The Granddaughter’s Dissertation: Some Thoughts on Knowledge about Migration in 1960s Switzerland

While studying the scholarly literature on immigration in post–World War II Switzerland, the personal dedication in a 1964 dissertation about the “assimilation of foreign workers” caught my attention: “In memory of my paternal grandmother Antonietta Zanolli-Recati, who in 1905 moved with her family from Belluno to Zurich, the land of Pestalozzi.”[1] This dedication interests me because it points to the ambiguity of “migrant knowledge,” a concept that has been introduced only recently to academic debates at the intersection of the histories of migration and knowledge.[2] The case of Satuila Zanolli, the author of this dedication and the study it accompanied, invites a closer look at the interrelation of two different aspects of the broader problem of migration and knowledge formation: (1) knowledge possessed by the migrants themselves, that is, migrant knowledge in the truest sense of the term, and (2) knowledge about the phenomenon of migration, that is, migration knowledge.[3]

Not until the early 1960s did scholars face up to the immigration that had been taking place in Switzerland since the end of World War II. These scholars came mainly from the fields of economics, cultural anthropology (Volkskunde), psychiatry, social psychology, and sociology. Between 1948 and the mid-1960s, hundreds of thousands of mostly Italian foreign workers had come to Switzerland in order to work in factories and workshops, in hotels and restaurants, in fields and on construction sites.[4] They fueled economic growth throughout the three-decade-long boom, the so-called trente glorieuses. Switzerland’s official rotational model of seasonal migration meant that workers were not supposed to settle there or bring their families—but they did.[5] Around 1960, different actors and institutions in Switzerland began to realize that immigration was not only an economic necessity but already a social reality, one that consequently required scholarly research. In 1961, the Swiss government set up a federal research commission in order to meet the emerging Foucauldian will to know and study what was popularly perceived as the “problem of foreign workers.”[6]

It was in this context that Satuila Zanolli’s academic advisor at the University of Zurich proposed she write a dissertation on the seemingly urgent topic. In a telephone interview I did with her in January 2017, Satuila Stierlin, née Zanolli, emphasized that one important reason behind her decision to follow this advice was that it resonated with her own biography as a third-generation immigrant of Jewish-Italian descent.

Sozarch_F_5002-Fx-025
Interior view of foreign worker barracks in Switzerland, ca. 1965. Source: Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv, Sozarch_F_5002-Fx-025 (used by permission).

In general, the interaction between scholarship and personal experience can be examined along two lines. On the one hand, there was the impact of research on the personal development and family constellations of the “migrant” academic actors. The psychoanalytic sessions that Zanolli attended four times a week while pursuing her research in the early 1960s point in this direction. She still remembers vividly the effect of her work on her father, who was born in Switzerland but struggled with feelings of rootlessness. He took pride in his daughter interviewing the male Italian metal workers, with whom he identified, in their barracks at a leading machine factory in Zurich. In the recollections she shared on the telephone, Satuila Zanolli’s academic pathway figures as one thread in the rich texture of a family history that unfolds around a strong migration narrative. The story begins with the decision of a woman at the beginning of the century—her paternal grandmother—to take destiny into her own hands. Antonietta Zanolli-Recati leads her family from Northern Italy to the land of Pestalozzi, hoping for a better education and life for her children. Her story in Zurich encompasses the small fashion boutique she opens and the vibrant social life it attracts due to her charm and fascinating personality; the anarchists, artists, and pacifists that frequent the family’s residence during World War I; the return of her husband to Italy; and her death shortly after her granddaughter Satuila is born in 1934. The German-Italian-Jewish grandparents on her maternal side have to emigrate from Torino to Switzerland with the outbreak of World War I. Their story is one of refugees that never manage to assimilate in Switzerland. It was against the backdrop of this social memory of different migration and assimilation experiences that Satuila’s research in the early 1960s gained personal significance in the form of familial introspection and self-reflection.[7]

The grandmother, Antonietta Zanolli. Source: Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv, Ar 145.40.4 (used by permission).

