Gunnar Myrdal

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Gunnar Myrdal in 1937 or earlier.

Gunnar Myrdal (December 6, 1898 – May 17, 1987) was a Swedish economist, sociologist, and politician. His work contributed to the establishment of a welfare state in Sweden following the Second World War. Myrdal coined the phrase the "American Dilemma" as the encapsulation of the results from his study of the social and economic problems of blacks in the United States, which revealed the failure to substantially improve their socio-economic status and most basic human rights since the American Civil War. Myrdal controversially attributed this not to lack of government involvement, but to prejudice (or racism) on the part of white Americans. He supported his conclusion by pointing out that several New Deal programs had actually worsened the socio-economic condition of the "American Negro." He strongly opposed the "separate but equal" approach, and his critique played a significant role in the outlawing of racial segregation in public schools. Although Myrdal's writings often expressed pessimism about the future for various sectors of the world's population, he had a firm belief in the inherent goodness of human nature, and believed that change in the hearts and minds of men was needed, and possible, for the establishment of a better society for all.



Gunnar Myrdal was born in Gustaf's parish, Sweden, on December 6, 1898. He graduated from the Law School of Stockholm University in 1923, and received his degree in economics in 1927, after which he was appointed docent in political economy. In 1933, he was appointed to the Chair of Political Economy and Public Finance at the University of Stockholm.

In addition to his teaching activities, Myrdal was active in Swedish politics and was elected to the Senate in 1934 as member of the Social Democratic Party. In 1938, the Carnegie Corporation commissioned him to direct a study of the American Negro problem.

Back in Sweden, in 1942, he was re-elected to the Swedish Senate and was chairman of the Post-War Planning Commission. From 1945-1947, he was Sweden's Minister of Commerce, until his appointment as Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

Among his more than thirty honorary degrees, he shared the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences (otherwise known as the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) with Friedrich von Hayek in 1974.

Gunnar Myrdal was married to the former Alva Reimer, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who held high posts in the United Nations and UNESCO. She was also the Swedish Ambassador to India, and became Sweden's Minister of Disarmament and of Church. In 1970, they were jointly awarded the West German Peace Prize. They had three children: Two daughters, Sissela and Kaj, and one son, Jan. Gunnar Myrdal died in Danderyd, Sweden, in 1987.


An American Dilemma

Gunnar Myrdal is perhaps most famous for his influential and landmark book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation and originally published in 1944. In this report Myrdal revealed that in the two generations or more since the American Civil War, the U.S. had not been able to put its human rights ideals into practice for the black (or Negro) tenth of its population. Thus, he coined the phrase, "An American Dilemma," the dilemma between high ideals on the one hand and poor performance on the other.

This comprehensive study of sociological, economic, anthropological, and legal data on black-white race relations in the U.S. was begun in 1938, after Myrdal was selected by the Carnegie corporation to direct the study. It should be noted here that Myrdal planned on doing a similar study on the question of gender instead of race; however, he could not find the funding for that project, and so he never completed it.

An American Dilemma is considered a classic in sociology. Indeed, Myrdal's damning critique of the "separate but equal" doctrine played a large role in the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. The book also contains solid economic reasoning. Myrdal, an egalitarian sympathetic to socialism, showed that Franklin Roosevelt's economic policies had badly hurt the black population. Myrdal singled out two New Deal policies in particular: Restrictions on agricultural output and the minimum wage.

On the “minimum wage,” Myrdal wrote:

During the 'thirties the danger of being a marginal worker became increased by social legislation intended to improve conditions on the labor market. The dilemma, as viewed from the Negro angle is this: On the one hand, Negroes constitute a disproportionately large number of the workers in the nation who work under imperfect safety rules, in unclean and unhealthy shops, for long hours, and for sweatshop wages; on the other hand, it has largely been the availability of such jobs which has given Negroes any employment at all…. When government steps in to regulate labor conditions and to enforce minimum standards, it takes away nearly all that is left of the old labor monopoly in the "Negro jobs.” As low wages and sub-standard labor conditions are most prevalent in the South, this danger is mainly restricted to Negro labor in that region. When the jobs are made better, the employer becomes less eager to hire Negroes, and white workers become more eager to take the jobs from the Negroes (Myrdal 1944).

