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Images of the neighbour

Reciprocal national stereotypes in Scandinavia

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Version française: LIBER, juin 1997

 National identity is an elusive topic to investigate empirically. It can be theorised easily and with considerable elegance in a general and abstract way, and it can also easily be identified in a number of tangible manifestations: in legitimating state rituals such as Independence Day and international sports events, in public discourse on language, national culture and the dangers of Americanisation (a truly global issue, which can be identified everywhere except in the USA), in history books and school curricula, and so on. The relative importance of national identity in the ongoing reproduction of society is nevertheless by default indeterminate. National sentiment may blossom unexpectedly and powerfully in connection with particular rituals or particular moments in history, only to vanish from view when the initial impetus is vanished.

The relative importance of national identity in the lives of persons and in the reproduction of society can only be measured by way of unreliable methods such as questionnaire surveys. Defined subjectively -- from the inside -- and inevitably politicised and controversial, national identities can only be described obliquely, indirectly or negatively. Evidence for substantial properties of national identities is often presented anecdotally. For these and other reasons, professional deconstructors of national identities have gained considerable academic mileage in recent years, and the constructors of the same identities, many of them academics in powerful positions, are more often than not written off as essentialists, positivists or even as brainwashed lackeys of the state.

Let these reflections serve as an initial disclaimer for what follows, which is a doubtless oblique and tentative sketch of mutual national stereotypes in the Scandinavian countries and their significance for the reproduction of particular national self-images or identities.



National identity politics in Scandinavia

Seen from the outside, Scandinavian cultural identity must generally appear as quite uniform. Foreign stereotypes tend to depict Scandinavians as wealthy, enlightened, rational and bored Protestants with strong welfare states, lax rules of sexual morality and an institutionalised yearning for nature and simplicity. As always when we zoom in on the Chinese boxes of identification, powerful contrastive distinctions nonetheless appear at every level. In the three Scandinavian countries themselves, clear images about their neighbours prevail, and the taxonomic contrasts between Swedes, Danes and Norwegians contribute in no small degree to the substantial definitions of the respective national selves. In terms of cultural identity, the Scandinavian triangle can be described relatively exhaustively as a system of simple binary relationships.

It is no coincidence that images of each other should be so important for the definition of Scandinavian national identities. The history of each of the three countries is intimately intertwined with that of the others. There have been wars, short-lived unions and contested boundaries between them since Medieval times. They are culturally similar and linguistically so close that the three languages are mutually intelligible to the point of being, linguistically speaking, dialects of the same language. (Even so, books are routinely translated between Norwegian, Swedish and Danish: a national language is, of course, neither less nor more than a dialect backed by an army.) The economic integration of the three countries is considerable, and despite Denmark's and later Sweden's entry into the European Community, there are no passport requirements and free movement of labour between the countries. Indeed, according to several 19th century theorists of nationalism, including Giuseppe Mazzini, there was "objectively" only one Scandinavian nation encompassing the three contemporary states. In other words, the three countries are in this respect too close for comfort, and like so many other ethnic and national identities, they demarcate contrasts most vigorously vis-à-vis their nearest neighbours. Mutual stereotypes are characterised by a curious mix of enemy images and images of the friend, reminiscent of the ambiguous "joking relationships" associated with certain kinship relations in African tribal societies.

As a matter of fact, jokes featuring "the Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian" are ubiquitous among children in the three countries: the Swede is always depicted as a rich and arrogant child of the Enlightenment, the Dane as a slightly decadent hedonist, and the Norwegian as an uneducated, often stupid country bumpkin. These jokes illustrate how mutual stereotypes not only contribute to the definition of the other, but also function recursively in the definition of the self. The following example is in many ways typical:

A Swede, a Dane and a Norwegian are shipwrecked on the proverbial desert island. A genie appears out of thin air, informing them that they can each have a wish granted. The Swede immediately says, "I want to go home to my large and comfortable bungalow with the Volvo, video and slick IKEA furniture." So he vanishes. The Dane then says, "I want to go back to my cozy little flat in Copenhagen, to sit in my soft sofa, feet on the table, next to my sexy girlfriend and with a sixpack of lagers." Off he flies. The Norwegian, after giving the problem a bit of thought, then tells the genie, "Cor, I suddenly feel so terribly lonely here, so I guess I wish for my two friends to come back."