From an epistemological perspective, on the other hand, the analytical focus shifts away from the dramaturgy of Satuila Zanolli’s academic work in the context of her family history. The question instead becomes how this particular migrant experience shaped the scholarly knowledge about migration that it brought forth. No doubt, due to her cultural knowledge, language skills, and migrant knowledge, Zanolli had both a personal incentive and privileged access to her migrant research subjects. Moreover, it is noteworthy how she overcame the provincial scope of the debates in Switzerland at that time with regard to the epistemic framework of her study. Zanolli had been in the United States for two years before beginning her PhD work. According to her own account, this transatlantic migration experience and Cornell University’s cosmopolitan intellectual milieu at the time inspired her deeply. Back in Switzerland, she developed her analytical approach less with regard to the Swiss debate than, earlier than most of her Swiss colleagues, in light of the international literature on assimilation of the 1950s, which she was able to consult at the library of the International Labor Organization in Geneva.[8] This material included studies about Belgium, France, and Australia as well as, most importantly for her, the work of Shmuel N. Eisenstadt on immigration to Israel. Seen from today, Zanolli’s approach might appear assimilationist. It is important, however, to note that Zanolli’s emphasis of the reciprocity of assimilation processes between immigrants and the host society took up progressive approaches of the time that paved the way for integrationist arguments in Switzerland in the 1970s and 1980s.

The case of Zanolli offers a vivid example of the interactions between personal migration experience-cum-expertise and the history of migration research; however, it provides no general answer to the question of how one shapes the other. Alone the scholars involved in social research on migration in Switzerland in the 1960s and 1970s evince a broad variety of personal migration backgrounds and of individual ways of relating them to their research. There was, for example, the psychiatrist Michele Risso from Northern Italy, who studied attitudes toward magic among foreign workers from Southern Italy at a clinic in Lausanne (where he met Zanolli); Richard F. Behrendt, a German-Jewish expatriate and sociology professor at the University of Bern, who was a member of the federal research commission on foreign workers and whose progressive stance on mutual assimilation was an important influence for Zanolli; the Hungarian refugee and psychiatrist Emil Pintér, who examined the mental health problems of fellow countrymen with regard to their difficult situation in Swiss exile after the 1956 uprising; and the son of Polish immigrants in Germany, Hans-Joachim Hoffmann-Nowotny, who moved to Switzerland in 1966 for his PhD research and who became a professor at the University of Zurich and an internationally influential migration sociologist in the 1970s.[9] The possible tensions and contradictions between personal experience and scholarly knowledge are illustrated in the life of the migration scholar Hans-Joachim Hoffmann-Nowotny. As a scholar, he championed a structural understanding of integration, but as an immigrant he never even applied for Swiss citizenship.

All of these examples hint at the rich and diverse historical interrelation of personal (post)migration experience and migration research. At the same time, they raise the question of who should then be counted as a migrant researcher. At first glance, the Swiss anthropologist and historian Rudolf Braun, another crucial figure in the nascent Swiss migration research of the 1960s, does not seem to be covered by this analytical category. A closer look at his biography, however, reveals that Braun’s research on Italian workers in Switzerland was very closely related—on a personal and intellectual level—to his academic stay of several years in the United States in the first half of the 1960s. Should his tenure at the University of Chicago be perceived as a migration experience rather than an episode abroad?[10] This example reminds us to be cautious in applying sociological categories to history. Satuila Zanolli’s own migratory path led back to the United States in 1965, where she started to work in the field of family psychology, and then to Germany in 1974, where she still works as a renowned family therapist. Zanolli would consider herself a cosmopolitan rather than a migrant—just as I see myself, by the way, in spite of my own migration background.

It seems safe to say that the production of knowledge on migration in Switzerland in the 1960s was motivated and shaped by the nation-state’s will to know and to regulate immigration, as was the case in other countries.[11] At the same time, the examples of Satuila Zanolli and other migration scholars suggest that migration knowledge is inseparable from migrant knowledge. Histories of migration knowledge must also take into account the impact of personal experiences with migration, integration, alienation, and estrangement.

Kijan Espahangizi holds a PhD in the History of Science and is Managing Director of Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens in Zurich, Switzerland.


