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David Kyle Ph.D.

David Kyle, Ph.D.
2265 SS&H

Office Hours for SS1 2017 :

  • SS1: Wednesday, 3:30-5:00


  1. Ph.D., 1996. Johns Hopkins University (Sociology)
  2. M.A., Florida International University (Development)
  3. B.A., Loyola University (Psychology)


Curriculum Vitae

I'm interested in why and how people make social and cultural leaps, especially those not entirely explainable through one-dimensional narratives of scientific rationality or, at the other extreme, culturally programmed behavior. My two areas of expertise are human smuggling and creativity, including their broader connections to deep sociocultural histories and ideologies viewed through a comparative lens.

Whether these leaps are considered valuable or deviant, celebrated or criminalized, is of secondary concern as those aspects can rapidly shift, shaped by social and political dynamics that are also not entirely predictable.

This mental mobility beyond status quo expectations, as part of a future-oriented sociocultural dynamic, is often associated with physical mobility or migration, which itself often inspires mental mobility and creative identities.

I approach these questions through studies of some of the riskiest cases of both physical and mental mobility, those in which people step out of their comfort zones with only a partial, contingent plan subject to further improvisation and social interpretation. The activities carried out by a small minority, though common to all human communities, can have outsized disruptive impacts on others, now possibly at national and global levels.

My work in the 1990s and 2000s helped to pioneer research agendas and theorizing on "transnational migration," and "migration merchants" connected to the complex phenomenon of "human smuggling" (a state-centered concept). The latter also blurs into the legal construction and realities of "human trafficking."

Frustrations over the state of the art of interpreting these activities, led me to conceptualize the notion of "cognitive migration" as a way of naming the common ways we move into or occupy a new social role and identity many times before we take the physical leap. I developed this in close collaboration with Finnish sociologist Saara Koikkalainen.

The construction of human smuggling and creativity as we know them have critical implications for social theory, political policies, human rights, and legal constructions. Both can be emancipatory as well as exploitative dimensions, even at the same time, reinforcing institutionalized inequalities and biases. They are also largely labeled as such (that is, a case of "smuggling" or "creativity") by others rather than by the subjects themselves.

To uncover and reinterpret the foundations of creativity as we've come to know it, a topic I've turned to in the past five years, I'm engaged in two inter-related historical and contemporary research agendas with sociologist John Dale: (1) The historical institutional invention and management of "creativity," especially the role of the social sciences applied to business interests and labor management before and during the early Cold War era of the 20th Century; (2) The growth of the measurement of creativity and innovation as new forms of knowledge production and distribution among social entrepreneurs, social impact investors, and activists. This project is based on ongoing research in Mexico, Myanmar, and the United States, among others.

I'm a founding member of the Temporary Migration Cluster at UC Davis, which received a IFHA grant in 2013. "The Mobility and Creativity Nexus" Conference was held at UC Davis on April 8, 2016.

I've taught jazz piano privately for twelve years and perform with improvisational musical groups.


Kyle, David, and John Dale (ms. in preparation). Inventing Creativity: Putting the Imagination to Work During the Managerial Revolution. Under contract with Stanford University Press.

Kyle, David. 2011. Global Human Smuggling: Comparative Perspectives, 2nd Edition (co-edited with Rey Koslowski). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kyle, David. 2000. Transnational Peasants: Migrations, Networks, and Ethnicity in Andean Ecuador. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Recent articles

2017. “The Risky Business of Transformation: Social Enterprise in Myanmar’s Emerging Democracy,” in Melissa Crouch (ed), The Business of Transition: Law Reform, Development and Economics in Myanmar. Cambridge University Press.

2016. (with John Dale) “Smart Humanitarianism: Re-imagining Human Rights in the Age of Enterprise.”  Critical Sociology 42 (6): 783-797.

