‘Sweden is the most extreme country in the world’

In terms of values Sweden is the most extreme country in the world, argues Patrik Lindenfors, associate professor at Stockholm University's Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution.

'Sweden is the most extreme country in the world'
Swedes celebrating National Day in Stockholm. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

First, some key points:

– There are no values that are exclusively Swedish. All values exist in all countries. If we can at all possibly talk of “Swedish values” we must therefore focus on the values that are particularly common in Sweden.

– Swedish values are not static but changeable. We had different values in the past and will have different values in the future. If we are going to talk about “Swedish values” we must therefore instead focus on the values that are most common right now.

– Swedish values are not shared by everyone in the population. Exactly like how when we speak of average height, we actually mean an estimated average.

With that said, there are important lessons to learn from research on values, especially in terms of gender equality and equal opportunities. In Sweden, for example, 81 percent answer yes to the question “is it important for democracy that men and women have the same rights?” according to the World Values Survey (WVS).

By comparison, only 18 percent responded yes to the same question in Iraq. Sweden is second in the world in terms of gender equality, according to the Global Gender Gap report, while Syria is in 143rd place.

In Egypt over 90 percent of the population say that homosexuality is unacceptable, according to the Pew Research Center. Generally, in western Europe the figure is just over 10 percent (examples are taken from an article in Research in Progress, January 19th, 2016). Note that these surveys are about people's values, not the state apparatus, and again, are about averages – individual variation can be found everywhere.

Things continue the same way, measure after measure, research project after research project. The best known of these projects is probably the World Values Survey, which regularly brings out a global culture map, showing value differences between countries. The project has identified two summarizing variables that explain many of the differences that are found.

One of the variables covers the freedom of the individual to decide for his or herself the importance of financial security – in other words, problems with managing supplies are not seen to be a priority in itself. The second variable summarizes religious beliefs, and respect for authorities towards more secular values.

In Sweden, we are more individualistic and have more rational, secular values than in any other country on earth – in terms of values, we are actually the most extreme country in the world. To say that our values are universal is to project our own wishful thinking on the rest of the world – the values we have in Sweden are very different. Generally speaking, the secular countries in the northwest of Europe are in their own corner of the global cultural map, with Sweden as the most extreme example.

What happens when a person from another country moves here, to the world’s most extreme country? Do they maintain the values of their country of origin, or switch to those of their new host country?

Two people who have researched this are sociologists Antje Räder and Peter Mühlau, who looked at immigrants in Europe. They found that the longer you have lived in a host country, the closer your values come to the host country’s. Attitudes towards gender change in about a generation, after which people basically think the same as the rest of the population.

Negative attitudes towards gender equality were also explained by factors like older age, low education, religion (especially Islam) and sex – women embraced equality faster than men.

Another analysis by the Russian professor Veronica Kostenko indicates that the difference in attitudes between different host countries is sometimes even greater than the difference between migrants and natives within each host country – immigrants to Sweden for example are more feminist than ethnic Brits.

This change is not something that happens automatically however. If you want an idea of how difficult it can be to change values, imagine that the situation had been the reverse, and it was you who fled to Syria. How willing would you be to change to a more patriarchal mind-set? Would you encourage your children to do the same? The option of locking yourself in and trying to preserve your original values perhaps no longer seems so foreign.

From where do we get our values? There is research available even there. Four Canadian researches have studied a total of thirty “attitudes”, including attitudes towards gender equality and birth control. Domestic environment explained about a quarter of the variance in responses, while factors outside the home explained three quarters. When it came to different attitudes, similar results were produced, but with an even lower degree of influence from the home environment.

Migrants also bring with them (measurably different) values from their country of origin, but these change (measurably) over time in the meeting with a new social context, above all for young people, who pick up the values of their new surrounding environment.

It is not easy to flee – especially not to the most extreme country in the world – so integration problems are difficult to solve. If we in Sweden want to uphold our values on equality and non-discrimination of homosexuals, this is an issue that should be taken seriously.

An option is of course to let people think what they want, for who are we to decide what others should think? But that risks producing enclaves in the community where people believe that gender equality is less important, and that homosexuals do not have to be treated equally. Or to put it more pointedly – ethnicity will determine your opportunities for self-fulfilment if you happen to be a woman, or how decent a life you can expect if you happen to be gay.

Leaving for example women and LGBTQ people in the lurch because of their ethnicity should be unthinkable. The solution in this case are the schools, because it is easier to learn something new when you are young. In addition to an overall improvement in the Swedish school system, values must therefore continue to be given an unwaveringly clear place in the schooling system, and segregation in schools counteracted as far as is at all possible.

This article was written by Patrik Lindenfors, an associate professor at Stockholm University's Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution. It was first published in Swedish by Dagens Nyheter.

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Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.