Building anthropology
A historical sketch of the formative years of anthropology in the Nordic countries, with parallels to the situation in the Baltic countries today

Finn Sivert Nielsen

Lecture at the conference: Defining ourselves - Establishing anthropology in the Baltic states, Vilnius, Oct. 2-5, 2003

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Table of contents

Barth and the second revolution in Nordic anthropology
Sweden and Denmark
Summary and conclusions for the Baltic countries
An anthropology of post-socialism in the Nordic countries
Concluding points



Today, in the former socialist countries of East and Central Europe, we see the establishment and growth of modern anthropology as an academic discipline. Quite aside from the fact that this is good news for the international community of anthropologists, the process is of intrinsic interest for historians of anthropology, since we can see the roots and beginnings of what will in time grow into new schools and directions in the discipline. How these changes will procede, and what new questions they will give rise to, we cannot yet know, since institution building in academia is most often slow, and modern anthropology has a short history in most of the countries in question. Moreover, though new academic institutions have in a few cases been formed, with brand-new anthropology departments, more often anthropology must find a place for itself within existing university structures, where it must compete with existing disciplines - which may further slow its establishment.

In this situation, when Baltic anthropologists are literally "defining themselves", it may be of interest to recall that similar processes of institution building and "self-definition" - within similarly established university structures - took place in the Nordic countries in the 1950's and 60's. An overview of the formative years of modern Nordic anthropology will bring out both similarities and differences with the present situation in the Baltics. Still more striking, however, are the differences that are revealed between the Nordic countries themselves. For though it is true that modern anthropology was established in three of these countries during the first post-war decades, it is no less true that this was accomplished in different ways in each of the three countries, and that in the fourth the timing was completely different.

I shall therefore lead you through a short history of the early years of modern Nordic anthropology, with emphasis on Norway, which I know best, and which has played a crucial role in this history. I shall point out possible parallels to the Baltic situation today as we go along. Finally, I discuss my own experiences of building an anthropology of East / Central Europe in Norway and Denmark. This is yet another example - in miniature - of anthropological institution building in a Nordic context, though under very different circumstances than in the post-war years.

But before turning to our main topic, we need to form a picture of the state of anthropology in the Nordic countries before the post-war "revolution" in the discipline.

Nordic anthropology was formed in the late 1800's. It found its first foothold in Copenhagen, where the unique collections of ethnographica that had existed for many years, were first exhibited as an independent "ethnographic collection" in 1841. In Sweden, the collections were smaller and less remarkable. Still, when a temporary exhibit of ethnographic objects was brought together in the late 1870's, it was of sufficient interest to be held in the Crown Prince's palace. In Norway and Finland, the poorest and most peripheral nations of the Nordic area, the situation was different. True, an ethnographic museum was opened for the public in Oslo as early as in 1857, but calling it a museum seems premature, since it contained only 208 objects. Finland, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire, established a historical museum with a division of cultural history in 1893.

The museums grew rapidly, and by 1900, even the ethnographic museum in Oslo had nearly 10,000 objects. This growth was largely a result of a number of ambitious expeditions mounted by Nordic ethnographers, archaeologists and explorers, such as the Norwegian Carl Lumholtz, the Swedes Erland Nordenskiöld and Sven Hedin, the Dane Knud Rasmussen, and the Finn Rafael Karsten. Some of these early anthropologists were simply adventurers; some were academically schooled - in Berlin, Leipzig or Vienna. For all of them, the main academic point of reference was Germany, and the form of anthropology practiced was German Kulturgeschichte. Theoretical interests were historical and diffusionist, or concerned with the ethnographic objects themselves - thus, the Swedish anthropologist and archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe made a noteworthy contribution to the study of primitive ornament in the early 1890's. Right up to the Second World War, Nordic anthropology remained a historical and humanistic discipline, with few if any links to the social sciences.

