Scandinavian societies do not figure prominently as study objects in the international social science literature. To the extent they do, their analysis tends to revolve around one seemingly unavoidable concept, that of equality. There is much agreement among Scandinavia experts that if there is one cultural trait that recurs again and again in this part of the world it is what some have described as “the passion for equality” (Graubard, 1986). Many writers have suggested that the Nordic passion for equality springs from a peculiarly strong preoccupation with equity (rettferd). But this is not the only reason why: according to Hans Frederik Dahl (1984, p. 95) “[t]he Nordic equity ethos…appears to apply both to the political action of leveling out – making the rich pay, taxing the top – and, in a jealous comparison, of making sure that nobody overtakes and passes you in position or possessions.” Like Dahl, other Norwegians consider envy to be a central element in this quest for equality, a sort of Nordic “crab antics” (Wilson, 1973).1 Envy provides a plausible explanatory frame for the drive at leveling out – “making the rich pay, taxing the top” – a meaning the Norwegian term likhet does indeed encompass. But in addition to equality likhet also means similarity or sameness, a parity that does not necessarily have to do with equity and cannot always be described in terms of getting rid of (unfair) privileges. Earlier debates on the Norwegian notion of equality were often inconclusive because they failed to address this critical duality of meaning which lies at the core of the concept of likhet. To assume that likhet is only a matter of equality, and that it all boils down to envy is too simplistic. In this case, the question that needs to be addressed is: can envy account for the drive at cultural assimilation? Can it explain demands made by the masses to individuals who are neither richer nor more powerful? I am thinking for example of the kind of relations that have been observed between Norwegians and Saami in the Helgeland region (Henriksen, 1991). Here, Saamis’ claims to a different identity and a different experience are frequently met with the non-Saami majority’s counter-claim that there are no differences, cultural or otherwise, between the Saami and themselves. “When the Saami person insists that his or her identity is rooted in a Saami culture, s/he may be requested to specify what such differences consist of,” writes Henriksen (p. 410). This emphatic denial of difference is not perceived by Saami as an inclusionary device to integrate them within the warm embrace of a universal Norwegian Gemeinschaft. Rather, says Henriksen, they view it as “a lack of recognition by the encompassing Norwegian society of their cultural and social identities and their expression, and of what they perceive to be their legitimate rights” (p. 414); in other words, they view it as an attempt by the Norwegian majority to deny Saami their right to experience life in general and ethnic encounters in particular in a way that differs from the majority’s experience. When played out in relation to individuals and groups that are marginal, dominated, or simply in minority, the quest for likhet cannot be motivated by envy. Rather than “passion for equality,” therefore, it would be more accurate to describe this cultural trait as “antipathy for difference.” Such antipathy, I suggest, is grounded in a normative expectation of conformity in behavior, experience, and awareness, to an unquestioned cultural pattern embedded in, and structured by, daily practice, and with ramifications in all areas of social life. In this sense, equality (sometimes translated into Norwegian as likeverd, literally “equal worth,” but more commonly as likhet) rests on the fundamental requirement of cultural similarity (also known, as we have seen, as likhet): to be equal is first and foremost to be alike (see Gullestad, 1984, 1992). The opposite of likhet, ulikhet, can mean either difference or inequality. Most of the time it is conceptualized as both.2 Of course, the conceptual and sociological boundaries between equality and similarity are blurred everywhere, not only in Norwegian culture. Nor am I suggesting that Norwegian society is empirically devoid of inequality or that instances of anti-egalitarian behavior do not obtain in real life. Nonetheless, these empirical observations do not make the Norwegian normative discourse on equality-as-similarity any less real or any less compelling.
Nga Longva, A. (2003), "THE TROUBLE WITH DIFFERENCE: GENDER, ETHNICITY, AND NORWEGIAN SOCIAL DEMOCRACY", Brochmann, G. (Ed.) Multicultural Challenge (Comparative Social Research, Vol. 22), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 153-175. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0195-6310(03)22006-8Download as .RIS
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