Equality and Hierarchy in Denmark

Hedeby, probable site of the first school in Denmark

Further reflections on the concept of horizontal and vertical teaching methods.

A recent edition of the journal Social Analysis (55.2, 2011) is entirely devoted to the contrast between hierarchical and egalitarian pressures on Danish Society.

The introduction begins with a discussion of the work of the anthropologist Marianne Gullestad (1946–2008). Gullestad developed a theory of Scandinavian social life based on the two dichotomies of hierarchy-equality and individualism-holism , which she derived from Louis Dumont (Dumont, Homo æqualis Paris: Gallimard, 1977). It continues:

“Our ethnographies suggest that simple dichotomies between egalitarianism and hierarchy or between individualism and holism do not hold.” (p.13)

One of the articles, by Karen Fog Olwig, focuses specifically on education in Danish kindergartens: ‘Children’s sociality: the ‘Civilizing’ Project in the Danish Kindergarten’.

These kinds of analysis would benefit from a consideration of the Cultural Theory typology in which besides hierarchical (vertical) and egalitarian (horizontal) approaches to education there are also Individualist and Fatalist institutional arrangements.

More generally, it’s possible to be suspicious of comparative national analyses which reify types of behaviour and then seek to apply them to national population groups, as though distinctive national characteristics were so easily demonstrated in this manner.

My concern here is that analyses which identify national characteristics do less to clarify those characteristics than they do to reinforce a kind of nationalist essentialism. This reassuring thought – that we’re doing the right thing when we organise along national lines – seems to me to have had its high point in the mid to late Nineteenth Century with the development of modern nation states, and then another peak after the Second World War with the rise of post-colonial independence movements. It is getting another airing in our time as part of a collective anxiety about globalisation. Most recently, the decline of European currency forces a rethink of national economic arrangements. The national is being renegotiated and redefined.

I’m arguing here that the process of identifying national characteristics is at least partly born from a certain cultural anxiety regarding national identities in an era of globalisation. So to argue that some nations have particularly ‘vertical’ teaching methods and that this impacts on governmental effectiveness, as do the authors of the study previously mentioned, reveals something about the context and preoccupations of the research itself. There is a market for clients (broadly construed) who are interested in reinforcing their ideas about the social reality, the solidity, of nation states.

Analyses inspired by the Cultural Theory approach of anthroplogist Mary Douglas instead start from the assumption that cultural differences are to be found as much within social groups as between them. That is to say, the cultural biases inherent in institutions operate at all scales, from the household (Gullestad’s ‘kitchen table society‘) to the global. This is not to deny the possibility of empirically observable national characteristics, but to contextualise them in a series of nested (Hierarchical), or competing (Individualist), or incompatible (Fatalist), or wholistic (Egalitarian) scales. An interest in identifying the dominant scale (natonal, supranational, something else?) reveals a Hierarchical cultural bias.

Where can Cultural Theory aid these kinds of investigation?

First, as mentioned, it identifies, parsimoniously, a further two ‘ideal types’, beyond ‘horizontal’ egalitarianism and ‘vertical’ hierarchy.

Second, it allows for a questioning of national characteristics as particularly national.

Third, following on from this, it renders visible contesting social forces within societies and institutions. So for example, where Hierarchical approaches to social organisation appear dominant, Cultural Theory can show how they may not be quite as dominant as seen at first sight (because they fit within a dynamic of contested worldviews), and it can show where the possibilities of change lie in already existing institutions and relationships.

To end on the idea of anxiety about national identity in an era of globaliisation, two books are particularly helpful on this:

David Held and Henrietta L. Moore, eds (2008) Cultural Politics in a Global Age: Uncertainty, Solidarity and Innovation. Oxford: Oneworld.

 Henrietta L. Moore (2011) Still Life: Hopes, Desires and Satisfactions. Cambridge: Polity.


Bruun, Maja Hojer; Jakobsen, Gry Skrædderdal; Krøijer, Stine (2011) Introduction: The Concern for Sociality—Practising Equality and Hierarchy in Denmark, Social Analysis, Volume 55, Number 2, Summer, pp. 1-19. [http://dx.doi.org/10.3167/sa.2011.550201]

Louis Dumont (1977) Homo æqualis Paris: Gallimard.


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