2015. (with Saara Koikkalainen) "Imagining Mobility: The Prospective Cognition Question in Migration Research," Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

2015. (with John Dale). "Smart Transitions? Foreign Investment, Disruptive Technology, and Democratic Reform in Myanmar," Social Research. Link to article:


  • SOC 138, Economic Sociology
  • SOC 1, Introduction to Sociology (Creativity Edition)
  • SOC/ IRE 104 International Mobility
  • SOC 195/295 Sociology of Creativity


David Kyle Response to ISS Interview Questions

about “Cognitive Migration” Concept

January 7, 2016

1. Your recently published article on cognitive migration is the outgrowth of several years of research. How did you first become interested in this topic and did your research questions change over time?

I’ve been intrigued by a mystery. Why do entire communities and regions empty out to faraway lands in ways not entirely explained by rational self-interest, even risking death, imprisonment, and enslavement by traffickers, though they are not “refugees” or the poorest of the poor. In contrast, millions of people who “should” leave according to conventional social science models, do not. I kept coming back to the notion that many of our big decisions may be best described as the “mind” moving many times over before we bring the body along, thus often making the actual move only a single step in a much longer and complex process than we have allowed. However, this is not a purely psychological process of individual brains, but rather best described as the intersection of cognition and culture.

The concept of “cognitive migration” is an attempt to sensitize us to the crossing of the mental threshold in which we begin to move from mere imagination--though a highly problematic construct debated for centuries--to making a place feel real, not unlike the Star Trek Holodeck. We are not talking about brainstorming to generate many options and then weigh them in our minds, or, on the other hand, simply fantasizing as entertainment, but rather the move to new beliefs about one’s future self. The process is best characterized as mentally experimenting with the physical, social and emotional details of a specific future time and place. This is a process that becomes self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling, more like imagining the behavior of Captain Kirk, who relentlessly pursues a hunch, in contrast to Spock’s logical thinking, sticking with the Star Trek analogy. Of course, Kirk still recognizes the value of Spock’s objectivity, just as we all constantly find this tension within ourselves, and with each other, when making consequential leaps. These are not either/or propositions of reason vs. imagination, but rather a series of complex rehearsals, trial runs, and mental experiments before the “real decision” and it’s more simple, after-the-fact cover story.

2. What was your most surprising or exciting research finding?

Most surprising? We leave in order to stay. It’s a truism that we take leaps based on perceptions of a future change in status we find desirable, but for most of us a particular adventure is perceived as compelling only as long as we get to keep those things we value from the origin location, and not sever our ties and identities. Our ability to recreate ongoing lifestyles in the destination is critical, not just changing them in some radically different way for self-improvement, though we may emphasize those parts for social acceptance. We might say that we are imagining ourselves in this future status as being able to continue to retain the status and feelings we enjoy from existing social ties. Paradoxically, much of our cognitive migration imagines how we might leave with our bodies without fully leaving the connections and identities of home. In imagining our future selves, we must also imagine a new, yet to be, past. There is a difference between imagining past and future states; we are much more sanguine about future states than we are about past events employing memory-as-belief. Thus, very localized micro-cultures may offer collective narratives and new organizations that don’t just inflate the possibility of success abroad but also the consequences for failure as either a stayer or a mover.

3. Migration studies is inherently interdisciplinary, but your article levels criticism at social psychologists for not engaging in these ongoing interdisciplinary debates. How does your research on cognitive migration engage this wider community of scholars?

We’re not taking social psychologists to task, only observing that some of their findings relevant to migration studies are mostly unknown among migration researchers, who, nonetheless, tend to believe ourselves to be ecumenical and pragmatic even though our methods tend to shape the ultimate research design; function following form.

4. You and your co-author, Saara Koikkalainen, argued for more empirical research on imagination and prospective thinking. For the benefit of graduate students working across the social sciences and humanities, what might that research look like?

More than anything, what this looks like is a focus on those who do not take the path under consideration without assuming a “choice” was made or considered and foreclosed. In migration studies, over the decades, the categories and biases of state interests via funding and data on migrants have shaped our ultimate findings and perspectives in insidious ways, though allowing us to be, nonetheless, highly productive as institutional scholars. Our institutions, shaped by managerial models of wringing out value for status in a knowledge economy, have nearly required it.