Scandinavia consists of two of Europe's oldest nation-states and one of the youngest. Norway, which did, strictly speaking, exist as a medieval kingdom until its collapse following the Black Death (1348--50), was later a Danish province for over four hundred years, and was handed over to Sweden after the Napoleonic Wars (1814), partly as a compensation for Sweden's loss of Finland to Russia, partly as war booty. Only in 1905 did Norway become an independent country, peacefully seceding from Sweden, after half a century of modernisation and nation-building in the elites, which drew its inspiration mainly from the Romantic movement further south. Partly by virtue of the country's recent independence, nationalism is more visible and more omnipresent in Norway than among its neighbours. According to a recent opinion poll (1995), 96 per cent of the Norwegians celebrate their Constitution Day, which was initially a 19th century day of protest against Swedish domination. Scholars have shown that Norwegian history textbooks are more nationalistic than those of the neighbouring countries, and both research agendas and publishing policies reflect the force of nationalism in the country.

For historical reasons, Norwegian national identity had to be constructed in contrast to the Danes and the Swedes. The dominant national identity which emerged during the latter half of the 19th century, and which still holds sway in official national symbolism (as witnessed, for example, during the state-funded propaganda campaign before and during the Winter Olympic Games in 1994), emphasises the rural, clean and unspoilt character of Norway. Denmark was associated with the urban bourgeoisie and snobbish mannerisms; Sweden with arrogance and state power.

It is not coincidental that Norwegian national identity should be associated with nature scenery and the rural way of life. Although the country had towns and cities, its scenery and folk traditions were eminently suitable as national symbols since they denoted that Norway had something which Sweden and Denmark lacked. Today, the standard Norwegian image of Sweden associates the eastern neighbour with a bureaucratic rationality, uncompromising Enlightenment ideology, a centralised, authoritarian State, and an air of arrogant overbearance. The omnipresent Norwegian image of the Danes, a more friendly one, depicts the southern neighbours as a lackadaisical and slightly hedonistic but immensely urbane and jovial people.

Being the junior partner in the Scandinavian universe, Norway's national identity seems stronger and more boisterous than the Danish and Swedish ones. In general, of course, small collective identities are more clearly defined and their incumbents suffer less from "identity problems" than the members of the large collectives that they define themselves in relation to. Estonian identity is more clearly bounded and less ambiguously defined than the Russian identity, and the same could be said of the Scottish--English or Welsh--English, Catalonian--Castilian or Breton--French identity relationships. The cohesiveness of the Norwegian self-identity, which is today being weakened in some segments of the population and strengthened in others due to forces of globalisation, and its origin in an essentially Romantic, culturalist ideology, nevertheless makes the process of integration for immigrants very difficult.



The famous playwright August Strindberg, visiting Norway a few years before the breakup of the Swedish--Norwegian union, wrote in his journal that Norway reminded him of the deep tragedy of his own country. Being a new, young and fresh country with an open future, Norway showed, in a negative way, the quagmire into which Sweden had sunk; a hopelessly old-fashioned and decadent, stiff and inflexible country ruled by a degenerated aristocracy with soiled underwear, unable to shake off its past and become a modern and rational country.

Strindberg was soon proven wrong. Twentieth-century Swedish nation-building has, with spectacularly successful results, aimed at transforming the very life-worlds in which Swedes lived. The social-democratic notion Folkhemmet ("The People's Home"), which embodied all levels of society from the conjugal bond to the state bureaucracy, was an Enlightenment ideal promoting equality, rationality and modernity. Already before the Second World War, the Swedish state was at work efficiently replacing traditional ways of life with modern ones. The country was industrialised and urbanised, educational institutions were modernised, and official campaigns taught people principles of hygiene, punctuality, abstract duty and so on. Postwar Sweden has been described both as a cold, authoritarian and joyless society (this was Hans Magnus Enzensberger's view) and as the most modern and advanced society in the world. Only very recently, during the current economic recession and ideological crisis in Swedish social democracy, has cultural romanticism and nostalgia played a central part in official twentieth-century Swedish nationhood.

Unlike the Norwegian national identity, which draws on rural tradition and past glories for its substance, the Swedish identity has -- quite contrary to Strindberg's expectations -- been essentially future-oriented and modern throughout this century. Since Sweden is the dominant state in the Nordic area, Swedish identity has often been conflated domestically with Nordic identity, and the ideology of pan-Nordism is more powerful there than elsewhere, with the possible exception of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. Actually, while the Norwegian and Danish national anthems predictably praise the virtues of their countries, the Swedish anthem does not mention Sweden once, but ends with the lines: "Jag vill leva, jag vill dö i Norden" ("I will live [and] I will die in Norden").

