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Reviewed by:
  • Multiple Modernities: A Tale of Scandinavian Experiences by Gunnar Skirbekk
  • Magnus Fiskesjö
Multiple Modernities: A Tale of Scandinavian Experiences. By Gunnar Skirbekk. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2011. 232 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

This book is an excellent historical review and theoretical discussion of the recent historical origins of what we may call Norwegian “model modernity.” And yet, strangely, one aspect that is not discussed is the implications for Norwegian modernization of the location of Norway, at the northern periphery of Europe. Let me come back to this issue in a moment. First, I must note the clear and forceful exposition and the highly interesting discussions in the book, which is a penetrating view of how the well-ordered, uncorrupt, rational, relatively egalitarian twentieth-century societies on the northern fringes of Europe came to be. It will surely appeal to all scholars interested in the plurality of modernity. Indeed, the publication by the press of the Chinese University of Hong Kong should ensure that it reaches an audience far beyond Scandinavianists and will influence ongoing scholarly debates. Publishing around the globe from Norway is clearly intentional; the author, Skirbekk, is a founder of the Marco Polo program for “comparative studies of cultural modernization in Europe and East Asia” established by the University of Bergen, Norway, and East China Normal University, Shanghai.

Skirbekk rightly points out that the reputation of Scandinavian countries (or, better, Nordic countries, to include Norway’s intimately related neighbors Finland and Iceland, in addition to Sweden and Denmark) as “model” modern countries typically refers to the twentieth century welfare states. But, not as much has been written about their historical roots or the wider theoretical significance. Here, after an overview of the philosophical and sociological study of modernity, the author begins by investigating nineteenth-century Norway. He delves into the role of education and the nineteenth-century “potato priests,” the Enlightenment-inspired Lutheran clergy devoted to the agricultural and other forms of teaching of the common people, and the dynamics of this clergy and the popular movements rising in the same era and transforming and broadening national politics. Skirbekk identifies these developments as a “typical Scandinavian dialectics” of social democracy and modernity (p. 32) and underlines the formative societal and national-political significance of mass self-education and self-training in internally democratic civic organizational life of this era. Chapter 3 discusses how all this unfolded locally, including in the self-enlightening inner life of popular self-educational samtaleforeninger (farmers’ “conversation clubs”) in which locals organized debates on [End Page 707] the topics of the day, taking up opposite positions for the sake of mass self-education. (No hint of global-comparative discussion is included here, but one wonders how such a farmer’s club might be condemned and suppressed as heretic in more authoritarian societies like China.)

Skirbekk proceeds to discuss developments up until the Nazi Germany invasion in 1940, focusing on engineers, teachers, and lawyers, but also unions and class issues—everywhere providing rich references to relevant literature. Thus arriving at World War II and the twentieth-century welfare state, Skirbekk then turns the clock back and delves farther back in history, first the eighteenth century, then again all the way to pre-Christian times and the early Norwegian kingdoms. He admirably discusses a wealth of pertinent factors (for example, the introduction of Protestantism, which is often seen as popular and anti-Catholic but in Norway was in fact imposed from the top down). Only in the last chapter does he return to more familiar post–World War II Norway. These bold rhetorical moves are admirably executed in a concise and clear manner, and together result in an original contribution, above all in the book’s deeper, richly textured view of Norwegian history as it relates to the broader issues of modernity.

Despite this rich, sophisticated discussion of popular and institutional codevelopments, it seems to me that the book underplays the significance of the geo-cultural location of Norway and how Norwegian elites may have measured themselves against peer European nations. This aspect of competitive mimicry is a dynamic process in which local elites, prompted by the conditions of conceptual integration of a...


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pp. 707-710
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