Anthropology and the Nordic countries

Anthropological studies contribute new knowledge on Nordic societies and simultaneously offer fresh perspectives on them.

The Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth
The Norwegian Fredrik Barth, the most influential contemporary Nordic anthropologist. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Although anthropology literally means “the study of humans” and thus seems to entail an impossibly wide-ranging subject, its contemporary meaning in the Nordic region is largely confined to social and cultural anthropology. Before the Second World War, physical anthropology (the study of human biology and origins) formed an integral part of anthropology. For a variety of reasons, notably the Nazi misuse of theories of race and the subsequent demise of racist pseudo-science, social and cultural anthropology has since then by and large treated society and culture as being independent of biology.

History of anthropology in the Nordic countries

Anthropology has a diverse history in the Nordic countries. Nineteenth century explorers, traders and missionaries brought home large collections of exotic artefacts, providing the basis for the establishment of ethnographic museums. The most important was the ethnographic museum in Copenhagen, today part of the National Museum and perhaps superseded by the new ethnographic and archaeological museum in Moesgaard, Aarhus, inaugurated in 2014. Folkens Museum Etnografiska in Stockholm also has significant collections, as does the ethnographic museum in Oslo, which occupies the top floors of the Museum of Cultural History.

From the mid-nineteenth century, ethnological studies of the national culture in the German Volkskunde tradition began. In the same period, explorers wrote extensively about remote places and peoples. A more systematic, scientific and comparative anthropology only emerged in the early twentieth century, and the first important modern anthropologist from the Nordic region was the Finnish scholar Edward Westermarck (1862-1939), who held chairs in London and Helsinki, and specialised in the study of North African societies. His theory of incest avoidance, arguing that the intimacy experienced by siblings precluded sexual attraction, is still considered an important contribution. In the interwar years, the influence of racist pseudoscience on Nordic anthropology was nevertheless strong. This research tradition is now unanimously regarded as a dead end.

After the war, social and cultural anthropology was gradually established at universities in all the Nordic countries, but in different ways. In Denmark, the tradition of Inuit (Eskimo) studies remained strong for years, owing to the colonial situation as well as the pioneering work carried out by Knud Rasmussen (1879–1933). In Sweden and Finland, there were important connections with ethnological studies of domestic folk culture. In Norway, the subject was decisively influenced by the sociologically oriented British school of social anthropology from the 1950s. The most influential contemporary Nordic anthropologist is the Norwegian Fredrik Barth (1928–2016), who is best known for his work in Asia from Kurdistan to Bali, but who also initiated and directed research on Norwegian communities in the 1960s, as the inaugural professor of social anthropology at the University of Bergen.

The study of anthropology: focus on Nordic societies themselves

The subject of anthropology has grown in terms of student numbers and academic importance since the 1960s, and it is now taught at many Nordic universities. Nordic anthropologists carry out research all over the world and form part of an international scholarly community, and most publish their scientific work in English. However, since the 1980s, there has also been a significant interest in the anthropology of one’s own country, and a substantial anthropological literature in the Nordic languages has emerged. Unlike the scholarly traditions of folklore studies and ethnology, social and cultural anthropologists use the same methods and concepts in studies of their own societies as they would in other parts of the world, including comparative techniques.

Studies of minorities, both old and new, have been important for decades. In research on the Sami and Inuits, much attention has been given to questions of identity management in situations of rapid cultural change. Scholars have been concerned with showing how these indigenous groups cope with the cultural transitions demanded by the modern state, how they promote their own political interests such as land rights and language. Research on immigrants is given high priority in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, much of it state sponsored and focused on integration. However, the majorities are also being studied, and in this respect, a recurrent issue in the anthropology of the Nordics has been the question of what, if anything, is peculiar to Nordic culture. No simple answer is offered, but there is widespread agreement that values such as equality, strong democratic traditions and gender equity are basic.

Homogeneous narrative influenced by nation building

The interest in what is culturally specific to Nordic societies led to the very idea of national culture as such being scrutinised. It is generally assumed that the Nordic cultures are homogeneous, yet focused research in different localities reveals important variations within each country. Anthropologists have not only documented this variation, but have also shown how the very idea of a homogeneous national culture was a product of nineteenth and twentieth century nation building and how it is now being challenged in very visible ways through globalisation and migration.

Many Nordic anthropologists, especially in Norway, take an active part in public debates about their own societies, often offering surprising and original insights by virtue of their comparative vision. A major research project dealing with the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994, directed by Arne Martin Klausen (1930–2018), viewed the Olympic Games as a ritual, seeing it partly through the lens of anthropological studies of rituals in non-industrial societies. Others have studied phenomena such as changes in food habits in local communities, the cultural aspects of the Øresund Bridge, nature worship, local views of the European Union, the dilemmas of local politics and various aspects of the majority–minority relationships resulting from immigration. 

Further reading:

  • Paul Durrenberger and Gíslí Pálsson, eds., The Anthropology of Iceland (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989)
  • Billy Ehn, Jonas Frykman and Orvar Löfgren, eds., Försvenskningen av Sverige (Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 1993)
  • Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography (London: Pluto, 2015)
  • Finn Sivert Nielsen and Thomas Hylland Eriksen, A History of Anthropology, 2nd edition (London: Pluto, 2001)
  • Kirsten Hastrup, Kultur: Det fleksible fællesskap (Copenhagen: Univers, 2004)
  • Hilde Lidén, Marianne E. Lien and Halvard Vike, eds., Likhetens paradokser: Antropologiske undersøkelser i det moderne Norge (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2001)