De Swaan’s first publication was Amerika in termijnen; een ademloos verslag uit de USA (America in Installments: A Breathless Report from the USA) in 1968. In 1973 he obtained his doctorate degree cum laude with 'Coalition theories and cabinet formations'.
From 1969 to 1991, he was editor of the general cultural monthly magazine De Gids. Together with Paul van den Bos, he made a series of television documentaries. In 1971 a television movie appeared and a book with the title Een boterham met tevredenheid; gesprekken met fabrieksarbeiders (And a Pat on the Back to Boot: Conversations with Factory Workers) was published.
De Swaan wrote short articles for the Dutch newspaper NRC/Handelsblad on a weekly basis, which have been published in three volumes. In 1991, a number of newly collected essays were published with the title Perron Nederland (Platform the Netherlands: Essays on Culture, High and Low, Far and Near). De mensenmaatschappij (Human Society: An Introduction) was published in 1996. In 2001, 'Words of the World: The Global Language System' was published, together with a special edition of De Gids: De woorden van de Swaan. ‘Dutch Welfare Reforms in an Expanding Europe: The Neighbours' View’ was published in 2004.
De Swaan has been director of the Academia Europea de Yuste, España since 2004.