On the agricultural part of the New Deal, he wrote:

It seems, therefore, that the agricultural policies, and particularly the Agricultural Adjustment program (A.A.A.), which was instituted in May, 1933, was the factor directly responsible for the drastic curtailment in number of Negro and white sharecroppers and Negro cash and share tenants (Myrdal 1944).

For Myrdal, “the Negro problem” could be reduced to one cause. Later, this would probably have been called “racism” or “bigotry,” but those words were not yet part of the liberal vocabulary in the thirties. He wrote instead of “prejudice” and “discrimination,” and this is perhaps his key passage:

White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals. This, in its turn, gives support to white prejudice. White prejudice and Negro standards thus mutually "cause" each other (Taylor 1996).

This passage may, however, under a different interpretation be taken to mean that whites degrade blacks, and then point to their degradation as justification for degrading them.

Myrdal elaborated upon this sentiment on page 168 of An American Dilemma (1962 ed.):

That the very same opinion (about racial prejudice) … is shared even by enlightened white Americans who do not hold the common belief that Negroes are inferior as a race…. Usually it is pointed out that Negroes fare better and meet less prejudice when they are few in number.

Later in the publication, he took a more optimistic stance:

The trend of psychology, education, anthropology, and social science is toward environmentalism in the explanation of group differences, which means that the racial beliefs which defended caste are being torn away. It also means, by implication, that the white majority group in power is accused of being the cause of the Negro's deficiencies and unhappiness. Authority and respectability are no longer supporting the popular beliefs. The beliefs are no longer nourished from above. Instead they are increasingly fought (Myrdal 1944 ed., p. 1003).

The optimism was clearly there, as An American Dilemma's prediction was that, in time, modernization would eliminate racism in the United States. In his postscript to the 1962 edition, Arnold Rose expressed the opinion that civil rights legislation and other developments since 1942 constituted justification for the study's optimism.

Social Sciences Methodology

Myrdal, nonetheless, expressed criticism toward work in the social sciences. As an insight into Myrdal’s views on his own research environment, he writes:

...there is truth in the biblical saying that, "He that seeketh, findeth;" if a scientist seeks what isn't there, he will find it…as long as empirical data are scanty and he allows his logic to be twisted (Myrdal 1969, p. 41).

In a similar vein he wrote:

...our elaborate statistical techniques for generating and interpreting data often make our social research even more susceptible to bias…. We simply need to put our value premises up front and put our research to the test of relevance and practical significance to our democratic social ideals (Myrdal 1969 pp. 59, 63).

Social and public policy

Myrdal and his wife, Alva, published Crisis in the Population Question, in 1934, a work which greatly impacted social welfare policy in Sweden. Myrdal published many other notable works and founded and chaired the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Myrdal's other major classic was Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations (1968). Its major message was that the only way to bring about rapid development in Southeast Asia was to control population, have a wider distribution of agricultural land, and invest in health care and education.

Internationally revered as a father-figure of social policy, Myrdal contributed to social democratic thinking throughout the world, in collaboration with friends and colleagues in the political and academic arenas. Sweden and Britain were among the pioneers of a welfare state, and books by Myrdal (Beyond the Welfare State 1958) and Richard Titmuss (Essays on “The Welfare State" 1958) unsurprisingly explore similar themes.

Equally important was his specific theory of social planning, in which Myrdal's voice carried the enormous prestige of a major architect of Swedish economic policies; that is, of a nation that had actually succeeded in creating justice and prosperity. It is the centerpiece of Myrdal's proposed world anti-poverty program.

Ruffled feathers

Not everyone approved of Myrdal. A famous black sociologist, Oliver Cox, wrote:

An American Dilemma, the most exhaustive survey of race relations … in the United States, … a useful source of data…it presents many ingenious analyses…. But it develops no hypothesis or consistent theory of race relations… and, to the extent that it employs the caste belief in interpretations, it is misleading… the use of “the American Creed” as the “value premise” for his study severely limits and narrows Dr. Myrdal’s perspective…. He never brings into focus the two great systems of morality currently striving in our civilization for ascendancy, but merely assumes a teleological abstraction of social justice toward which all good men will ultimately gravitate (Cox 2000).

