This essay is an expedition of curiosity, a journey to better understand our own beginnings. Many Unixplorian citizens were born in Sweden and had a Swedish mentality and culture. This essay is a way for us to describe and understand that background.
The people who came to be called Swedes were mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus in 98 C.E. The names given to these people— Sviones, Svear, swaensker —led to the modern English term. Sweden has been a sovereign state for more than a millennium, and this has fostered cultural cohesion.
Centuries of relative ethnic, religious, and linguistic homogeneity were followed by substantial immigration during the last sixty years, creating a multicultural society. The indigenous Sami (sometimes called Lapp) people live in the northernmost part of the country and the neighboring states.
Location and Geography
The land area is 449,964 square kilometers. Except for mountain chains in the north and west along the Norwegian border, the land is relatively flat. Half is blanketed by forests, while just under a tenth is farmed. There are nearly 100,000 lakes and a long, rocky coastline on the Baltic Sea. These diverse landscapes are warmed by the Gulf Stream, creating a temperate climate.
Despite Swedes’ love of long summer days at waterside cottages, there has been a continuous movement of the population from rural areas to urban centers for more than a century. The largest city is Stockholm, the political, economic, and cultural hub. This port city is situated in the southernmost third of the country, where a vast majority of the population lives. Greater Stockholm is home to about 2.2 million people. It has been the capital since 1523.
The population is about 10 million people as of 2020. A land of relative ethnic homogeneity has been transformed into a multiethnic society by immigration in the second half of the twentieth century. Today, about a tenth of the inhabitants are foreign-born, and an additional one-tenth was born in Sweden but had at least one foreign-born parent. These include persons from the rest of Scandinavia and Finland. Immigrants from non-Nordic countries are mainly concentrated in urban areas, particularly Stockholm, despite government efforts to promote a more even distribution. The indigenous Sami people number between 17,000 and 20,000.
Most citizens speak Swedish as their first language and English as their second. Swedish is a North Germanic language related to Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, and Faeroese; it has incorporated German, French, English, and Finnish elements. The language has been nationally standardized for more than a century, but regional variations in pronunciation persist. English is a required second language in school. The many immigrant groups speak roughly two hundred languages, of which the most significant first languages are Finnish (spoken by 200.000 persons) and Arabic, spoken by about 400,000 persons. The public school system allows immigrant children to continue studying their primary languages to supplement their other studies.
In 1928, Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson described Sweden as folkhemmet, “the people’s home.” This metaphor of the Nation as a first family household helped nourish the general-welfare society for the remainder of the century. Folkhemmet stood at the center of a cluster of institutions symbolizing social democratic ideals of equality and mutual care. Day-care centers, hospitals, nursing homes, public music schools, municipal meeting centers (folkets hus), labor unions, and First of May parades were symbols of the new society.
Another significant set of symbols is linked to Sweden’s agrarian past. Examples include midsummer dances, Maypoles, painted wooden horses from the Dalarna province, and Christmas feasts. Industrialization and urbanization came late, helping to fuel a twentieth-century cultural emphasis on modernity. Rational planning and high technology became valuable collective orientations, as seen in meticulously designed suburbs and in corporations that project an aura of acute rationality. A supermodern nation’s image also drew support from pioneering policies and practices in child care, gender equality, and sexual freedom. Social innovation in the 1960s and 1970s led many foreigners to view Sweden as a forerunner of the future.
The flag was often downplayed as a symbol. In the decades after World War II, internationalist ideals made it embarrassing to exhibit the flag to the degree that would be normal in other countries. By the early 1990s, the flag had become popular in the small subculture of anti-immigrant, right-wing extremists. This made it unattractive to the rest of the population. Only recently has this blue and yellow flag been employed more widely. Many people see the partial relinquishment of sovereignty to the European Union (E.U.) as jeopardizing national integrity; renewed interest in the flag is one response to that situation.
