Childbirth, Cash and Culture

An illuminating comparison of two surprisingly similar diasporas

Donald Akenson has produced many fine works on the Irish diaspora. His arguments are complex, but generally Akenson asks us to respect the Irish by avoiding stereotypes of them as an especially blighted, impoverished or sectarian people. Instead, Akenson has argued, there were only minor differences between the experiences of the Irish and of the other peoples who fanned out from Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Akenson offers another version of this position in Ireland, Sweden and the Great European Migration, 1815–1914. The Irish and Swedes, he suggests, were part of a general European pattern—a “larger Great Migration.” Akenson’s insistence that there was nothing exceptional about the Irish experience will surely provoke the ire of the merchants of the Great Famine industry and of cultural fantasies like St. Patrick’s Day parades or the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Furthermore, his argument about the overall similarity of Swedish and Irish migration is fascinating. However, these arguments are not what make reading this book important for most students of history. Ireland, Sweden and the Great European Migration is an important book because of the approach Akenson takes to the study of history and the manner in which this approach shapes his interpretation.

Akenson makes his case by using Swedish historical demographer Sune Åkerman’s model of European migration from 1850 to 1915, a model that shows a roughly bell-shaped curve for the volume of emigration. Akenson argues that Ireland and Sweden went through similar introductory and growth phases of migration until their migration streams reached a point of saturation and began to fall off in a final phase of regression. While there were special aspects that distinguished the Irish from the Swedish case, Akenson argues that they shared enough in common to serve as illustrations of a more general trend. And both suffered cataclysmic economic upheavals at mid century—the Great Famine in Ireland (1845–49) and the Deprivation in Sweden (1867–68). (Ireland was, he notes, apparently unique in that, by the end of the 19th century, it was the only European country to have a smaller total population than it had at the beginning because the net number of people who left the country exceeded the natural increase of the Irish population.)

Ireland and Sweden were both relatively poor, rural countries with low levels of industrialization and labour productivity. Warfare, with its attendant, often catastrophic relocations of people, barely touched either country directly in the 19th century. Both countries generated data sets that, with some cleaning, allow for the study of population and migration. The existence of such data helped foster an impressive literature of micro-studies of communities, economies and populations, upon which much of Akenson’s analysis is based. Perhaps most important for Akenson’s study, there was little interaction between the Irish and Swedish populations and economies, making them “independent observational unit.”

Akenson’s work on the Great Migration reflects his lack of patience with the fads that dominate the discipline of history. The basic patterns of the Great Migration, he points out, were well known to the scholars of the 1950s and ’60s, but, “to our collective embarrassment and perhaps shame,” more recently minted scholars tend to disregard their work. Ours is an age when the buzzwords of research funding are originality and innovation and when we dismiss as derivative work that builds on previous scholarship. History graduate programs across Canada and, likely, most English-language universities throughout the world emphasize their graduate students’ marketing of their thesis findings as brand new, triumphant missives that show all who have gone before the errors of their ways. More established scholars, even if they do not agree with this relentless emphasis on novelty, echo this tendency in their reluctance to acknowledge the works of their predecessors. Such ignorance of what should otherwise be acknowledged as the antecedents of our work means that we overlook important insights. In his discussion of the nature of the migration of Swedish religious sects in the 1840s, for example, Akenson notes that Swedish scholars of the 1960s and ’70s knew of the religious motivations for such movement of people because of the novels of Vilhelm Moberg, “semi–fictional” accounts of “emigrants from the province of Småland in the early 1850s.” The fact that he was a novelist rather than a professional historian meant that Moberg became “He Who Cannot be Named” to later scholars who preferred to think that their analyses were based on rigorous quantitative methodologies and databases rather than derived from the insights of a literary mind steeped in the insights of folklore and ethnology.

Moberg, Akenson implies, deserves to be better remembered because analysis arises from the common sense of our minds rather than from the tools we decide to use in gathering data for our consideration. In this book, Akenson applies his own critical perspective to data gathered over more than a century by various students of Ireland and Sweden on the nature of their economy and population. Respect for previous scholarship is the hallmark of Akenson’s approach, but his respect is not obeisance. Instead, Akenson is more often than not disputatious in his engagement with previous scholarship. But he is never disrespectful or dismissive of others’ work.

Akenson’s respect for the possibilities opened up by previous scholarship, whether the work is, in his opinion, right or wrong, is one valuable element in his approach to the writing of history. The second characteristic of Akenson’s method is his insistence that we pay attention to economic history, and that to do so means that we must find a way to be interested in quantitative history without neglecting the Mobergs who might otherwise so enrich our scholarship. In making this point, Akenson is taking issue with the impact of the “excesses of critical theory” on historical scholarship. Accepting that the insights arising from the methods of literary criticism have benefitted such scholarship, Akenson nevertheless suggests that one impact of critical theory has been the neglect of quantitative methods. This neglect is unfortunate because the aim of counting, Akenson points out, is not to quest for the impossible—the discovery of a “full objective reality”—but rather to discover patterns in the collective experience of the millions of people who left Europe in the 19th century.

Akenson is not suggesting that we can take uncritically either the nature of numbers or the manner in which people have used them to understand migration. Much of his book is a careful consideration of the methodological problems in counting migrants and finding sources of data that might serve as an adequate basis for aspects of migration that had not been directly or carefully monitored at the time. While these discussions are fascinating, the important point in Akenson’s approach is his refusal to conflate quantification in history with the statistical analyses used by economists to model the economy so that they might predict future conditions. Such work often makes assumptions about people’s behaviour, such as they respond rationally to problems of supply and demand in the market. Akenson maintains that historians should not rely on such assumptions; a crucial object of their work is to investigate and explain people’s motivations. In the case of migration, we should not assume that people made choices about leaving or staying based on rational market models of behaviour. Akenson sifts through and recalibrates a massive amount of data generated by previous scholars, but his basic argument is that, while demography establishes the patterns of migration and economic history describes its context, it is the study of culture that explains its dynamics.