The exception was Finland. Here Edward Westermarck had made an international name for himself. He held a professorship in Helsinki, and a professorship at the University of London, where he was an active participant in the ongoing debates in British anthropology during the first decades of the 20th century. Responding to the call for more detailed ethnographies that was heard throughout British anthropology at the time, Westermarck spent altogether nearly a decade doing ethnographic fieldwork in Morocco. In London, he was Malinowski's teacher. When Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski created modern British anthropology, he was influenced by them, and back home in Helsinki, he founded the first Nordic center of modern anthropology. However, Westermarck spent more time in London and Morocco than in Finland, and as an institution builder he was not a great success. Though several of his students went on to do intensive, long-term fieldwork, there was no institutional home for them in Finland, and they were either marginalized academically or assimilated into the dominant Kulturgeschichte tradition. The Westermarck School was therefore short-lived.

Here we may pause to draw a comparison. Until the breakthrough of the "modern British School" of social anthropology, the influence of German Kulturgeschichte was preeminant world-wide. Thus, Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology, was educated in Germany, and the German focus on cultural history, linguistics and ethnopsychology was carried on by his students. Throughout the Northern and Eastern peripheries of Europe as well (the Nordic and Baltic regions included), the German influence prevailed. Russian anthropology was of German extraction, and famous Russian ethnographers of this period, such as Vladimir Bogoraz, collaborated effortlessly with Boas on several occasions. But where the German influence was dominant, the bonds that were formed in Britain and France between anthropology and sociology, which established anthropology as a social science - were virtually non-existent.

My comparative point is as follows: The theoretical transformation that was carried out in the Nordic countries in the 1950's and 60's - in which an established, German-inspired, cultural-historical anthropology was replaced or supplemented by a British-based, social anthropology - is similar to the revolution taking place in the Baltic countries today. The goal in both cases is to establish anthropology as a social science, which engages with the contemporary world, rather than a humanistic science concerned with the cultural past. So far, our story has displayed one possible outcome of this transformation. As in Westermarck's Finland, it may fail.

After this somewhat discouraging preamble, let us now turn to the main theme of this lecture.

Barth and the second revolution in Nordic anthropology

After Westermarck's abortive attempt, the second revolution in Nordic anthropology took place in the 1950's and 60's, and led eventually to the establishment of modern anthropology in all four Nordic countries. The "revolution" started in the dusty attic of the Ethnographic Museum in Oslo, which, in the words of one of the participants "was, like Knut Hamsun's Kristiania, a strange place, 'which no one ever leaves without being marked by' it" (Brøgger 1988). This fact in itself indicates a trend: Both the first and second revolution in Nordic anthropology took place - not in the richest and most international Scandinavian cities, in Copenhagen or Stockholm - but in the unimportant and peripheral capitals of Helsinki and Oslo. Perhaps, after all, despite the story we have just heard from Finland, there is less resistance to change in the less established academic centers? If so, this is good news for Baltic anthropologists. On the other hand, the Finnish and Norwegian stories are also similar in the sense that in both cases the "revolution" was lead by a very high-profile international anthropologist. And if such a person is necessary, the Baltic prospects seem bleaker.

In Norway, Westermarck's role was played by Fredrik Barth. Barth had come to Oslo in the early 1950's, after undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he was exposed to the most avant garde trends in American social science. In Oslo he joined the 6-7 students of anthropology in the Hamsunesque attic. The group was small, the atmosphere intense: "Here reigned Pathan chief and scholarship holder Fredrik Barth, seated in lotus position on the seminar table," recalls one student. "I am still filled with nostalgic awe when I think of the brilliant disputes that were fought out in those days, glittering with wit, irony, arrogance and commitment" (Brøgger 1988). "To be introduced to those who had known the attic longer," remarks one of the circle's younger members, "was to encounter a small group of select individuals who had seen the light - that is, the unsurpassable teachings of social anthropology. This was made very clear [to the newcomer from the start]. The unlearning of old academic habits was roughly and ruthlessly enforced, though it did not proceed without protest." (Rudie n.d.).

