Norwegian identity


What does being Norwegian mean? The question has arisen with mounting frequency in recent years, and periodically in the 1980s there was a broad and emotional debate about Norwegian identity including attempts to narrow down or define “specifically Norwegian”. The debate continues with full force in the 1990s and for a number of reasons it’s of interest at this time. Norwegians no longer take their cultural character for granted, and steadily more critical questions are asked about what Norwegian culture and identity are – and are not.

The topicality of such questions about national character and identity isn’t limited to Norway, but the debate gains particular momentum in small countries where the feeling of vulnerability to outside influence is especially strong. Perhaps such vigilance regarding the outside world explains why the small European nationalities – among others Norwegians, Catalans, Scotts and the Welsh – seem in many ways to have a more distinct, sharper defined, and in many ways more secure cultural identity than do the more numerous Germans, English and Italians.

An important reason for the renewed interest for national identity is the incontestable fact that the world has shrunk rapidly in the past decades. The planet has become a smaller place. Even in the remote districts of Norway, satellite TV and American hamburger chains have become a common sight. Norwegians travel more and more to a wider array of countries both on holiday and business. There’s a steady rise in international trade, in the past years Internet has spread incredibly, and a mounting number of people the world over use English as their first foreign language. English is in the process of taking on the same role as Latin in Europe of the Middle Ages as a common tool of communication across cultural and national boundaries. In parallel with the spread of English (often in a North American form), Norwegians’ grasp of German and French has deteriorated.

A common designation for these and related tendencies is the globalization of culture, which mustn’t be confused with supranationality. Globalization means that the boundaries between countries, nationalities or cultures are in certain respects eradicated – that culture is in the process of tearing loose from specific geographical areas, and that we’re beginning to see the contours of a global culture where most of the people on Earth develop some cultural common denominators (while of course they continue to remain different in others.)

The differences in life style between, say, Oslo and Milan, are not as accentuated as one would guess, if one were to take popular national symbols seriously. For according to Norwegian’s own self image, Norwegians are mainly a nation of fishermen and farmers who live close to nature, they’re simple and bucolic, and they grow awkward and clumsy when they travel abroad. This national-romantic image doesn’t jibe with reality – in many aspects a majority of Norwegians share the same lifestyle as other Europeans. The national symbols give Norwegians a strong feeling of national identity, but they provide a poor description of the nation’s culture, i.e. the way that Norwegians actually live.

Globalization is experienced by many as threatening to national characteristics, and in the past few years we’ve witnessed numerous public attacks on the globalization (and commercialization) of culture. However, it’s hard to see how Norway could expect to effectively protect itself against the globalization of culture without resorting to draconian measures such as censorship, a ban on imports of video films, jamming devices to interfere with TV satellite relays and restrictions against foreign travel. As in other well-off countries, mass culture in Norway is nearly synonymous with American mass culture: pop and rock, jeans and T-shirts, American films, TV series such as “Baywatch”, burgers and cola.

The EU debate and multi-ethnic Norway

Other tendencies have also contributed to self-examination and critical debate about Norwegianness. Generally, one begins reflecting about oneself after making contact with others. The EU membership debate, the dominating theme of public controversy from 1990 until the referendum in November 1994 (when Norwegians voted against membership for the second time), was in many ways an issue relating to the preservation of Norwegian identity and Norwegian cultural character. Those who favored membership claimed that closer ties with Europe would enrich Norwegian culture, and at times it was claimed that the alternative to a common European identity would be a total cultural dominance by the USA. Euro-skeptics emphasized unique aspects of Norwegian society and culture such as regional support policies, the social security system, the second official language nynorsk and subsidies to Norwegian-language literature – which they feared could be jeopardized by EU membership.

