Think of Denmark

Think of Denmark

Claire Maxwell

Think of Denmark.  You think of the land of the Vikings, the land of high taxes, but also the place where people report they are the happiest, where ‘hygge’ rules, where there is a strong and comprehensive welfare state and where students get paid to study at university.  I moved to Denmark in September 2018 to take up a position in the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen, having previously been at University College London for many years.  It has been fascinating to encounter a country full of contradictions – where things are the same but also very different to my experiences of living in the UK, specifically south-east England (where I have lived my entire adult life).  The Danes speak great English – all of them! and are very welcoming.

There is a sense that Denmark looks outwards, is proud of its innovative design culture, has a cosmopolitan orientation (especially in Copenhagen), has understood it need to ‘internationalise’ in order to keep growing. Yet at the same time there is a closed-off-ness to non-Danish ways of doing things.  The right-wing government is changing the nature of the welfare state in fundamental ways, especially in relation to its approach to refugees and asylum seekers, and as a nation there is much less support for immigration and multi-culturalism than in many European countries.  The flow of neoliberalism can be felt to be winding its way into how the provision of higher education is funded and evaluated, and there is a tension between Copenhagen wanting to become the first carbon-neutral capital city in the world by 2025 and the need to house its many inhabitants.

So what are sociologists based in Denmark researching?  How is their work engaging with these and many other issues pertinent to Danish society, but also with significant relevance beyond Denmark – to illuminate our understandings of the social challenges we are all facing – reforming welfare systems to ensure ‘no child [is] left behind’; promoting environmental policies and practices; support services for those marginalised communities such as asylum seekers and refugees or those working in vulnerable occupations like sex working; policies that promote more involved fatherhood.  In the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen I have colleagues working on all the above issues, as well as conducting innovative research on topics, not necessarily ‘Danish’ in nature, such as drug dealing and non-consensual sexual image sharing on the ‘dark net’; using CCTV footage to examine whether and how bystanders help to resolve public acts of aggression; how different professional groups are working collaboratively to tackle new health and environmental challenges; how people manage the conflicting messages they receive about what and what not to eat; and studies of twins to examine more closely how ‘cultural capital’ really works.

The collection of papers in this special issue of Discover Society highlight new concepts readers might find useful, describe new research approaches developed to re-examine an ‘old’ problem; or study developments in Denmark as a potential site for mapping and theorising innovation in policy and practice.  Here I offer a few of insights readers will have the opportunity to engage with.

Nicole Doerr, in her contribution, has focused on the provision of translation services by volunteers to asylum seeking and refugee populations through civil society organisations. She describes how this work becomes a form of political translation, which has the potential to promote social integration, mutual learning and cooperation (a form of democratic education as she calls it), and demand that the voices of marginalised groups are heard.  The latter practice occurs through the translators’ engagement with the bureaucratic structures that determine access to services and the right to remain.  Building on her work in the United States and Italy, Nicole illustrates how political translation works in Denmark through examples in a civil society organisation and a church.

A second ‘new’ concept readers may want to know more about and find useful when analysing their own consumption practices around food is the idea of ‘expectable’ and ‘acceptable’ developed by Bente Halkier.  How socially expectable are the particular ways of shopping, cooking and eating you follow, and how socially acceptable are the ways you provide meals and subsequently eat them in your social circles?  Understanding the parameters within which people make decisions about food and the careful ways they legitimise these, provides important insights into how food consumption is changing, and how various groups across our societies manage this.

In this special issue, some colleagues share work that has focused on developing innovative approaches to studying an ‘old’ problem.  Stine Møllegaard uses the very detailed and comprehensive register data which only Nordic countries, such as Denmark, have access to, to undertake a comparative study of twins.  Such a research design allows her carefully to examine how Bourdieu’s concept of ‘cultural capital’ actually leads to higher academic outcomes, and the results are not necessarily what Bourdieu’s theory argues!  Meanwhile Lasse Liebst and colleagues use CCTV footage to code the way ‘bystanders’ respond in situations where aggression flares up in public spaces, allowing the research team to evaluate who gets involved, how they do this and what the consequences are for them and those initially involved in the violence.  Such a research approach generates new insights which can inform advice to members of the public about what to do if they see a potentially violent situation erupting.

A third example of innovation comes from Jakob Demant and colleagues who extend our understanding of online crime by integrating a much-needed qualitative focus, including the collection of new empirical data, into their studies.  Previously, research has mainly relied on quantitative data generation and ‘data-scraping’.  A more qualitative approach has allowed the team to examine how crimes are committed online – people’s motivations, how criminal transactions are managed, whether and how identities and criminal activities are different to those in offline spaces.

Some of the special issue contributions offer insights into ways current policy and practice in Denmark can be seen as innovating.  Despite the trouble with ‘policy borrowing’, new ways of promoting collectivisation around urban greening (Anders Blok, Anette Gravgaard Christensen and colleagues), or considering the implications of legalising prostitution for how male and female sex workers create narratives of control and autonomy (Theresa Dyrvig Henriksen & Margaretha Järvinen) allows us to further consider possible policy solutions for on-going or ever more urgent social issues.  Understanding how the relatively generous introduction of parental leave and a slowly changing attitude to fatherhood may be reconstituting male and female roles in the ‘home’ offers new perspectives on the ways gender equality across both the public and private domains may be able to work better in concert (Anna-Sofie Bach).  Finally, how different professional groups are working together to tackle 21st century health, environmental and social problems, and whether new professional identities and remits are emerging is critical to ensure that effective partnerships can be fostered (Anders Blok, Inge Kryger Pedersen and colleagues).

The privilege of being able to move countries to take up a new work opportunity, with its accompanying pleasures and challenges of settling somewhere new has been thrilling.  I find myself in a position of not fully understanding the social norms, and having to sit down and study a new language in a classroom in the way I had to as a young person.  I am hugely enjoying the intellectual and affective energy that is generated from continuously reflecting on my encounter with other ways of doing things.  Seeking to make sense of how different governing structures and cultural frames affect everyday life and the opportunities made available to those across different sections of society is fascinating.

My ability to process my reflections on the differences between living in England and now residing in Denmark has been made possible because of my sociological background, but has also been substantially enriched through engaging with my new colleagues’ important research.  Having ‘grown up’ in the more British-inflected sociological ways of thinking and doing – encountering a slightly different ‘community of practice’ around sociological theorising has offered me further food for thought and enriched my own development as a sociologist.  I hope you enjoy the twelve pieces included here as much as I have, and find something to take away for your own work and understanding of the world we are living in.


Claire Maxwell is Professor of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen