Dag Blanck, Professor of North American Studies and Director of the Swedish Institute for North American Studies (SINAS), Department of English, Uppsala University
Interviewed by Sofie Kinnefors
When Sweden’s Television (SVT) or Swedish Radio (SR) have a question about Swedish-American relations, they turn to international relations expert Dag Blanck for answers. Swedish Press recently spoke to him about American society, Swedish migration and the special ice cream he can’t live without. Blanck is a Professor of North American Studies and director of the Swedish Institute for North American Studies (SINAS) at Uppsala University.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Sollentuna, north of Stockholm. After graduating from a Swedish high school, I received a scholarship to study at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois (through the Sweden-America Foundation in Stockholm). In typical American fashion, my one year was extended and I ended up graduating from Augustana with a degree in history in 1978. Since then, I have maintained different kinds of contacts with the college, for example as director of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center since 1985 or co-director of the college’s summer program in Sweden 1983-2008. In Sweden my base has since the mid 1980’s been Uppsala University, from where I have my Ph.D. in history and where I currently serve as Professor of North American Studies and direct the Swedish Institute for North American Studies.
Where does your interest in the U.S. come from?
Ever since I was quite young, I have been fascinated by American society and American politics. The U.S. is, of course, very present in Swedish society in many ways, which no doubt helps explain this. I also remember following the events surrounding the Watergate scandal very closely. Getting the opportunity to study at an American college further solidified my American interests. It was also at Augustana that I developed my fascination for Swedish immigration to the U.S, as the college had (and still has) extensive source materials for that topic.
Describe your role at Uppsala University.
As Professor of North American Studies, I teach courses in American history, politics, and race and ethnicity. I also conduct research in American studies in my areas of specialty. We are the only unit in a Swedish university to focus on American studies. I also supervise students who are working on senior theses and on master’s and doctoral dissertations, usually dealing with Swedish-American topics.
My academic interests are in trans-Atlantic and specifically Swedish-American relationships. My first area concerns the Swedish migration to the U.S. from various perspectives. Some questions that have interested me include what it has meant to be Swedish in the U.S. and how that has changed over time. I am also interested in how Swedish immigrants have interacted with other ethnic groups in the U.S. and how they have found a place in the larger American ethnic and racial hierarchies.
Which areas of North American studies are you most passionate about?
One area is my original field of study, the many dimensions of the history of the migration of Swedes to North America. I am also interestedin the larger trans-national relations between the countries. Another exciting question deals with the U.S.in a comparative perspective: how “different” is it and why/not?
A second field of interest has been how the two countries have affected and interacted with each other on a larger scale. For example, what can we say about American influences in Sweden? Is Sweden “Americanized”? And, if so, what does that mean? And conversely, how has Sweden been seen and discussed in the U.S.? Have any influences gone the other way?
What’s the most common misconception about the U.S. amongst Swedes?
Swedes know a lot about the U.S. buthave a selective understanding of the country. We see and relate to the U.S. that we recognize, admire, and appreciate (viz. Swedish fascination
with New York or California). In some ways, it is as if this part of the U.S. confirms or validates us. The “unknown” or “strange” America is less known and fewer people are interested in learning about it. This could be geographical (the Midwest, for example), religious (the relatively stronger position for religion in the U.S. than in Sweden) or political (the stronger conservative wing in the U.S.).
How do you think the image of Sweden is changing and developing internationally, and particularly in North America?
The image in North America has been shaped by two factors, migration and modernity. The migration is of course the mass migration of Swedes in the 19th and early 20th century, and the long term cultural consequences that it has had. We can see the Swedish-American community plays an important role for the American image of Sweden in areas all over the U.S. with strong Swedish-American populations, such as Minnesota, Chicago, smaller communities in the Midwest and on the East Coast, or in the Pacific Northwest.
The view of modern Sweden – a country that has advanced social and political solutions to different problems – goes back to the very influential 1936 book Sweden – The Middle Way by Marquis Childs which gave Sweden an international reputation in this area. It has attractedboth positive (if you favor these kinds of solutions) and negative (if you don’t) attention to Sweden.
You also serve as a commentator on the U.S. in Swedish media. Which areas do you comment on? For which Swedish media have you served as a commentator?
There is an intense interest in American politics here, especially in the recent presidential election and the new administration. Many questions I get deal with that. Another area concerns the migration and the Swedish Americans. I appear regularly on TV and radio (mostly Sveriges television and Sveriges radio) and in many newspapers.
Do you think that the Swedish media’s reporting on the U.S. is correct and balanced?
The reporting that is done by correspondents who live in the U.S. and who know the U.S. well is solid and nuanced (such as Sveriges television/radio and Svenska Dagbladet and Dagens Nyheter). For other media, the “selective” view of the U.S. that Swedes have can at times influence the reporting. In general, the move towards fast and 24-hour journalism has meant that quick news flashes are increasingly important, leaving less room for the more analytical and reflective reporting.
Because you share your time between both countries what do you miss about Illinois when at home in Uppsala – and vice versa?
In Sweden, I miss the relative ease, informality, and friendliness of American society. And Whitey’s ice cream of course! In Rock Island, I miss well-functioning public transportation.
Photo of Dag Blanck © Mikael Wallerstedt