Trains of thought: evidence from Sweden on how railways helped ideas to travel

by Eric Melander (University of Warwick)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.

 

 

Navvies_at_Nybro-Sävsjöström_railway_Sweden
Navvies during work at Nybro-Sävsjöströms Järnväg in Sweden. Standing far right is Oskar Lindahl from Mackamåla outside Målerås. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The role of rail transport in shaping the geography of economic development is widely recognised. My research shows that its role in enabling the spread of political ideas is equally significant.

Using a natural experiment from Swedish history, I find that the increased ability of individuals to travel was a key driver for the spatial diffusion of engagement in grassroots social movements pushing for democratisation.

In nineteenth century Sweden, as in much of Europe, trade unions, leftist parties, temperance movements and non-state churches were important forces for democratisation and social reform. By 1910, 700,000 Swedes were members of at least one such group, out of a total population of around 5.5 million. At the same time, the Swedish rail network had been developed from just 6,000km in 1881 to 14,000km in 1910.

Swedish social historians, such as Sven Lundkvist, have noted that personal visits by agitators and preachers were important channels for the spread of the new ideas. A key example is August Palm, a notable social democrat and labour activist, who made heavy use of the railways during his extensive ‘agitation travels’. And Swedish political economist and economic historian Eli Heckscher has written about the ‘democratising effect’ of travel in this period.

My study is the first to test the hypothesised link between railway expansion and the success of these movements formally, using modern economic and statistical techniques.

By analysing a rich dataset, including historical railway maps, information on passenger and freight traffic, census data and archival information on social movement membership in Sweden, I demonstrate the impact of railway access on the spread and growth of activist organisations. Well-connected towns and cities were more likely to host at least one social movement organisation, and to see more rapid growth in membership numbers.

A key mechanism underlying this result is that railways reduced effective distances between places: the increased ability of individuals to travel and spread their ideas drove the spatial diffusion of movement membership.

The positive impact of rail is only as a result of increased passenger flows to a town or city – freight volumes had no impact, suggesting that it was the mobility of individuals that spread new ideas, not an acceleration of economic activity more broadly.

These findings are important because they shed light on the role played by railways, and by communication technology more broadly, in the diffusion of ideas. Recent work on this topic has focused on the role of social media on short-lived bursts of (extreme) collective action. Research by Daron Acemoglu, Tarek Hassan and Ahmed Tahoun, for example, shows that Twitter shaped protest activity during the Arab Spring.

My study shows that technology also matters for more broad-based popular engagement in nascent social movements over much longer time horizons. Identifying the importance of technology for the historical spread of democratic ideas can therefore sharpen our understanding of contemporary political events.

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