Then, in 1955, Barth handed in his doctoral dissertation at the University of Oslo. It was rejected. The revolution, it must have seemed, had been killed in the bud. Later, it was revealed that the committee that reviewed Barth's thesis had acted, not so much in defense of the old order as in ignorance of the new. Since this was the first anthropological doctorate ever defended in Oslo, the committee contacted Evans-Pritchard - the leading light of British anthropology - to hear what was demanded of a doctoral dissertation at Oxford. Evans-Pritchard - somewhat crankily, one imagines - had answered, among other things, that long-term fieldwork was a self-evident requirement. Since Barth's otherwise competent work was based on a short field study in Kurdistan, it was rejected.(1)

So Barth left for London and Cambridge, where he quickly acquired not only a doctorate, but an international reputation as well. He returned to Oslo in 1958, as an institution builder. As opposed to Westermarck, Barth was committed to Norway, and besides - he entered anthropology at an extremely auspicious moment - just as Norway took its first steps out of its poverty-stricken past, just as the post-war demographic baby-boom made itself felt, and just as great investments were made in expanding universities all over the West. Barth had plans; and he had realistic hopes that they might succeed. These hopes were strengthened by the fact that he was a man of considerable political acumen.

His allies in Norway included Gudmund Hernes (a prominent historian and social democratic politician) and Stein Rokkan (an internationally acclaimed political scientist). The three talented and well-connected young men contacted the Norwegian ministry of education, which was in the process of establishing the University of Bergen, and convinced them that the social sciences should be given a prominent place at the new university. And so, in 1961, Barth moved from Oslo to Bergen, where he founded Scandinavia's first institute of social anthropology in 1965. Within few years, this grew into what is known as the Bergen School.

We shall return to the impact of the Bergen School in a moment. But first we need to ask ourselves why Barth's efforts were so quickly and richly rewarded. Some reasons have already been mentioned: Barth's international reputation and talent, his good connections in the Norwegian establishment, and the fact that the Norwegian university system (and the social sciences in particular) was rapidly expanding, were all crucial to his success. However, there were other factors, which were less dependent on the times and on Barth's person.

One noteworthy factor has been hinted at: There was little effective resistance from the older generation. Even the rejection of Barth's thesis was an expression of the weakness of the academic establishment. Norway had only one, small university, and Norwegian scholars were insignificant both in numbers and in international renown. In contrast, both Denmark and Sweden had century-old, well-reputed academic institutions, and anthropology - though here too a marginal subject - was based at the prestigeous museums in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Göteborg. And so, as we shall see, the resistance was far stronger.

But there was also another reason why so little resistance was offered in Norway. The four Nordic countries had followed different paths during the Second World War. While Sweden retained its neutrality, and Finland - fighting its own war against Russia - ended on the German side, both Denmark and Norway were occupied. Denmark tried to avoid bloodshed and admitted the Nazis freely, but Norway resisted actively - a fact that has later been a matter of considerable national pride. Accordingly, at the end of the War, there was a stronger will in Norway than in the other Nordic countries to break all German ties. The old anthropology had "German" associations. The new anthropology was "British" and "American". That in itself might almost have been reason enough for Barth's success.

Nevertheless, the most important single reason for the success of Barth's revolution may have been the kind of anthropology he proposed to introduce. This was not - to draw a contrast to our own times - some kind of wishy-washy postmodernism. It was hard-core, practical science, utilizing the newest insights of cybernetics and game theory, fresh from the USA, and resting on the positivistic bedrock of British structural functionalism. Barth even claimed that formal modelling might predict the results of planned interventions in society. Thus, he offered a potential solution to two sets of problems that troubled policy-makers at the time: First, the problems of development aid, in which large sums of donor money were pouring intoprojects in the Third World, and the question inevitably arose if that money could be spent more wisely. Secondly, in Norway itself, huge sums were invested in the country's peripheries, with the aim of halting the trend toward regional depopulation. As in the Third World, such projects stood a better chance of success if one possessed the planning tools Barth claimed to supply.