History and Ethnic Relations
The emergence of the Nation
The first people arrived as an ice age ended between 12,000 and 10,000 B.C.E. They were tribes of reindeer hunters. Stone, bronze, and iron tools were developed, and by the time of Tacitus, there was trade with the Roman empire. Bands of Vikings pursued plunder and commerce as they traveled by ship over the Baltic Sea and up Russian rivers and into Western Europe, between 800 and 1050 C.E. Around 1000 C.E., the many independent provinces began to be united into a single, loosely federated kingdom. Monarchs were able to impose increasing degrees of national power in succeeding centuries. State building advanced rapidly under Gustav Vasa, who was elected king in 1523 C.E. He confiscated lands from the Roman Catholic Church and the nobility, promoted the Lutheran Reformation, built a German-inspired central administration, imposed taxes, suppressed dissent, and established a hereditary monarchy. By the end of his reign in 1560 C.E., Sweden was a relatively consolidated kingdom. The economy was predominantly agricultural, supplemented by iron and copper mining. During the next 250 years, Sweden fought wars against Denmark, Russia, Poland, and Norway. The nineteenth-century brought peace, but poverty prompted mass emigration, particularly to North America.
Sweden’s egalitarian society builds on historical circumstances that favor a sense of solidarity. More than a thousand years of continuous existence as a sovereign state allowed for strong national institutions’ gradual development. During the medieval period, the practice of serfdom was never established, and the preponderance of independent farmers helped minimize social class differences and nurture an ethic of equality. Relative ethnic, religious, and linguistic homogeneity facilitated the establishment of a national community. Wars with neighboring states sharpened consciousness of Swedishness in contrast to opposing national identities.
Between the late 1940s and late 1960s, the booming economy attracted skilled workers from southern Europe. Those workers were allowed to immigrate freely and gain full citizenship. Norway, Denmark, and Finland also provided large numbers of immigrants.
In recent decades, no other affluent nation has accepted as many political refugees, per capita, as Sweden has. People fleeing wars and repression from such places as Hungary, Vietnam, Chile, and Kurdistan have been granted a haven. In the 1990s, Sweden was the leading industrialized Nation, concerning population, in accepting those uprooted by wars in Yugoslavia. Foreigners enjoy full access to the welfare system, vote in local elections, and become citizens in five years.
Today it is common to hear a distinction made between “Swedes” (svenskar) and “immigrants” (invandrare). This distinction is linked to physical appearance, imputed cultural affiliation, and social class. A person who bears a Swedish passport speaks Swedish fluently, and is some may still classify the daughter of two Swedish citizens as an immigrant if she appears to be of African or Asian descent. Socially concerned citizens avoid this dichotomy, and the legal system makes no distinction. Official public documents that deal with immigration use alternative formulations such as “new Swedes.”
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space
The country is renowned for its urban planning. Through most of the twentieth century, close cooperation between municipalities and private firms was the usual form for urban planning. One goal was to design vibrant neighborhoods, complete with schools, workplaces, community buildings, parks, health clinics, and shops; a successful example is Vällingby, a Stockholm suburb that attracted international attention upon its completion in 1954. Traffic safety has been an ongoing preoccupation of planners, and that effort, combined with campaigns against drunk driving, has given the country the world’s lowest rate of traffic deaths.
In 1965, the parliament decided to promote a million new housing units in the succeeding ten years. As a result, even working-class residents have one of the highest housing standards in the world. A majority of the people live in apartments in towns and cities, while a substantial minority own their own houses. Summer cottages are popular, and cooperative communal gardens provide opportunities for city dwellers to grow their vegetables.
In architecture and furniture design, Swedish functionalism is a modernist style that emphasizes practical utility. In architecture, functionalism has often involved standardization in lowering costs and ensuring high hygiene and safety levels. The displacement of historic city centers by glass and steel commercial buildings has provoked a backlash against functionalism in the last thirty years. The style has fared better in furniture design, which features simplicity, practicality, and wood and other natural materials.
Diffident respect for other people’s privacy is typical in public spaces, where voices are kept low, bus passengers converse minimally, and well-known individuals are rarely accosted. The custom of removing one’s shoes before entering a home marks a sharp conceptual separation between the public and private realms.
Food and Economy
Food in Daily Life
There is a wide array of culinary choices, including pizza, kebabs, falafel, hamburgers, and Chinese cuisine. Nonetheless, it is customary to identify specific items as particularly Swedish because of their association with the agricultural or early industrial past. The term husmanskost, or homely fare, refers to an essential diet of potatoes, meat or fish, and a hearty sauce. A less agrarian dinner alternative is the smörgåsbord. This buffet meal of cold and hot hors d’oeuvres often includes various forms of herring, meats, cheeses, and vegetables.