Apart from the inevitable extreme-right fringe groups, it is difficult to identify a cultural nationalism in Swedish everyday life; however, a relatively clear self-image emerges when Swedes are brought into contact with, or contrast themselves with, Danes and Norwegians. The standard Swedish image of the Norwegian is that of a rustic and unsophisticated fish-eater with lamentable manners and muddy boots, lately supplied with grudging acknowledgement of the Norwegian petroleum wealth. Nothing is more humiliating to the average Swedish man than a Norwegian victory in an international football game between the two countries; just as Norwegian men, in a symmetrical fashion, never cheer more sincerely for their sportsmen than when they fight their big brother.

Standard Swedish images of Danes are more negative than those of the rustic, but harmless Norwegians. For centuries, the two nations competed for regional hegemony, and until the 17th century, Denmark was without question the more powerful. In Swedish discourse, Danes tend to be depicted as untrustworthy and imbued with the spirit of dolce far' niente, a beer-drinking, happy-go-lucky, vaguely unhygienic and profoundly disorganised people. In contrast with the Norwegians, thus, the Swedes appear as a modern and sophisticated people; in contrast with the Danes, they may see themselves as rational and well organised.



Danish stereotypes of Norwegians and Swedes are complementary to those which I have described, and since knowledge of each other's stereotypes is widespread in the three countries, these notions form part of a shared Scandinavian discursive field about cultural differences. Despite its absolute geographic location on the northern tip of the main body of the European continent, Denmark's relative location is that of a southern country.

A survey carried out among Danish schoolchildren in the mid-1980s suggested that they regarded the Norwegians as "all right, but a bit rural and very nationalistic", while they saw the Swedes as "an arrogant bunch, but good football players". Denmark has the most liberal drug laws and the least restrictions on alcohol consumption in Scandinavia, and Copenhagen -- the northernmost truly European metropole -- looms large in the Norwegian and Swedish imaginations as a city of sin and joy. Swedes and Norwegians alike are frequent visitors to Denmark, many of them solely to enjoy the liberal Danish practices.

Current Danish images of Norwegians are still contingent on the loss of Norway in 1814, which was not caused by Norwegian popular rebellion but by geopolitical events. Partly for this reason, the image of Norway is nearly unanimously that of a friend. Images of the friend, while much less studied than enemy images, can nonetheless also contribute to the definition of self. Norwegians are perceived as rustic and simple, but honest and straightforward people who live close to their beautiful and spectacular nature. The Swedes, by contrast, are seen as humourless bureaucrats who, like obedient dogs, do whatever the State tells them to, and who are obsessed with material status symbols. When they visit Denmark, therefore, the Swedes are assumed to lose control and behave disgracefully. A poster in a coastal Danish town near Sweden reads: "Keep your town clean, take a Swede to the ferry." Some Danes talk jokingly about "going in the direction of Russia" when crossing the narrow strait separating the countries. The Danish ethnologist Linde-Laursen notes, in a comparative study of Danish--Swedish stereotypes, that the word modern has positive connotations in Swedish but negative ones in Danish.

In contrast to both Swedes and Norwegians, then, the Danes tend to depict themselves as an easy-going, tolerant and urbane people, sociable and relaxed, who relish the Danish hygge -- an untranslatable word which can be represented roughly as "coziness". Danish cuisine is also represented as more elaborate than that of the barbaric Northeners.


Concluding remarks

Sweden looms large in Danish and Norwegian self-identities. For the Norwegians, Sweden is clearly the most important defining Other, a relationship which has an important bearing on both personal, collective and state identities in Norway, whereas only Germany rivals Sweden as the most important Other for the Danes. The Swedish case is more complex. While it may be said that the Swedish identity is culturally defined as a system of relationships including both Norwegians, Danes and Finns, Sweden has also in the postwar period drawn much from comparisons with the USA -- that other future-oriented, progressive country.

Although the representations of the other are not unambiguously positive -- indeed, Dano-Swedish stereotypes may be described as classic enemy images -- they contribute to the reproduction of Scandinavia as a single cultural field. The stereotypes, as I have briefly indicated, are an important element in the delineation of the respective national identities as well as creating a shared discursive field. In the case of Scandinavia, mutual stereotypes have, it could be argued, led to a closer identification with the other and metaphoric enmity, rather than enmity proper. For when all is said and done, Scandinavians know that they are the closest of kin and, despite former wars, that the risks of violent neighbour quarrels are at present non-existent. They might not have interpreted the situation like this, and indeed the international relationships of the region might have been much less tranquil and relaxed, had the Scandinavianists of the 19th century had their way and succeeded in creating a shared Scandinavian nation-state.

©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1997