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Stories about Somalis

Thomas Hylland Eriksen


The impetus for writing this short essay came from the publication of a couple of books about Somalis – one by a journalist, the other by a Somali woman living in Norway – which both painted a grim picture of their lives. As so often, academic researchers and scholars are criticised for being naïve and out of touch with the real world. This is a response. A shorter version appeared in Aftenposten on 10 September 2008.

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The passion play about female circumcision among immigrants in Norway is on again. The roles have been distributed according to a familiar formula: The left (or wrong) side of the stage is populated by morally challenged and culturally underdeveloped transgressors, naïve scholars, weak social workers and dithering politicians. The right side of the stage, in both senses of the word, is occupied by fewer, but weightier actors, and contains, strictly speaking, only brave victims and a handful of heroic human rights activists who have the courage to speak in a straightforward way about a controversial issue. The immediate reason that the play has been brought back on stage is the recent publication, and ensuing debate, of a couple of books about female circumcision among Somalis. Everybody seems to agree that "something needs to be done".


Some have proposed dramatic limitations in the civil rights of a named ethnic minority (so far stopping short of the armband). On an earlier occasion, several engaged citizens, including parliamentary politicians, proposed the introduction of a compulsory genital examination for all young girls in the country.

There is no public discussion in Norway as to whether female circumcision is a good idea or a bad one. The question concerns, rather, which methods are likely to be effective to combat the practice. As a matter of fact, and contrary to the impression sometimes given in the media, highly qualified health personnel are continuously at work, often collaborating with researchers, in search of ways to deal with female circumcision. Naturally they also work with, and listen to, the groups in question.

Earlier experiences have, in this context, indicated that not all public debate is beneficial to the cause. Some years ago, many Somalis in Norway were shocked to hear a series of demeaning, generalising utterances about themselves as a group, presented in public with few if any reservations. As a result, the work of the health service was made much more difficult. An ethnically Norwegian health worker expressed the view that they had, in effect, lost several years of building a good relationship with the minorities, because trust that had been developed over a long period turned into suspicion through stigmatising and pejorative media coverage of Somalis.

It is not entirely unthinkable that police surveillance and the confiscation of passports among all Norwegian residents of Somali origin with young daughters – this has actually been suggested recently – might contribute to limiting the practice. But it is far from likely. Besides, someone is bound to ask how far a presumably liberal society is willing to go in using illiberal means in support of a policy. Some might even say that such a practice is tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot. Moreover, one cannot rule out that such a selective limitation of civil rights, which can hardly be understood as anything but an expression of hostility, is scarcely likely to promote integration, regardless of one's definition of the term.

So much about the weak social workers and dithering politicians. The next question concerns what it means when researchers are, again and again, described as "naïve" in this kind of context. The answer is that researchers are obliged to work thoroughly, and to provide, as far as they can, detailed and balanced descriptions of their research object.

The stories about Somalis which predominate in the wider public sphere are simplified in comparison with scholarly research, and can be divided into two groups of narratives.

The first kind of story focuses on the inability of Norwegian society to integrate minorities, largely due to the pernicious influence of academics and their culturally relativistic ambivalence on politicians and civil servants. Instead of placing clear demands on immigrants, they are treated with tolerant kindness, and it is tacitly accepted that they cannot be fully "integrated" into Norwegian society. 

The other prototype study is about traditional patriarchal family values, with or without Muslim piety as a main ingredient, with especial emphasis on male transgressions in relation to women and children.

Both stories are pitched to appeal to the sense of justice and fairness in the audience. The moral message of the first story is that the welfare state should not help people unconditionally; freeriders should be avoided. The second story says that all human beings do not have the same value, although they ought to. Both kinds of stories link up with powerful metaphors and narratives that help making sense of the world in a particular way, and have great persuasive potential when linked with concrete events and tragic stories about named individuals.

There are several reasons why researchers cannot limit themselves to telling these stories, although they do make use of those as well.

First, it is always empirically wrong to generalise about entire, named ethnic groups concerning cultural practices, values and so on. Just as hardly all Norwegians pray to the same Protestant God, love cross-country skiing and boiled potatoes, it cannot reasonably be assumed that all Somalis support all aspects of the Somali cultural traditions.

Second, stories of this kind are always ambiguous and open to different interpretations. They can be told in different ways, with varying results. My terrorists are your freedom fighters (or government soldiers, to think of it). You cannot call a spade a spade when you know that the spade is, in addition to being a spade, also a hay fork, a rake and a hoe.

Third, social science cannot base itself on empirical material of the generic "auntie from Drammen" kind. When the sociologist Katrine Fangen, the author of a new book about Somalis in Norway, tells the press that individual stories of suffering are not representative of an entire ethnic category, the reason is simply that she draws on both quantitative material and a substantial number of qualitative interviews which show that there are many ways in which one can be Somali in Norway. Had she, on the contrary, claimed that only one kind of story is true and relevant, one could rightly have labelled her "a naïve scholar" (and a less than excellent researcher).

The dangers of basing a social analysis on individual stories are obvious. One risks not seeing the forest, only the individual trees. As a result, one ends up conflating symptoms and causes. By 2008, most Norwegians are aware that crime will not go away even if one incarcerates all criminals, unless something is done about the underlying causes of crime. This kind of structural insight is a direct result of social research which has proved that the forest exists, even if only the trees can be seen with the naked eye. Social research is the opposite of populism.

Fourthly, researchers are obliged to tell other stories instead of, or in addition to, the most photogenic and media friendly ones. Of course, it is perfectly possible to study Somalis in Norway, and evaluate them morally, from a point of view which takes it for granted that the only relevant horizon consists in "integration into Norwegian society". Naturally, many Somalis perform rather poorly on such a scale. But it is also possible to view Somali lives from the inside, on their own terms, and base the analysis on their own diverse, complex and varying life worlds. If this option is chosen, it becomes necessary to learn a few things about Somalia, not just a few things about Norway.

Such a transnational approach to the Somali migration experience would yield quite different results from the viewpoint limiting itself to the nation-state. First, research has shown that Somalis send considerable amounts of money to family at home; in other words, through its Somali immigrant population, Norway contributes efficiently to the survival of people difficult to reach through conventional development cooperation.   Second, it is a fact that female circumcision is much more widespread among Somalis (and others in the region) in Somalia than among Somalis in Europe. Emigration can, plainly speaking, be an effective means to evade the knife! The few who avoid being circumcised in Somalia, incidentally, tend to belong to deeply religious families. Their fathers have read the Qu'ran and know that Islam does not proscribe female circumcision. A deeper Islamicisation of the Somali population might therefore also serve as a way of getting rid of this practice. But the main point remains that Somali emigration to Europe and North America must appear a spectacular success to everybody who wishes to put an end to female circumcision. The figures are crystal clear on this score.

Researchers have to tell these stories as well. Otherwise they lose their credibility, and cannot be genuinely useful to the public sphere.