TRAINS OF THOUGHT: Evidence from Sweden on how railways helped ideas to travel

16 Apr 2019

The role of rail transport in shaping the geography of economic development is widely recognised. New research by Eric Melander shows that its role in enabling the spread of political ideas is equally significant.

His study, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Warwick in April 2019, uses a natural experiment from Swedish history to show that the people’s increased ability to travel was a key driver of the diffusion of engagement in grassroots social movements pushing for democratisation.

In nineteenth century Sweden, as in much of Europe, trade unions, leftist parties, temperance movements and non-state churches were important forces for democratisation and social reform. By 1910, 700,000 Swedes were members of at least one such group, out of a total population of around 5.5 million. At the same time, the Swedish rail network had been developed from just 6,000km in 1881 to 14,000km in 1910.

Swedish social historians, such as Sven Lundkvist, have noted that personal visits by agitators and preachers were important channels for the spread of the new ideas. A key example is August Palm, a notable social democrat and labour activist, who made heavy use of the railways during his extensive ‘agitation travels’. And Swedish political economist and economic historian Eli Heckscher has written about the ‘democratising effect’ of travel in this period.

The new study is the first to test the hypothesised link between railway expansion and the success of these movements formally, using modern economic and statistical techniques.

By analysing a rich dataset, including historical railway maps, information on passenger and freight traffic, census data and archival information on social movement membership in Sweden, the study demonstrates the impact of railway access on the spread and growth of activist organisations. Well-connected towns and cities were more likely to host at least one social movement organisation, and to see more rapid growth in membership numbers.

A key mechanism underlying this result is that railways reduced effective distances between places: the increased ability of individuals to travel and spread their ideas drove the spatial diffusion of movement membership.

The positive impact of rail is only as a result of increased passenger flows to a town or city – freight volumes had no impact, suggesting that it was the mobility of individuals that spread new ideas, not an acceleration of economic activity more broadly.

These findings are important because they shed light on the role played by railways, and by communications technology more broadly, in the diffusion of ideas. Recent work on this topic has focused on the role of social media on short-lived bursts of (extreme) collective action. Research by Daron Acemoglu, Tarek Hassan and Ahmed Tahoun, for example, shows that Twitter shaped protest activity during the Arab Spring.

The new study shows that technology also matters for more broad-based popular engagement in nascent social movements over much longer time horizons. Identifying the importance of technology for the historical spread of democratic ideas can therefore sharpen our understanding of contemporary political events.

Eric Melander

University of Warwick | +4915154118573 |