Gunnar Myrdal Research Paper

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Gunnar Myrdal (1898–1987), Nobel Laureate in economics and social scientist of encyclopaedic range, is best known for his two monumental studies An American Dilemma (1944) and Asian Drama (1968). He was a founding member of the Stockholm School of Economics and one of the architects of the Swedish welfare state. Throughout his life Myrdal was also deeply concerned with the role that values play in the social sciences.

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1. Early Life And Career As An Economist

Karl Gunnar Pettersson—the father later changed the name of the children to ‘Myrdal’—was born on December 6, 1898 in Skattungsbyn in the province of Dalarna, Sweden. His mother, Anna Sofia Pettersson (born Karlsson), came from a family of farmers and was softspoken, religious, and bitterly unhappy in her marriage. The father, Carl Adolf Pettersson, also came from a family of farmers but was secular, restless, and upwardly mobile. The father was a building constructor, and in 1904 he moved the family to Stockholm. Myrdal went to a very good high school, Norra Real, and was mainly interested in the natural sciences. He, however, was also deeply influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, to which he was introduced by one of his teachers. All through his life he would display a passionate faith in the power of reason.

After having graduated with excellent grades in 1918, Myrdal became a student of law at Stockholm University (Stockholms Hogskola). The decision to study law had been influenced by his father, but also by Myrdal’s own conviction that law would help him better understand how society operates. Whatever conservatism and class prejudices still dominated his mind, and which he had picked up from his family, were soon to be challenged by Alva Reimer (1902–86), whom he met in the summer of 1919 and married in 1924. It was also Alva Myrdal who prodded her husband to study economics, when he had received his law degree in 1923 and felt deeply depressed.

While Myrdal had never enjoyed studying law, he quickly took to economics. In 1927 he got his doctorate through a dissertation for which Gustav Cassel had been the advisor, Prisbildningsproblemet och foranderligheten (The Problem of Price Formation and Change). In this work Myrdal attempted to develop the beginnings of a dynamic theory of price formation by introducing the idea of expectations. In 1930 he published Vetenskap och-politik i nationalekonomien (The Political Element in the Development of Economics), in which he argued that economists often confuse values and facts in their studies, something which endangers both economics as a science and its potential use for social reform. Based on an article from 1932, Myrdal published a booklength study in 1939 entitled Monetary Equilibrium. In this work he attempted to further develop Knut Wicksell’s theory of monetary equilibrium by introducing the notion of expectations. In the early 1930s Myrdal also produced a couple of writings for the Swedish Social Democratic government in which he advocated an underbalanced budget as a way of countering a downturn in the business cycle. These works were based on Myrdal’s discussions with his friend Erik Lindahl and the Swedish finance minister Ernst Wigforss.

All of these writings, except for Vetenskap och Politik, are today regarded as important contributions to the Stockholm School of Economics, which is usually defined as a Keynesian type of economics, based, however, on Knut Wicksell’s ideas. The value of these works is today mainly historic. They nonetheless played a crucial role in the development of Myrdal’s ideas, especially in his attempt to construct a dynamic theory of causation, based on Wicksell’s ideas. Vetenskap och Politik, on the other hand, has aged rather well and represents a still valuable contribution to the history of economic ideas. While Myrdal would always approvingly refer to its main thesis—that neoclassical economics is deeply biased through its origin in the natural law tradition and in utilitarian philosophy—he would later criticize his youthful assumption that it was possible to separate out a core of economics, which was free from all values.

1.1 Political Activities And An American Dilemma

Both Gunnar and Alva Myrdal decided in the early 1930s to become actively involved in politics and were to play a crucial role in the construction of the Swedish welfare state through their advocacy of ‘social engineering.’ The timing to do so was perfect, since in 1932 the Social Democratic Party had won the election and was eager to transform the poor and class-ridden Sweden into a real ‘people’s home’ (folk-hem). Gunnar Myrdal not only helped to formulate the economic aspects of the new policy that now came into being, but also its social policy. This he did, in close collaboration with Alva Myrdal, through an avalanche of writings as well as his participation in various royal commissions, appointed by the government to investigate some specific issue. The basic message of the two Myrdals was that social policy had to be fundamentally changed, from focusing on symptoms, to becoming ‘prophylactic.’

Gunnar and Alva Myrdal presented their vision for what a new and modern Sweden would look like in Kris i befolknigsfragan (Crisis in the Population Question, 1934), which became a political bestseller. ‘All of society’, they here argued, would have to be changed, so that ‘the quality of people’ could be improved and better adjusted to the demands of modern, industrial society: living standards, consumption patterns, the way children are brought up, the structure of education, and much, much more. Though permeated by the authors’ generosity and enlightenment, Kris i befolkningsfragan also evinces an enormous belief in the authority of science and experts. The Myrdals’ advocacy of sterilization of certain categories of people, who were deemed unfit for the new society, has also been criticized.

By the mid-1930s Myrdal’s work had become so dominated by practical and political concerns that he longed for a return to academic studies; and when he in 1937 was asked by the Carnegie Corporation if he would lead a study on the blacks in the United States, he accepted. During the next few years Myrdal travelled around in the United States like a latter-day Tocqueville, interviewing people from all strata—‘I’m from Sweden and I don’t know anything about the race problem. What can you tell me?’ Through the backing of the Carnegie Corporation Myrdal put together a small circle of collaborators, and he also engaged, in one way or another, some 70 other scholars, including Samuel Stouffer, Louis Wirth, and E. Franklin Frazier. Fearing many times that he would never be able to synthesize the enormous amount of material that he had commissioned, in 1944 Myrdal had the satisfaction of seeing An American Dilemma appear in print in two volumes of more than 1,400 pages.

