these gents be Norwegian traditionalists showing off recent haute
couture from the national heritage industry? Read the essay and
A desolate rocky cliff arising gloomily from the foaming, dark
Arctic waters - the home of a small breed of stocky peasants and
tough fishermen painfully eking out a living from their rough
and hostile environment. Is this Norway? No? Then how about this
one: It is the most perfect democracy in the world; along with
Sweden it has the planet's only fully-fledged welfare state, it
is technologically highly advanced and rich in natural resources,
and its inhabitants enjoy the highest standard of living in the
world as well as the least polluted environment. The German sociologist
Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote, in his small book on Norway (Enzensberger,
1984), that this country is simultaneously an ethnological museum
and a future laboratory. Seen from the vantage-point of continental
Europe, Norway is in many respects out of step, and Enzensberger's
characterisation of the country as a place of contradictions -
wedged between the turbulence of modernity and the inertia of
tradition - may be a good starting-point for a reflection over
Norwegian identity at the end of the second millennium, A.D.
The first part of this chapter outlines the contemporary domestic
discourse about "Norwegianness". In the second part
of the chapter, critical light is shed on the cultural construction
of modern Norway, and some recent challenges to the customary
perceptions of Norwegian identity will also be discussed.
1. The ongoing
invention of Norwegian identity
The making of the Norwegian nation
Foreigners are often at a loss at describing the country in simple
terms, but so are - alas - Norwegians. Since the advent of Norwegian
nationalism in the 19th century, discussions concerning the Norwegian
national character have periodically been at the frontstage of
public life in the country, and they never fail to arouse great
passion. What does it actually entail to be Norwegian? What are
the Norwegians "really" like, and in which ways are
they different from other peoples? In the early 1990s, these issues
have flared up with almost unprecedented intensity. There are
several causes for this strong interest in Norwegian national
identity, and we shall look into some of them in greater detail
below. Let me nevertheless mention the recent wave of non-European
immigrants, the Saami ethnic movement in the north, the prospect
of membership in the European Community, the globalisation of
culture, and the planning of the 1994 Winter Olympics at Lillehammer,
as some concomitant processes which inspire many Norwegians to
scratch their heads and ask themselves: Who are we, and why is
When we try to understand the contemporary concern with Norwegian
national identity, we should keep in mind that the country's history
has been construed so as to distinguish it crucially from every
other European country, including its closest neighbours, Sweden
and Denmark. Although there was a mediaeval kingdom roughly where
Norway is presently located, its history as an independent nation-state
is short, dating from its peaceful secession from Sweden in 1905.
Sweden, being among the winners of the Napoleonic wars in 1814,
had in turn taken over Norway from one of the losers, Denmark.
Norway had then been a part of the Danish kingdom for more than
four hundred years.
A peripheral country in Europe as well as in the world-system
until the 20th century, Norway was scarcely affected by the many
upheavals and conflicts unfolding on the Continent from the Renaissance
on, and its development followed, in many respects, its own course.
Notably, Norway was never an independent colonial power, nor did
it have a widespread feudal system. For centuries, the only sizeable
town with strong links to Continental Europe was Bergen in the
west. With no powerful city bourgeoisie and no strong landed gentry,
burgeoning Norwegian nationalism took on a different character
from that of other European countries in the 19th century. It
was emphatically rural and egalitarian in its orientation, and
it tended to glorify the simple ways of life of the countryside
rather than revelling in urban grandeur or the military pride
of the state (see Berggreen's contribution to this book). There
was, after all, little grandeur and military pride to attach oneself
to, since the country had been a peripheral part of the Danish
kingdom for centuries.
An irony of this invention of nationhood is the fact that those
individuals who most strongly promoted the idea of Norwegianness
as a rural form of life, were themselves urban and highly educated
people - their daily life was very far removed from that of the
simple peasants whom they defined as the carriers of national
identity. It was the urban middle-class, riding on a pan-European
wave of 19th century romanticism, which decided on rural folk
costumes, folk dances and fairy-tales as central national symbols
towards the end of the nineteenth century.1 The farmers who actually
wore the "typical" costumes and danced the "typical"
dances were less likely to see them as "typically Norwegian"
(Østerud, 1984). This creative production of a national
identity consists in what an anthropologist might describe as
a form of bricolage (following Lévi-Strauss, 1962), whereby
one appropriates a set of known objects or symbols, and combines
them in new ways in order to create new forms of meaning. Thus
the old dances, tales and handicrafts of the Norwegian countryside
took on a new meaning when they were juxtaposed with the trappings
of a modern state and a nationalist ideology.
Nationalism is a kind of ideology which proclaims that the political
boundaries should be coterminous with the cultural boundaries
of a given territory; in other words, that a state (a "country")
should only contain people of the same kind (Gellner, 1983). The
idea of the Norwegian nation was born the moment a few people
decided that (i) the area contained a distinct culture, (ii) the
area should have political self-determination. Neither of these
assumptions were evidently or "naturally" true at the
time. During the formative stage of Norwegian nationalism in the
mid-19th century, Norwegian nationalists had to compete with Scandinavianists,
who regarded Scandinavia (or at least Norway and Denmark) as a
single cultural area.2 That fusion of a cultural identity with
a state which is implied in nationalism, is not in itself "natural"
either, as recent writers on the history of nationalism have reminded
us (Gellner, 1983; Anderson, 1983). Before (and indeed after)
the French Revolution in 1789, few states were nation-states:
they were multi-cultural states. At the court of the Ottoman empire,
to mention but one example, three languages were spoken - Arabic,
Turkish and Farsi (Persian). At the royal court in Copenhagen
- the capital of Denmark-Norway - German, French and Danish were
Nationalism and nationhood are cultural products, imaginatively
created by nationalists. Nationhood is a social fact in so far
as the inhabitants of an area believe in the existence of that
imagined community (Anderson's, 1983, phrase) which is proposed
by the nationalists. They hold that they have something profound
in common, which could be phrased as metaphoric kinship, with
a great number of people whom they will never know personally.
It is in this sense that the nation may be spoken of as an imagined
community; it is no more "imaginary" than other kinds
of communities, but it is abstract and depends on ideological
justification - it must be "imagined" by its members
- in order to exist. In the case of Norway, Norwegianism was eventually
to win out over Scandinavianism, and by today, surely, few Norwegians
claim that they belong to the same nation as Danes, or Swedes,
for that matter.
