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Stanford Humanities Center Q&A: Historian Dag Blanck


Immigrant family on ship
Photo Credit: 
"Birgit Ridderstedt & sons" by C. Erik Ridderstedt. Courtesy Southerly Clubs of Stockholm, Sweden.

Dag Blanck, the 2014-15 Ruth Garland Bowes International Visitor at the Stanford Humanities Center, is an historian whose research centers on American immigration history, ethnicity, and the migration of individuals and ideas across the Atlantic in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The visiting historian is director of the Swedish Institute for North American Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden, as well as the academic director of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Illinois.

His recent publications include "A Mixture of People with Different Roots: Swedish Immigrants in the American Ethno-Racial Hierarchies,” in the Journal of American Ethnic History, 33 (Spring 2014); “Travelling Scholars. Swedish Academic Travelers across the Atlantic in the 20th Century” in American Foundations and the European Welfare States (Odense, 2013) and Norwegians and Swedes in the United States - Friends and Neighbors (St. Paul, 2012).

Blanck is currently writing a book that traverses the Swedish and American experience, especially in terms of the social and cultural intersections between the two nations over the past 200 years.

Here, Blanck tells us more about his current work and findings:

What is the focus of your current research? 
I am interested in how countries relate to and influence each other, socially, culturally and politically. These relationships include aspects such as cross-cultural influences and contact zones, cooperation and conflicts, power relations and asymmetries. Empirically, my project focuses on the variety of relationships between the U.S. and Sweden over the past 150 years. I look at issues of migration, such as the place of Sweden and the U.S. in the great trans-Atlantic migration flows of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I also study how images of the two countries have been constructed and used, the flow of political and cultural ideas back and forth across the Atlantic, and issues of American influences in Sweden ("Americanization"). 

What drew you to this topic? 
I did my early work on the migration of Swedes to the U.S. and on the creation of a Swedish-American community here. It then became natural to expand my studies to the larger patterns of contact and focus not only migration of individuals but also that of ideas. This in turn coincided with a movement to "internationalize" both American history and American studies, which sought to place the U.S. and its history in a larger global context. 

In your view, why is it valuable to study this topic? 
It teaches us that what we often see as a national histories or narratives, be they American or Swedish, are often dependent on a larger frameworks outside of individual nations. It is thus important not only to focus on the nation as the unit of analysis, but also to take the larger extra-national contexts into account. 

How are you conducting your research?
I work in fairly traditional ways as an historian in that I do a lot of archival work, use newspapers and different types of printed accounts and descriptions and analyses of both countries. In recent years I have also conducted some interviews. A special dimension of my topic is that it involves using sources and records in both Sweden and the U.S., which means that I need to travel a fair amount. 

What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on? 
Some would be surprised to learn that although Sweden and the U.S. are quite different today in terms of political and social outlooks, there were surprising similarities between the two countries during the decades after the Great Depression. At that time both countries underwent significant changes, including through Roosevelt’s New Deal in the U.S. and the Social Democratic folkhem in Sweden. These two movements resonated closely with each other.