Thus, the new anthropology in Norway had an applied accent. Though it derived its methods and many of its insights from the study of exotic peoples and dying cultures, Barth made it clear that anthropology had undeniable practical value for Norwegian policy makers.(2)

Again, we must pause to consider possible lessons for present-day Baltic anthropology. Clearly, many aspects of the Norwegian revolution were determined by particular persons and social conditions that are historically unique and cannot be replicated. Nevertheless, there are some points with wider relevance, to which we shall now turn:

First, the post-war situation in Norway and the post-Soviet situation in the Baltics have certain similarities, in as much as the fall of the Soviet Empire has provoked a similar will to turn away from the recent past as in Norway in 1945. Clearly, the Baltic situation is more complex, the break less clear-cut, and resistance to change more formidable. Still, it would seem that modern anthropology has at least a potential niche in the Baltics, as an academic discipine with no ties at all to the old regime. Economically, too, there may be parallels. The economic upsurge of the 1960's, may - perhaps - be mirrored by the influx of EU funds in the near future.

A more important point, lies, I think, in Barth's confident promotion of anthropology as a practical, policy-relevant discipline. Clearly, in today's self-critical intellectual climate, such confidence is harder to sustain. We have learned the virtues of deconstruction and reflexivity, and to cast doubt on the validity of the conclusions at which we arrive. But though our conclusions may be less than perfect, Barth's revolution is a reminder that they are worth fighting for - not merely because they represent an abstract "basic knowledge", but because of their value to society. We too belong to "a small group of select individuals who have seen the light", and we should not hesitate to state this to the public, confidently and clearly.

Sweden and Denmark

But let us return to the Nordic scene. Though marginal, Barth's museum attic in Oslo was not atypical. Everywhere in the Nordic area, anthropology was museum based, research the prerogative of curators and professors, teaching unsystematic, and students rare. The first regular teaching program in the Nordic region was opened at the National Museum in Copenhagen in 1945 by Kaj Birket-Smith - an old-school ethnographer. Few years later, a similarly conservative program was launched by Sture Lagercrantz in Uppsala (Sweden):

Surrounded by a small, enthusiastic group of students he pursued his teaching obligations for about 12 years without any department, office or secretary. He did not even have a desk or a telephone, but borrowed a lecture room in the main university building three days a week, while using his own bedroom to receive the students for oral exams and thesis supervision. (Jacobsen-Widding 1997)

As in Oslo, the marginal amenities were only surpassed by the enthusiasm and resourcefulness of the students:

We just enjoyed the informal atmosphere of learning, and felt as if we were included in a very learned man's select company. Those of us who wished to take a different path when writing our doctoral theses felt entirely free to do so, and would struggle along on our own, while picking and choosing among the 'new' anthropological literature from France, Great Britain and the United States. In this way, we could all pretend that we were anthropological pioneers, without feeling bogged down by the burden of the old German culture historical school. (Jacobsen-Widding 1997)

But, despite these parallels, there was no revolution in Uppsala. Indeed, by 1969, so little had changed that tensions between radical students and conservative teachers erupted, and more than half of the department emigrated to the department of sociology, under the leadership of Kaisa Ekholm, where it remained for ten years. Elsewhere in Sweden, the situation was different. In Göteborg, Karl-Gustav Izikowitz, a British-educated anthropologist who had studied under Malinowski, took over the leadership of the museum and created a teaching program influenced by the modern British School. His writings (which are still cited) definitely belong to modern anthropology. Here, there was incremental change, but no sign of revolution.

How should we explain this difference? As mentioned above, there was only one university and one ethnographic museum in Norway until the end of the 1950's. Sweden, in contrast, had four full universities. At each of them, the relationship between old-school "German" anthropologists and modernizers was different. The unified thrust that Barth's movement achieved could not be duplicated with so many separate institutions and conflicting interests.

