ReNEW Agenda

Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World (ReNEW) is a joint program for research, education and public engagement related to the Nordic region, its history, culture and politics.

The objectives of ReNEW are as follows:

  1. To bring together and open up new fields of research on Norden, through pooling the resources and mutual interest of six Nordic universities in one strategic and world-leading university hub.
  2. To serve as a hub for Nordic research on a global basis. ReNEW will establish joint research and education projects among researchers from multiple disciplines. It will facilitate new international research partnerships and provide a focal point for consolidating existing international partnerships and networks.
  3. To establish meeting places between researchers and Nordic decision makers. Many of the paradoxes and research questions for ReNEW have high societal relevance, and it is therefore essential to establish dialogue with decision makers and representatives of the public, private and NGO sectors.

ReNEW is motivated by growing international interest in the Nordic countries on the one hand, and by the multiple local and global challenges facing the region on the other. The aim is to stimulate a rethinking and renewal of our understandings of what the Nordic region is and how it could be studied and understood, as well as bringing new ideas and organizing frames into the international network related to Nordic and Scandinavian studies. An overriding idea of ReNEW is the mutual exchange of ideas between the global and the Nordic. The ambition is to reinvent and consolidate research related to the Nordic region, allowing related programmes, networks and institutions around the world to benefit from our joint competence and activities.

Demand for knowledge relating to Nordic successes as well as challenges

The Nordic states score high on global indexes of happiness, equality and welfare, transparency and economic competitiveness, environmental policies, trust, associational life and government effectiveness. Whether it concerns the economics of the tripartite model, the politics of gender equality, penal and other kinds of humanitarianism, Nordic cooperation, or the cultural innovations of New Nordic cuisine, Nordic design and Nordic Noir, researchers and policymakers from across the globe see Norden as a dynamic region with ideas worth probing. On the flip-side, the Nordic countries are also sometimes referred to as dystopian societies, whose “massive problems” in immigration-dense suburbs are used to serve nationalist purposes in domestic debates.

The Nordic societies are more complex than either the blind endorsements or dystopian critics referred to above suggest. In many areas, the experiences of the five Nordic countries differ widely, and Nordic responses to global challenges are full of ambiguities and paradoxes. While it is important to combat populist “fake news”, it is equally important to acknowledge that the Nordic countries also perform poorly on some indexes (e.g. suicide rates, use of solitary confinement), and demonstrate some features inconsistent with their progressive reputations (e.g. their role in the arms trade or their strongly gender segregated labour markets). Political parties suspicious of the possibilities for integrating immigrants have been on the rise across the region, challenging the traditional image of the Nordic countries as open and progressive societies where solidarity plays an important role. Recently, some Nordic countries have faced international criticism for their treatment of asylum-seekers and minority ethnic groups. And even if Norden stands out as one of the most integrated regions in the world in economic and cultural terms, official political cooperation is stagnant and unable to exert much influence on the European level. The refugee crisis of the autumn 2015 resulted in the introduction of border controls between Denmark and Sweden for the first time in 60 years.

Demand for cross-disciplinary and multi-method research projects

These paradoxical developments call for cross-disciplinary and comparative research on Nordic historical trajectories, cultural patterns, and recent responses to global challenges. The ambition is to develop a world-class research network that enhances intra-Nordic collaboration and creates a platform for the acquisition of major research grants. ReNEW also seeks to establish a shared doctoral programme and to enhance mobility and interaction among researchers. It will create synergies between leading scholars in the field and enhance their impact through inter-linked work packages, each with one scholar in charge on behalf of a responsible institution. Themes for future collaborative research could include, for example, comparative variation-finding research projects (e.g North versus South in Europe), studies of the transnational transfer of ideas, knowledge and perspectives across borders (the making and translation of Nordic models), or case-oriented projects intended to gain a deeper understanding of cultural, political and social aspects of a given country or region.

Under the leadership of Professor Peter Stadius, University of Helsinki will take overall responsibility for the coordination of ReNEW. Each WP will be led by one or two of the partner universities: Copenhagen Business School (CBS), Sødertørn University (SöU), University of Iceland (UI), University of Oslo (UiO), Aarhus University (AU).

WP1: Mobility, guest researchers and student exchange (UH & UI)

A key purpose of ReNEW is to facilitate mobility among researchers engaged in Norden-related research. Researchers at all levels of seniority will be invited to submit applications for research stays at another institution within ReNEW, at one of our strategic partners or at other relevant institutions. ReNEW will also map BA and MA programs and PhD courses on Nordic themes in the respective universities, looking for possible synergies. The purpose will be to stimulate the exchange of students and teachers across the universities at this level.

