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Sociological Theories and the Great Emigration
    by Lindsay Lowell (Volume 32: Page 53)

The great emigration from Norway took place in a relatively short span of four decades in the latter half of the nineteenth century. From that time to this, historians, sociologists, economists, geographers, and assorted other experts have pointed to certain factors associated with that phenomenon. Sociologists have devised several theories that explain the exodus by placing it against the larger backdrop of social change taking place at that time: the change from traditional to modern society. These theories purport to specify general factors that caused emigration, not just from Norway, but from almost any nineteenth-century society. Sociologists use specific hypotheses as their point of departure and then examine findings from available studies which support or fail to support each hypothesis. The core of this article is a discussion of the logic of three sociological theories and an examination of recent research that illuminates various hypotheses. Further, the accuracy of each theory’s hypothesis will be tested with a statistical methodology employed to analyze all of Norway’s 535 rural municipalities or communities (herreder) between 1870 and 1905. It is the overlap between the case-study findings and the statistical analysis of all Norwegian communities which permits strong conclusions to be reached as to the value of each competing theory.


Prevailing population theory in the 1960s interpreted emigration as part of the Malthusian drama of too many people for too little land. {1} The population of Norway grew dramatically during the century preceding the mass departure. In the seventeenth century the population of eastern Norway increased over 150 percent, while western Norway experienced an increase ranging from 40 to 80 percent. By 1865, just prior to the start of mass emigration, Norway’s population had experienced a half-century of spectacular and unprecedented growth. High levels of population density became particularly acute in the marginal areas - high mountains, elevated valleys, and the remoter parts of fjord districts. It is no wonder that Norway’s foremost emigration historian, Ingrid Semmingsen, has argued that population pressure was a major reason behind the mass movement. {2}

Of course, Thomas Malthus, early in the century, had little notion of the range of transformations which would occur after his time. Urbanization and modern employment can create jobs and markets for goods which eventually absorb rural excess population. The population pressure mechanism implies a pressure on resources, but few contemporary Neo-Malthusians argue that it was overpopulation alone that was responsible for the emigration. Neo-Malthusians argue that there is a connection between rural population density in traditional societies and a general tightening of economic opportunity as farms and jobs become scarce. They focus on the push created by high density agricultural populations, coupled, in the case of Norway, with a lag in urban development and employment in the modern sector of the economy.

If overpopulation purportedly stimulates emigration, then the creation of non-agricultural jobs, assumed to be associated with increases in the urban population, is required to stop it. Figure 1 is a map of Norway that shows the percentage of all workers employed in non-agricultural secondary, or manufacturing, and tertiary, or service, sectors of rural communities. The statistics for this map are based on official Norwegian census data. {3} The map presents the major subregions of Norway as they are typically delineated. {4} Here there is evidence that growth in non-agricultural employment was indeed somewhat slow between 1875 and 1890, although there were especially great concentrations of secondary employment in the south central and Oslo regions. In the Norwegian South there was a large concentration of tertiary employment associated with the role of shipping, mainly wooden sailing craft, in the region.{5}

Figure 1

Fig. 1. Employment in secondary and tertiary sectors, 1875 and 1890.

Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, and Stavanger were the largest cities at that time, and nearby rural areas were influenced by urban demand. {6} Urban proximity created specialized agricultural production which demanded close control over the labor force. These peasants worked on farms where their labor was purchased to a greater extent than elsewhere with wages, and their employment was less seasonal. Although urban proximity should be expected to have a restraining effect on emigration, change and response theory clearly argues that only sufficient levels of non-agricultural employment can offset the necessary population response to rural overcrowding.

Still, if change and response theory is correct, population pressure must have been the primary factor causing emigration. However, many inquiries into the classical explanation have found that the assumption of a Malthusian bind does not adequately explain the magnitude of the departure. At the dawn of the mass emigration in 1865 Norwegian farms showed no signs of excessive fragmentation and for the rest of the century agricultural productivity was to increase. Certainly, the change and response thesis requires modification in light of the fact that while coastal areas in both North Norway and Trøndelag just south of it had the greatest population densities, they also had low rates of emigration.

