The making of New World individualism and Old World collectivism: international migrants as carriers of cultural values

by Anne Sofie Beck Knudsen (University of Copenhagen)



The Sunday magazine of the New York World appealed to Immigrants with this 1906 cover page celebrating their arrival at Ellis Island.

Although a hotly debated topic, we know surprisingly little of the long-term cultural impact of international migration. Does it boil down to the risk of clashes between different cultures; or do we see cultural changes in migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries along other dimensions as well?

Using novel empirical data, this research documents how past mass migration flows carried values of individualism across the Atlantic ocean from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. This inter-cultural exchange was so significant that its impact is still observed today.

When talking about individualism versus collectivism, this study refers to the emphasis on independence from society that is prevalent in these cultures. With this in mind, it becomes clear why it has a role to play. The act of migration involves leaving familiar surroundings to embark on a journey where you are bound to rely on yourself. An individual with strong ties to the surroundings will be less likely to undergo this act. Collectivists are thus less likely migrate, while the opposite is true for individualists.

To test the idea of individualistic migration and its long-term impact empirically, this research constructs novel indicators of culture, which allow to go back and study the past. It looks at two everyday cultural manifestations: how we name our children; and how we speak our language.

Giving a child commonplace names like ‘John’ reflects parents of a more conformist motivation as they, perhaps unconsciously, are more concerned about their child fitting in rather than standing out. Likewise, the relative use of singular (‘I’, ‘mine’, ‘me’) over plural (‘we’, ‘ours’, us) personal pronouns tells us something about the focus on the individual over the collective.

The study constructs historical indicators of culture from the distribution of names in historical birth registers and from the written language of local newspapers at the time.

With new data in hand, the research can document the prevalence of individualistic migration during the settlement of the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. Among inhabitants of major migrant-sending countries like Norway and Sweden, only those with more uncommon names were more likely actually migrate to. This cultural effect remains even when considering a host of other potential explanations related to economic prospects and family background.

If more individualistic types are more likely to migrate, we would expect to observe an impact on the overall culture of a given location. That is exactly what this research finds. Districts in Sweden and Norway that experienced high emigration flows of people with an individualistic spirit did indeed become more collectivistic – both in terms of child naming trends and in written language pronoun use.

This leaves with the question of whether an impact from this historical event is still visible today. Does international migration have long-term cultural consequences other than the risk of producing cultural clashes?

In this study, this seems to be the case. Scandinavian districts that experience more emigration are still relatively more collectivist today than those that experienced less. Moreover, it is widely agreed that New World countries like the United States are the most individualistic in the world today – a fact that seems to be explained by the type of migrants they once received.

Mortality in economic downturns: unobserved migration can create the false impression that recessions are good for health

by Vellore Arthi (University of Essex), Brian Beach (College of William & Mary), and Walker Hanlon (University of California, Los Angeles)


Are recessions good for health? A number of recent studies suggest that mortality actually goes down during recessions – at least in developed countries, where social safety nets help cushion the blow of unemployment and income loss.

This striking conclusion rests on one of two assumptions: either that people do not respond by migrating away from recession-stricken areas; or that if they move, these population flows can be perfectly measured. But are these assumptions realistic?

Migrant movements can be notoriously difficult to track, and famous episodes such as the Depression-era migration from the US Great Plains to California suggest that these sorts of internal population movements may indeed be a natural response to changes in local economic conditions. This raises the question: what does unaccounted migration mean for our assessment of the recession-mortality relationship?

Our research shows that unobserved migration from recession-stricken regions may actually lead us to underestimate systematically how deadly recessions really are.

To test how migration influences estimates of the relationship between recessions and mortality, we draw on a unique historical natural experiment: the temporary but severe economic downturn in the cotton textile-producing regions of Britain that resulted from the American civil war (1861-65).

The cotton textile industry was England’s largest industrial sector in the second half of the nineteenth century and, prior to the civil war, received the majority of its raw cotton inputs from the American South. The onset of the civil war sharply reduced these supplies, leading to a severe but temporary economic downturn that left several hundred thousand workers unemployed.

Digitising a wealth of historical data on births, deaths and population, and exploiting variation in both the geographical distribution of the British cotton textile industry and the timing of the civil war, we show that standard approaches yield the familiar result: the downturn, popularly termed the ‘cotton famine,’ reduced mortality.

But we also find evidence that migratory responses to this event were substantial, with much of this mobility occurring over short distances, as displaced cotton workers sought opportunities for work in nearby districts.

After making a series of methodological adjustments that account for this recession-induced migration, we show that the sign of the recession-mortality relationship flips: this downturn in fact appears to have been bad for health, raising mortality in both cotton regions and in the regions to which unemployed cotton operatives fled.