In contrast, the Bergen School provided a consistent methodological and theoretical focus of considerable sophistication and promised to put anthropology to practical use. This clarity of purpose attracted many Swedes to Bergen. Prominent among these was Izikowitz in Göteborg, who collaborated with Barth and contributed an essay to Ethnic Groups and Boundaries when the famous book appeared in 1969. Among the younger generation of Swedes who were influenced by the Bergen School, were two successive professors in Stockholm, Karl Eric Knutsson and Ulf Hannerz. Indeed, in some respects, Barth's influence on Swedish anthropology was almost as great as in Norway. But the institutional complexity in Sweden diluted its force.

This is most clearly seen if we consider another of Barth's Swedish students - Åke Daun - who returned from Bergen to found a modern Swedish school of ethnology, sometimes referred to as the Lund School, because of the presence of two of its main practitioners there: Orvar Löfgren and Jonas Frykman. This would prove to be an event of great importance to Swedish anthropology as well.

In the Nordic countries, there is a traditional disciplinary division between ethnology and ethnography, where ethnographers (later anthropologists) studied exotic cultures, and ethnologists were concerned with traditional cultures in Europe, particularly in the Nordic countries themselves. Clearly, this division replicates the German distinction between Völkerkunde and Volkskunde, but this general theme was given various local expressions in the Nordic area. In Norway, Barth's aggressive appropriation of modern Norwegian society as an object of anthropological inquiry effectively cut the ethnologists off from expanding their field of interest into the contemporary world. For many years, ethnology remained a stagnant discipline, while anthropology forged ahead, with ever-growing popularity. In Sweden, in contrast, where the different anthropological milieus were unable to find a unified focus, the ethnologists, inspired by Daun, made a determined push into contemporary Swedish society, from which Swedish anthropologists were, as a result, largely excluded. Thus, Swedish anthropology was cut off from precisely the local and national segment of public interest, which was the main asset of their Norwegian colleagues. Swedish anthropology remains to this day a discipline largely focused on foreign cultures.

In Denmark, a very different pattern emerged. As in Norway, there was only one academic center - at the National Museum in Copenhagen. But as opposed to Oslo, this was a center of considerable power and prestige. The ethnographic collection was famous, and its director, Birket-Smith, was an international authority in his field. The old anthropology was stronger in Denmark than in either Sweden or Norway, and resistance to change was greatest here. Thus, when Birket-Smith retired in the mid-1960's, all the contenders for his position were his own students. Though this did not in itself preclude change, it ensured a measure of continuity throughout the changes. Birket-Smith's students branched out in different directions, but retained organic ties to the interests of their teacher.

Three examples will illustrate my point. First, Klaus Ferdinand, whose career most nearly matches his teacher's. He was recruited to the new museum of Århus, where he would in time develop both an independent ethnographic collection and the second university department of anthropology in the country. But the contrast to Barth's near simultaneous exodus to Bergen could hardly be greater. It was continuity of ethnographic interest, rather than theoretical revolution, that was the motivation behind the new Danish institutions, and it is symptomatic that here, as in Copenhagen, the museum came first. A similar continuity is seen in Johannes Nicolaisen, who succeeded Birket-Smith and founded the first Danish university institute of anthropology, in Copenhagen. Nicolaisen combined an interest in cultural history with a concern with ecology and subsistence, and though Birket-Smith sent Nicolaisen off to London to aquire knowledge of British social anthropology, he remained at heart an ethnographer rather than a theoretician.(3) Finally, Niels Fock, the most radical of Nicolaisen's students, was influenced by French structuralism at an early date, and his work, like that of Izikowitz in Sweden, clearly belongs to modern anthropology. But even with Fock there was continunity, since structuralism did not force a break with the humanistic tradition or establish anthropology as a social science.