Nationhood need not be strongly related to "objective cultural
traits", although nationalist ideology tries to persuade
people that it is. So although it could be argued that people
from south-eastern Norway have more in common culturally with
people from centralwestern Sweden than with people from western
Norway, such a similarity has little consequence in so far as
people from Eastern and Western Norway insist that they belong
to the same nation and exclude Swedes from it.
The nation is, in other words, a historical and cultural fact;
it is not a fact of nature. Nationalism is also a modern phenomenon,
and this has been poorly understood until quite recently. Since
nationalists are eager to present their nation as ancient, and
since they draw on traditionalist symbolism (such as folk costumes
and myths of ancient wars), many have been led to believe that
nations - such as the Norwegian one - are indeed very old. In
fact, the use of old symbols (some dating back to the Viking era)
in Norwegian nationalism can be quite confusing since it seems
to suggest that the Norwegian nation can be traced back to the
Viking era. We should therefore be aware that these symbols had
a different meaning in their original context, before that creative
bricolage which built a bridge between past and present. At that
time, the springar (a typical dance) was not an expression of
national identity, but an imported weekend pastime, or a part
of a wedding ritual. It is only retrospectively that it has become
an embodiment of nationality.
Looking critically at the historical sources of the nationalist
project, one will find that they are ambiguous. For example, the
history of the Nordic region may just as well be used to justify
a Scandinavian or regional identity as a Norwegian one; the history
of each country is intertwined with that of the other Scandinavian
countries, and at a lower level, people from Sunnmøre may
feel that they have little in common with people from Oslo. We
should therefore be aware that history is a product of the present,
not of the past. The contemporary view of say, the Viking era,
is quite different from the view which was current in the sixteenth
century. These and related aspects of nationalism and national
identity will be dealt with in the second half of the present
chapter. At this point it should be kept in mind that the nation
- as a community of citizens regarding themselves as culturally
similar - depends on ideological justification in order to exist.
And - since nations are historical products - the definition of
nationhood may change. It is with such a context in mind that
the discourse on Norwegian national identity can be properly understood.
Dano-German and Norse trends
Perhaps a feeling that their nation-state and national identity
are vulnerable, can account for the widespread Norwegian interest
in discussing the content of domestic "national character".
The country has a small population, it is geographically peripheral,
and it has a comparatively short history as an independent state.
Today (1992), there seems to exist a real fear of the imminent
disappearance of the "Norwegian way" if the country
is to join the European Community, and the organisers of the 1994
Winter Olympics in Lillehammer have vowed to take care of the
national heritage in their choreography of the event. However,
Norwegian identity seems to be contradiction-ridden. The Norwegian
language issue is a strong indicator of this. Since the invention
of the Norwegian nation in the mid-19th century, the country has
been divided into adherents of Nynorsk (New Norwegian) and Bokmål
(literally, "Book language") or Riksmål (State
language). Nynorsk, a standard script based on certain rural dialects,
was invented by Ivar Aasen in the mid-19th century, and rapidly
gained popularity among certain segments of the population, particularly
in the west and extreme south. Claiming that the users of Riksmål/Bokmål
were really writing Danish and were thus unpatriotic, Nynorsk
users saw themselves as the more authentic carriers of nationhood.
Even today, all schoolchildren have to write compositions in both
variants of the language, which are incidentally closely related.
Although the language issue, virulent for decades, has abated,
the persistence of the division indicates a widespread self-conscious,
and contradiction-ridden, reflection over one's national identity.3
The Norwegian language issue could be articulated as an expression
of a cultural division between Dano-German and Norse currents
in Norwegian cultural history (Øyvind Østerud's
suggestion), where movements of lay Christianity and teetotalitarianism
go together with EC scepticism and nynorsk on the Norse side,
confronted with the modernism and extroverted tendencies of the
Dano-German trends. A passionate defence for the Dano-German trends
is a small book by Jørgen Haugan (1991), where the author
laments the lack of Continental manners and an exciting intellectual
life in his native country. Strongholds of "Norse" trends
are the western parts of southern Norway, while the "Dano-German"
trends are strongest in the larger cities, particularly Bergen
Despite such internal divisions, it could be argued that Norwegians
are generally concerned to retain their distinctiveness, and moreover,
that most of them insist that they are a single people. Trine
Deichman-Sørensen (1988) has suggested that in a small
country such as Norway, nothing unites the population more strongly
than the general interest in "Norway". But what does
this distinctiveness consist in? Instead of providing a more or
less random checklist of "Norwegian cultural traits",
I shall outline the recent public discourse on Norwegian distinctiveness.
Frequently anectodal or satirical in character, much of the popular
literature on "Norwegian character" should perhaps be
read as political statements in its own right, and not necessarily
as "scientific" work. It nevertheless contains many
valuable insights as well as itself being a contribution to the
ongoing definition of Norwegian identity.
Most of those writing on Norwegian national identity seem to agree
that politics in the country is marked by a peculiar democratic
ideology, which we may tentatively label egalitarian individualism.
Equality and the integrity of the individual are in other words
believed to be highly valued. Historical and geographic reasons
for such an ideology are often evoked - for example, Norwegian
farms were scattered and did not invite the communal form of organisation
more common in other parts of Europe, and the country lacked a
strong aristocracy and related hierarchies - but we shall not
go into such arguments here.
The ideology of egalitarian individualism, it has been argued,
expresses itself through a strong suspicion against social climbers
and rejection of formal social hierarchies. In political rhetoric,
equality is a positively valued word, whether it concerns gender,
class or town and country. Few politicians would venture to say
that they were all for inequality. The social democratic ideology
which has guided post-war Norwegian politics expresses such values,
which are embedded in the concept of the Welfare State (cf. Andersen,
1984). The author Aksel Sandemose, an immigrant from Denmark,
coined the Law of Jante (Janteloven, cf. Sandemose, 1953), which
presents such an egalitarianism in a less charitable manner. The
Law of Jante proclaims - in a variety of ways - that "Thou
Shalt Not Think Highly of Thyself". It expresses, in other
words, an ideology of equality which depreciates the original
and the unusual. It is widely held that the Law of Jante is a
deeply embedded aspect of Norwegian culture, and that it discourages
brilliance and high achievements. Indeed, the Law of Jante has
repeatedly been mentioned by local businessmen as an obstacle
to economic growth and prosperity. (It is true that Norway contains
fewer very rich people and thus has a greater measure of economic
equality than most other countries, but it is not true that the
country has had an unusually low economic growth rate.)
