How a controversial research project was revived – a new book on Project Metropolitan

Author: Sten-Åke Stenberg

orn in 1953 - The story about a post-war Swedish cohort, and a longitudinal research project. Author: Sten-Åke Stenberg

In the winter of 1986 a major debate broke out on the sociological study Project Metropolitan. The study, which was started at the Sociology Department at Stockholm University in the early 1960s under the leadership of the late professor Carl-Gunnar Janson, followed more than 15,000 children born in Greater Stockholm. The study had a broad purpose but centered on the question: ”Why do some people do better than others?”. Recently I, Dr. Sten-Åke Stenberg, Professor of Sociology, who works on the study released a book about the project. The book, ”Born in 1953: The story about a post-war Swedish cohort, and a longitudinal research project”, is free to download and read.

Initially, Project Metropolitan was seen as positive and important by participants, government authorities (such as the School Board), and the media. The study began by using analogue systems such as paper registers and calculators to collect large amounts of data – eventually switching to computers. With increased digitization, concerns for personal privacy also increased. Project Metropolitan came under fire and grew to represent the risks of digitization.

In February 1986, headlines in Dagens Nyheter’s (Swedish national daily newspaper) declared: ”Project Metropolitan: 15,000 Swedes in Secret Data Register”. The debate on privacy thus began and it did not take long until newspapers, radio, and television were covering Project Metropolitan. The Department of Sociology at Stockholm University also came under heavy criticism.

Despite the heavy criticism of the media, many researchers, albeit not always publicly, supported the project. It would later be proven that Project Metropolitan violated no laws and that no formal mistakes had been made.

In this context, it is also important to mention that Project Metropolitan was started at a time when ethical regulation was weak and data protection was nonexistent. Today, all research relating to living or dead people must be vetted and the storage of personal data falls under the auspicious of the GDPR.

One consequence of the debate about Project Metropolitan was that data from the project were de-identified. This meant that it was no longer possible to know who the project participants were, an important question of integrity for the participants.

As digitization of society rapidly increased, computers became a staple in the home and workplace. The internet allowed digital information to flow across the globe. It became difficult to see Project Metropolitan as particularly threatening in the shadow of Facebook and Wikileaks. In connection with Professor Carl-Gunnar Janson’s retirement, no one was particularly interested in the project at the Department of Sociology and the project was moved the Institute for Social Research (SOFI).

In the early 2000s, Professor Denny Vågerö of CHESS (now part of the Department of Public Health) and myself, Sten-Åke Stenberg, developed a method to update the data. The method allowed the original research material, which had been anonymized, to be connected to updated data. A crucial prerequisite for ethical approval by the Karolinska Institute Research Ethics Committee was that the data had to remain anonymous. Having met this requirement the project was approved to be updated. Today, the project is called Stockholm Birth Cohort Multigenerational Study (SBC Multigen) and is spearheaded by the Department of Public Health. Many new studies have been published and the project has received a large grant from the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare (FORTE).

In the Swedish-language book, Född 1953. Folkhemsbarn i forskarfokus, I, Professor Sten-Åke Stenberg described the dramatic story of the project and summarized the results to coincide with the participants 60th birthday in 2013.

”Born in 1953: The story about a post-war Swedish cohort, and a longitudinal research project” offers an updated English translation.

Read more about the research project here.

Recent articles from the project

Almquist YB, Jackisch J, Forsman H, et al A decade lost: does educational success mitigate the increased risks of premature death among children with experience of out-of-home care? J Epidemiol Community Health 2018;72:997-1002.

Alm, S. (2015). Hur gick det för 1960- och 1970-talets svenska narkotikamissbrukare? Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 32(2), 109–132.


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