Myrdal’s work was much commented upon, and most of what was said was positive. An American Dilemma was actually to dominate the discussion of ethnicity in the United States from the end of World War II till the 1960s, and it also played an important role in the decision of the Supreme Court in 1954 to declare segregated schools unlawful (Brown vs. Board of Education). From the mid-1960s till the 1970s Myrdal’s book was criticized for depicting certain aspects of black life as pathological and also for not advocating change from the bottom up; and today An American Dilemma is seen primarily as being of historical interest in ethnic studies.

Myrdal’s basic thesis—that there is a moral dilemma in the heart of the average person between ‘the American Creed’ and everyday behavior towards blacks—may seem old-fashioned and passe today. This, however, should not prevent one from realizing the value of other parts of An American Dilemma, especially its appendices on values and on cumulative change (Appendices 1–3). In the first two of these appendices Myrdal argues that social scientists should always state their value premises since these deeply influence the analysis. In Appendix 3 Myrdal presents the core of his own social science approach, which is centered around Wicksell’s theory of unstable equilibria or what Myrdal calls ‘the principle of cumulation.’ An initial change, Myrdal explains, can set off further changes; and these may then move the whole system either in an upward direction or in a downward direction (‘vicious circles’).

2. Activities After World War II And Becoming An Institutionalist

After An American Dilemma Myrdal returned to a combination of politics and applied research till the mid-1950s, serving first as Minister of Trade in Sweden (1945–7) and then as Executive Secretary in the Economic Commission for Europe of the United Nations (1947–57). Neither of these two experiences were particularly successful for Myrdal, who was more of an intellectual than a politician; and he soon longed to return to academic studies. The topic that he chose to focus on this time was underdevelopment, and a fine introduction to his early efforts in this direction can be found in Rich Lands and Poor (1957). It is in this work, for example, that Myrdal introduces the idea that a strong economic development in one area may either impede or accelerate economic growth in nearby areas (‘backwash effects’ and ‘spread effects’). His most sustained effort to understand underdevelopment, however, took 10 years to produce and appeared in 1968 in three volumes of more than 2,000 pages: Asian Drama.

Like An American Dilemma, Asian Drama has been much debated. The initial reaction was many times positive, but today Myrdal’s work is less often referred to. One reason for this is the fact that his strong advocacy of large-scale state planning and state intervention as well as his clear stance for what he calls ‘The Modernization Ideals’ do not go very well with today’s emphasis on market forces and the prevalent scepticism towards Western ideals. Still, several parts of Asian Drama are still of interest, such as the notion of ‘the soft state,’ the critique of various aspects of neoclassical economics, and Myrdal’s attempt to use Wicksell’s theory of cumulative causation to construct a theory of institutionalist economics (see especially Appendices 1–3).

After Asian Drama Myrdal kept writing books and articles, and he also gave lectures all over the world. In 1969 he published a small and still useful volume entitled Objecti ity in Social Research, and in 1974 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, together with Friedrich von Hayek. Autobiographical elements can be found in Against the Stream (1973) as well as in Hur styrs landet? (How is the Country Governed? 1982). His reference to the superiority of institutionalist economics over neoclassical economics became ever stronger; and the essay Institutional Economics (1978) is especially recommended. An attempt to write a sequence to An American Dilemma, entitled An American Dilemma Revisited, had, however, to be called off in 1985, due to illness. Gunnar Myrdal died on May 17, 1987 in Stockholm. To his very last day he remained a firm believer in the ideals that he shared so strongly with his beloved wife Alva Myrdal, and which for him were symbolized by the one word with which An American Dilemma ends: Enlightenment.


  1. Andersson S 1986 Alva och Gunnar Myrdals arkiv. Arbetarhistoria 10: 75–8
  2. Assarsson-Rizzi K, Bohrn H (eds.) 1984 Gunnar Myrdal: A Bibliography:, 1919–1981, 2nd edn. Garland Publishers, New York
  3. Jackson W A 1990 Gunnar Myrdal and America’s Conscience: Social Engineering and Racial Liberalism, 1938–1987. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
  4. Myrdal A, Myrdal G 1934 Kris i befolkningsfragan (Crisis in the Population Question). Albert Bonniers Forlag, Stockholm
  5. Myrdal G 1927 Prisbildningsproblemet och foranderligheten (The Problem of Price Formation and Change). Almqvist and Wicksell, Uppsala, Sweden
  6. Myrdal G 1930 Vetenskap och politik i nationalekonomien. P. A. Nordstedt and Soners Forlag, Stockholm [trans. 1953 by Paul Streeten as The Political Element in the Development of Economics, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA]
  7. Myrdal G 1939 Monetary Equilibrium. Hodge, London
  8. Myrdal G 1944 An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Harper, New York
  9. Myrdal G 1957 Rich Lands and Poor. Harper, New York
  10. Myrdal G 1968 Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. Twentieth Century Fund, New York
  11. Myrdal G 1969 Objectivity in Social Research. Pantheon Books, New York
  12. Myrdal G 1973 Against the Stream: Critical Essays on Economics. Pantheon Books, New York
  13. Myrdal G 1978 Institutional Economics. Journal of Economic Issues 12: 771–83
  14. Myrdal G 1982 Hur styrs landet? (How is the Country Governed?). Reben and Sjogren, Stockholm
  15. Myrdal G 1987 Historien om An American Dilemma (An American Dilemma Revisited). SNS, Stockholm


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