A third tendency relates to the emergence of a multi-ethnic society in Norway. Although the country has admitted relatively few immigrants and refugees in comparison to, for example, Sweden or France, the new ethnic minorities are putting their marks on the bigger towns and cities. Five per cent of the Norwegian population were born abroad, half of them outside of Europe. Will they always be an exotic foreign element or is it possible to create a Norwegian identity with for instance, ample room for Asian Moslems? In any case, an increase in contact with foreigners has made Norwegians discover and discuss their own cultural identity in new ways.

A fourth factor which should be mentioned involves the Olympic Winter Games that were staged in Lillehammer in 1994. The Olympic organizers’ explicit objective was to unite national and global elements in their arrangement of the events. This turned out to be more easily said than done. When the Games’ proposed mascot – the Viking boy “Haakon” – was revealed in 1990, the drawing was immediately and massively criticized for being an Americanized and commercial Disney-like figure without a shred of Norwegian identity. What’s more, the mascot was designed by a Mexican. Eventually “Haakon” was discarded and a Norwegian designer was commissioned to create an alternative: the Viking children Håkon and Kristin, who looked suspiciously similar to the original version.

The actual running of the Games also reflected the complicated relationship between national and global outlooks. Official promotion, partly in form of advertisements on TV channels abroad, portrayed Norway as a snow-covered, wild and beautiful country, where majestic natural surroundings were only sparsely interrupted by a single skier in knickers and anorak, a red-painted cabin in the woods, a fishing boat or a picturesque village on the shore of a fjord. Of course those who came to the Olympic Games received a different impression. Oslo’s Fornebu Airport is like any other and the chances were fair that the taxi driver who drove them to the city centre was a Pakistani immigrant.

The major paradox with the Olympics and similar phenomena is that they express a local or national identity but do so in a global way. The backbone of an event such as the Olympic Winter Games is a global activity, competitive sports, as well as global television, and international economic interests.

What’s particularly Norwegian?

The question of what is really Norwegian, what the concept denotes, is both easy and difficult to answer. If one chooses the easy route, one can say that people are Norwegian if they are born in Norway, have a Norwegian dialect as their mother tongue and are Norwegian citizens. But we can’t stop there if we want to do justice to the diversity of the real world. What about, for instance, Norwegian-Americans and the children of immigrants born in Norway – are they Norwegian, non-Norwegian, or partly Norwegian? Can there be degrees of Norwegianness? And how Norwegian are ethnic Norwegians themselves if they get much of their identity from American films and pop music and have international consumer habits – spaghetti is more often on their dinner plates than fish balls? Have Norwegians become “reserve Americans” or rootless cosmopolitans? If so, should they try to revitalize their Norwegian characteristics, and what would these be? On the basis of the development tendencies that I’ve sketched, where globalization is a common denominator, these are substantial questions.

Several recent books reflect a renewed interest in communicating reflections about one’s own identity, express the need to pinpoint that which is typically Norwegian and simultaneously expose a mounting wish for a critical analysis of the national identity.

Norwegian manner

Just about everyone who has written on the subject agrees that vital aspects of Norwegianness can be explained by the country’s history which, by European standards, boasts a number of particular characteristics. Traditionally Norway has had neither a strong landed gentry nor a solid urban bourgeoisie, and the vast majority of Norwegians were farmers or fishermen right up to the beginning of the 20th century. This still marks Norwegians. For example, Norwegian’s ideology regarding equality and their dislike of centralization – which the 18th century dramatist and poet Ludvig Holberg asserted was a typical trait – has undoubtedly been an important factor in the Norwegian opposition to EU membership, and unique in Europe.

In the essay “Norway out of step” (1984), the German sociologist and student of Norway, Hans Magnus Enzenberger, sketches an ironic but friendly picture of his interpretation of Norwegian characteristics. Enzenberger’s Norway is a paradoxical society which in many ways is still a rural community on the outskirts of Europe, but it is also one of the world’s most modern and advanced societies with regard to state administration and development of high technology. Enzenberger’s diagnosis can be summarized like this: “Norway is currently Europe’s biggest folk museum but simultaneously a huge laboratory of the future.” The book aroused the interest it deserved when released and it’s still a point of reference when Norwegian identity is discussed. Many felt themselves grossly characterized by the German – oversimplified – but some of Enzenberger’s descriptions also struck a chord of self recognition.