Be this as it may; the idea of Norwegian egalitarianism has inspired,
and continues to justify, legal provisions for equality between
the genders, a progressive system of taxation and a highly subsidised
rural sector. Egalitarian individualism is also frequently mentioned
as a driving force behind the strong resistance to EC membership,
which reached a temporary peak in the 1972 referendum when 52.5%
of the population voted against membership. The idea of decentralisation,
a related aspect of this ideology, will be discussed below.
Consensus, compromise and formal justice
The Argentinian anthropologist Eduardo Archetti, who has lived
in Norway for many years, has compared the Norwegian style of
discourse with that prevalent in Catholic countries (Archetti,
1984). In his view, Norwegians are consensus-oriented and issue-oriented
(saklige) when they are forced to solve tasks together, for example
in discussions at meetings. This entails that (i) they tend to
be unwilling to accept disagreement; (ii) they stick to the facts
and avoid including personal or other formally irrelevant aspects
into the situation. Regarding the consensus orientation, Norwegians
would, according to Archetti, tend to prefer a poor compromise
to a violent quarrel - even if they were eventually to emerge
victoriously from the latter: They strongly wish to agree.
As regards the "issue-orientation" of Norwegians, Archetti
links this with a related observation of Norwegian culture, namely
a concern with formal justice - or, as an anthropologist might
say, balanced reciprocity. This means that one returns a favour
or a gift almost immediately, and measures the return virtually
with mathematic precision. In other societies, people might buy
each other drinks, cups of coffee or meals without demanding an
immediate return of the favour. In this way, they establish a
lasting relationship. In this country, it is uncommon that people
do not split restaurant or bar accounts, pay their own entrance
fees, and so on - even if they know each other well. Are Norwegians
afraid to develop informal commitments or obligations vis-à-vis
others? Are they simply afraid of making friends? So it may seem,
if Archetti is correct. It may be the case that Norwegians (and,
it could be argued, other Scandinavians), imbued with Protestantism
and Puritanism, fear the consequences of a friendship with a person
whom they do not already know well. Since honesty and sincerity
are important values in Norwegian definition of self, it could
be argued, the Norwegians may be afraid of making promises of
friendship which they might break in the future. Further aspects
of the discussion of Norwegian identity seem to confirm this assumption.
The rural connection
"You can get me out of Valdres, but you cannot get Valdres
out of me," writes the native social anthropologist Tord
Larsen (1984) as an illustration of the intimate identification
of Norwegians with their place of origin, even if they have long
since migrated from their native valley or fishing hamlet. Norway
was urbanised later than many other European countries - largely
during the 20th century - and half of the population still lives
in rural areas. Of those who live in towns, many maintain strong
affective links with the home of their ancestors, as well as relatives
who remain in the countryside. Even some of the most urbane and
sophisticated members of the Oslo bourgeoisie leave the city for
Christmas in order to visit a remote mountain valley where their
kin group originates. Norwegian identity, as it is generally defined
by Norwegians, is primarily a rural identity, not an urban one.
Foreigners sometimes complain that Norwegians are difficult to
befriend; that they jealously guard their personal space and seem
worried and slightly afraid when confronted with strangers. It
has been claimed that most Norwegians rarely address strangers
unless drunk or if for some reason or other they either really
have to. Perhaps such an assumed aspect of the Norwegian way of
life could be related to their recent rural origins. In many rural
areas, strangers were treated with suspicion, and every individual
had only a small number of friends whom he or she knew intimately.
Villages were, as noted, absent. The social situation typical
of the city, implying a very high number of superficial acquaintances,
may therefore seem alienating and difficult to handle for people
with a rural background. A self-perception common among Norwegians
conforms to this view: they do not regard themselves as a cosmopolitan
and easy-going people, but rather as somewhat private and introvert.
Lacking the mannerisms of sophisticated urbanites, they might
argue, they compensate through a sincere and trustworthy character
- and this is a characterisation of Norwegians also commonly invoked
by foreigners. The British expression "Norwegian charisma",
used to describe people entirely devoid of grace and charm, confirms
Nature and culture
The wild and varied Norwegian scenery and clean environment comprise
a source of pride to many of the country's citizens, and it may
be the most important component in the standard image of Norway
presented to foreigners. Instead of drawing on grand cultural
traditions or a proud military history, Norwegian patriots (and
surely, visiting foreigners) may talk of their beautiful mountains,
clean lakes and breathtaking fjords. A genuinely peculiar aspect
of Norwegian identity, further, seems to consist in the social
use of nature in the country. A Norwegian who lacks interest in
nature and friluftsliv ("life out in the open") may
well be accused of being a poor specimen by his fellow citizens.
A great number of people own cottages (hytter) in some
remote valley, forest or mountain area, and many spend the majority
of holidays there - it has been estimated that over half of the
population has easy access to a hytte. Rather than seeking contact
with other people, or exploring foreign cities, they regard the
holiday as an opportunity to "get away from it all",
which means spending it with the nuclear family in a remote place
where they can fish, walk or ski. These cottages, although many
are well furnished and equipped, are expected to signal an ideal
of simplicity in lifestyle - an aspect of Norwegian self-definition
to which I shall return below.
The origins of most Norwegians in rural, non-hierarchical environments
are again apparent. For one thing, there is little to boast about
as regards urban grandeur in the country. One need only compare
the Royal Castle in Oslo with the rather more spectacular ones
in Copenhagen and Stockholm to see the point. As the national
anthem goes, "Hytter og hus, men ingen borge" ("Cottages
and houses, but no castles"). Further, many Norwegians express
that they do not feel at ease in the city. Many claim to live
in the city malgré eux - in spite of themselves, and the
ideal of living in a "small red house in the country"
is widespread enough to have become a cliché. A TV journalist
who had just completed a series of programmes about Oslo in the
autumn of 1991, was asked what she valued the most about the capital.
