Marja Jalava: early Nordic social historians

The starting point of my research project is the reciprocal relationship between the intensifying global interconnectedness and the rise of modern nationalism during the period from the 1890s to the eve of the Second World War. This resulted in the strengthened trans- or international consciousness, which in the field of academic historiography was manifested, for instance, in the form of world history, universal history, and comparative history approaches, but also in the persistent efforts to consolidate the alleged cultural constancy within the nation-state. By and large the transnational, the national, and the local created and intermingled with each other, which has led me to study connections, circulations, and cultural translations as well as asymmetries often involved in these relations.

As an empirical case, I focus on the multidimensional entanglement of transnational, national, and local tensions in the works and professional networks of early Nordic social historians, Halvdan Koht (1873–1965) and Edvard Bull (1881–1932) from Norway, and Väinö Voionmaa (1869–1947) and Gunnar Suolahti (1876–1933) from Finland. These men belonged to the generation of historians who had become acutely aware of the profound social, political, economic, and cultural transformations of the era. As a result, they largely abandoned the idealistic and providential schemes of their predecessors and oriented towards a more materialistic conception of history, in which a decisive significance was given to socio-economic structures and development. For this, they all drew inspiration from the German collectivist Kulturgeschichte of Karl Lamprecht (1856–1915) and his circle in Leipzig as well as historically oriented social scientists and economists such as Werner Sombart (1863–1941).


Through a combination of comparative and cross-national approaches, I pay attention to the processes of cultural transfer, reception, and translation, in which a certain “package” of historiographical insights was selectively and creatively adapted to different local conditions, academic traditions, and personal research interests. Finland and Norway arguably make a good pair for such a study, because they were relatively peripheral young nation-states, but yet in many respects in a different geopolitical position, which greatly impacted on the historians’ opportunities to establish an academic career both home and abroad. In this respect, a particularly interesting case is Halvdan Koht, who had a double role as a keen Norwegian cultural nationalist and an internationally-oriented scholar, who even acted as the President of the Bureau of the International Committee of Historical Sciences from 1926 to 1933 and its regular counselor-member until the mid-1950s.

Marja Jalava (PhD in history from the University of Helsinki, 2005) is currently Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies, University of Helsinki. Her Academy Research Fellow project is focused on the breakthrough of social history in the Nordic historiography from the 1890s to the 1930s.

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