Review: Being Danish – Paradoxes of Identity in Everyday Life

I have often wondered about why do Danes act the way they do, or why do they say what they say. In one person it might be an individual trait, but when you notice the same behaviour repeatedly you realise that there is something else beneath this behaviour. However, it was only when I received this book as a gift that I could put some context to my thoughts and some grounding to my feelings.

Being Danish: Paradoxes of Identity in Everyday Life is an ethnographic study of the concept of identity in Denmark. Written by Richard Jenkins, a Professor of Sociology in the UK, it is mainly based on field work done by the author in around 1997 in Skive. The book discusses the paradoxical nature of Danish sense of identity, both inward looking within Denmark as well as outward looking towards Europe and the rest of the world.

The book, although being an academic study, is also quite accessible, though certain parts are a bit tedious for the leisurely reader like me. Even if I am used to reading academic texts, this is a completely different subject so I easily miss the nuanced points the author is trying to make in such sections. In particular, I found the first chapter tough going. However, don’t despair at this stage! The further on in the book you go, the more relevant the book was to my interests (i.e. understanding the people and culture around me).

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the Danish sense of identity, be it as an immigrant living here, or as a Dane seeking to understanding the reason behind their actions. I liked the book as it made me think deeper about where I am living, understand the people around me, as well as exclaim very often “Phew – I am not the crazy one here!”.

Urging you to read the book, I leave you with the ‘entertaining observatory explanation’ to the following question, as summarised in the conclusion:

How could it be that despite the overwhelming obviousness of everyday differences between ‘ethnic Danes’ the story that ‘we are all the same’ continues to be sufficiently convincing?

It suits them […] It allows them them to feel better than they are […] It enables them to feel special – even smug and superior […] It allows them, indeed, to overlook the fact that Denmark isn’t actually as wonderful as they think it is.

It also answers part of the question I asked in an earlier post on Danishness. And why not? Feeling smug and superior myself!