Not entirely unexpectedly, she answered Nordmarka; that is, the
nature reserve just inside the city limits.4
Few Norwegians admit that they love the city. There is also a
tendency that urban life is evaluated on the basis of standards
originating in the country. If the city does not fulfil human
needs in the same way as the rural settlement did, something must
be wrong with the city. Since it is impossible to move the city
to the mountain valley, one tries instead to move the valley to
the city. Norwegians have slowly become an urban people to the
extent that many of them live in towns and cities, but they have
scarcely become an urbane people in their own view. The rural
connection and love of nature are very important aspects of the
public self-definition of "what is typically Norwegian"
(see also Witoszek, 1991).
In his aforecited book, Enzensberger points out that a peculiar
characteristic of Norwegian society lies in the fact of 47 airports
(actually, the number is 53) for a population of four million.
Like many other commentators on Norwegian society, he sees the
high value placed on a scattered settlement of the population
(spredt bosetting in political rhetoric) as being typically Norwegian.
If we compare Norway with say, France or Sweden, this notion is
confirmed. A roadmap of France would indicate that virtually all
main roads lead to Paris. Frenchman have accustomed themselves
to seeing the main seats of finance, politics and higher learning
located to the capital. As regards Sweden, that country, like
Norway, had a very scattered population at the turn of the century.
From the inception of the modern Swedish welfare state in the
years after World War I, there was an increasing awareness that
it would have been extremely expensive to offer the same rights
and benefits to people in remote Norrland as to people in the
Stockholm area. Many of the erstwhile inhabitants of Norrland
- the northernmost third of the country - have later moved to
newly erected housing estates in central areas. The Norwegian
picture differs starkly. Although there have been advocates for
a greater centralisation of power and people in this country as
well, their influence has been limited. In Norwegian politics,
it is a widespread notion that people should be able to live in
the place where they grew up, if at all possible. Subsidies, generous
tax deductions and other economic benefits have been channeled
into Utkantnorge ("Peripheral Norway") to ensure this;
expensive bridges and tunnels connect small islands with the mainland,
and Norwegian agriculture is, along with Japanese and Swiss agriculture,
the most heavily subsidised in the world. Language is decentralised
to the extent that every valley has its own, semi-officialised
dialect in which at least some of the inhabitants take great pride.
Educational facilities up to University level are available in
every county, and there are not only many airports, but also regional
hospitals, libraries, post offices and administrative offices
of various kinds in a very large number of localities. In 1990,
the national library was moved from Oslo to a place called Brønnøysund,
which - it has been noted by critics - is a remarkable place for
not being within commuting distance from a single town. Small
is still beautiful in Norway. The cost of all this, some have
argued, is an overall decerase of welfare in the country. Besides,
they claim, the decentralisation has come to a point where there
remains nothing to decentralise: in other words, that the central
institutions and urban areas have been neglected. Such criticisms
seem to have had little effect yet, and few politicians would
dare to omit the "districts" or Utkantnorge, in their
The priority given to peripheral areas in political life confirms
the image of Norwegian identity as an essentially rural identity.
It is further confirmed in the nisselue stereotype with which
I shall presently deal.
The unsophisticated, but practically minded farmer
The nisselue, the red woollen hat worn (particularly around Christmas)
by the gnomes (nisser) featured in local folklore, has in recent
years become an ambiguous symbol of Norwegian nationhood. "Pulling
the nisselue down one's ears" refers to isolationist tendencies
in Norwegian society, often invoked against, for example, those
who oppose EC membership. The nisselue, frequently worn by people
on skis, is also a reminder of the intimate relationship between
Norwegian identity and rural life, and thus seems to present the
typical Norwegian as an unsophisticated and clumsy peasant unable
to move gracefully about in a complex and modern environment.
Some Norwegians have tried to turn aspects of the nisselue stereotype
into a laudable description of themselves, and tend to regard
themselves as a practical and earthy people. The anti-EC movement
has actually used the nisselue as their symbol. During the German
occupation in 1940-45, the nisselue was a symbol of resistance,
and was actually prohibited by the Germans. A symbol of earthiness
and simplicity, the nisselue simultaneously signals independence
To wear designer-made Italian clothes, to own a sleek but impractical
luxury car, and to relish the bouquets of fine wines and champagnes,
would be considered emphatically un-Norwegian. Despite the country's
rise to wealth, a certain frugality and simplicity are still considered
proper in this society. There are heavy taxes on "luxury
goods", and wine and liquor can still only be purchased in
state monopoly stores at exorbitant prices. In some parts of the
country, puritanist Protestant sects, which rail against moral
decay of every conceivable kind, remain powerful. In these rural
areas, one can sometimes travel for days without coming across
a wine/spirits monopoly outlet, since the politicians of the communities
refuse to have one lest their inhabitants should run astray.
Self-definitions of a typical Norwegian "personality"
would usually depict that personality as formal and slightly stiff,
but sincere to the point of naïveté. In a bid to defend
Norwegians against accusations that they are cold and unpassionate,
Eduardo Archetti (1984) has called attention to the institution
of the Norwegian party where, it is true, people tend to bring
their own wine, but where a certain joie-de-vivre and lack of
formality are for once apparent.
The brown cheese
In 1990, the hosts of Nitimen, the most popular daily radio programme,
which features light music and assorted small talk,5 invited its
listeners to elect that object or cultural trait which was most
Norwegian. The programme had earlier designated the national bird
(fossekallen, that is the dipper) and the national fish (the cod).
This time, a very large number of responses elicited a variety
of proposed "national totems", and the list suggests
how ordinary Norwegians perceive themselves as being distinctive
from say, Swedes or Englishmen. Among the suggestions were the
cheese slicer (a Norwegian invention), the Hardanger fiddle, the
Selbu mitten, Constitution Day (17 May) and the folk song "Kjerringa
med Staven". The winner of the competition was, however,
the brown cheese. Sometimes misleadingly called goat cheese (only
a minority of brown cheeses are made exclusively from goat's milk;
the classic G45 is 50-50 goat's and cow's milk), the brown cheese
could almost certainly be regarded as a genuine Norwegian contribution
to world cuisine. Perhaps more importantly, the brown cheese epitomises
central values in a widespread Norwegian self-definition: Being
a dairy product, it is associated with the rural life; its unspectacular
taste signifies frugality and simplicity in style; its widespread
use in the bagged lunches typical of Norwegian society further
expresses a spirit of common sense and a "no-frills"
attitude. - Or maybe this interpretation is wrong. Whatever the
case may be: The brown cheese did get the most votes.
identity in a changing world
Characterisations of "national character" - such as
those discussed above - tend to be stereotypical, and can be grossly
misleading. After all, there are enormous regional and individual
variations in a large society such as a nation-state. When Norwegian
intellectuals talk about "Norwegian culture", they frequently
exclude themselves from its compass. A common expression in many
quarters is this: "Bah! That's typically Norwegian!".