Other indicators of overpopulation likewise tend to disprove the population-density hypothesis. A comparison of wages in various districts demonstrates no consistent relationship with population density. Indeed, wages were the same in mountainous areas with high emigration and in the market-oriented flatlands: emigration may have even created labor shortages, causing wages to rise. Norway’s agricultural wage was twenty-five percent greater than Sweden’s at the start of mass departure, and Swedish workers found employment in the forests of East Norway. In fact, employment was often high in communities with the greatest emigration, and low farm prices may have reflected a slack demand for land. Ingrid Semmingsen has tempered her original views regarding the importance of overpopulation and has included proletarianization, or loss of status, as an essential element. {7}


Those who question the population pressure thesis focus instead on the structure of peasant society as it was transformed from a traditional to a market economy. From this perspective Norwegian emigrants were less likely fleeing destitution and more likely fleeing changes that were occurring in antiquated sectors of the agricultural economy. Rapid population growth in the early half of the nineteenth century was accompanied by traditional technologies and the extension of arable land. Cultivated land doubled in area between 1820 and 1865; thereafter land extension slowed. The Great Transformation (Det store Hamskiftet) within the rural areas began in 1857 with a law requiring the consolidation of farms. During the last half of the 1800s farming became increasingly market oriented and agricultural productivity made its greatest gains during the peak years of emigration, 1880 to 1900. {8}

The extension of cultivated land was associated with the swelling numbers of the cotter class (husmenn); indeed the proliferation of cotters exceeded that of any group except the freeholding farming class. Family units formed the basis of peasant society and the economic evaluation of goods and labor was for the subsistence of the household together. Cotters contracted with the freehold farmer for a cottage and a small plot of land in return for labor and/or payment, usually in kind. The effect of Norwegian freeholding was such that the farmer was able to determine the structure of the farm. The extension of farm land allowed for more divisions of the household and the creation of more cotter parcels. {9}

Even as late as 1918 just over fifty percent of all Norwegian farms were less than five acres in size. Because farming could not provide a complete subsistence to peasants, members of the family often engaged in activities such as fishing, logging, or animal husbandry. The more traditional the peasant economy and the more reliant on non-wage labor, especially cotters, the greater the resistance to the introduction of agricultural innovations. The established pattern of seeking alternative employment to supplement the family income was pursued by certain family members. Eventually, emigration became an important strategy for peasant families. As a result, workers actually became scarce in some Norwegian districts.

After a period of increase during the first half of the century, the cotters’ ranks were rapidly depleted in the last half of the nineteenth century. The decline of the cotter class is generally thought to have been a result of heavy emigration. Between 1865 and 1900 the total agricultural labor force declined by some 50,000 persons. In 1865 the cotter class alone numbered 50,000. By the turn of the century its numbers declined to less than 25,000. The cotters who remained were mostly old and infirm. {10}
The distribution of cotters throughout Norway and their pattern of regional decline suggests that they played a large role in emigration. That this is true can be seen in Figure 2, which shows the change in the regional concentration of cotters as a percentage of all workers in rural communities. Those districts with the greatest rates of emigration had the largest relative numbers of cotters and the decline of the cotter class in these districts is notable. In the Trøndelag and north-central districts cotters comprised a share of the primary labor force that was well above the national average throughout the last thirty-five years of the nineteenth century. Decreases in the share of cotters in the Oslofjord and south-central districts took them from just above to well below the national average. The west and north districts had the fewest cotters.

Figure 2

Fig. 2. The crofter class in Norway: A declining primary sector.

The transformation to a market economy varied, with a dual economy of subsistence and market farming persisting in some districts, while in other districts the transformation was delayed until as late as the Second World War. In part, the availability of alternate income activities and the accessibility of markets played a role in the varied courses of development. Departure from agriculturally dominated Tinn in East Norway started in earnest after 1875 as the market system undermined the old labor-intensive agriculture. Cotters especially fled employment in intensive animal husbandry (hosting-bruk). {11} A comparative study of three coastal communities in Trøndelag found that when agricultural employment was supplemented with income from fishing, emigration was delayed until the 1880s. Declines in both the harvest and the price of fish worked in tandem with animal husbandry and new roads - market-induced changes in labor demand - to trigger the emigration. {12} Depression in the fisheries also caused people to leave Brønnøy and Vik in North Norway, both communities with traditional and inefficient agricultural alternatives. {13} Paradoxically, the improving agricultural markets and wages of the 1880s may for the first time have allowed the landless cotter class to afford to move on. Witness the great exodus from Torpa in east-central Norway. {14}


Social networks were more important in peasant society than they are today. Indeed, the family, the kinship group, and the community were the individual’s intimate social environment. Employment, friends and marriage partners, livelihood and information came from a comparatively tightly interconnected group of persons. Although the potential emigrant had access to newspapers, emigration agents, advertisements, and other commercial sources of information, he was more likely to make his decision to go to America based on information and assurances from the known community.

