David Kyle

DK headshot

Position Title
Associate Professor

2265 Social Science and Humanities
Office Hours
By appointment.


  • Sociology, Johns Hopkins University
  • International Development, Florida International University
  • Psychology (and Jazz Studies), Loyola University, New Orleans


Since 1986, my research has delved into transnational political movements and networks; an early achievement was describing how a transnational environmental coalition compelled Coca-Cola Foods in Belize to cancel plans for citrus orchards on tropical rainforest land, documented in the "Journal of Belizean Studies" in 1989. This work laid the foundation for my PhD dissertation project "The Transnational Village" (1990-95), which compared communities in two distinct Ecuadorian regions and four communities using surveys, ethnography, and historical analysis. One region headed for New York City to work as undocumented laborers, while the other ranged across multiple continents selling handicrafts and performing music. Few migrants from either region had any intention of permanent immigration and nearly all maintained households in Ecuador. They left so that they could stay. This research led to my 1995 dissertation and the 2000 book, Transnational Peasants.

A key insight from this study was how some communities in one isolated region developed a migration route to New York City, subverting traditional smuggling narratives of “human cargo” with a menu of innovative brokering and “creative accounting” systems that were as entrepreneurial as the other region making and selling handicrafts. This part of the Transnational Village project expanded into a broader examination of “human smuggling” then commonly conceived as simply transnational crime, eventually organizing the initial stages of a global research network that challenged conventional criminological perspectives. This agenda and research network was formally initiated with an edited volume in 2001, culminating recently in the 3rd edition of Global Human Smuggling: Buying Freedom in a Retreating World, co-edited with Luigi Achilli and published in December 2023, featuring nearly all new contributions from scholars worldwide making use of rich empirical studies, further augmenting the discourse on human smuggling's nuances as it touches nearly every aspect of human endeavor and global challenge.

In 2009, I introduced the concept of "cognitive migration" and further elaborated it with Finnish sociologist Dr. Saara Koikkalainen, addressing a gap in the academic understanding of the full range of transnational mobility and, more broadly, riskier life-altering “decision-making.” This theory proposes that before any physical relocation occurs, individuals embark on mental journeys, visualizing potential futures in ways that are fundamental to the process, not merely daydreams on the margins. This framework challenges the conventional view of decision-making as a series of quick, discrete choices, suggesting instead that these mental excursions to specific future places-as-mental states are a critical precursor to tangible actions or inactions. Highlighted through our international presentations, including one at Cambridge University, the notion of cognitive migration has expanded the global dialogue on mobilities, providing insights and organizing work into the complex preparatory mental processes that precede physical moves or other significant forks in the road.

The positive aspects of cognitive migration, a thoroughly social process experienced psychologically as an interior state that then reimagines one’s future social status and wellbeing, is underscored by the influence of third parties--confidantes, mentors, inspirational figures, and institutional authorities, which may initiate and significantly shape these mental journeys with tangible consequences. This dimension of the concept highlights how external guidance can foster, directly or indirectly, resilience and adaptability, enabling individuals to navigate changes more effectively and creatively. It points to the crucial role of supportive networks and social solidarity in enriching the decision-making process even in the face of uncertainty and anxiety, emphasizing cognitive migration's potential role as an internalized behavior of empowerment and foresight modeled by others. We dare to imagine ourselves in unimaginable places and future states with talents we didn't think we had in ways that somehow come to be viewed internally as inviting and enlarging—that is, to be bigger and move closer.