  1. Satuila Zanolli, L’assimilation des travailleurs étrangers: Enquête sur les problèmes d’adaptation de 100 Italiens ouvriers sur métaux dans une grande entreprise zurichoise, (Zurich: Juris, 1964).
  2. See Lisa Gerlach, “Report: Migration and Knowledge,” December 21, 2016, History of Knowledge, https://historyofknowledge.net/2016/12/21/report-migration-and-knowledge/; and Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, eds., Knowledge and Migration, special issue of Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43, no. 3 (2017).
  3. My research on Zanolli is part of a broader project I am undertaking on the history of migration knowledge.
  4. In 1970, approximately one million inhabitants of Switzerland were foreign nationals. This number amounted to over 16% of the population, a share that had been around 5% at the end of World War II. Etienne Piguet, Einwanderungsland Schweiz: Fünf Jahrzehnte halb geöffnete Grenzen (Bern: Haupt, 2006), 30 and 40.
  5. Jakob Tanner, Geschichte der Schweiz im 20. Jahrhundert (Munich: Beck, 2015), 333. See also Gianni D’Amato, “Historische und soziologische Übersicht über die Migration in der Schweiz,” Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Entwicklungspolitik 27, no. 2 (2008): 177–95.
  6. See Kijan Espahangizi, “‘Nötigenfalls müßte an die Einführung des ius soli gedacht werden,'” Geschichte der Gegenwart, August 6, 2017, http://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/noetigenfalls-muesste-an-die-einfuehrung-des-ius-soli-gedacht-werden/; and Kijan Espahangizi, “Towards a Knowledge History of Postmigrant Societies: A Case Study on the Emergence of Migration and Integration Research in Switzerland, 1960–73,” in Changing Landscapes: Switzerland and Migration, ed. Barbara Lüthi and Damir Skenderovic (forthcoming).
  7. The importance of family history for the Zanollis can be seen in how they handed family papers over to the Schweizerische Sozialarchiv in Zurich. See Ar 145 at http://findmittel.ch/archive/archNeu/Ar145.html.
  8. On the role of this NGO in the production and distribution of international migration knowledge, see the dissertation project of Yann Stricker at the University of Lucerne, “The Invention of International Migration in a Colonial World: Statistical Knowledge Production and International Organization in the 1920s,” https://www.unilu.ch/fakultaeten/ksf/institute/historisches-seminar/mitarbeitende/yann-stricker/#c5174.
  9. Michele Risso and Wolfgang Böker, Verhexungswahn: Ein Beitrag zum Verständnis von Wahnerkrankungen süditalienischer Arbeiter in der Schweiz (Basel: S. Karger, 1964); Richard F. Behrendt, “Die Assimilation ausländischer Arbeitskräfte in soziologischer Hinsicht,” Zeitschrift für Präventivmedizin 8, no. 6 (1963): 337–44; Emil Pintér, Wohlstandsflüchtlinge: Eine sozialpsychiatrische Studie an ungarischen Flüchtlingen in der Schweiz (Basel: Karger, 1969); Hans-Joachim Hoffmann-Nowotny, Migration: Ein Beitrag zu einer soziologischen Erklärung (Stuttgart: Enke, 1970); Hans-Joachim Hoffmann-Nowotny, Soziologie des Fremdarbeiterproblems: Eine theoretische und empirische Analyse am Beispiel der Schweiz (Stuttgart: Enke, 1973).
  10. See Rudolf Braun Sozio-kulturelle Probleme der Eingliederung italienischer Arbeitskräfte in der Schweiz (Erlenbach: Rentsch, 1970); and Espahangizi, “Towards a Knowledge History of Postmigrant Societies.”
  11. See, for example, Janine Dahinden, “A Plea for the ‘De-Migrantization’ of Research on Migration and Integration,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 39, no. 13 (2016): 2207–25.
Suggested citation: Kijan Espahangizi, “The Granddaughter’s Dissertation: Some Thoughts on Knowledge about Migration in 1960s Switzerland,” History of Knowledge, August 10, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/08/10/the-granddaughters-dissertation/.