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The national stereotype of Swede Essay

The book is a study of how a middle-class world view and life styles were formed in nineteenth and early twentieth century Sweden. When Jonas Frykman and Orvar Lofgren asks themselves, did the national stereotype of Swede, a rational, “nature-loving, conflict-avoiding person, obsessed with self-discipline, orderliness and punctuality” (p. 5), take shape? To answer this question, the authors contrast the differing perceptions of time, nature, gender, work, leisure, privacy and pollution held by the peasantry, on the one hand and the new Oscarian bourgeoisie, on the other.

Oscarian bourgeois culture is also contrasted on occasion with that of the Swedish working class and of the “insincere and shallow” (p. 266) aristocratic class. The authors approach their subject by examining the embedded nature of ideas and attitudes in material culture. Lofgren’s discussion of changing attitudes toward time, nature and the home comprises the first three chapters of the book. Whereas the peasant conception of time was rooted in the cyclical rhythms of nature and work, the nineteenth century middle class conception was more linear and mechanical.

For the middle class, the goal was to manage and control time. Time that is slipping away or running out, however, dominates in addition to being dominated. The authors, both ethnologists, have written a study of the Swedish bourgeoisie from 1880 to 1910. This period was the most formative and triumphant moment for the Swedish middle class. The construction of the social reality of this class is demonstrated through a discussion of its rituals, taboos, and gestures. The bourgeois values are also examined, showing how an illusion of universality and, thus a claim to superiority, was created.

“Culture Builders” deals primarily with the ways in which ideas about the good and proper life are anchored in the trivialities and routines of everyday life: in the sharing of a meal, in the physical arrangements of the home, in holiday making and in the upbringing of children. By stressing refinement, rationality, morality, and discipline, the middle classes were able to differentiate themselves not only from the peasants, but also from the degenerated aristocracy and the disordered and uncontrolled emerging working class.

In this way, the bourgeoisie created a national culture against which all other groups would be measured. Nature had a similar duality for the middle class: it was to be both conquered (in a scientific and technical sense) and contemplated. Natural imagery proliferated in the domestic world in the patterns on carpets, the myriad house plants and the albums of photographs and prints piled on parlor tables. Nowhere is the contrast between peasant and middle class attitudes towards nature more apparent than in the difference between a farm animal and a pet.

Although this point was outlined some time ago by the British social anthropologist Edmund Leach, Lofgren verges on amusing in his discussion of birds as “paragons of bourgeois virtues compared to other animals” (p. 80). In his description of the emergence of the family centered life style (based on marriage, parenthood, and the sanctity of the home), Lofgren begins with a rather sweeping generalization: in peasant society the family “had no self-evident position. The social landscape was based on the farm, not on the individual or the biological family” (p. 91). This statement is one example of a problem that permeates the book.

It is not always clear when the authors are referring to all of European peasant society or simply to Swedish peasant society. Is this truly a “historical anthropology of middle class life” as the subtitle suggest or simply of Swedish middle class life? Certainly, throughout European peasant society there are variations in the relative importance of the family unit as opposed to the household or domestic group. Conversely, companionate marriages have been outlined in other European contexts. How different were the Oscarians, and how unique, therefore, was the national stereotypes?

Chapters four through six were written by Frykman. The reader is first struck by a somewhat jarring shift in style and approach. Frykman’s contribution is more theoretically informed, particularly by the work of Mary Douglas. In addition the material in these chapters evokes a rather curious creation of both repugnance and excitement. Twentieth century ethnographers, guided by their dedication to self-conscious neutrality, more than not eliminate descriptions of filth and misery from their accounts. Rarely do they write about smells unless they are enticing.

This is not the case with historical travelers within Europe and abroad, who albeit with underlying moral judgments, frequently recorded disease, dirt, and degradation. Frykman is bold enough to adopt the less squeamish approach in his discussion of peasant views of purity and dirt. His reference to the peasant woman who boasted, after discharging natural functions, of “never using anything other than her index finger” clearly highlights for the reader a totally different attitude toward dirt and cleanliness than our own or that of her bourgeois contemporaries (p. 197).

Only, Frykman tells us, when bodily functions become private, when the physical became distinct from the social, were privies built. He raises the issue of masturbation in his final chapter as he focuses on the question of bourgeois discipline and self-control. Much of this material is rich for anyone who has a more Freudian analytical perspective. Frykman does better than Lofgren in his documentation of general statements. Reference: Frykman, J. & Lofgren, O. (1987). Culture builders: A historical anthropology of middle-class life. Translated by Alan Crozier. New Brunswick, N. J. : Rutgers University Press.


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