Besides, the anthropological literature on ethnicity has shown
that ideas of cultural traits distinguishing ethnic groups (or
nations) from each other are often oversimplifying or simply mistaken.
The "cultural traits" mentioned as unique by a group
are often vaguely described or even shared with its neighbours
(cf. Knudsen, 1989, for a similar point concerning the Mediterranean).
Besides, the presumed continuity in time of an ethnic group or
nation can in several senses be regarded as mythical. It is obvious
that the content of Norwegian nationhood and "national character"
changes as the world changes; being a Norwegian in 1992 means
something different from what it meant in 1952. I shall now sketch
some ways in which the public discourse on Norwegian national
identity may also be said to change, and in which ways changes
in the external world may influence domestic reflection on the
The social importance of "imagined communities"
Ideological constructions of national identity and uniqueness,
misleading as they may be, are important for two main reasons.
First, such designations fix a social identity and protect its
boundaries. If Norwegians were convinced, for example, that they
were the only herring-eating people in the world, this would confirm
and strengthen their national identity. The very idea of cultural
uniqueness serves to strengthen the boundaries against the external
world. Secondly, cultural definitions of national identities may
eventually become self-fulfilling prophecies. If one is consistently
taught that one's culture is egalitarian, decentralist and concerned
with formal justice, one will eventually define oneself as egalitarian,
etc. A typical example concerns the Norwegian language. A traveller
going from Bergen to Stockholm at the turn of the century - before
Norway's secession from Sweden - would pass through valleys and
towns where different dialects were spoken. However, he would
scarcely be able to tell where the Norwegian dialects ended and
the Swedish ones began. In 1992, it would have been possible to
draw such a dividing line, corresponding with the national border.
A nationalist ideology monitored through the state, the mass media
and civil society has led to an increasing degree of cultural
homogenisation. It has thus been argued that Norway became an
integrated nation in the 1960s, when national TV was introduced
and virtually everybody - from Hammerfest to Lindesnes - began
watching the same TV news at the same time every day.
The nation, seen as a collectivity of people defining themselves
as "a people", came into being after nationalist ideology.
To some extent, it was created through the implementation of nationalist
ideology in the central agencies of the state and civil society.
Deconstructing national myths
A public concern with defining national identity, which has been
very important in Norwegian intellectual life throughout this
century, implies its own negation. As some "nation-builders"
create a certain image of the history or the national identity
of a country, others will - if they are allowed to - take the
opportunity to tear it down; deconstructing, criticising, indicating
in which ways the stories of their past and present have been
misleading and ideological in character, aimed at presenting a
certain, political opportune view of the past.
In Norway as in many other countries, historians and creative
writers have been instrumental in this creation of nationhood
during the past two hundred years or so. Critical voices have
throughout added their versions of Norwegian history to those
explicitly or implicitly exhorting the virtues of nation-building.
The national myth of the heroic resistance of the Norwegian people
during the Second World War, largely created by historians and
others writing on the period, could serve as an example. Several
historians have in more recent times filled in this picture with
new facts and interpretations of the period (for two recent contributions,
see Dahl, 1991; Sørensen, 1991). They have argued that
Norwegian Nazis, many of whom died on the Eastern Front for their
fatherland, may be regarded as devoted patriots. Parallels between
certain aspects of Nazi politics and social democratic politics
have also been revealed. It has also been shown that although
many Norwegians actively resisted the German occupation from 1940
to 1945, very many did not.6 In order to understand the controversial
character of such facts and re-interpretations of history, one
must understand the role of the Second World War in the contemporary
national self-consciousness. A very great number of books have
been published on the war, and many of them depict Norwegian resistance
as heroic. This resistance highlights sacred aspects of Norwegian
nationhood: it shows the willingness of Norwegians to sacrifice
their lives for their country, the importance of patriotism in
times of hardship, and the divine destiny of the area, as it were,
as an independent country. It is not surprising, therefore, that
re-interpretations offering alternative perspectives on Norwegian
achievements during the war, can be controversial.
Other central nationalist ideas have also been tampered with recently.
The transition from the heroic age of Norwegian nationhood (notably
the Viking age) to the "four-hundred years' night" under
Danish rule has been re-written by historians lacking the nationalist
bias formerly widespread, and it has become possible to argue
that there was no "necessary" continuity between the
medieval Norwegian state and that Norwegian nation-state which
was created in 1814, and which gained full independence in 1905.
This presumed continuity, evident in the name of the new king
(Haakon VII) which suggests that modern Norway was really the
same country as the medieval kingdom, must be regarded as an ideological
construction, neither more nor less. The king himself was originally
a Danish prince, and spoke Danish till the day of his death.
In his book on the doctrine of national self-determination, the
political scientist Øyvind Østerud (1984) reminds
his readers that many "typical" aspects of Norwegian
culture were really quite recent imports from the European continent
at the time when they were discovered and fashioned as national
symbols by the early nationalists. This holds good for "traditional"
Norwegian handicrafts, musical instruments and folk costumes.
Most of the regional bunads, an important type of national costume,
were invented in the beginning of the 20th century; the patterns
were profoundly inspired by costumes in Continental Europe.
The very idea of Norwegian culture and society as a "natural"
and constant entity evolving according to its internal laws for
over a thousand years, is about to become untenable. Norwegian
culture and society have developed through crucial, if sometimes
sporadic, contact with continental Europe, and the changes have
been dramatic. It can be argued that contemporary Norwegians have
less in common with the Wergelands of the 19th century (famous
Norwegian nationalist) than with contemporary Germans or Dutchmen.
The "tradition" on which nationalism and national identity
feeds has been deconstructed; the great tradition of nationhood
is increasingly being fragmented into several lesser histories
which point out the ambiguities involved in interpreting the past,
and which reveal nationalist versions of history as conglomerates
of fact, myth and contestable interpretations. This does not mean
that the Norwegian nation does not exist, but it reminds us that
it is a cultural invention - and a fairly recent one at that.