Myrdal's analysis avoided (not accidentally, critics have suggested) assuming any possibility that modernizing white American society would not necessarily imply removing barriers to Negroes’ upward mobility (Weiner 2004). For those critics it is no wonder that Myrdal’s analyses seem to prefer status quo to any serious socio-political adjustment.

Many thinkers have rejected the idea that the injustice of discrimination stems fundamentally from what is in the mind or heart of the individual. Crespi (1945) criticized Myrdal on the ground that the latter's individualistic understanding of racial discrimination entailed that “ethical exhortation” was the remedy for racial injustice. Crespi argued that what really needed remedy were the social and economic structures that advantage whites.

On the political front, the FBI compiled a list of 41 people acknowledged in the preface of An American Dilemma, noting that many were Communist Party members, sympathizers, or members of front groups. Myrdal's wife and son, Alva and Jan, were investigated by the FBI for pro-Communist activity. Alva Myrdal was eventually denied entry to the United States. Jan Myrdal later went on to organize a communist “festival” in Bucharest (Taylor 1998).


Myrdal's practical achievement was his central role in the creation of the post-war welfare state in Sweden. For his work in public policy and economic development he was recognized through numerous awards.

Probably the greatest impact Myrdal has had on the social sciences is his focused and constant demand to draw on all individual and specialized social science categories in order to understand problems such as racism, underdevelopment, and all the problems the developing world faced. He, for instance, urged anthropologists, with their holistic knowledge of society and first-hand familiarity with social problems in underdeveloped regions, to become more involved in economic planning and policy making.

Although his writings often presented a pessimistic account of the socio-economic situation, Myrdal's belief in the possibility of improvement of life and happiness of the world population can be seen in this excerpt:

The rationalism and moralism which is the driving force behind social study, whether we admit it or not, is the faith that institutions can be improved and strengthened and that people are good enough to live a happier life. With all we know today, there should be the possibility to build a nation and a world where people’s great propensities for sympathy and cooperation would not be thwarted. To find the practical formulas for this never-ending reconstruction of society is the supreme task of social science. The world catastrophe places tremendous difficulties in our way and may shake our confidence to the depths. Yet we have today in social science a greater trust in the improvability of man and society than we have ever had since the Enlightenment (Myrdal, 1944, p. 1024).


  • Myrdal, G. 1939. "Fiscal Policy in the Business Cycle" in The American Economic Review. vol 21, no 1. Mar 1939.
  • Myrdal, G. 1940. Population, a Problem for Democracy. The Godkin Lectures, Harvard University Press.
  • Myrdal, G. 1944. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Harper & Bros.
  • Myrdal, G. 1948. "Social Trends in America and Strategic Approaches to the Negro Problem" in Phylon. Vol. 9, No. 3, 3rd Quarter. 1948.
  • Myrdal, G. 1958. Value in Social Theory: A Selection of Essays on Methodology. Harper & Bros.
  • Myrdal, G. 1962. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (Twentieth Anniversary Edition). New York: Harper & Row.
  • Myrdal, G. 1968. Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. Periodicals Service Co. ISBN 0527027766
  • Myrdal, G. 1984 (original 1969). Objectivity in Social Research. Wesleyan University Press; Reprint edition. ISBN 081956091X
  • Myrdal, G. 1989. "The Equality Issue in World Development" in The American Economic Review. vol 79, no 6. Dec 1989.


  • Cox, Oliver C. 2000. Caste, Class, and Race. Monthly Review Press.
  • Crespi, L. 1945. "Is Gunnar Myrdal on the Right Track?" in Public Opinion Quarterly. 201-12. 1945
  • Taylor, J. 1996. "Sowing the Seeds of Destruction" in American Renaissance. vol.7, no.4, April 1996.
  • Taylor, J. 1998. The Real American Dilemma: Race, Immigration, and the Future of America. New Century Foundation. ISBN 0965638308

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