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.

THE HEALTH AND HUMAN CAPITAL OF WAR REFUGEES: Evidence from Jewish migrants escaping the Nazis 1940-42

by Matthias Blum (Queen’s University Belfast ) and Claudia Rei (Vanderbilt University)


At Europe’s doorstep, the current refugee crisis poses considerable challenges to world leaders. Whether refugees are believed beneficial or detrimental to future economic prospects, decisions about them are often based on unverified priors and uninformed opinions.

There is a vast body of scholarly work on the economics of international migration. But when it comes to the sensitive topic of war refugees, we usually learn about the overall numbers of the displaced while knowing next to nothing about the human capital of the displaced populations.

Our study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference in London, contributes to this under-researched, and often hard to document, area of international migration based on a newly constructed dataset of war refugees from Europe to the United States after the outbreak of the Second World War.

We analyse holocaust refugees travelling from Lisbon to New York on steam vessels between 1940 and 1942. Temporarily, the war made Lisbon the last major port of departure when all other options had shut down.

Escaping Europe before 1940 was difficult, but there were still several European ports providing regular passenger traffic to the Americas. The expansion of Nazi Germany in 1940 made emigration increasingly difficult and by 1942, it was nearly impossible for Jews to leave Europe due to mass deportations to concentration camps in the east.

The Lisbon migrants were wartime refugees and offer a valuable insight into the larger body of Jewish migrants who left Europe between the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in January 1933 and the invasion of Poland in September 1939.

The majority of migrants in our dataset were Jews from Germany and Poland, but we identify migrants from 17 countries in Europe. We define as refugees all Jewish passengers as well as their non-Jewish family members travelling with them.

Using individual micro-level evidence, we find that regardless of refugee status all migrants were positively selected – that is, they carried a higher level of health and human capital when compared with the populations in their countries of origin. This pattern is stronger for women than men.

Furthermore, refugees and non-refugees in our sample were no different in terms of skills and income level, but they did differ with respect to the timing of the migration decision. Male refugees were more positively selected if they migrated earlier, whereas women migrating earlier were more positively selected regardless of refugee status.

These findings suggest large losses of human capital in Europe, especially from women, since the Nazi arrival in power seven years before the period we analyse in our data.

The civil war in Syria broke out six years ago in March 2011, making the analysis of the late holocaust refugees all the more relevant. Syrian refugees fleeing war today are not just lucky to escape, they are probably also healthier and coming from a higher social background than average in their home country.