Summary and conclusions for the Baltic countries

Let us summarize, and briefly outline the present situation: A revolution in Nordic anthropology took place in the 1950's and 60's, in Norway. It promoted anthropology as a contemporary and policy-relevant discipline, as a social, rather than a humanistic science. Norwegian anthropology expanded rapidly, and today educates hundreds of students, occupies a visible place in the media, and plays an active role in public policy. When the revolution spread to Sweden, it confronted a more diverse and complex academic landscape, and its impact was more diffuse. It also influenced the neighboring discipline of ethnology, which emerged as a strong competitor to anthropology. Swedish anthropology has retained a primary focus on foreign cultures. This has reduced its perceived policy relevance, and its access to funds and students. In Denmark, the more centralized and prestigious academic establishment was hardly effected by the revolution at first. Change was incremental, the discipline expanded slowly, and the redefinition of anthropology as a social science was delayed until the early 1970's. Since the 1980's, there has been dramatic growth, but it is only quite recently that the study of Danish society has become fully legitimate, and the policy relevance of anthropology is acknowledged only within fairly limited fields.

Finally, in Finland, modern anthropology was defeated before the War, and only resurrected in the 1980's. Since then, the discipline has seen formidable growth, but it remains the smallest milieu in the Nordic region. Its institutional arrangements are also unique: Though cultural history was never displaced by anthropology in Helsinki, it was eventually modernized, and today, at the humanistic Institute of Cultural Research, there is a subsection of "cultural anthropology". But when the Westermarck tradition was revived in the 1980's, it was established as a subsection of "social anthropology" under the department of sociology. In latter years, the two institutions have collaborated closely (Assessment Report 1999), and more recently they have merged into one institution, which is still, however, fairly small.

It is also time to summarize what lessons, if any, present-day anthropologists in the Baltics may draw from this historical sketch:

Clearly, the Norwegian case demonstrates that a small linguistic community may be sufficient - under specific circumstances - to create an anthropological milieu with a high profile both internationally and nationally. It should be remembered, however, that the circumstances that made this possible were highly specific, and can hardly be duplicated today. Still, we should note the following features of the Norwegian experience:

It seems clear, first of all, that the breakthrough in Norwegian anthropology was promoted by its applied focus, its interest in conditions in Norway itself, and its orientation toward the social sciences. Each of these factors made the discipline attractive to policy makers, and attracted support and funding. It is possible that a similar project might succeed in the Baltic countries today, now that EU funding is becoming available. However, the Norwegian experience also shows that the vision of anthropology as a practical, nationally oriented, social science is not enough. Indeed, the two Norwegian institutes where such a program was most consistently pursued were, for a while, threatened by stagnation. More typical for Norwegian anthropology as a whole, is the combination of an applied, national and sociological focus with basic research, exotic fieldwork and theoretical eclecticism. Thus, among the many applied research institutions in Norway that employ anthropologists, the most successful are those that also give room for free theoretical development.

All of this indicates a need to open up the discipline - to practical life, to other disciplines, to theoretical heterodoxy - and to the general public. Here, a final lesson may be drawn from the Norwegian story. Since the 1950's, Norwegian anthropologists have participated actively in public debates, and a string of popular books and articles have appeared that have spread knowledge of anthropology among the general public. Though some of the authors have also had a high international profiles, other, equally important names, are hardly known outside Norway and have published almost exclusively in Norwegian (a prime example is Arne Martin Klausen at the University of Oslo).(4)

If we expand our view to the entire Nordic region, there is yet another lesson to be learned. What is perhaps most striking about the Nordic story as a whole, is the conspicuous tendency for researchers to pursue narrowly national agendas. Though Nordic anthropologists have to some extent cooperated, their cooperation has often been limited to specific projects or individuals. Nordic anthropology, even today, remains surprisingly fragmented.

Let us consider this for a moment. Fragmentation has advantages. It allows the emergence of separate national traditions with distinct profiles - and thus contributes to the disciplinary diversity in the region. To take one example, the Institute in Copenhagen has developed a systematic training program in anthropological methods, which may well be one of the best in the world, and has no parallel elsewhere in the Nordic area. This development might never have come about if Copenhagen had (for example) been reduced to a province of the Bergen School, where methods were considered to be the researcher's personal problem.

On the other hand, it seems safe to say that the fragmentation of Nordic anthropology has had many disadvantages. The long eclipse of Finnish anthropology might well have been avoided, if inter-Nordic cooperation had been more effective. Each of the Nordic countries has a fairly small population base, and though this is not necessarily a handicap, it seems clear that even today, concerted regional cooperation might make Nordic anthropology a far more potent force. In the Baltics, a fragmented anthropology seems an even greater mistake.