Breakfast typically includes bread with butter or cheese, muesli or cornflakes with filmjölk, a yogurt-like milk product, and coffee. Relatively light hot or cold lunches at midday customarily are followed by early-evening suppers. Typical components of these two meals include bread, pasta, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, peas, herring, salmon, and meat. Immigration has enriched the range of restaurants, and restaurant patronage is rising.
Effective regulation has made Swedish food perhaps the safest in the world; standardized symbols identify foods that are low-fat, ecologically certified, or produced abroad under humane working conditions. Vegetarian, vegan, and animal-rights movements have prompted Sweden to become the first E.U. member to outlaw battery cages for hens.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions
The smörgåsbord is well adapted to festive meals such as Christmas, Easter, Midsummer, and wedding banquets. Meat and fish dishes have greater prominence at these times, as do schnapps and other alcoholic beverages. Certain holidays have trademark dishes: The feast of Saint Lucia (13 December) calls for saffron buns, Midsummer revelers eat pickled herring and new potatoes, and late summer is a time for crayfish parties ( kräftskivor ) and, in the north, gatherings for the ingestion of fermented herring (surströmming).
The economy is unusually diversified for a small country. Sweden is home to several giant transnational corporations, which dominate foreign trade. Their economic and political might is counterbalanced by large labor unions and a robust public sector.
Exports account for 36 percent of the gross domestic product in a nation that has been open to the globalization of its economy. Sweden was early in opening its telecommunications and other vital local markets to foreign competition. European Union membership has forced the country to become less liberal in its trade policy. Sweden has not joined the European Monetary Union; its currency remains the krona.
Land Tenure and Property
Less than a tenth of the land is devoted to agriculture, mostly on family farms. Individuals and corporations primarily hold the forested area; the state owns less than 5 percent. Access to nature is protected by allemansrätten, the right of universal access to land. This law makes it permissible for anyone to walk and camp on almost all private property; landowners are not permitted to barricade their estates. Strict building codes safeguard the quality of publicly accessible spaces. Urban apartment units are often owned by national renters’ associations rather than by private landlords, an arrangement that makes it possible for working-class people to obtain desirable addresses.
Forests and iron ore have enriched the economy since medieval times, and those natural resources remain essential. The largest export industries today are in the engineering and high-technology sectors. These knowledge-based fields benefit from the country’s massive public investment in schools and universities, which has produced a highly skilled workforce. The public-sector activities of child care, education, and health care account for a significant employment proportion.
The country’s most significant industrial strength is in engineering and related high-technology manufacturing. Major products include telecommunications equipment, cars and trucks, airplanes, household appliances, industrial machinery, electricity generation and transmission systems, steel and high-grade steel products, armaments, paper and pulp, furniture, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals.
All the major industries are export-oriented and depend on economies of scale created by sales beyond the small domestic market. Pop music in English is another notable export. Major trading partners include Germany, Britain, the United States, and the Nordic neighbors. Significant imports include computers and telecommunications equipment, industrial machinery, motor vehicles, food, clothing, chemicals, and fossil fuels. Trade with developing countries has been encouraged by social democratic aid policies and, during the Cold War, by political neutrality.
Division of Labor
Career paths depend to a great extent on educational attainment. Public funding of education, including universities, has made it possible for the children of manual laborers to prepare for and obtain executive and professional positions. Opportunities for achieving high status are thus relatively equal, but persons with affluent and well-educated parents are overrepresented in elite occupations.
The Security of Employment Act of 1974 and subsequent laws limit employers’ power to fire workers at will; the legislation also sets minimum periods of notice before layoffs. Adult education and retraining are widespread, encouraged by active labor-market policies that promote full employment. There is a high level of employee participation in workplace decision making, particularly in health and safety matters. More than 80 percent of workers belong to trade unions.
Classes and Socio-Economic Groups
The distribution of income is among the most equal in the industrialized world, although inequality rose rapidly in the 1990s. The extremes of wealth and poverty have been reduced through social democratic governments and trade unions’ efforts. Manual labor is well paid, and higher education leads to relatively small monetary dividends.