WP2: Research Training and PhD cohort (SöU)

ReNEW universities will collaborate in a joint research training programme, including summer schools, research seminars and PhD training courses. A training course for the ReNEW PhD cohort and other scholars outside ReNEW will be arranged in connection with the annual conference. Topics addressed in the research training programme will mirror the strengths and interests of the partner universities. Courses at MA and PhD level will be offered in such areas as digital humanities, comparative social science research, area and cultural studies, and legal studies. These will be available to all researchers pursuing studies related to Nordic themes, regardless of their primary affiliation.

WP3: Workshops, seminars, conferences (UiO and CBS)

Following successful conferences at UiO and University of Helsinki in March 2017 and 2018, the ReNEW initiative establishes this conference as an annual event, with the other universities taking on the commitment in subsequent years. At least one of the upcoming conferences will be co-organized with a partner outside the Nordic countries, and we are likely to cooperate with universities in the Boston area of the USA for the organization of one of these conferences. ReNEW will also facilitate the organization of workshops related to the research themes presented below or other more specific and innovative themes that are of interest to researchers in the participating universities. These events may be hosted and coorganized by the partner universities, or in cooperation with one of the partner institutions outside the Nordic countries.

WP4: Public and Policy Outreach (UiO and CBS)

ReNEW will utilize the different profiles and expertise of the participating universities in its strategy for public and policy outreach. The aim is to establish overview and establish relationships to relevant stakeholders, and invite Nordic communities within the public, private and NGO sectors to participate in our initiative. Programs aimed at policy-makers, administrators and businesses, like the one established at CBS in Public Governance, will continue to be offered. Connections will be developed with media organisations, publishers and think-tanks, foreign ministries and organizations established to develop or facilitate Nordic cooperation.

WP5: Academic Dissemination – Book series, OA policy, journal articles (UiO and UH)

ReNEW members already participate in book series related to Nordic research themes and new volumes and book series initiatives are under way. It is expected that two books a year will be published during the six-year period of ReNEW, with concrete plans already existing for 2-4 books in 2018-2019 and another 2-4 books in the years thereafter. All universities have an open access policy and ReNEW will provide some funding for this purpose.

WP6: Web resources and popular dissemination (AU)

Under the domain name, ReNEW will establish a new website to communicate research-based knowledge about the Nordic region, presented in a way that is accessible to a broad readership. Content will include all the areas covered by ReNEW, with authors recruited through the network. Material will be presented in different formats and the site will also include key sources in translation and with expert commentary. The project builds on experience gained from AU’s prize-winning website, which had over 2.8 million visits and 5.8 million page views in 2017.

Current research clusters

ReNEW proposes six cross-cutting clusters as the focus areas related to research.

1. Nordic cooperation and Region-building

In the context of current struggles in the EU and the rise of distrust and protectionism in international relations, Norden stands out as an unusually well-integrated region. This success is poorly understood in scholarship, which has hitherto focused mainly on cooperation between official political actors. Paradoxically, in a historical perspective Nordic cooperation appears to be a long history of failures (e.g. Scandinavianism, the defence union, Nordek, cooperation within the EU), and in comparison with the EU, the Nordic Council of Ministers is an insignificant political actor. Considering research that emphasizes the limitations of Nordic cooperation as well as its achievements, ReNEW will direct attention to the everyday practices of Nordic comparison, competition and co-operation, including the many informal and unofficial networks that have served to integrate Norden “from below”.

Contact: Peter Stadius (UH)

2. Democracy, governance and law

Democracy is often asserted to be at the centre of Nordic identity, nationhood and reputation, with the Nordic countries assumed to share a long history of democratization in politics, economic governance and at the workplace. The development of a relatively incorrupt bureaucracy in the 19th century and the importance of popular movements and voluntary associations are cited to explain the high trust levels. In recent decades, however, there has been a movement from democratic voluntary associations towards more temporary, activity-based and managerial organizations. Moreover, although the levels of trust in the Nordic countries are still high, there are signs of erosion of trust in institutions. Digitalization, new media and new approaches in organization and management present challenges to the existing democratic order. As democracy expands into new spheres of life the scope of democratic practice has become a source of conflict, while individualist practices of free choice and client diversification have become important. ReNEW will facilitate research on the changing interpretations and institutionalizations of Nordic democracy in light of current challenges to liberal democracy globally, in Europe and in the Nordic countries.