An anthropology of post-socialism in the Nordic countries

And here I shall briefly turn to my final example of Nordic institution building, which derives, this time, from my own experience. The idea of creating a group of anthropologists concerned with the problems of the countries of East / Central Europe arose in Oslo, in 1988. I had done fieldwork in Leningrad in the early 1980's (see Nielsen 1987), and a number of my students were planning similar work in other parts of the region. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, our group quickly expanded, and we soon had some 15 members, including two Ph.D.'s. Contact was made with a similar group, which had been established by Steven Sampson in Copenhagen in the mid-1990's, and the first steps toward a Nordic network of post-socialist anthropologists were taken. The trouble was that there was no permanent teacher either in Oslo or in Copenhagen with a stake in the region. In Oslo, the need for such a position was rejected with the argument that it was more fruitful for anthropologists to cooperate on a thematic than a regional basis. Though I agreed (and still agree) with this standpoint in general, I would argue that there are exceptions - as in the present case, when we had to do with a region without an established regional anthropological tradition, without canonical texts and international conferences - indeed, without even a basic consensus about whether the area under study could be referred to as an ethnographic region or not. Without a permanent teacher who could function as a fixed institutional anchor, our group, like its twin in Copenhagen, could not survive in the long run.

In 1994, I received a teaching position at the University of Tromsø. In Tromsø, where the university was founded with a regional focus (on Northern Norway), the idea of a group concerned with the post-socialist region found more support, and fit rather well with the general interest in expanding the department's empirical focus into North-West Russia. In Tromsø, a fairly small university, the trouble was the students - there were too few to create an active and mutually stimulating group. Our greatest achievement was to organize what is now known as the First Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Communism in 1994. Later (in 1996) a second conference was organized in Copenhagen by Sampson's group, and a third, in Bergen (1998).

In 1999, I moved to my present position in Copenhagen, where I was brought in with the express purpose of stimulating work on the anthropology of post-socialism. I had two colleagues who were concerned with the region but who were both fast approaching retirement, so I revived Sampson's group (now renamed "The East / Central Europe Research Group"), and collected a new group of students. The long-term goal was to create a permanent research unit, but as yet, the institute was skeptical to such plans. One of my colleagues, Åke Norborg, had established a mini-network with Lund (Jonathan Friedman) and Vilnius (Vytis Ciubrinskas), which supplied our first formalized contact with East / Central European colleagues.

As luck would have it, one of my students connected with a group in Helsinki, which had established a well-functioning network throughout the Baltics. We were in the midst of planning the Fourth Nordic Conference (held in 2002), and when my own and my students' contacts were added to those obtained through the Finnish network, we were able to invite a large number of East / Central Europeans to the conference. The success of the conference convinced the Institute of the value of our work, and we were given a second teaching position, which was filled by Morten Axel Pedersen. During the conference, we took the initiative to create the Nordic and East / Central European Network for Qualitative Social Research (NECEN;, which is at present responsible for several Nordic-East European teaching and research projects, we participate in an interdisciplinary Baltic Studies program in Copenhagen, and we have received our first two Ph.D.'s. Much remains to be done, but clearly this is a miniature example of Nordic institution building. (For details on the research group, see our homepage at:; for details on the Nordic Conferences, see:

It is worth noting that our success, so far, has been totally dependent on the work of dedicated students. As my failure in Oslo shows, long-term success in this endeavour is impossible without permanent teaching positions, but without the students, as my failure in Tromsø shows, the group would die from lack of stimulation. And without the extensive network, spanning the entire Northern and Eastern periphery of Europe, our work would lack a sense of direction and purpose, since it involves us directly, as at this conference today, in the realities of building anthropology in same places that we study anthropologically.