Fortunately, this is not the case for a new generation of social science researchers, especially at UC Davis, who creatively combine traditional and innovative methods, often exploring new technologies of inquiry, such as various kinds of big data generated by cellphones, the exploration of massive digitized archives, or seek collaborations and ideas that are much more diverse than those of the past. As technology continues to advance toward a future world filled with Holodeck-like technology, this will further deepen researchers’ needs for both highly quantitative approaches, using the residual data it generates, but also highly imaginative, qualitative and historically sensitive studies that might employ this immersive virtual reality experimentally within mobility studies of mind and body. Will traditional migration of bodies even be necessary, as some claim? Or will this blurring of cognitive and physical migration lead to more bodily travel and resettlement based on an expansive sense of “home”? Certainly, the stakes are no longer academic as mobility and its wider connection to notions of freedom will touch everyone in coming decades.

5. Can the concept of cognitive migration be mapped back in time onto historical communities? For example, some seventeenth century Puritan migrants to the New World based their decision to emigrate on randomly selected passages from the Bible in order to divine the will of God. Is it reasonable for a historian or historical sociologist to apply cognitive migration to interpret this phenomenon?

This concept supports more non-Whiggish histories that don’t presume linear progress, while also sensitizing us to a phenomenon that suggests how we all engage in some version of the random selection of a Bible passage, though we may emphasize how we rationally pursued the dream as an exercise in intelligent problem-solving. The Puritans used the latest transportation technologies of their day as moral entrepreneurs.

If we search for rationality after-the-fact, we nearly always find it, though still somehow not capturing the wider cultural logic at play.  As economist Vilfredo Pareto observed, we need to be cautious about forcing logic onto aspects of our goal-seeking behavior that fundamentally lie outside of this rational capacity, though nonetheless forming recurring patterns and integral to intentional movements. As an historical sociologist, it is interesting to note how, in hindsight, we look at the machine age of the inter-war years as, on the one hand, a celebration of a presumed neutral science of efficient technology and logical systems that would reshape all aspects of their lives, while, on the other, often entirely subsumed within a particularly horrifying collective vision of their future selves and society based on the “science” of Eugenics and the promise of institutional synchronicity and technological superiority offered by fascism.

6. How might cognitive migration work in transitory populations, such as pastoralists and gatherer-hunter societies? If mental time travel has hardwired humans for historical thinking, is cognitive migration an evolutionary adaptation to an ever-changing natural environment?

To the extent we need the capacity to engage in both creative and critical thinking when our bodies, if not our lives, are on the line, the “imagination” is rightly celebrated as a unique capacity of the “knowing ape” to see around corners and act collectively well in advance of a threat or opportunity. But we should be careful to note that it is this same feature that allows us to radically step out of evolutionary processes based in our biology and has not always been viewed as a positive or helpful aspect for individuals or communities. We currently live in a time in which the imaginative creative disruption of everything is at its dynamic zenith, but this has not been the case for most of our history, perhaps for good reason. What happens when the threat or opportunity is itself imagined in ways far from reality or simply too narrowly defined? Flint, Michigan, saved a lot of money on their water bill a few years ago in what I’m sure was seen as a creative and successful solution, but now the national guard is having to handout water bottles due to lead contamination that could have been known at the time. The selectivity biases do not go away automatically with advanced education and technology nor with collective visioning workshops.

7. How did this project inspire your current book length project on creativity?

We live in a world in which imaginative leaps of logic and their rapid realizations (no matter the externalities) are encouraged widely as a kind of normative Zeitgeist, and, yet, more risky than ever for those not already part of a new power elite or at the controls of the digital dashboards—I find this fascinating, a little frightening, and an historical oddity to be understood. For a small minority with the security of their social and financial perches, failures equal success and the sign of an innovator, while for the vast majority, small missteps or stumbles along career paths, often with hurdles in front of them before they are out of the gate, can spell near oblivion within the ideology of an ersatz meritocracy and people treated as commodity futures worthy of investment. How did this happen? What does it mean for our quality of life and the knowledge that comes out of this system? To what extent will “machine talent” alter or deepen these cognitive cultures of creative capitalism that seem magical, and, nonetheless, perfectly functional with high levels of inequality? These are the questions that drive a kind of archeology of the present with my collaborator, John Da


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