Peace Scholar Post: Researching Norwegian Nationalism

This is part of a series of blog posts written by the 2012 Peace Scholars as they complete their summer program in Oslo, Norway. This post was written by Charlotte Rosen from St. Olaf College.

After spending 7 weeks in Oslo as a Peace Scholar and then returning home to the States, my mind is still buzzing. As I begin to process my experience, I felt a burning need to get some reflections down, so I will share them with you here.

As part of my independent research as a Peace Scholar I chose to tackle the somewhat obscure and understandably uncomfortable topic of Norwegian nationalism, and particularly their perceptions of their own ‘goodness.’ It is no secret that most of the international world views Norway as some kind of peace, equality, and happiness mecca, where both government and the larger society surprisingly function in a moral and selfless manner. I’m speaking in extremes, but I do believe that there is a tendency to view Norway as a place that lacks the flaws that plague the rest of us societies, with our corrupt, greedy, and hateful tendencies.

Yet, upon learning more about Norway’s relationship with both multiculturalism and gender equality, I began to realize that Norway suffers from the same structural racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism that the rest of the world does, albeit in a more concealed and understated manner. What was most compelling to me, however, was the notion that Norway’s perception of their own goodness and progress, which is reinforced both nationally and internationally, ironically hinders their ability to fully acknowledge their exclusivist and racist attitudes towards non-ethnic Norwegians. In other words, because being good, equal, and peaceful is so central to Norwegian identity, to admit to feelings that betray such strong moral values is all the more difficult. For example, Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad recounts an instance where a Norwegian professor of Nordic languages at the University of Oslo was asked by a non-ethnic Norwegian immigrant, who had lived in Norway her whole life and had obtained citizenship, if she was “Norwegian.” He replied “no,” with little recognition of the ethnocentric and nationalist undertones to his response, and in fact was surprised by the woman’s anger as his verdict.#

Though not a direct or linear relationship, these “unacknowledged frames of interpretation” that Gullestad uncovers stem from an assumed and nationally reinforced Norwegian “imagined moral community.”# The proclaimed pillars of this Norwegian moral community are admirable, including peace, tolerance, equality and inclusion. Yet, as Gullestad reveals, this imagined moral community also contains a certain conception of ethnicity and ancestry that makes this imagined community inaccessible to non-ethnic Norwegians and immigrants, and that paradoxically problematizes the very pillars of their national identity.# As a result, therefore, Norwegian’s ability to process their society’s ingrained ethnocentrism, racism, and exclusivism is all the more challenging, given its distinct connection to their very Norwegian being and pride.

My aim is not to reprimand Norway or to claim any sort of moral superiority. The United States is not better placed when it comes to race relations, and one could argue that we have our own evasion tactics. Furthermore, Norway has done an incredible amount of good both internally and externally, and these actions deserve merit. Rather, I think Norway serves as an example of how a national identity, even if built on seemingly positive attributes, can still become covertly (and therefore all the more dangerously) nationalistic. Secondly, a closer look into Norwegian identity raises questions about a national conception of goodness, and whether such widespread trust in a nation’s upstanding moral code can actually limit the space for what might be a healthy amount of skepticism and self-criticism.

How then, can national identity separate itself from ancestry, and how then does a nation celebrate its achievements and values without excluding those who appear different and then denying this very exclusion? I have no answers and only endless questions—ones I don’t expect to solve, but that I hope to explore regardless, both in Norway and elsewhere. I may be home in the US, therefore, but it seems the journey has only just begun.

Marianne Gullestad, “Invisible Fences: Egalitarianism, Nationalism, and Racism,” Journal of theRoyal Anthropological Institute 8, no. 1 (2002), 49-51. 
Gullestad 51, 59.
Gullestad 59. 

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3 Responses to Peace Scholar Post: Researching Norwegian Nationalism

  1. Anthropologist says:

    Do you believe in unicorns? Read Fredrik Barth, the most known Norwegian anthropologist, he argues that national identity is constructed around us and the others. National identity cannot exist without an other; here first generation immigrants. Doesn´t the answer of the language professor give a clear indication that the idea of national identity exist on an individual and is always contextual? This concept of national identity varies depending on the age and background of the person you ask, socio-economic class, political views, context and relation to the person in question. Perhaps have a read on Norway´s nazi-friendly past and the nature of todays nationalism won´t be so surprising…

  2. Pingback: Norge, 17 maj och debatten om fascism | Älskade fascism

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