Academic journal article European Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies

Social Status in Norway and the Law of 'Jante': An Analysis of ISSP Social Inequality Data

Academic journal article European Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies

Social Status in Norway and the Law of 'Jante': An Analysis of ISSP Social Inequality Data

Article excerpt

1.Introduction

In 1933, Danish writer Aksel Sandemose's book 'En flyktning krysser sitt spor' was published, with an English translation released in 1936 under the title 'A fugitive crosses his tracks'. Sandemose's novel included a list of ten rules that dominate social norms in the fictional town of Jante; these laws, which were founded on a strong sense of social envy, are known in Norway as 'the law of Jante' (Janteloven in Norwegian). The idea of Janteloven is considered to be a critical, or negative, depiction by Sandemose of the 'egalitarian individualism' (marked by 'a strong suspicion against social climbers and a rejection of formal social hierarchies') that characterises the Norwegian national identity (Eriksen, 1993:16-17). The laws were considered 'famous' in Norway (Tyrell, 1984:103) and can be summarised as 'Don't think that you are anything special. Don't think that you are better than us.' (Hestenes, 1994: 9).

Janteloven is currently a ubiquitous but somewhat contentious concept in Norway; one that is readily identified in individual behaviour but something that has not been thoroughly demonstrated quantitatively in broader traits of Norwegian society. Nevertheless, reference to Janteloven is common in popular media, as is the idea that it is an accurate measure of part of Norwegian and Scandinavian culture (Avant and Knutsen, 1994; Gullestad, 1996). In the press it often manifests as a more energetic version of the tall poppy syndrome - which is a form of social backlash against status-seekers and the successful - that is common in Australia (Peeters, 2004: 5-6) and other anglophone countries. It also manifests as a response to such criticism, with both the criticised parties and public commentators dismissing the criticism as simply the product of the Janteloven mindset. Often viewed negatively, it has been raised as a threat to innovation and commercial endeavour, and also - on a more personal level - a barrier to education and self-actualisation.

For example, in 2003 the director of NRK (the Norwegian national broadcasting organisation) suggested that criticism of a potential journalistic prizewinner was a product of Janteloven (Knutsen, 2003). In 2011, Norwegian celebrity Trude Mostue labelled Janteloven the 'big troll' that prevents Norwegians from trying to stand out, encouraging them instead to always act like sheep (Hansen, 2011). And, in 2014, Norwegian-Spanish singer Adelén was reported to have used the lack of faith that others had in her - which she attributed to the fact that Janteloven 'betyr mye her i Norge' ('means a lot here in Norway') - as added motivation to succeed (Brâthen, 2014). It carries similar traits among entrepreneurs and in the business world, who cite Janteloven as a barrier to people promoting their successes or even as 'an obstacle to economic growth and prosperity' (Eriksen, 1993: 17). For example, the leader of the business prize jury in 2014 speculated if it was Janteloven preventing young leaders from nominating themselves for the business awards (Framstad, 2014). It is clear that this view is not universal, however, because commentators in online forums are often quick to defend criticism of celebrities and aspiring or failed business people, suggesting instead that in some cases the criticisms are warranted and sensible, and not the product of social envy.

Overall, and despite its association with the equality or humility attributed to Norway (for example, Dregni, 2008: 22-23), Janteloven is generally viewed negatively (though there are exceptions, such as Edwards [2016] who suggests that Janteloven protected Scandinavia from the negative effects of socialism). This conforms to its original presentation in Sandemose's 1933 novel (Gullestad, 1984: 343). Writing in a Norwegian guide book for foreign students, Latin American social anthropologist Eduardo Archetti (1998) also expressed the idea that Janteloven carries negative connotations among some Norwegians, who view it as 'a petty moral code that hinders entrepreneurship and real competition' and a form of 'approved mediocrity' (Archetti, 1998: 13). …

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