The greater salience of such social networks in traditional society is closely related to the rise and decline of numerous mass social movements other than emigration. New religious groups began their growth during the period when emigration was beginning. Political movements likewise grew in importance, as did temperance movements, especially after the turn of the century. To some degree the evolution of these phenomena displayed a pattern that is independent of underlying social or economic structures. {15} Social movements often arise through the efforts of charismatic leaders and grow and spread as informal organizations promote the movements’ ideals.

Nationwide political parties emerged after 1879 and, with few exceptions, a two-party system predominated after 1882. Liberal political parties had an institutional structure that encouraged individualism. The values associated with the secularization process were generally strongest among dissenting religious groups and the liberal political party. They were characterized by a greater psychological openness to independent decision-making and a readiness to risk leaving a familiar world. However, in South and East Norway, the liberals were associated with the defense of rural language and rural values. Although there was some geographic polarization within parties on issues such as this, the differences between the liberals and the conservatives were greater than intra-party disagreements. {16}

A tradition of emigration from a community also had the well-known effect of increasing the willingness of other individuals to leave. See Figure 3 for the regional distribution of emigration rates over the period of mass exodus. Emigration had an earlier and stronger start from Norway than it did from Sweden. The greatest rates in Norway prior to 1870 came from impulse centers in the West, and in the Telemark and Buskerud provinces in the south-central district. Emigration from Kristians amt - the present-day county of Oppland - in the north-central district was especially intense, with six per1,000 leaving in this period. The regional distribution of emigration rates before 1870 shows a great deal of stability and reflects the geographic pattern of heavy departure from central Norway throughout the century. {17}

Figure 3

Fig. 3. Emigration from Norway: The decades of mass emigration.

Within a community the tradition of emigration became institutionalized over time. There are several possible elements that combine to make up this effect. Certainly, the changes sweeping over the rural countryside played an important part. Peasant psychology was deeply influenced by the change from a substantive kin-based economy to a formal market economy. Traditional values were resilient and peasants resisted the introduction of new technology, the money economy, and the new cultural elements. Landless cotters, particularly, “voted with their feet” against a mixed system that exposed them to the intensive market economy yet left them mostly under the traditional power of landholding farmers. As alluded to earlier, political and religious changes induced an individualism that further cut against the grain of traditional peasant culture. {18}

The reaffirmation of traditional values was reflected in interpersonal relationships. Social networks influenced the emigration by concentrating the idea of leaving, creating group migrations, and directing the path these migrations would take. Social networks were important in redirecting established movement between Sunnfjord and Bergen to America in the 1880s. {19} When faced with a depression in fishing, the major industry of Brønnøy and Vik, these two communities witnessed the sudden start of mass emigration. Networks of family and friends in America funneled the flow there rather than to more accessible Finnmark. {20} People from Balestrand in West Norway remained closely connected in America, where many fled en masse in a radical attempt to “retain the essential social fabric of their community in a rural environment that was much more conducive to growth.” {21}

Social networks facilitated the attempt to recreate traditional values in the relative freedom of America. Such networks often began with a noted leader, such as Cleng Peerson from Stavanger or Per Ivarson Undi from Vik in West Norway. Widely available America letters reported that Ivarson and his family were “doing very well and live like rich people.” {22} Such letters exerted a great influence because they were widely read in places where the letter writer was known. Shipping companies knew the power of personal communication and hired returned Norwegian Americans as recruiters. The power of kinship was reflected in emigration from Dovre in east-central Norway where nearly half of all who went to the United States had relatives there. A one to three year lag often existed between the emigration of husbands and other members of a family. Consider that 50 percent of those from Dovre and 47 percent from Balestrand traveled on tickets prepaid by Norwegian Americans, the ultimate in established emigration networks.


Thus, the fundamentals of three theories of emigration have been reviewed. The theories under consideration are the change and response to overpopulation, the transformation of peasant society, and the social network theory. Each theory hypothesizes factors which may have led to emigration. These factors can be measured for each Norwegian community with available census data. The presence or absence of these factors should, if the theories are sound, dictate the rate of emigration from a community.

All together, twelve factors are considered in the statistical analysis that follows. For the change and response theory the factors considered are the total population divided by land area, the percentage of the labor force employed in nonagricultural secondary and tertiary occupations, and the proximity of one of Norway’s four major urban areas. For the peasant society theory the quality of the region’s land, the percentage of the rural primary labor force employed as cotters, fishermen, and foresters, and the percentage of all farms larger than fifty acres are considered. The social network factors that are considered include the percentage of all eligible voters who voted and those registered in the liberal party, and the rate of emigration in 1869, just before the start of mass emigration.

For example, change and response theory claims that overpopulation is the most important factor pushing emigration, while non-agricultural employment and urban proximity are the factors that finally slow it. The transformation of peasant society theory posits that landless agricultural labor, primarily the number of cotters, will be the greatest push factor, while high levels of employment in fishing and forestry will serve as restraints. Social network theory apparently specifies only push variables, such as the stimulus from social networks that were most often formed in early periods of intense emigration.

In this research, each of the several factors is measured in such a way that its relative level in each of 535 Norwegian municipalities is known. The strength of such a method is that the association between a community’s characteristics and emigration is compared across all 535. About sixty predominantly urban areas, as defined by the Norwegian Central Census Bureau, are excluded because the three theories specifically pertain to the rural experience. The original analysis made four time divisions, but here 1891-1900 and 1901-1905 are combined in the summary table.

In order to test the adequacy of the divergent factors specified by each theory, multivariate regression (OLS) techniques were used. This article will not describe the methodology employed, which is presented elsewhere. Note, however, that the models explain between 40 and 80 percent of the variation in emigration rates. The interested reader is encouraged to consult the more detailed study. {23} Multivariate regression is essentially a data-reduction technique that tells whether “on average” a given factor is empirically associated with more or less emigration from each area, and whether a given factor is more influential than other competing factors.

Tabl 1

Table 1. Simplified Presentation of Multivariate Analysis

In Table 1 a schematic presentation of the results is shown for three time periods, as well as for each of Norway’s three major geographic regions. The time periods represent the beginning phase of emigration, the peak period, and the declining years. A plus sign (+) signifies that increases in the amount of an indicated factor led to higher rates of departure, or what is known as a push effect. Conversely, a negative sign (-) signifies that increases in the amount of an indicated factor led to lower rates, or had a restraining effect. If a factor is not statistically significant in explaining emigration during a given time period no sign is shown. If one of the listed factors is not significant relative to other factors in any time period it has not been listed. For example, population density, which was entered into the statistical model, is not shown in the table because it was not found to have a significant effect on emigration rates in any period or from any region.

The change and response theory is correct in specifying that urban proximity was a significant restraining factor during the declining years of emigration. But non-agricultural or service employment was a strong push behind emigration from the south-west region in the 1890s when the wooden sailing ship industry collapsed in the face of modern steamship competition. And in the North, communities with high levels of secondary employment, primarily manufacturing jobs, actually had the greatest rates of emigration. These results demonstrate that the change and response theory is inaccurate in identifying population density as a push factor. In addition, its theoretical logic is not broad enough to incorporate regional differences in the modernization process.

On the other hand, the peasant society theory correctly specifies the strong push behind emigration rates associated with large cotter populations. This push factor was exhausted by the late 1890s, since most able-bodied cotters had already left and, except for the north region, the basics of market agriculture were already in place. Cotter-dominated labor forces represented traditional, mixed subsistence, and market-oriented farming methods. The early modernization of agriculture in the east-Trøndelag districts can be seen in the restraining influence of market-oriented large farms. Conversely, in the south-west and the north regions the later modernization of agriculture produced a slightly later push for rural emigration. Fishing employment was a restraining influence on emigration rates in the south-west region. The better the quality of land in a district the more likely it was that that district had developed a primarily agricultural society prone to seek agricultural opportunities in America. This latter finding is quite opposite to the change and response hypothesis that better land would support more persons and lead to low rates of emigration.

Finally, the social network theory is correct in expecting emigration to be positively associated with the development of liberal political movements. A relatively large number of liberal voters in a community was associated with high rates of departure from the east-Trøndelag and the south-west regions. Emigration tradition, measured here as the intensity of movement out of each community prior to the period of mass emigration, is the strongest push factor in all regions and throughout most time periods. The tradition apparently began somewhat later in the North, and in the South-west the large exodus from southern coastal shipping communities made this tradition comparatively less important in the 1890s.


Any perception of the past is always and necessarily partial. The weakness of the theories examined here lies in their single-minded selection of a set of factors out of the many that might have been chosen. Mass emigration was not caused by one factor; indeed it was caused by a number of simultaneous factors. Furthermore, it was caused by different factors at different times. The strength of each theory, however, is the construction of a logical framework which allows one to perceive similar patterns in different settings. The rich analysis by historians has been drawn upon to provide support for, or to cast doubt on, the hypotheses posited by each theory. A brief summary was also given of a regression (OLS) analysis of all Norwegian municipalities to determine statistically which were the significant factors leading to variation in emigration rates. Thus, these findings can now be used to evaluate the success of the theoretical specifications of each perspective.