However, the highlighted role of third parties brokering the present with the future also implies a renewed look into the darker aspects of cognitive migrations, particularly the potential for manipulation by those already holding power, formally and informally, whether through hierarchies of dominance, prestige, or a hybrid of the two. My research delves into how these individuals can deploy obfuscating tactics against those perceived as threats, employing psychological and social strategies to disorient and dominate. This manipulation through insidious mobbing behaviors can severely disrupt an individual's sense of self and their perceived place in the world, leading to dire consequences such as self-harm, burnout, and diminished morale for all. Furthermore, it can exacerbate wider social challenges, including workplace conflicts, decreased creative actions and problem-solving, and increased institutional mistrust, potentially influencing both forced and seemingly voluntary resettlements across town or across the planet. Indeed, my original motivation to better understand the high risks taken by migrants who are nonetheless not being “forced” to leave nor welcomed at the destination, still remains a critical and significant focus of this agenda. A critical examination of cognitive migration's fragility when beleaguered unveils the complex, often covert ways in which power is exerted over personal and communal trajectories, emphasizing the profound influence more coopted and distorted mental journeys may have on targeted individuals and censored groups (including gaslighting) as they are compelled to become smaller and move farther away, if not erased.

Other recent work for publication, some of which developed for pedagogical goals, have concerned "the Blingularity" signaling AI-accelerated status anxieties (2016), meritocratic talentism (2018), and "recipes for genius" (2022).

Reviews of Global Human Smuggling: Buying Freedom in a Retreating World:

David Kyle and Luigi Achilli have put together a timely and critical collection that sheds light on the complex economic, criminal, and ultimately social process of migrant smuggling. The book is a must-read for researchers and stakeholders alike.

―Anna Triandafyllidou, Toronto Metropolitan University, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration

This collection by the world's leading researchers shows how and why people pay to evade official migration controls. Global Human Smuggling brings original evidence and a rare voice of calm analysis to a hot topic.

―David FitzGerald, co-author of The Refugee System: A Sociological Approach

This panorama of anti-smuggling policies and practices demonstrates how policy-induced smuggling is. Most host States offer jobs in underground labour markets in non-delocalisable industries (agriculture, care, construction, hospitality), thus reducing labour costs for their employers. States do not facilitate mobility towards those jobs: can they complain that other actors will?

―François Crépeau, McGill University, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants

It is rare to see a volume evolve through editions in this way―new contributors, new approaches, an entirely new iteration. This third edition is not just keeping up with a rapidly changing field, it is setting the agenda. The first edition defined the problem, the second edition updated our understanding, and this third edition is now finding solutions. An invaluable resource.

―Khalid Koser, Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund 

Recent Publications


2023 (with Luigi Achilli). Global Human Smuggling: Buying Freedom in a Retreating World (3rd Ed.), Johns Hopkins University Press.

2001/ 2011 (with Rey Koslowski). Global Human Smuggling: Comparative Perspectives, (1st/ 2nd Eds.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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

Articles/ Chapters

2022 (with Rafi Groslik). “The Recipes of Genius on Chef’s Table,” in A Philosophy of Recipes, Edited by Andrea Borghini. Bloomsbury Publishing.

2019 (with Saara Koikkalainen and Tapio Nykänen). "Imagination, Hope and the Migrant Journey: Iraqi Asylum Seekers Looking for a Future in Europe," International Migration.

2018 (with Saara Koikkalainen and Tanaya Dutta Gupta). "Mobilities and Mindsets:
Locating Imagination in Transnational Migrations," in Felicitas Hillmann et al. (eds.), Trajectories and Imaginaries in Migration: The Migrant Actor in Transnational Space (London: Routledge).

2017 (with John Dale). The risky business of transformation: Social enterprise in Myanmar's emerging democracy, in Melissa Crouch (Ed.) The Business of Reform: Law Reform, Economy and Development 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.


SOC 1/ Introduction to Sociology 

SOC 2/ Self and Society (and Musical Creativity)

SOC 5/ Global Social Change: World in a Cup (global coffee cultures)

SOC 104/ IRE 104 International Mobility

SOC 139/ Corporations and Society

SOC 195/295 Imagining Mobilities, Capitals, and Meritocracies in Social Research


2013 UC Davis IFHA ($450,000) “Managing Temporary Migration” (with four co-investigators).

1997 Early Career Award, Rural Sociological Society