The clue to the importance of culture, for Akenson, lies in what he calls the Ó Gráda paradox in Irish history—the observation by Irish historian Cormac Ó Gráda that, despite the significant emigration from Ireland in the pre-Famine years, the severe economic risks of living there meant that it was surprising to see that there were not many more emigrants. Akenson suggests that the Ó Gráda paradox clearly implies that it is wrong to assume that economic matters were the significant motivators in Irish considerations about whether to go, and this is especially clear if we consider Ireland alongside the Swedish case. The economies of both countries were characterized by long-term extensive agricultural and population development undergoing short-term shocks as the rationalization of farming placed more people in the most vulnerable status as largely landless labourers. Despite worsening economic conditions, many people made a conscious decision to remain in their homelands, largely because “they chose to embrace certain cultural values rather than those of neoclassical economic rationality.” For the Irish, the main cultural reason for staying was the simple experience of persistence through what were regularly occurring but limited downturns in agriculture, at least partially through seasonal migration to parts of Britain in the quest for supplementary work. In the Swedish case, state and established church policies discouraged emigration in the belief that it weakened the country. In both countries, culture trumped economics for large portions of the population.

In Ireland, the opportunities for employment or trade in the Newfoundland fishery, the West Indies and North America were “puncture points” through which trickled small streams of migrants who, whether Roman Catholic or Ulster Presbyterian, might have left partially for religious reasons. In Sweden, pietistic challenges to the state-supported Lutheran Church of Sweden from Methodist-inspired Readers or Baptists meant that, up to the 1860s, there were religiously inspired streams of migrants heading for the United States, which they promoted back home largely as a land of opportunity for religious freedom, not for the accumulation of wealth. What was being punctured in both cases were cultures of staying. These puncture points widened into massive holes as a result of the Irish Great Famine and the Swedish Deprivation, which Akenson refers to as “axial moments of stress” on the cultures of both countries. Both were crises of overexpansion of farming on the margins of extensive agricultural development, worsened in the Irish case by the particular problems of potato cultivation. Akenson uses the Swedish comparison as a type of counterfactual analysis for the Irish Famine. He asks whether the loss of population in Ireland would have been so significant if the Famine had been of shorter duration, and finds that it likely would not have been because the extensive emigration from Sweden was triggered by the much shorter Deprivation.

In both Ireland and Sweden, the primary stress was on cultures to stay, which transformed rapidly into cultures of emigration. A mixture of economic and cultural factors influenced the different ways in which the Swedish and Irish populations responded to the axial stress of famine or deprivation. In Sweden, emigration rose significantly, but industrialization provided enough new economic opportunities to prevent a net loss of population by the end of the 19th century. While limited industrial development provided some opportunities in the area of Belfast, Ireland’s economy still largely depended on agricultural development. Emigration contributed to the smaller population in that country at the end of the century, but so too did a cultural phenomenon that was a response to the stress of the famine years: the Irish population was smaller partially because of a new form of church-sanctioned control over reproduction. Whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, Irish families limited their children’s ability to marry and reproduce through strict control of inheritance, keeping the population in balance with local agriculture.

As sensitive as Akenson is to matters of culture in this work, his treatment of reproductive control in Ireland suggests that he is most comfortable in inferring cultural tendencies from aggregate trends in population statistics. Akenson treats these statistics as if they are proxies for nation-states, although he acknowledges that “in saying that ‘Ireland’ did this or did that, I am engaged in the rhetorical convenience of personification.” Akenson accepts that there was, in fact, no “Ireland” when it came to matters such as reproductive strategies, but rather “the sum total of several million decisions by individual human beings and … the interactive and systemic effects these individual decisions had with each other and with the institutions in the society.” Having said this, and despite his obvious commitment to both the importance of individual historical experience and the interpretations of individual scholars, Akenson lapses into presumptions about rather than demonstrations of national behaviour. This is most glaring in his efforts to establish Ireland, and Sweden for that matter, as being as guilty of imperialism as Britain, France or any of the major imperialist powers. Both countries’ economies began to improve, he claims, because the wholesale confiscation of entire continents, of which both Swedish and Irish migration were a crucial part, “meant that they had a true luxury—the luxury of travelling on another man’s wound.”

Akenson refuses to use terms such as capitalism to describe the “system” that caught up millions of Swedes and Irish in a sweep of migration because that would demand more consideration of the differentiation that might be detected among what he otherwise sees as a great lump of “oppressor and exploiters.” In this study of migration, Akenson reduces the essential meaning of the displaced peoples of Europe to the “marching army ants” of Europe who were doing the practical work of “conquering the New Worlds.”

A commitment to the importance of understanding culture in history demands a more nuanced appreciation of difference in the experience of people. However, pointing this out in no way lessens my estimation of the value of this book. While the argument and evidence that Akenson offers about the comparative history of Irish and Swedish migration are fascinating, this book is significant for much more. First, Ireland, Sweden and the Great European Migration is testimony to the importance of respecting the diverse body of scholarship that usually exists in most fields, but that is also often ignored for no better reason than it is old or from a different methodological or theoretical perspective. Second, Akenson demonstrates that it is possible to engage critically and respectfully with works whether one agrees with them or not in the process of developing new perspectives on history. When added to his balancing of demography, economics and culture in the interpretation of migration, these factors make Ireland, Sweden and the Great European Migration a splendid work that will well reward the attention of anyone interested in the practice of history.