To be of general use a theory must be successful in capturing an accurate picture of the past. In this study the change and response theory has been found less than adequate in this regard. Historians have pointed to local instances where overpopulation did not differentiate between communities with high and low emigration rates. The findings of the regression analysis substantiate these insights: on the average, population density was not associated with greater rates of departure between 1876 and 1905 for the 535 municipalities analyzed here. The peasant society theory was relatively more successful. Clearly, the major regions incorporated modern farming methods at various times, leading to variations in the start of emigration.

Yet, above and beyond the transformation of the peasant class, social networks worked to convey an interest in leaving Norway and to concretely organize the emigration. In the regression analysis, emigration tradition was the single most important factor influencing emigration rates. {24} Although regression analysis cannot capture the individual components of such a tradition, several examples have been given of the fashion in which social networks operated within certain Norwegian communities. With its roots in the upheaval of tradition-bound society, mass emigration was driven, paradoxically, by itself.


<1> Kingsley Davis, “The Theory of Change and Response in Modern Demographic History,” in Population Index, 29 (1963), 345-366.

<2> Ingrid Semmingsen, “Norwegian Emigration in the Nineteenth Century,” in Scandinavian Economic History Review, 2 (1960), 150-160.

<3> Bjarne Kristiansen and Frank H. Aarebrot, “The Norwegian Ecological Data, 1868-1903,” in NSD Report Number 9, Norwegian Social Science Data Service, Bergen University (1976).

<4> All methods and results reported here are presented in greater detail in Briant Lindsay Lowell, Scandinavian Exodus. Demography and Social Development in 19th-Century Rural Communities (Boulder, 1987). The regional clusters chosen are the generally accepted ones.

<5> The maps show non-agricultural employment for rural communities only. Nonetheless, the regional distribution of non-agricultural employment remains relatively unchanged if the urban population is included.

<6> Jan Eivind Myhre, “Urbaniseringen i Norge i industrialiseringens første fase ca. 1850-1914,” in Grethe Authen Blom, ed., Urbaniseringsprosessen i Norden, del 3, Industrialiseringens første fase (Oslo, 1977), 13-94.

<7> Stein Tveite, “ ‘Overbefolkning,’ ‘Befolkningspress,’ og Vandring,” in Sivert Langholm and Francis Sejersted, eds., Vandringer. Festskrift til Ingrid Semmingsen på 70-årsdagen (Oslo, 1980), 43-52.

<8> David Grigg, Population Growth and Agrarian Change (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980).

<9> Sølvi Sogner, “Freehold and Cottar,” in Scandinavian Journal of History, 1(1976), 181-200.

<10> Grigg, Population Growth and Agrarian Change.

<11> Andres Svalestuen, “Emigration from the Community of Tinn, 1837-1907,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 29 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1983), 43-88.

<12> Ragnar Standal, “Emigration from a Fjord District on Norway’s West Coast, 1852-1915,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 29 (1983), 185-209.

<13> Kjell Erik Skaaren, “Emigration from Brønnøy and Vik in Helgeland,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 29 (1983), 293-3 12.

<14> Arvid Sandaker, “Utvandring og forandring. Befolkningsforhold i Torpa på 1800-tallet” (cand. phil. thesis, University of Oslo, 1977).

<15> Ron J. Lesthaeghe, “Modes of Production, Secularization, and the Pace of the Fertility Decline in Western Europe, 1870-1930,” in Ansley Coale and Susan Cotts Watkins, eds., The Decline of Fertility in Europe (Princeton, 1986), 261-292.

<16> Stein Rokkan and Henry Valen, “Regional Contrasts in Norwegian Politics: a Review of Data from Official Statistics and from Sample Surveys,” in Erik Allardt and Stein Rokkan, eds., Mass Politics (New York, 1970), 190-250.

<17> Svalestuen, “Om den Regionale Spreiinga av Norsk Utvandring før 1865,” in Arnfinn Engen, ed., Utvandringa-det store oppbrotet (Oslo, 1978), 57-85.

<18> Sogner, “Freehold and Cottar.”

<19> Leiv Dvergsdal, “Emigration from Sunnfjord to America prior to 1885,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 29 (1983), 127-158.

<20> Skaaren, “Emigration from Brønnøy and Vik in Helgeland.”

<21> Jon Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers, the Migration from Balestrand, Norway, to the Upper Middle West (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985), 239.

<22> Rasmus Sunde, “Emigration from the District of Sogn, 1839-1915,” in Norwegian-American Studies, 29 (1983), 111-126.

<23> See Lowell, Scandinavian Exodus.

<24> It is possible that overpopulation between 1810 and 1840 may have been responsible for early emigration or the establishment of tradition. Another type of analysis is needed to investigate this possibility.

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