In the same year, the social anthropologist Arne Martin Klausen edited the book “Den norske varemåten” (The Norwegian way of being) which has also served as a weighty contribution to the debate on Norwegian identity. In this book, a group of Norwegian anthropologists use their theories and methods – otherwise reserved for “exotic” societies – to study traits of modern Norwegian society. The contributions range from articles about bunader (folk costumes), local “tribal” allegiances, and folk dance gatherings to penetrating analyses of social democratic ideology and Norwegian “down-to-earth objectivity.” The latter theme was raised for discussion by the Argentinean Eduardo Archetti who underscores – as typical for Norwegians – the need for consensus and an ideology demanding a degree of equality and fairness that is almost mathematically calibrated. These aspects of the Norwegian character are also discussed by Tord Larsen. In his enjoyable contribution to the book, titled “Farmers in the city – the search for the Norwegian configuration,” Larsen points out that Norwegians lack a well-rooted urban culture and have thus transported rural culture with them when they became urbanized. We lack the flexibility, the tolerance and perspective which are typical of modern city cultures, claims Larsen: “You can take me out of (the small town of) Valdres, but never take Valdres out of me.”

In this context, Marianne Gullestad’s work should also be mentioned, although thematically she rarely approaches Norwegian identity per se. Gullestad is capable of depicting “average people’s” life from the inside with exceptional clarity and richness in detail, for instance the peculiar culture of suburban Bergen. Like the authors of “Den norske væremåten,” Gullestad utilizes social anthropological methods to elucidate everyday trivialities, things we normally take for granted. In this arena too we find major changes caused by global influences, but in vital areas we also see signs of continuity. For instance, nothing indicates that Norwegians are spending less money on interior decoration (they statistically top the world) or hiking less in the mountains after they got their color TVs, McDonald’s fast food outlets and Internet.

The nation as an ideology

Historically oriented literature provides us with another perspective for interpreting that which is national and Norwegian. Many historians have considered it their lot to contribute to the development of the nation by describing Norway’s past from a nationalist viewpoint. For instance, Norwegian resistance during WWII has been depicted in an incredible number of books which in many ways are totally out of proportion with the actual sacrifices made during the German occupation. Two major dates for Norway have also received considerable attention, 1814 and 1905, when Norway became independent of Denmark and nearly a century later broke away from Sweden. Typically, nearly as much focus has been given to contact between Norway and the rest of Europe as to the influence that Europe and the rest of the world has had on developments which now are felt to be specially Norwegian. Periodically, debates in newspapers and journals about Norwegian history grow lively and those who are skeptical to what they consider the exaggerated and uncritical patriotism dominating traditional history writing now point out that the concept of the Norwegian nation is strongly tainted with mythological and national ideology. In current times, they remind us, it is necessary to warn against the destructive aspects of nationalism, such as civil wars and “national wars of liberation” all over the globe.

One of the most central contributors to the new debate about the Norwegian nation’s history is the political scientist Øyvind Østerud who in 1984 wrote the book “The nations’ right of self-determination – spotlight on a doctrine.” Even things that we think of as Ur-Norwegian like rose painting, bunad costumes and the Hardanger fiddle often have their roots in other European countries, writes Østerud. Furthermore, he shows how important aspects of our national identity were defined by the urban bourgeoisie in the last century: “It was the urbane ruling class that defined the culture of the mountain peasantry – in an idealized form – as quintessentially Norwegian.” In other words, the nation is not a God-given and everlasting entity; it’s a cultural and political product. In this context, Østerud describes the conflict between Norwegian nationalists and Pan-Scandinavians in 19th century. He concludes that “nationalism’s general ideology could, under different circumstances, just has easily been applied to a region of Norway or to Scandinavia as a whole.” Instead of a Norwegian nationalism, historically and culturally we could have had, for example, a West Norwegian or a Pan-Scandinavian nationalism. Østerud has also argued that East Norwegians, at the time of the dissolution of the Union with Sweden in 1905, were culturally more akin to the Swedes than to the Norwegians of the fjords out west.