Since Norwegian history can be reinterpreted, the content of Norwegian
identity can be changed. This, some have argued, is called for
in our day and age, marked by two strong tendencies which apparently
run counter to some currently held conceptions of Norwegian nationality.
These tendencies are the emergence of a poly-ethnic Norwegian
society, and the globalisation of culture. I shall first look
into the challenges from minority ethnicity.
Are the Saami Norwegians?
Their numbers are few, but they are highly visible. Approximately
100,000 non-European immigrants and refugees and 40,000 Saami
comprise a small percentage of the country's population, but in
recent years they have increasingly demanded formal equal rights
and an acknowledged minority status. A continuous reminder that
nationalist ideology does not conform perfectly with social reality,
ethnic minorities constitute a thorn in the eye of many governments.
Norway is no exception, and problems arising from the presence
of minorities go to the naked core of nationalism: What is the
actual content of the national identity; who should be included
in the nation and who should be excluded from it; and what kinds
of demands should be placed on inhabitants who are not members
of the nation?
The Saami, that sub-Arctic ethnic group who were formerly known
as the Lapps, are Norway's oldest ethnic minority.7 In all probability,
they have lived in what is now Norway for at least as long as
ethnic Norwegians. Until the late 1950s, Saami identity had been
strongly stigmatised. Many Saami living in ethnically mixed areas
chose to undercommunicate their ethnic origins - that is, they
pretended they were not Saami; and many indeed became Norwegians
in a matter of a few generations. From the early 1960s, but particularly
since 1980, the country has seen the growth of a powerful ethnic
revitalisation movement investing pride and dignity into the formerly
despised Saami identity; they have taken conscious measures to
glorify and re-codify half-forgotten Saami customs and tradition,
while simultaneously making certain that they receive their share
of the national welfare. This ethnopolitical movement has enjoyed
considerable success. The Saami language, threatened by extinction
as late as the 1960s, has been revived, and it is now the main
administrative language in those parts of Finnmark county which
are defined as Saami core areas. In 1989, a Saami parliament with
limited but real power, Sametinget, was officially inaugurated
by the late Norwegian king Olav V.
Only a generation ago, many Saami were about to become assimilated
into the Norwegian ethnic group, while others were politically
passive, poor, culturally stigmatised and largely uneducated.
Their success has proven that it is possible for a well-organised
aboriginal minorities to reinvent and indeed strengthen their
identity in the face of fast social and cultural change, and that
there need be no contradiction between modernisation and ethnic
identity. Although many Norwegians of Saami ancestry still reject
Saami identity, the number of citizens who define themselves as
Saami has increased. Today, the self-conscious members of this
minority present themselves a culturally self-conscious group
whose identity has survived the process of modernisation. Only
a minority engage in the reindeer herding with which the group
is associated (and associates itself in its ethnic symbolism),
but many thousands - many of them residents of cities - insist
on their right to be non-Norwegians in an ethnic sense, and yet
to benefit from the same rights as other Norwegian citizens. Many
others, it should be added, have an uncertain and ambiguous identity,
sometimes oscillating between Saami and Norwegian ethnic self-identification.
Non-European immigrants and Norwegian identity
The Saami's achievement of political, cultural and linguistic
rights within the Norwegian nation-state also indicates that there
need be no serious conflict between an ethnic majority and a minority
living in the same country. However, the avoidance of conflict
seems to require that the minority is granted cultural self-determination
in respects defined as important by its leaders. This can entail
demands for religious and linguistic rights which may not be accepted
by the nation-state, which proclaims - as a virtue - the essential
cultural homogeneity of its inhabitants. Indeed, if we look at
the more recent immigrants to Norway (see Long's contribution
to this book), it becomes evident that the rights successfully
claimed by the Saami are not automatically granted by a national
majority. During the election campaign of 1991, leading politicians
in Oslo suggested that immigrant children should be deprived of
the right to be taught in their mother-tongue in primary schools,
and strong political lobbies have for years fought against the
erection of a mosque in the city, although Muslim organisations
were willing to fund it themselves.
The overtly anti-immigrant groups, some of which are openly racist,
are small and politically marginal in the country. But suspicion,
fear and myths, especially targeting Muslim immigrants, abound.
Many Norwegians exaggerate their numbers if asked; many believe
that Muslim women have an average of ten children each, and so
on. In general, the very presence of Muslims in the country is
seen as a threat against Norwegian identity by some zealous patriots,
who depreciate that "mix of cultures" presumedly entailed
by migration, and who would prefer that Norwegian society conformed
firmly to nationalist doctrine; namely, that it should only contain
people "of the same kind".
Two books on multicultural Norwegian society written from an anthropological
perspective (Eriksen, 1991; Brox, 1991) have argued the need for
a more finely nuanced debate on multiculturalism than that which
has been typical so far. The public debate of the 1980s and early
1990s has polarised the Norwegian population in camps either violently
for or violently against immigration. (As a matter of fact, regular
immigrants have not been allowed to enter the country since 1975.)
Instead, both books argue, one should see the non-European presence
in the country as an empirical fact, if not as an unproblematic
one. Issues which demand critical scrutiny include cultural conflicts,
power relations and the future content of Norwegian national identity.
In the 1990s, it is possible for a person to identify himself
simultaneously as a Saami and a Norwegian. It is so far much less
common for a person to identify him- or herself as a Pakistani-born
Muslim and simultaneously as a Norwegian, even if the person in
question is a Norwegian citizen. The idea of Norwegianness, as
it is produced and reproduced in public discourse, seems incompatible
with Islam. Since the new minorities must be considered permanent
ones, I have suggested (Eriksen, 1991) that Norwegians should
rethink their national ideology in order that ethnic minorities
may be included as legitimate and "natural" members
of Norwegian society.
Perhaps the future will see an increasing polarisation between
Norwegians and immigrants; perhaps many of them will leave, or
perhaps many will be assimilated; that is, they will give up their
language and their religion and become some kind of ethnic Norwegians.
It is also conceivable that the Asian, African and South American
immigrants and refugees will succeed along the same lines as the
Saami; that they will be able to assert their minority identity
while simultaneously becoming integrated into Norwegian civil
society. Perhaps the future will even see an alliance between
Norwegian cultural patriots and Muslim immigrants - against the
onslaught of American mass culture? The outcome of the current
situation of culture contact is uncertain.