Concluding points

This example underscores two points I have made above: First, the conditions underlying particular stories of failure or success in academic institution building are specific to the time and place in which they occur. Why did Oslo, Uppsala, Helsinki and Copenhagen develop in such different ways? Because the local political, personal and academic contexts that surrounded each case were different. Similarly, in the Baltic countries, success or failure for individual institutions will be determined primarily by their ability to take into due account the complexities of the local context that surrounds them.

Secondly, and despite the Norwegian example, national traditions may be too small to sustain a concerted drive for academic innovation. National isolation has its potential strengths, but its certain weaknesses. A larger population base, a wider range of funding opportunities, and a larger and more diverse group of colleagues and students would seem to be ample reason to pursue a policy of cooperation among anthropologists in the three Baltic countries. I would also urge that the term "anthropology" be understood liberally. The destructive conflict between "social" and "cultural" anthropologists in Uppsala are a reminder that disciplinary puritanism is often the corrollary of academic suicide.

In defining ourselves, we should thus recognize ourselves as locals - but also as participants in larger wholes.


Large parts of this text are based on the account of Nordic anthropology in the Norwegian edition of a History of Anthropology that I recently co-authored with Thomas Hylland Eriksen (see Eriksen and Nielsen 2002, see also the book's homepage, at:

Assessment Report 1999. Assessment Report / Cultural and Social Anthropology. Reports, Dept. of Sociology (Social Anthropology), University of Helsinki. Downloaded from the Internet, 01.10.2003, at: 

Barth, Fredrik, ed. 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. The Social Organization of Culture Difference. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.

Brøgger, Jan. 1988. Selvbiografisk perspektiv på postmodernismen. Antropolognytt, 1.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland and Finn Sivert Nielsen. 2002. Til verdens ende og tilbake: Anthropologiens historie. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget. English version: 2001. A History of Anthropology. London: Pluto Press.

Jacobsen-Widding, Anita. 1997. The Structure and Agency of Uppsala Anthropology. Downloaded from the Internet 22.01.2002, at:

Nielsen, Finn Sivert. 1987. The Eye of the Whirlwind: Russian Identity and Soviet Nation-Building. Quests for Meaning in a Soviet Metropolis. Oslo: Institute of Social Anthropology. Published online at:

Nielsen, Finn Sivert. 1996. Anthropology in Norway: A Brief Introduction. Published online at:

Rudie, Ingrid. n.d. Situasjonsbilde fra 1960. Downloaded from the Internet, 29.01.2002 at:


1. The point here is not that this could not have happened today - as well it might, particularly at high-level British anthropology departments - but that the academic committee's uncertainty reveals the complete ignorance of modern anthropology that reigned in Norway at the time.

2. Two examples may illustrate this: First, the sociology of fisheries project, which Barth initiated during the 1960's, cast light on such questions as the impact of new technologies and laws on the livelihood of Norwegian coastal communities. Second, as early as in 1952, Barth and his colleague in Oslo, Guttorm Gjessing, suggested that anthropologists be utilized in a Norwegian aid project to fishermen in Kerala (South-Western India). Though the suggestion was not taken up at the time, Norwegian anthropologists evaluated several aid projects during the 1960's, and, by the early 1970's, they were drawn directly into project planning.

3. There is a certain irony to the fact that Nicolaisen, in Great Britain, studied at University College London, which, under the tutelage of Berkeley-educated Daryll Forde, had an uncharacteristically "American" profile for a British university. There was greater continuity between the German and American traditions than between German and British anthropology, and less radical change was thus forced on Nicolaisen than if he had studied, e.g. as Barth, at Cambridge.

4. As a corrollary of this, Norwegian anthropology has long practiced a "democratization" of the anthropological academic ideal. Since the Norwegian MA (Mag.Art., Cand.Polit.) has in practice functioned as a kind of mini-Ph.D., a very large number of students (more than 1000, since 1957) have completed full-scale fieldwork and written it up in thesis form. Given the fact that some 40% of these projects were based on fieldwork in Norway, it is clear that anthropologists have made themselves very strongly felt in Norwegian society (Nielsen 1996).