Those who stayed: Cultural consequences of the Age of Mass Migration

Det här är ett gästinlägg av Anne Sofie Beck Knudsen, forskare vid Ekonomisk-historiska institutionen vid Lunds universitet.


During the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1920) around a quarter of the Scandinavian populations left to settle New World countries like the United States. The Scandinavian emigration rates were among the highest in the world. In a new working paper I show that these emigrants were of a stronger individualistic spirit than their neighbors who stayed at home. This confirms a well-known hypothesis that people with individualistic cultural values find it easier to say goodbye and abandon existing social networks, because they place a lower value on these.

Furthermore, I find that the mass migration of especially individualistic people changed the composition of the Scandinavian populations in a way that had significant cultural consequences, both then and now. This is due to individualistic traits being passed on from generation to generation, especially within the family, which I show in another paper. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway would thus have been considerably more individualistic and culturally diverse had the waves of mass emigration not taken place.

I collect data on all persons in the Scandinavian populations and those who emigrated from historical population censuses and passenger lists. With this data I can track people from their hometowns to the ships that carried emigrants abroad. In order to measure individualistic values, I look at their first names. The usual quantitative indicators of culture that are based on questionnaires and experiments do not exist historically. Instead, I follow research in sociology and social psychology and derive historical measures of individualism from the uncommonness of first names. First names encode both individual and social identity.

In essence, the commonness of first names can be seen as reflecting the core difference between a collectivistic and individualistic mindset. While a common first name suggests a desire of the name-givers to conform and fit in, an uncommon first name signals independence, originality, and the wish to stand out and differentiate oneself from the surrounding social environment. That a preference for uncommonness of first names reflects individualistic traits is not just a theoretical deduction. American parents that choose less common names for their children motivate this by a desire for the children to be unique and different. In the paper I validate that contemporary first name patterns correlate with better known indicators of individualism such as the one by Hofstede (2001) across countries.

Of course, properties of a first name choice reflect the preferences of the name-givers, and the uncommonness of a first name thus measures the individualism inherited from home. The predetermined nature of first names provides a useful source of identification. I validate the measure using contemporary and historical indicators of individualism.


My data shows that the Scandinavians were more conformist than they are today. In 1880, more than 15% of all Swedish girls and 12% of all Swedish boys were, for example, Anna and Johan. These names also figure as the most popular in other years. Emigrant first names, on the other hand, were different. Of course, there were emigrants named Anna and Johan, but the popular names were much less widespread, and unique names far more common among the emigrants, which can be seen in the figure. This result is not explained by the fact that the emigrants came from areas and cities with different naming traditions, or that they were born in some years where certain names were in fashion. It is also not explained by religiousness, social class, economic prosperity, past migration, gender or sibling number. In addition, it is also not explained by how uncommon one’s last name is, which would reflect a differentness on other parameters. This means that Scandinavians who grew up in individualistic childhood homes ​​were more likely to emigrate later in life.

Further analysis shows that the loss of individualists due emigration has persisted over time. This is because we tend to inherit our cultural values ​​from parents and other role models. Of course, we are not perfect copies of our parents, so the effect diminishes over time. But about 40% of the initial impact of individualistic emigration is still to found today. This means that the Scandinavian population would have been more individualistic if people had not emigrated 100 years ago. It is important to mention that the individualism is on the rise in the period during and after the Age of Mass Migration, just as we expect that it has been in the rest of the world. The Scandinavian countries are also among the most individualistic countries today. Mass emigration, however, appears to have slowed these developments.

Another interesting result I find is that we would have been culturally more alike if the emigration had not taken place. This is due to locations that are initially inhabited by more individualistically minded people experiencing larger out-flows of emigrants and thereby a larger drop in individualism than their collectivistic neighbors. Over time, as these locations become relatively more collectivistic, fewer people emigrate because of their individualistic traits. Instead, when migrant networks abroad are created and a common acceptance and experience with emigration spreads at home, the social cost of migration diminishes and more collectivists are expected to join the migration flows.


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