After accounting for migration bias, we find that:

  • The civil war-era downturn in the cotton textile regions of Britain increased total mortality in the affected districts
  • But the downturn appears to have led to improved infant and maternal mortality outcomes, probably by freeing up maternal time for breastfeeding, childcare, and other health-improving behaviours.
  • Gains in infant health were offset by large and significant increases in mortality among the elderly.
  • There was no net effect on mortality among working-age adults, who were also the most mobile during the downturn.
  • This outcome appears to have been driven by worsening mortality due to the deteriorating nutrition and living conditions associated with income loss, which was in turn offset by improvements in maternal mortality and by fewer deaths by accidents and violence. (The latter finding is further supported by evidence that alcohol consumption and industrial accident rates fell during the recession.)

Our study provides both a methodological and factual contribution to our understanding of the relationship between recessions and health. The methodological contribution consists of showing that migration undertaken in response to a recession has the potential to introduce substantial bias into estimates of the recession-mortality relationship using the standard approach – particularly if these population flows are not well measured.

This bias is likely to be greater in settings, such as developing countries, where labour forces are more mobile, where weak social safety nets induce migration in response to recessions, and where the intercensal population data used to track these movements are poor. Studies applying the standard approach in these settings are likely to generate misleading results, which may lead to poorly targeted public health responses.

On a factual level, our study also contributes new evidence on the relationship between recessions and mortality in a historical setting, with the implication that studies focused on just one age group, such as infants, may generate results that are not representative of other segments of the population, or indeed of the overall relationship between recessions and mortality.



Constructing Equality? Women’s wages, physical labor, and demand factors in Sweden 1550-1759

by Kathryn E. Gary, PhD candidate, Lund University


Women were important workers in the past, but they are still under-studied and their contributions largely absent from big-picture discussions of historical living standards. This is largely because women’s work remains to some extent a black box, but recent research has both challenged assumptions about how women participated in the paid labor market (c.f. Humphries and Sarasua 2012) and provided data about women’s payment for different kinds of labor (c.f. Humphries and Weisdorf 2015). The current work contributes to both these areas, by creating series of men’s and women’s wages in early modern Sweden, and by exploring both the mechanisms behind the gender gap in pay as well as the conditions under which women enter paid labor, with the goal of better understanding work in the past in general.

Primary data come from unskilled workers in the construction industry in Southern Sweden, predominantly from the towns Malmö and Kalmar; these are combined with published data from Stockholm, also from construction workers (Jansson, Andersson Palm, and Söderberg 1991). All data are for individuals paid by the day; relative wages are simply the percentage of men’s wages that women earn.


Figure 1 shows women’s relative wages from 1550 to 1759. Relative wages are high at the beginning of the period, around 80 percent, and increase to levels of parity in the early 17th century, after which they decline substantially, reaching as low as 40 percent during the end of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. This is a substantial decline over the period of not much more than a generation.
Some relative wage peaks are related to events that change both the demand for and supply of labor. Kalmar was a border town between Sweden and Denmark; from 1611 to 1613 the two countries fought the Kalmar War. Following these years women’s wages peaked, likely due to necessary rebuilding and a shortage in the supply of men. There is a wage spike in the same city following a fire in 1647 – while the national average weighs down the peak values, the deviations are still clear in the series, and when Kalmar is examined individually women’s relative wages peak as high as 1.33.


Table 1: Women’s work days as a percentage of all workdays in Kalmar, 1614-1710


Women’s ability to earn high wages goes against many of our theories about women’s earning potential – women are expected to earn less than men in physical tasks, because women are not as strong as men, and so are less productive physical laborers (Burnette 2008). Other theories suggest that women face constant wage discrimination (c.f. Bardsley 1999) – but this, too, is confounded by women’s ability to out-earn men, and by the large changes in the relative wage series. Something else is happening.

To understand we must look more closely at the data. In Kalmar workers are almost universally identifiable, allowing for deeper examination of the workforce. Table 1 shows the percentage of paid workdays that were worked by women, compared with the total number of paid work days in five year periods. Comparing the proportional feminization of the workforce with the amount of work, we see that the periods with the greatest amount of work are those in which the workforce is the most feminized – these periods are also those during which women’s relative wages are highest (see figure 1).

In combination with the relationship between total paid workdays and women’s relative wages across the whole country (figure 2), we are faced with a pattern that is familiar from the first and second world wars – when labor demand is high, women enter the labor force in higher numbers and are able to command higher wages. There is less evidence that women were systematically paid less either due to discrimination or because of their lower productivity – instead, women are responsive to economic forces, and especially to demand forces.

Figure 2: women’s relative wages and total paid workdays in Sweden, 1550-1759


It is simple to to extend our sense of what is ‘traditional’ deep into the past, and to apply broad categories of ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ work. However, when we are able to suspend our assumptions and dig deeper into the evidence, the data tell a less expected story; women in Sweden worked in physical occupations, alongside men, often for similar wages. They worked especially hard when the need was highest, and women’s wages only fell away from men’s when work became less regular and men and women weren’t employed together.

Accounting for women’s work shifts our understanding of household living standards in the long run, and provides strong evidence for what is intuitively clear: we cannot truly understand the past if we continue to discount the experiences or contribution of half the population.

The full working paper can be read here, and a shorter version from the EHS annual conference is available here.