Contact: Haldor Byrkjeflot (UiO)

3. Public Policy, Gender Equality and Labour Markets

The relative success of the Nordic economies has been attributed to their focus on maintaining competiveness by continuously renewing public policy-making and updating welfare policies and economic models. These reforms have been combined with emphases on inclusiveness, fairness and improving environmental standards. Nordic labour markets are marked by a high level of women’s participation but also tolerate gender segregation with unskilled or low-skilled male jobs foremost threatened by new technologies. The paradoxical alterations in gender patterns in the private sphere and in labour market participation need to be studied in a cross-disciplinary fashion. Another paradox relates to the increased inequality, even in the Nordic welfare states over recent decades. The third paradox relates to the Nordic integration model, which is changing from open, humanitarian and inclusive to exclusive and discriminatory. Overall, Nordic welfare models and public policy have become more selective and less generous. Do policy and political developments undermine the core of the universalistic model, even though global interest in this model remains high? Is it the end of the Nordic welfare state as we know it?

Contacts: Caroline de La Porte (CBS) and Irma Erlingsdottir (UI).

4. Imagining Norden - Branding and Nordic reputation

Since the late 1990s, the Nordic states have adopted strategies to brand themselves as nations and as a region in the global reputational market. Building on scholarship on internal and external image creation, perceiving nations, regions and their ‘models’ as brands further offers a new perspective for analysing interconnections within the Nordic region and in a global context. ReNEW will analyse the construction of Nordic brands (asking ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’) and the politics of Nordic branding (their use, coherence, and consequences). Given the international prominence of Nordic social models and their salience for self-understanding within Nordic countries, we examine how these models have been used to create the general Nordic brand and have emerged as specific brands themselves. This theme will also focus on how Nordic countries have sought to create negative images of themselves for example, in order to deter would-be migrants, and how the political context for such debates is increasingly shaped by a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We also analyse cross-cutting themes of agents and audiences, model selectivity and brand aesthetics.

Contacts: Malcolm Langford (UiO) and Mads Mordhorst (CBS).

5. Multiculturalism and globalization

Transnational migration has transformed the Nordic countries into multicultural entities during recent decades. Questions of assimilation, integration or multi-culturalism, and the relations between immigrant groups and majority societies have become controversial. They have been exploited by populist parties, and are becoming significant for domestic political agendas. At the same time Norden maintains a high profile in global issues such as development, peace, and the environment. Humanitarianism has become a global industry, where the Nordics are regarded as esteemed promotors and actors. Does this mean that Norden has become more fluid and ambiguous as a concept? The impact of climate change is likely to be particularly marked in the High North, while the Nordic countries are significant actors in both renewable energy and fossil fuels. ReNEW seek to improve accounts of intra-Nordic diversity; by charting global agendas and interactions; and by strengthening a post-colonial perspective. Rather than inquiring about Nordic approaches and essence we will do research on the global challenges confronted by Nordic societies. The aim is to understand issues such as multi-culturalism, diversity, mobility, Europeanization and globalization. The recently started project at UiO, NORDHOST: Nordic hospitalities in a context of migration and refugee crisis, will be a vital part of this theme.

Contact: Norbert Götz (SöU) and Trygve Wyller (UiO)

6. Nordic culture, education and media

Perceptions of the Nordic region as a distinctive political entity have long been reinforced by references to Nordic culture, education and specific Nordic cultural products. In recent years phenomena as diverse as Nordic noir, new Nordic cuisine and Nordic design have achieved global recognition, as Nordic literature and architecture have historically. Meanwhile, the ‘cultural turn’ in the humanities and social sciences has focused greater attention on the alleged cultural specificity of the Nordic region, meaning that concepts such as the Nordic welfare model are now sometimes understood with reference to the Lutheran Reformation for example, or political culture. ReNEW will also focus on the rapidly developing area of digital technology and culture. The Nordic countries are on top of rankings for digitalization and noted for their progress towards a digital economy and society, while Nordic innovations in the fields of social media and gaming are also well-known (e.g. Skype, Spotify, Rovio). While digitalization presents new opportunities for research, teaching and communication in all areas of scholarship, it also raises serious questions: How can we deal with the challenges to the public sphere posed by cultural development patterns related to mediation and digitalization?

Contact: Mary Hilson (AU)