Cross-National Marriage in Sweden: Immigration and Assimilation 1971-1993

Article excerpt


Sweden is often thought of as a country with relatively little diversity in terms of ethnicity, religion and even social class. In Sweden today, however, with over 12% of the population foreign born or the children of immigrants, the emphasis is on multiculturalism. The official policy is to allow and even encourage immigrant groups to sustain important elements of their culture, including their language, and to realize a multicultural society (Runblom, 1996). As Mansson (1993:8) states the goal of the Swedish welfare state is "to encompass all people in a system of security, tolerance and solidarity." This goal is of course long-term and progress has not been made without conflict. Nor has it occurred without many in Sweden protesting the continuous flow of immigrants especially at times when jobs were not available for those already seeking them.

This paper is an attempt to analyze cross-national intermarriage in Sweden over a twenty-three year period beginning in 1971 and ending in 1993 and relate intermarriage trends to the patterns of immigration to Sweden during approximately this same period. Intermarriage is the marriage between spouses of two different religions, races, ethnic groups or nationalities. At the macro level intermarriage rates have often been used as an indicator of the extent to which integration (the extent to which interaction and social relationships between different groups are frequent) and assimilation (the process by means of which an individual or group is incorporated into society) has occurred (Aguilera, 1992). Price (1982:100) states that "intermarriage is still the best measure of ethnic intermixture because it breaks down ethnic exclusiveness and mixes the various ethnic populations more effectively than any other process." Gordon considers intermarriage as definitive of marital assimilation and an "inevitable by-product of structural assimilation" (1964:80). Assimilation as used in this paper, however, is not meant to necessarily imply the loss of ethnic identity through the blending of cultures or through conformity to Swedish culture.

It seems reasonable to consider the trends in the rates of marriage between Swedes and other nationalities as some crude indicator of the progress of one form of societal integration and perhaps assimilation in contemporary Sweden. It is recognized that a good deal of interaction between potential spouses occurs prior to marriage in most societies. This is especially true today with large numbers of people in many Western industrialized nations delaying marriage, and/or cohabiting outside of marriage. These trends are perhaps more pronounced in Sweden according to Jan Trost (1995a:7) who argues that "cohabitation is a social institution" and sexual intercourse and reproduction have little if any relationship to marriage. No doubt rates of interethnic cohabitation are substantially higher than rates of interethnic marriage. In fact Trost (1995b) estimates that more than 99% of couples formed in Sweden cohabit prior to marriage and of course many couples who cohabit separate before marrying. Given these trends and estimates it can be argued that intermarriage, when it does occur, represents a more advanced or complete stage of integration and assimilation than it once did. In fact Kalmijn (1993) has suggested that looking at increases in mixed parentage might be an alternative indicator of social acceptance.

Examining this process at a more micro level Gray (1987:366) describes the marriage market-place as consisting of a "series of transient matches which in some cases result in the more permanent matches which are called marriages." These transient matches may be the result of "meetings, friendships, one-night stands, courtships, moving in together, trial marriages, and so on." These transient matches are increasingly likely to involve Swedes with non-Swedish partners as the proportion of the population which is non-native increases and norms governing mate selection are relaxed. …