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  • Being Danish: Paradoxes of Identity in Everyday Life by Richard Jenkins
  • Peter Thaler
Richard Jenkins . Being Danish: Paradoxes of Identity in Everyday Life. 2nd ed. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum P, 2012. Pp. xv+361.

In this slightly updated version of a study first published in 2011, anthropologist Richard Jenkins of the University of Sheffield presents an ethnographic study of modern Danish identity. Based on extensive field work in the provincial town of Skive in northwestern Jutland, Jenkins explores how ethnic identifications are produced and reproduced. This exploration serves to establish the place and significance of ethnicity in the everyday lives of the local populace.

Jenkins anchors his analysis in a model of ethnicity developed by the social constructivist school. According to this model, ethnicity is a matter of perceived cultural differences and similarities, a process of ethnic identification that is simultaneously individual and collective, as well as open to change while not infinitely malleable. Yet he also incorporates other perspectives, not least of all Michael Billig's concept of banal nationalism, which he considers analytically useful in spite of its unfortunate phrasing.

Based on these theoretical foundations, the British scholar analyzed the sense-of-self of the inhabitants of Skive. He arranged formal interviews with respondents ranging from childcare workers to municipal officers but also recorded a plethora of everyday occurrences and conversations that frequently took place in local pubs. His involvement with the municipal school system provided the author with an opportunity to explore the attitudes of teenage students. Together with archival material and the pages of the local paper, these informants transmit a multifaceted picture of Danish self-imagery.

Denmark as a nation is symbolized most immediately by the royal house and the national flag, both of which are connoted sufficiently vaguely to [End Page 533] allow a diverse cross-section of the population to identify with them. Jenkins pays considerable attention to the flag's social role and its many public and private facets, including its popular use for birthdays and other family events, as well as its commercial appropriation in sales campaigns and shopping windows. The Danish monarchy, in turn, successfully balances the sacral nature of the institution with the popular openness that befits contemporary society in general and its Danish expression in particular.

Danishness is also tied in with the existing nation state. This state assumes a strong role in the life of individuals, as Jenkins demonstrates with examples ranging from the comprehensive recording of personal information in the Central Office of Civil Registration (CPR) to government regulations on naming practices and the early socialization of toddlers in a public daycare system utilized by approximately 90 percent of parents. Most Danes experience this public involvement as reassuring and enjoy the advantages it provides. The British author is more ambiguous, as his reference to the mild and benign totalitarianism of Scandinavian welfare-state social democracy intimates. Religion, in turn, seems to be a matter of belonging but not believing, with the church retaining social significance because it is interwoven with the collective life experience of most Danes.

In his central conclusions, Jenkins points to the multifaceted and heterogeneous nature of Danish identity as well as its inherent paradoxes. Danes seem to be able to combine egalitarian politics with monarchic veneration, as well as to disavow political nationalism while ubiquitously displaying their national flag. Denmark is a secular society where most churches stay fairly empty on regular Sundays, but Christianity is a subject in public schools and the overwhelming majority of the native population retains its membership in the national church. The author does not forget to mention the paradoxes of immigration, where acerbic political debates coexist with the relatively uneventful integration of more than 1,000, mainly Muslim, refugees in a small town of 20,000 in the course of two to three decades. Jenkins concludes his study with a look at the possible future of Danish identity and places his hope on its redefinition on the basis of an inclusive consumerism.

Being Danish is written in easily accessible and engaging language and transmits a sense of applied science. The author not only analyzes Danish society but also engages with it, concluding his study with...


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