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Learning and Returning: Return Migration of Swedish Engineers from the United States, 1880-1940
Umeå University, Faculty of Arts, Historical Studies.
2003 (English)Doctoral thesis, monograph (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

This thesis examines different aspects of international migration and return migration among Swedish engineers – particularly to and from the United States between 1880 and 1940. The social, geographical, and educational backgrounds of these engineers and their role in diffusing technological knowledge in Sweden in addition to being a possible source of technical development during the country’s second industrial breakthrough is of particular interest.

Swedish engineers were a geographically mobile group. The labour market and contemporary mass emigration from Sweden to North America contributed. However, the ideal emigrating Swedish engineer was, in a Weberian sense, a ”target migrant” who planned to return after a well-defined interval. More than two-thirds of the emigrating engineers later returned to Sweden. International industrial competition was important in the Swedish development nationalism and so was American examples and returning Swedish-Americans. American experience, but also German, was a valuable symbolic capital in what can be identified as an engineering field in line with Bourdieu. The engineers were informed about technical development in the leading industrial countries and this spurred an interest to work with technology that was largely unknown in Sweden at the time. The engineers emigrated to learn the technology and the contemporary spirit in Sweden increased the power and influence of engineers with this experience.

Return rates among engineers differed according to their social, geographical and educational background. Generally speaking, engineers from a high social origin, a high level of education, and born in the larger cities were most prone to return. The social and symbolic capital of these engineers made them attach greater importance to the opportunities on the engineering field. Foreign experience raised engineers with low social origins and levels of education. However those with a higher background and more education classes, who also had foreign experience were the ones who were most likely to reach the level of management.

Four representative companies are studied to examine the role of returning engineers. These are: ASEA (electrical), Sandvikens Järnverks AB (steel and iron), Bolidens Gruv AB (mining) and Bolinders Mekaniska Verkstads AB (engineering industry). The share of returning engineers who filled responsible positions was highest at ASEA. It was somewhat lower at Sandviken. At the other two companies, there were returning engineers in the top management but the source material does not allow for the same kind of systematic study as at the two former. Even if there also was purely technical influence brought about by the returning engineers, the knowledge gained from American companies consisted mainly of how to rationally organise workshops and rolling mills etc. in a more or less Taylorist spirit. Often, these practices were combined with a sense of welfarism that largely also came from the United States. However, it would be an exaggeration to call all these practices American as engineers with experience in Germany also contributed ideas regarding organisation. The technical influence on Sweden was thus a mix in which the United States was most important. In the electrical industry, engineers who had worked in Germany challenged those who returned from the United States while those with experience in Britain contributed to Swedish engineering companies. Engineers who had worked in Norway played a considerable role in the mining industry. It was in the field of steel and iron production Swedish-American engineers were most evident.

The returning engineers filled a large number of key positions in the leading companies in the four industrial branches studied here. The fact that there were several engineers with similar experience acting after a specific pattern ensured they held considerable influence. Returning engineers were most evident in the electrical and engineering industries and least conspicuous in mining although even there a fourth of all managing directors and chief engineers had foreign experience. This pattern clearly points to the returning engineers as being a source of technical development in Sweden during the second industrial breakthrough. As such, they could possibly be considered an historical example of what today is often referred to as ‘brain-gain’.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2003. , 290 p.
Report from the Demographic Data Base, ISSN 0349-5132 ; 22
Keyword [en]
History, emigration, return migration, engineers, technology transfer, Sweden, United States, industrialisation, electrical industry, steel and iron industry, mining, engineering industry
Keyword [sv]
National Category
Research subject
URN: urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-119ISBN: 91-7305-513-1OAI: diva2:140462
Public defence
2003-10-04, Hörsal E, Humanisthuset, Umeå, 10:15
Available from: 2003-10-12 Created: 2003-10-12Bibliographically approved

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