Abram de Swaan (Amsterdam, January 8, 1942) is emeritus University Professor of social science (universiteitshoogleraar) at the University of Amsterdam, where he has been professor of sociology since 1973.
He was dean of the Amsterdam School of Social science Research since its foundation in 1987 until 1997 and has been its chairman since.

He has been an editor of the general cultural review De Gids (est. 1837) from 1969 to 1991 and contributed to many cultural and professional periodicals. For many years he contributed a weekly column to the national daily NRC/Handelsblad.

De Swaan attended the gymnasium at the Montessori Lyceum in Amsterdam (1954-’59), and passed both the ‘alpha’ (classics) and the ‘beta’ (sciences) exam.

He obtained his doctorandus degree (at the time roughly equivalent to an M.A.) in political science with highest honours at the University of Amsterdam in June 1966. From 1963 to 1965 he was an editor of the controversial student weekly Propria Cures, where he found himself involved in numerous polemics. After completing his studies, De Swaan was awarded the Harkness fellowship of the Commonealth fund of New York and studied political science at the graduate schools of Yale University (1996-’67) with Robert A. Dahl, Karl W. Deutsch and Ch. Lindblom, and at the University of California, Berkeley (1967-’68) with Aaron Wildavsky, Nelson Polsby and Sheldon Wolin. From the United States he sent weekly ‘spoken letters’ to VPRO-radio in the Netherlands which were later collected as the bestselling Amerika in Termijnen (1968).

After his return to the Netherlands, De Swaan made a number of documentary television films with cameraman Paul van den Bos for VPRO and VARA in the Netherlands, and for the German Westdeutsche Rundfunk , a.o. in the United States and Peru, a.o. about factory workers (Een boterham met tevredenheid; English version: And a pat on the back to boot), avant garde art, popular musicians (from John Lennon and James Brown to Tina Turner and The Doors) and on the historical sociologist Norbert Elias.

From 1971 to 1973 De Swaan was associate professor (‘lector’) of political science at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, from 1973-1977 he held the same position in sociology at the University of Amsterdam. In 1977 he was appointed full professor of sociology.

In 1973, De Swaan obtained his Ph. D. degree (with highest honours) at the University of Amsterdam with a dissertation on Coalition theories and cabinet formations (Promotor: Prof. N. Frijda, co-promotor H. Daalder, co-referent prof. R. Mokken). For this thesis, which combined formal and historical analysis, he received the 1976 biennial award for the social sciences from the Holland Society of Science.

De Swaan studied psychoanalysis at the Netherlands Institute for Psychoanalysis and practiced as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist from 1973 until 1984. In those years, he published a series of studies on subjects at the intersection of psychoanalysis and sociology and led a research project of social scientists and psychiatrists on the management of anxiety by patients and personnel in a cancer ward (Omgaan met angst – Coping with fear, 1978, unpublished due to judicial interdiction at the hospital’s request). In 1979 he published (with others) a two-volume report on professionalization and clientele-formation in psychotherapy (De opkomst van het psychotherapeutisch bedrijf – The rise of the psychotherapy trade; Het spreekuur als opgave – The initial interview as a task), based on research at the Amsterdam Institute of Medical Psychotherapy. In the same year he gave his inaugural address on The shift from relational management through command to management by negotiation (Uitgaansbeperking en uitgaansangst; over de verschuiving van bevelshuishoudig naar onderhandelingshuishouding).

For his essays (collected in De mens is de mens een zorg – Man is a concern unto man, 1982), De Swaan received the 1983 Busken Huet award of the City of Amsterdam.

In the autumn of ’82 De Swaan was a Fulbright visiting scholar at Columbia University, New York; in the Spring of 1986 he was on research leave in Florence, Italy. Early 1988 De Swaan was a visiting professor at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris; from December 1988 until August 1989 he was Grotius visiting professor USA, at the New School for Social Research in New York. During these years his interests shifted to the historical and comparative sociology of the emergence of welfare states, which resulted in a book: In care of the state, since then translated in Dutch, Spanish, German and French. This publication earned him the 1989 award (‘Politicologenprijs’) of the Netherlands Cercle for Political Science.

