I’ve just been reading a paper by Agnete Wiborg (2001) about the experience of students from rural Norway in their transition to higher education. A recurrent theme in the paper is about the egalitarian nature of Norwegian society and how this is a challenge for students who progress to higher education, because they feel that they have very little in common with those they leave behind, but find it difficult to talk in terms of these social differences – becoming as a result quite ambivalent about their transition to higher education.
One of the students in this research refers to the ‘Law of Jante’, which I hadn’t heard of before but which is summarised by Wiborg like this:
“The ‘Law of Jante’ formulated in a book by the Danish author Axel Sandemose, concerns social regulations in a small town, and says that ‘You should not think you are anybody’, ‘You should not think you know more than us’, and ‘You should not think you are better than us’. In a way this can be seen as a formulation of aspects of Norwegian egalitarian ideology.” (Wiborg, 2001: 29)
I thought this was really interesting because in my first piece of research in Orkney (for my masters) I found evidence of a similar cultural egalitarianism meaning that recent graduates living in Orkney tended to downplay their higher education experiences. At the time I linked this with some evidence from rural studies that smaller rural communities tend to be characterised by certain values – with egalitarianism being one (Alexander, 2013).
However, I am increasingly wondering whether this rural tendency to egalitarianism may be accentuated in the communities of Orkney and Shetland because of a potential Norwegian cultural inheritance? After all Orkney and Shetland were actually annexed by the Norwegian Crown from the 10th century and only became part of Scotland in 1468 (as part of a dowry). Even after that date remnants of Norn language remained right into the 18th and possibly 19th centuries in the islands, and a great deal of the material culture of Orkney and Shetland dates back to viking times – such as the runic inscriptions in the tomb of Maeshowe in Orkney, the St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland (to name but a few). Even in recent times the link with Norway is strong – with the “Shetland bus” a key communication channel between the UK and Norway during the Second World War, and with industries such as oil and gas and fishing based in the North Sea attracting islanders and Norwegians alike. Indeed there are ‘friendship associations’ in both island groups with Norway, and exchange programmes have been regularly available for young people from the islands to visit communities such as Voss and Hordaland. On top of all of this the world famous “Up Helly Aa” festival in Shetland is a celebration of the islands’ viking inheritance, and even the ferries to the mainland of Scotland have a viking painted on the side of them!
The Norse cultural inheritances of the Northern Isles is something I think about relatively often – especially as I have colleagues working at the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands for whom this is a main concern (they even offer an MLitt in Viking Studies!). However, I haven’t really seen any direct links into my work (on the contemporary societies of the islands and how they influence the choices of young people in the islands) until now… Now I’m beginning to wonder if there is scope in considering not just historical links, but the contemporary social context of the Nordic countries in terms of a potentially similar social context in the islands of Orkney and Shetland. Thinking about this makes me quite excited to follow the work of colleagues researching careers guidance and career development in Norway and other Nordic countries. In particular reading a recent blog by Ingrid Bardsdatter Bakke I was struck by the potential similarities in some of her findings working with a community in a relatively remote part of Norway and some of my work…
Alexander, Rosie (2013) ‘Here you have to be a bit more fluid and willing to do different things’: Graduate career development in rural communities’ Journal of the National Institute of Career Education and Counselling, Issue 31, pp.36-42
Wiborg, Agnete (2001) ‘Education, mobility and ambivalence. Rural students in higher education’ YOUNG 9 (1) pp. 23-40
What an interesting idea!
I love this idea. But I wonder if it’s restricted to Orkney and Shetland, this kind of egalitarianism where nobody wants to be bigsy? Wouldn’t it also be true in many working class communities? And Carol Craig’s book on Scotland – though I don’t necessarily agree with all of it – challenges the idea of egalitarianism in Scottish society. I.e. That we THINK we’re egalitarian, but we’re not really! Just a thought! Very interesting topic.
Hi Alison, interesting points…! I think you’re right that egalitarianism is probably quite common in other rural communities (and working class communities too). I guess I’m wondering if in Orkney and Shetland it might be a bit more accentuated because of our connections with Nordic societies…? And a really good point about egalitarianism being an ideology rather than a reality… In fact the paper I was reading made the same point about Norwegian society – the paper focuses particularly on women’s pathways in a Norwegian community and how these are still (relatively) constrained by the pressures of history and expectation.
Yes, I think that is a really interesting idea and well worth pursuing. And I find in myself that I would love your proposition to be true! Will look forward to hearing what your researches throw up. Good luck with it. And thank you for replying so promptly. Alison
Thanks Alison! The topic certainly merits a bit more consideration I think – I’ll be interested myself to find out more from fellow Scandinavian researchers and their literature…