Scholars are studying the essence of being Nordic

Competitiveness, innovations, equality, wellbeing and “hygge” – the Nordic countries are arousing interest around the world. Right this moment, scholars specialised in Nordic studies are themselves looking for answers to the following questions.

1. How do unofficial networks and trust benefit the Nordic countries?

Traditionally, Nordic studies has focused on cooperation between official parties, such as governments, ministries and agencies. Today, more research on the everyday methods of Nordic cooperation is needed: how we compete and collaborate in various unofficial networks, striving to unite the Nordic countries at the grass-roots level.

This type of knowledge will be valuable when, for example, the EU is solving problems related to the free movement of goods and people.

“There is interest in this elsewhere in the world. In the Nordic countries, joint and binding decisions are rarely made, which may well be the reason for our success,” says Peter Stadius, Professor of Nordic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He heads the extensive ReNEW consortium, focused on Nordic studies, to whom NordForsk recently awarded over €4 million in funding.

According to Stadius, it is impossible to override individual countries in Nordic cooperation due to the respect afforded to their sovereignty.

“Their cooperation is, however, substantive, but we do not always identify or understand its value.”

In the Nordic countries, cooperation is primarily conducted in the field of businesses and organisations, for example among schools, sports associations and various non-governmental entities. According to tradition, national organisations have been gathered under Nordic umbrella organisations. Recently, the national associations of Somali immigrants established such an association.

Nordic cooperation has been built on trust, which may be difficult to grasp elsewhere.

“One scholar from South Korea marvelled at our open borders. We have been taking them for granted, and this practice is founded on trust. It would not occur to anyone that Swedish tanks might suddenly come thundering across the border,” notes Stadius.

This trust, however, has suffered a blow, necessitating in Stadius’s mind a closer, critical look. The refugee crisis in autumn 2015 led to the implementation of border control between Denmark and Sweden, for the first time in 60 years, when the governments of these two countries chose to make independent decisions due to increased immigration.

From a historical perspective, Nordic cooperation has not always been successful. One such example, according to Stadius, is defence cooperation, or the failure to establish a defence coalition as an alternative to NATO. Also unsuccessful was Nordek, an attempt to create a Nordic economic area in the 1960s. The project fell through when Denmark and Norway became interested in joining the European Economic Community.

2. What consequences do immigration and climate change have in the Nordic countries?

Even though the Nordic countries have always been multicultural, public debate on the subject has increased throughout them only in recent decades, thanks to immigration. Integration, multiculturalism and relations between various immigrant groups and the original population have lately led to conflict. Populist parties are taking advantage of the situation, and this has become part of the domestic political agenda of the Nordic countries.

According to Stadius, Nordic studies should concentrate on global challenges faced also by Nordic societies. At the same time, it is possible to identify conflict that helps resolve questions related to multiculturalism, diversity, mobility, Europeanisation and globalisation.

An example of such conflict is the idea of uniform Nordic culture. Culture in the Nordic countries has traditionally been perceived as homogenous. We have evolved into modern democracies, yet we still harbour contradicting thoughts on fashioning newcomers into mirror images of those whose roots are here. According to Stadius, such a way of thinking is not a given in many other cultures.

“Globalisation has made the North-South perspective topical as well,” says Stadius.

“At the moment, the northern bloc, with Germany at the forefront, is in control of EU policies and dictates what should be done. In Europe, it is difficult to debate alternatives. Why are we talking past each other? It is important to study relations between the North and South.”

The Arctic region and climate change are also topics that require further study. Climate change has a pronounced effect on the Arctic North. Norway is an important producer of oil and natural gas, while all Nordic countries aim to profile themselves as torchbearers of sustainable development.

“This also concerns the fate of the Sámi, the only indigenous people in Europe,” adds Stadius. The political rights of the Sámi are a significant political question.

“We have a post-colonial state of affairs in our own backyard, but globally, the Nordic countries still portray themselves as morally righteous states.”

3. What is Nordic?

The Nordic countries have a good global brand that covers, depending on discussion themes, everything from the best early childhood education to “kalsarikännit”, the word for drinking at home without pants on, and other light-hearted customs. But what are we actually talking about when we call something Nordic? What is an American filmmaker looking for when wanting to include Nordic elements in his or her work?

“There is a region known as the Nordic countries, which includes Finland. We scholars are studying the image as well as the reality of the Nordic countries,” says Stadius.

On one hand, the Nordic countries are perceived as stable, democratic societies whose citizens have rights and a good standard of living. On the other, a notion exists according to which the Nordic countries have realised a patronising surveillance dystopia.

“We want to find out what is globally considered Nordic and how these conceptions impact the status of the Nordic countries in the world.”

The research consortium’s goal is, in the first place, to establish a new way of examining the Nordic countries.

Nordic and Scandinavian studies have long been conducted in North America, Germany and the United Kingdom. Research on the subject in the Nordic countries has been fragmented, with the exception of the Centre for Nordic Studies, established at the University of Helsinki in 2002, and the strategic research area in Nordic studies at the University of Oslo, established in 2014.

The recently established ReNEW consortium strengthens Nordic studies conducted in the Nordic countries. The Nordic countries as a region are now being investigated from several perspectives, with the goal of finding solutions to problems.

University of Helsinki receives over €4 million for Nordic studies

NordForsk has awarded approximately €4.3 million in funding to the Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World (ReNEW) research consortium. The consortium that brings together six universities is led by the Centre for Nordic Studies CENS at the University of Helsinki. Its aim is strategic cooperation for producing new knowledge and a new way of perceiving the Nordic countries, both from within and from a global perspective.

In recent decades, the Nordic countries have engendered new kind of interest on a global scale. Nordic competitiveness and innovations, as well as equality and wellbeing, have led The Economist, among others, to pronounce the Nordic countries as the Next Supermodel.

“In international surveys, the Nordic countries are always at the top, yet we ourselves have not stopped to think about the value and meaning of these results. This is a subject for future research,” says Peter Stadius, consortium leader and a professor of Nordic studies at the University of Helsinki.

“We need experts who are able to meet the constantly increasing demands related to the characteristics of the Nordic social model, as well as to critically produce novel and significant knowledge on the Nordic countries.”

The consortium, representing social sciences and humanities, brings together smaller researcher communities, from literature to law, already working independently. In addition to the University of Helsinki, other consortium members are the University of Oslo, the University of Iceland, Aarhus University, Södertörn University and the Copenhagen Business School. This multidisciplinary consortium is creating lasting forms of collaboration in the fields of research, Master’s level teaching and societal interaction.

“We have been studying the outside world for a long time, but research findings on our own Nordic society have remained sparse. This is a global interest,” notes Stadius.

ReNEW’s goal is to become the leading hub of high-standard research and teaching in Nordic themes. Research topics include Nordic cooperation, gender and equality, social policy, welfare and the labour market, Nordic democracy and government, multiculturalism and integration, as well as diversity and globalisation.


NordForsk is an organisation operating under the auspices of the Nordic Council of Ministers that provides funding for and facilitates Nordic cooperation on research and research infrastructure. Within the scope of the Nordic University Hub programme, NordForsk has awarded more than €18 million to altogether six university consortia.

In addition to the University-led ReNEW consortium, the University of Helsinki is a member of the NordPlant consortium, the Nordic POP consortium and the Nordic Consortium for CO2 Conversion.