The relationship between isolation and contact with others, or
introverted and extroverted tendencies, is highly ambiguous in
Norwegian history. The relative isolation of the society, which
among other things entailed the absence of a powerful landed gentry,
has had substantial effects on its ideology, social organisation
and self-definition. On the other hand, Norwegians are also proud
of their large merchant fleet (which, it is sometimes claimed,
can be traced back to the Viking age), and during the past century,
Norwegians have been a very extrovert people; they are well travelled,
have recruited many Protestant missionaries in Africa and Madagascar,
and are among the strongest supporters of the United Nations.
Through migration, Norwegian society has come closer to the rest
of the world in a different way; it has been confronted at home
with customs and beliefs radically different from the endemic
ones. In another sense, too, Norwegian society is much less sheltered
from the rest of the world than it used to be. This concerns what
we may call the globalisation of culture; the spread, through
modern media of mass communication, of symbols, images and messages
which know of no national or cultural boundaries, and which are
virtually identical all over the world.
The globalisation of culture in Norway
Ours is the era of the jet plane and the satellite dish. The world
has shrunk, and some of its internal boundaries are vanishing.
You may buy clothing from Marlboro Classics in Nairobi; you may
watch Dynasty in Indonesia, and you may listen to Prince's latest
CD in your hotel room in Rio. Travels which took weeks only two
generations ago now take less than a working-day.
The Norwegian periphery, Utkantnorge, is scarcely that picturesque,
slightly anachronistic kind of place which tourist brochures try
to depict it as - where time has stood still for a century, where
the fisherman still patiently mends his nets on the wooden pier
and the farmer's working-day follows the sun, where rustic and
simple folk still worship nature and their Protestant god as if
NATO and the European Community had yet to be invented. Surely,
these images are not difficult to come by, if one tries hard enough.
But the picture is more complex. The representation of "average
Norwegians" created by Marianne Gullestad (1984), who interprets
everyday life in a Bergen working-class suburb, is probably more
representative than the rather exoticising depictions of say,
Hans Magnus Enzensberger. The inhabitants of the outlying districts
are as much consumers of videos, pop songs and colourful weekly
magazines as they are geographically marginal. Former groceries
have been replaced by large shopping malls or by combined video
shops and snackbars. MTV waves and hamburger outlets are present
all along the Norwegian coastline. The farmers of Gudbrandsdalen
travel to the Canary islands in July, just like everyone else;
about forty per cent (my estimate) of the northern fishermen whistle
Bob Dylan songs as they wait for their catch. - Kjartan Fløgstad,
one of the country's most highly esteemed novelists, described
the country as Media Thule and its inhabitants as mediatullingar
in his book Det sjuande klima ("The Seventh Climate",
Fløgstad 1987) - a pun meaning, literally, "media
idiots", which refers to the presumedly immense power of
the mass media over the Norwegian population. Norway is today
a country whose inhabitants probably eat more hamburgers than
fish balls, where Jackie Collins's novels are more widely read
than Bjørnson's peasant tales, where well over half of
the population can make themselves understood in slightly broken
American English. The country is a more strongly integrated part
of the global ecumene than many Norwegians prefer to think, but
to be fair, it is a local part with a distinctive local flavour
in which Norwegians take great pride. The impact of the current
globalisation of culture is visible even in remote parts of Norway,
where local shops may have American names and everybody wears
jeans although the climate suggests otherwise. These processes
of cultural change cause a great deal of worry. Some Norwegians
fear the erosion of their cultural distinctiveness; some lament
the appearance of Anglicisms in the local dialect; some worry
about the standardising and alienating effects of mass culture,
American style. When the local coffeehouse is replaced by an outlet
of McDonald's, it is certainly an occasion for intense nostalgia.
A sociologist who has studied the "Americanisation"
of Norway, Steinar Bryn, has argued that massive change of this
kind took place during the 1980s, and that these changes were
largely unnoticed by Norwegians. According to Bryn, Norwegians
try to seem cosmopolitan and non-provincial through adopting aspects
of American lifestyle and American words. Among the more curious
examples he cites as evidence is a hamburger joint in some remote
parish called "McNoreg" (Noreg is New Norwegian for
Many of the inhabitants of Norway, it has occasionally been suggested,
are lacking in self-confidence on behalf of those very aspects
of Norwegianness which they relish. Norwegian resistance against
membership in the European Community - a movement unique in Europe
- is simultaneously an expression of such a fear, and an indication
of a strong and enduring cultural self-consciousness. Which other
European country would in the early 1990s prefer to stay outside
of that safe haven of abundance and protection that the EC offers?
With that picture of Norwegian identity which has been drawn in
this chapter in mind, it may be possible to understand - at least
in part - why so many Norwegians (possibly more than half) stubbornly
insist on standing alone, self-reliant, with as few commitments
as possible towards unpredictable European partners.
National identity and cultural change
In the face of technological change and the fact that formerly
discrete societies have become intertwined, it may seem that it
will be difficult to maintain the idea of Norwegian culture as
an egalitarian, rural "no-frills" culture. Since processes
of cultural homogenisation erase cultural differences, and since
increased geographical mobility creates a mismatch between territories
and "cultures", one might expect the distinctiveness
to vanish gradually. In one sense, this is doubtless happening.
Like virtually every other ethnic group in the world, Norwegians
nowadays watch Sylvester Stallone and Madonna on MTV; the pizza
has become a local staple;9 an Oslo flat may be furnished and
decorated in the same way as a flat in Milan or Berlin. In terms
of consumption and lifestyle, there is less and less to distinguish
Norwegians from any other Western European people. However, a
main argument in this chapter has been that social identities
are created imaginatively in a specific political context, and
that they have no imperative relationship to "objective"
If we look at Norwegian identity- the current self-definitions
- we will therefore find a picture of a highly distinctive people,
notwithstanding "objective" cultural changes. Indeed,
it could be argued that modern ethnicity, seen as cultural self-consciousness,
is a result of an ongoing process of cultural homogenisation.
As a general rule, it is when the carriers of an identity feel
that it is threatened from the outside that it becomes most important
to them. So for the Norwegian farmer of the 1840s, there was no
reason to stress his social identity. He could take it for granted;
probably, he did not even reflect about who he was. To people
living in modern, complex societies, the situation is quite different.
Their way of life is different from that of their forebears, and
that it resembles that of the neighbouring peoples, but the feeling
of a continuity with the past may still remain important. They
are now constantly brought into contact with people whom they
define as different (foreigners, immigrants, etc.), and are thus
brought to reflect on their identity. They must be able to explain
why they describe themselves as Norwegians and not as Swedes,
Pakistanis, etc. Furthermore, the shrinking of the world entailed
by globalisation seems to lay pressure on their identity as distinctive:
the old and familiar is replaced by the new and foreign, and threatens
to erase one's uniqueness. In this way, the pressure from cultural
complexity and globalisation is at the root of the modern identity
crisis, where ethnic identities are often seen as a solution in
the face of the disappearance of boundaries. As Anglicisms enter
the language, new shopping malls with enormous car parks replace
the old family-run groceries, and the video machine replaces the
storytelling grandmother, the individual may react by reaching
towards that which seems constant and secure in a sea of accelerating
change. The outcome is often the resurgence of ethnic or national
identities which may have lain dormant for a period, and which
now assert themselves with newly found vitality as a form of defence
against perceived cultural change originating from the outside.
As with the ideological creation of national and ethnic groups,
this resurgence of ethnic or national identities has no clear
relationship to "objective" cultural changes or "objective"
threats. It is only if a certain situation is perceived as threatening
to one's identity that it inspires revitalisation. For example,
it could plausibly be argued that the Norwegian way of life was
transformed dramatically in the post-war decades, following massive
US influence in the political, economic and cultural spheres.
These changes, which entailed the introduction of television,
the nearly universal use of private cars and consumerist ideology,
were seen as threatening to the Norwegian identity only by a minority
- and so Norwegian culture was allowed to change without its identity
being seriously challenged. People felt just as Norwegian after
the introduction of the TV as they did before. Since the 1970s
and 1980s, on the other hand, the presence of a few thousand Muslims
in the country has been perceived by many Norwegians as threatening
to their identity, and they have taken measures to end immigration.
The Muslims in Norway wield insignificant political and economic
power, and they do not have any control of national mass media.
Their presence is nevertheless perceived as threatening to some
segments of the Norwegian population, who have responded through
an intense glorification of certain symbols of Norwegianness.
Coda: Whither Norwegian identity?
It is beyond doubt that a Norwegian identity will continue to
be imagined by the overwhelming majority of the population for
the foreseeable future, whatever the country's relationship to
the European Community will be. This means that people living
in the country, and counting it as their ancestral land, will
continue to regard themselves as distinctive from others - as
Norwegians. It does not, however, mean that the content of such
an identity will remain constant. Although Norwegians - like any
self-defined people or ethnic group - tend to think that there
is a strong continuity with the past, it is a fact that being
Norwegian in the 1990s means something different from what it
meant in the 1950s. But what will it look like as we approach
the coming millennium? We do not know. But we may hazard the guess
that Norwegian identity will remain proudly Norwegian.
In a comparison between the history curricula of the school systems
of the five Nordic countries, the historian Stein Tønnesson
(1991) found that the Norwegian curriculum is the most nationalist
in character. Whereas the Danes stress the intimate relationship
between their national history and that of Europe, and the Swedes
underscore the importance of "Norden"10 as a cultural
unit; while the Finns and Icelanders promote general humanistic
and intellectual values instead of glorifying their national identity,
the Norwegian school curriculum is markedly nationalist (Tønnesson,
1991). It presents Scandinavian, European and global history from
a Norwegian vantage-point, and focusses extensively on the process
of Norwegian nation-building. Can such an attitude be viable at
a time when "internationalisation" is the big catchword
everywhere - in business as well as in politics and intellectual
life? Yes, but it should also follow from the foregoing that it
cannot be predicted which social identities will be the most relevant
ones for Norwegians in the future.
An earlier version of this chapter has been read and commented
fruitfully upon by Anne Hambro Alnæs, Kjetil Folkestad,
Anne Cohen Kiel, Iver B Neumann and Stein Tønnesson, who
also located a number of factual historical inaccuracies in the
A comment (in Norwegian) on this article
arrived on June 30, 1996.
1 This is a common characteristic of most nationalisms, see Gellner
2 Linguists may regard the four Scandinavian languages - Danish,
Swedish, Standard Norwegian and New Norwegian - as closely related
dialects of the same language. With some initial effort, a speaker
of one of the dialects (or languages, as they are defined politically)
can easily understand the others. Icelandic and Faroese are more
distinctive, although they are closely related to the others.
Saami ("Lappish") and Finnish belong to a different
language family, namely the Finno-Ugric languages.
3 About 20% of the population use New Norwegian, but 25% of national
radio and TV broadcasts are expected to be in that language. There
are virtually no problems of mutual intelligibility.
4 Oslo tries desperately to be a big, bustling and cosmopolitan
city, although it fails to convince foreigners that it is. With
friends like this TV journalist, the city will manage quite well
5 P1 at 9 o'clock daily. In the summer, the same programme is
called Reiseradioen ("The pocket radio"), alluding
to Norwegian holiday habits whereby many people stay at some remote
cottage or campsite.
6 An undercommunicated fact of recent Norwegian history consists
in the healthy and vigorous relationship between Norwegian and
German intellectual life, which was abruptly cut off after World
War II. In the 1990s, few Norwegians are fluent in German.
7 There are also Saami in northern Finland and Sweden, as well
as on the Russian Kola peninsula. The largest community is the
8 In Lars Aarønæs's language column in the weekly
newspaper Dag og Tid, inept Norwegians who try to give a cosmopolitan
impression abound. One representative example is The Italian Pizza
Company, which is located at Sinsen, North Oslo. - And of course,
Norwegians, like many other peoples, are liable to call each other
"provincial" when they disapprove of something.
9 See Lien (1988) for a highly readable study of changes in the
culinary habits of rural Norwegians. The title of her work speaks
for itself. It is called "From boknafesk to pizza";
boknafesk is a kind of dried and salted cod endemic to northern
10 Norden refers to the three Scandinavian countries as well as
Finland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and sometimes Greenland.
Since Finland has been a Swedish province and contains a Swedish-speaking
minority, Norden is more important than Scandinavia to most Swedes.
See Neumann (1991) for a comprehensive discussion of the idea
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