Several writers have gone beyond Østerud in demystifying Norwegian nationalism. The researcher Anders Johansen has written that if Norwegian national clothing exists, in the context of garb that is popular and commonly used, then it certainly isn’t the national romantic bunad – its blue jeans. It could be added that the Norwegian national dish, at least statistically, is the frozen pizza sold in supermarkets with the un-Norwegian name Pizza Grandiosa.

Norwegian identity (towards the year 2000)

In other words, the national identity isn’t everlasting and unchanging. While today’s Norwegians are just as Norwegian as their parents, being Norwegian means something else than it did just 30 years ago. A sense of belonging to Norway is probably less prominent than it was during and right after the German occupation during the Second World War. Other aspects of an individual’s identity can outweigh those which are related to nationality. Globalization has played, and continues to play, an important role here.

On the other hand, national roots can be strengthened as globalization creates a widespread impression that Norwegian identity is jeopardized. But there are disagreements about the content of such a national identity, and in this sphere the recent years’ immigration from non-European countries are grounds for reflection. Should Norwegian identity be defined so narrowly that permanent minorities of Turks, Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Bosnians and for that matter, the indigenous Sami, will never feel that they belong in this country?

Immigration has undoubtedly been a catalyst for the debate about Norwegian identity. And like the cultural globalization in other spheres, it leads to a weakening as well as a bolstering of national feelings of identity. The national aspect wanes because Norway actually is becoming more diversified. Children are growing up with “one foot in each culture” and “mixed cultures” are developing that get their impulses from Norwegian tradition, global mass culture, and immigrant cultures. Norwegians and immigrants alike are affected by this meeting of cultures. At the same time, national undercurrents are strengthened as many Norwegians become concerned about stressing their particular way of being when confronted by foreign influences. Thus they establish a more conscious and active relationship their Norwegianness than they otherwise would have had.

So far we’ve just seen the beginning of the public debate about Norwegian culture and identity. The 1980s and 90s have contributed important new impulses in this context. As Norwegians and Norwegian society become increasingly integrated with the rest of the world, Norwegians are becoming more aware of their special identity. It’s becoming more obvious that what they consider “distinctively Norwegian” is in a constant state of flux – there is little that binds 1990s Norwegians with the warrior Tordenskiold of the 1700s or, even more so, the Viking King Harald Fairhair, and that one can have more in common with foreigners than with one’s own neighbours. To some extent, each generation has to create its own identity – the result is a mixture of continuity and change with regard to the previous generation. The content of “distinctively Norwegian” in the year 2000 can only be a matter of conjecture. The landscape is being altered rapidly and considerable changes can occur in just a few years. Who knows? Maybe in the year 2000 we’ll experience a merging of the Norwegian Muslim Association with the Bygde Ungdomslaget (an association of rural youth) with the goal of resisting North American cultural imperialism. Could a Pakistani-Norwegian be given a minister post in the Government? Perhaps the Norwegian language will have become a mixture between Norwegian and American English. The only thing that is certain is that there will still be people walking around on the planet who call themselves Norwegian and who have definite ideas about what that means.

Let me, as a final note, mention that a few years ago the popular radio programme Nitimen (9 o’clock) invited its listeners to decide what was “the most Norwegian of the Norwegian.” Upwards of 30,000 responses flooded in and among the most popular suggestions were Selbu mittens, the cheese slicer, Skogkatten (a national breed of cat), the folk tune “Kjerringa med staven”, the wool stocking cap, the fjords, the Hardanger fiddle and of course, Constitution Day, May 17th. The winner was brown goat cheese, brunosten. It is undoubtedly Norwegian and is so peculiar that it is unlikely to ever be globalize.

Author: Thomas Hylland Eriksen.