiliar environment; they may, for instance, return to places they already know. Likewise, “sedentary” individuals are not necessarily precluded from knowledge creation; after all, they cross the temporal boundary, and in so doing they, too, must make creative decisions that could generate new knowledge.

So, when Christian Bönsel bragged that in America he could “learn and see how it goes in the world,” he was indeed constructing knowledge. Which is to say: he was discovering how familiar practices and rules and skills and information might be applied in unfamiliar, novel ways. In America he learned, for instance, what money really was and how it worked, given that in the United States—ever since the introduction of fiat money in 1862—people dealt in “paper money” whose value derived from faith in the union rather than gold or silver or copper in a bank. He learned to apply his skills in a variety of occupations, learned that if you did not like your station you might simply pack up and move 1,000 miles further west. He learned what family and home really meant in a country as immense as the United States; who counted as friends and who did not in a land where fraud “is much bigger than in Germany”; why powers of attorney were necessary to carry out what were, in fact, quite familiar and basic transactions he already understood and knew about. And he began to better understand the meaning of faith because America was a place where children could be baptized “whenever you want.”6

In all these ways, then, Bönsel became more “knowledgeable.” His emigration to North America played a key role in this process, though not in the sense that we often presume. After all, it was not that Bönsel learned entirely new things about the world: rather, his movement through space compelled him to see old skills and rules and assumptions in a new light.

A power-of-attorney document. Many immigrants in the United States had to provide such documents to relatives back in Europe so these relatives could handle legal disputes in the migrants’ absence. Source: Hessisches Staatsarchiv Darmstadt (HStAD), G 28 F4486, Gottlieb Wagner, June 18, 1869.

Benjamin Hein is assistant professor of History at Brown University. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled The Migrant’s Spirit: Germany’s Rise to Economic Power in an Age of Transatlantic Migration.


  1. Christian Bönsel’s correspondence can be found in the Tavenrath/Boensel series of the emigrant letter collection currently administered by the Gotha Research Library (henceforth GRL) of the University of Erfurt, Germany. Cited here: Bönsel’s letter to his parents and siblings from July 12, 1863. ↩︎
  2. On Goethe’s thoughts on migration and wandering, see Andrew Cusack, The Wanderer in Nineteenth-Century German Literature: Intellectual History and Cultural Criticism (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008). ↩︎
  3. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). ↩︎
  4. William H. Sewell Jr., "A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation," American Journal of Sociology 98, no. 1 (1992): 1–29. ↩︎
  5. Sewell, "A Theory of Structure,” 9–10. ↩︎
  6. All Bönsel quotes may be found in GRL, Emigrant Letter Collection, Tavenrath/Boensel series. ↩︎
Suggested citation: Benjamin Hein, “Migration, Creativity, and the Construction of Knowledge,” Migrant Knowledge, June 3, 2019, https://migrantknowledge.org/2019/06/03/migration-creativity-and-the-construction-of-knowledge/.