Social sciences and the Nordics

Because of the emphasis on social planning and the strong state prevalent in the Nordic region throughout the twentieth century, the social sciences have enjoyed a privileged position in the Nordics.

2019.02.08 | Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash

The social sciences are commonly defined as comprising those academic disciplines that study society – economics, sociology, political science, social and cultural anthropology, human geography, demography and criminology, sometimes including history, psychology and law. The boundary with the humanities is fuzzy, and there are medical scientists, concerned with social issues, who must be counted among the social scientists.

Because of the emphasis on social planning and the strong state prevalent in the Nordic region throughout the twentieth century, the social sciences have enjoyed a privileged position there. Decades before the inception of the welfare state, however, the pioneering sociologist Eilert Sundt (1817-75) carried out meticulous and innovative studies of social issues in rural Norway. Nevertheless, it was in the inter-war years that the social sciences found their modern identity in the Nordic countries. Inspired by metropolitan sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Vilfredo Pareto, economists like John Maynard Keynes and psychologists like Sigmund Freud, the social sciences were gradually institutionalised at the universities during the decades immediately before and after the Second World War. They were widely seen as auxiliary disciplines for the growing welfare state, and were deeply involved in social reforms – sometimes supporting the state, sometimes criticising it.

In the post-war period, many independent research institutes devoted to the study of society were founded. Most of them depended (and still depend) financially on state funding and specialise in applied research commissioned by government agencies, ministries and so on. Social scientists have played a significant role in fleshing out, analysing and proposing changes in the Scandinavian welfare state.

Nordic traits influenced by studies of social science

In economics, more particularly state economics, Nordic scholars have made very important research contributions, and the region boasts five Nobel laureates in the field. Taught in prestigious university departments, state economics (in some places renamed plain ‘economics’ in the 1990s) has studied and contributed to the implementation of the ‘mixed economies’, in which both the state and private companies play an active role, which are strongly associated with the Nordic countries. However, political scientists and sociologists have also made important contributions to the ‘social engineering’ seen as a prerequisite for large-scale social planning. Ambitious surveys aiming to map the extent of welfare in the population and future challenges for the state have been conducted regularly since the 1950s. There is considerable collaboration between the Nordic countries in this regard.

Many Nordic social scientists enjoy high international prestige. A few prominent names are Ragnar Frisch and Gunnar Myrdal (economics), Erik Allardt, Gøsta Esping-Andersen and Stein Rokkan (sociology), Fredrik Barth and Ulf Hannerz (anthropology), Nils Christie and Thomas Mathiesen (criminology/sociology of law). The philosophers Arne Naess, Georg Henrik von Wright and Jon Elster have also, in different periods, been instrumental in shaping the social sciences in the region.

Olof Palme, who later served as Swedish Prime Minister as leader of the Social Democrat Party, meets with students during an occupation of Stockholm University, 1968. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Influence of radicalisation in 1960s and 1970s

The student revolt and political radicalisation that took place from the 1960s and 1970s had important consequences for the social sciences in the Nordic countries. Many students and young scholars adhered to some version of Marxism and saw their curricula and teachers as ‘bourgeois’ and insufficiently critical of the dominant power relations, globally as well as nationally. Others attacked the ‘positivist bias’ in methodology, arguing that quantitative methods offered a limited and ultimately reactionary understanding of society. Yet others were concerned with the male gender bias inherent in dominant social sciences. The 1970s saw the rise of criminology not as the branch of law specialising in the study of criminals it had traditionally been, but as a critical kind of sociology focusing on the unintentional side effects of the punitive system. In the same decade, gender research and feminist social science were also established, and the scholars associated with this tendency asked different questions, and generated a different view of society, from their traditionalist colleagues.

All the social sciences, but especially sociology, seemed to have become divided disciplines as a result of the turmoil beginning in the 1960s. Sociology is permanently divided between supporters of qualitative and quantitative methods, and at the ideological or political level a similar division has historically existed between system builders and system critics. Never truly politically innocent, some of the political differences in Nordic society itself were expressed through the very people who studied that society.

Ideological shifts of 1980s and 1990s to today

Following the ideological shifts of the 1980s and 1990s, most notably the marginalisation of the political left, conflicts and dividing lines within the social sciences have become less clear. What is clear, however, is that today, the social sciences are thriving in the Nordic region. Student numbers are high, and the research communities are large and influential. One change which is rarely commented upon is the impact of contemporary globalisation on the Nordic social sciences. While anthropology has always been global, comparative and internationally oriented with most of its scholars publishing in English, economics was for a long time a domestic state-building subject (albeit publishing invariably took place in English), political science and sociology were (with a few notable exceptions) national endeavours tied to the challenges of the region. Today, Nordic social scientists increasingly relate to global developments, publish in English and make comparisons outside the region. With the exception of Norway and Iceland, the Nordic countries are members of the EU, which raises new sets of problems, offers new possibilities of funding and encourages collaboration that is more international. Research on transnational immigrant minorities, virtually non-existent in 1980, now looms large in virtually all the social sciences, and shows the impossibility of a limited, national perspective on society.

To sum up, the social sciences in the Nordic region began as subsidiary activities of state policy aiming at control, flourished as instruments in the building of the welfare state, were diversified following the dramatic political radicalisation of politics in the late 1960s, and currently face challenges of European integration and globalisation. Throughout the last half-century or so, social scientists have written influential books which have contributed to shape the popular consciousness about matters such as crime, international relations, third world issues, women’s rights, migration and ethnic discrimination, decentralisation and even food habits. 

Further reading:

  • Bernard Enjolras and Kristin Strømsnes, eds., Scandinavian Civil Society and Social Transformations (New York: Springer, 2018)
Tags: welfare state, sociology, social science, university, Nordic, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Scandinavia