In the Spring semester of 1992, De Swaan occupied the Luigi Einaudi chair of International Studies at Cornell University, NY and in December of that year he was a Directeur d’Études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris; in the Winter of 1993 he was a visiting professor at the Department of Sociology of Columbia University, NY, and in the Winter of 1994 and the Fall of 1996 at Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne; he spent the Fall of 1995 as the first occupant of the European Community chair on social policy at Eötvös Lörand University, Budapest. At the invitation of Pierre Bourdieu, he held the chaire Européenne at the Collège de France, Paris, during the year 1997-’98.

De Swaan’s current research interests have gravitated towards the Sociological study of transnational society, especially the Prospects of transnational social policy and The emergent world language system. The European Cultural Foundation has awarded him a grant for a study entitled ‘What language(s) for Europe? He supervises a comparative research project on mutual savings funds in Inonesia, India, Senegal, South Africa and Surinam (with funds from IDPAD and the Indonesian-Dutch cultural accord). In the past years he has made extended study visits to these countries.

De Swaan was voted in succession ‘most prominent sociologist’ in a poll among Dutch colleagues and statistics showed him to be the most frequently cited Dutch sociologist in 1992-’98. He was elected as a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences in 1996 and of the Academia Europea (London) in 2000. In the same year received the royal appointment to the ‘Sigmund Freud chair’ of the Academia Europea de Yuste, Spain, and in 2004 he was elected as its Director.

As scientific director and subsequently chairman of the Amsterdam School for Social science Research, De Swaan has joined in building up the School’s team of senior scholars, and selecting its research fellows and Ph. D. candidates; he helped to develop the scientific profile of the School, especially its course program, and contributed to the School’s international contacts, a.o. by founding an international network for the annual ‘intervision’ of Ph.D candidates working in European soial policy, funded by the European Science Foundation.

Some thirty Ph. D. candidates completed their thesis under De Swaan’s supervision, mostly on historical sociological and ethnographic studies, o.a. on the development of the welfare state and the sociogenesis of the modern mentality. Since 1977 he has taught the freshmen general introductory course to sociology, ‘Core problems of sociology’. An elementary introduction to social science appeared under the title De mensenmaatschappij; Een Inleiding (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1996) which appeared in English translation (Human societies, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001) and in Swedish (2002) and Danish. A collection of short newspaper pieces, Blijven kijken was published in 1997. A selection of his essays appeared recently, entitled De draagbare De Swaan [The portable De Swaan] (ed. Johan Heilbron and Geert de Vries; Amsterdam: Prometheus, 1999). An extensive monography, Words of the world; The global language system (Cambridge: Polity Press/Blackwell, 2001) on the political sociology and political economy of language was translated in Dutch: Woorden van de wereld; Het mondiale talenstelsel (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2002), as well as in Hungarian and Chinese (2008). On the occasion of his retirement a Festschrift appeared, Grenzeloos nieuwsgierig; Opstellen voor en over Abram de Swaan [Curious without limits, essays on and for Abram de Swaan] (Bert Bakker, Amsterdam, 2007) A collection of essays on massive violence, Bakens in Niemandsland [Beacons in No man’s land] (Amsterdam: Prometheus,2007) came out in 2007. A revised edition of De draagbare De Swaan was published in May 2008.

De Swaan is a member of the governing board of CERI (Centre d’études des relations internationals; École de science politique, Paris) as well as a board member of several research centres at the University of Amsterdam. He is a correspondent or member of the board of numerous foreign professional journals.

In 2006 De Swaan was decorated as a knight in the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands. In the Fall of 2007, as a Senior Fulbright Fellow, he taught a course on Mass annihilation at Columbia University Graduate School, New York.

In April 2008 De Swaan was awarded a honorary 1st dan in kyokushinkai karate. In May, he received the national award for literature, the P.C. Hooft prize, for his essays.

Since summer 2014 he is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine of Mount Sinai Hospital New York.

De Swaan has been appointed Queen Wilhelmina Professor at Columbia University in New York during the Fall semester of 2015.He will teach a course for graduate and advanced undergraduate students on ‘The Other Idea of Europe; Mass Annihilation in the 20th Century’

De Swaan was married to Ellen Louise Ombre, 1973-2002; they have one son, Meik (1974).


Prof. dr. Abram de Swaan,
EM. University professor of social science