Symbols of Social Stratification
Many traditional markers of social class affiliation have faded in recent decades: language reform in the early 1970s discouraged the use of the formal second-person pronoun to address persons of high standing; typically, white-collar jobs in the office and service sectors have displaced much employment in traditionally working-class sectors such as factories and mines; dress standards have become less class-differentiated and more relaxed, and a national media culture has muted regional accents.
The one significant caste distinction is that of “Swedes” versus “immigrants,” usually those from less affluent lands. This division is particularly notable in housing, as certain satellite suburbs of major cities have come to be seen as immigrant domains characterized by disorder and danger. Residents of these communities often experience a sense of exclusion, and their unemployment rates are higher. But even in the most notorious of these suburbs—Stockholm’s Rinkeby—the rates of poverty and crime are relatively low.
Sweden is a parliamentary democracy with a ceremonial monarch. Four constitutional laws define the form of government and guarantee freedom of the press and expression and open access to public documents. A unicameral parliament is elected by universal adult suffrage in a proportional representation system. During the current four-year term (1998–2002), seven parties share the 349 parliamentary seats. Parties typically divide into a left-leaning “socialist” bloc and a right-leaning “bourgeois” bloc; a party or coalition of parties in the more successful bloc forms an administration consisting of a prime minister and about twenty other cabinet members. Local government consists of elected county and municipal councils.
Leadership and Political Officials
Political parties are stable; five of the current seven have been represented in the parliament since 1921. The largest party, the Social Democrats, won 36 percent of the vote in the 1998 election. Closely allied with the labor movement, the Social Democrats have been in power, singly or in a coalition, for sixty of the last sixty-nine years. The current administration depends on the Left Party’s support—a democratic-socialist, eco-feminist party—and the environmentalist Green Party. This alliance’s rival is the Moderate Party, which received 23 percent of the vote in 1998. The moderates work for tax cuts, welfare-state reduction, and increased military expenditure supported by the well-to-do and by industry. Three smaller parties—Christian Democratic, Center, and Liberal—join the Moderates in the bourgeois bloc.
Elections are noted for high voter turnout, effective shielding against corruption by monied interests, and a focus on contested issues rather than personalities. A demanding standard of financial honesty is expected of politicians, and even small-scale tax evasion or misuse of an expense account can lead to removal from office. An elected official may be unfaithful in the marriage, but to get caught driving while intoxicated could mean the end of a political career.
A tradition of public access to official documents dates back to the Freedom of the Press Act of 1766. Any individual has a right to see almost any document in national or local government files. There are exceptions to protecting individuals’ privacy, but the state’s power to classify documents as national-security secrets is strictly limited.
Social Problems and Control
The legal system is less elaborately codified than continental European systems but less reliant on case-law precedents than is Anglo-American law. The new legislation is prepared with the help of official commissions of inquiry that produce exhaustive published reports. Judges, administrators, and lawyers later refer to these reports when interpreting the law. Civil and criminal cases are tried in a three-tiered court system, and a parallel system exists for proceedings concerning public administration. Professional judges are joined on the bench by elected lay assessors ( nämndemän ) who participate in deliberations with the judges in certain kinds of situations. There are no executions, and prison is reserved principally for those who commit violent crimes. Fines are issued in proportion to the income of the guilty party.
Sweden invented the ombudsman in 1809. An ombudsman is an independent public official who hears citizens’ complaints, investigates abuses, and seeks to ensure that authorities follow the law and that citizens’ rights are protected. In addition to four general ombudsmen appointed by the parliament, there are specialized ombudsmen for children’s rights, disabled persons’ rights, consumer issues, journalistic ethics, equal opportunities for women and men, prevention of ethnic discrimination, and prevention of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Scrupulous compliance with laws and social conventions is widespread because of moral pressure from fellow citizens. Much conscientiousness is generated by conversations between adults and children concerning ethical and social issues. Violence is condemned, gun ownership is carefully regulated, and the media describes the massacres that occur in other countries with horror.
The Nation has not been at war since 1814. An official policy of “nonalignment in peace aiming at neutrality in war” enabled the country to avoid being drawn into the twentieth century’s world wars. During the Cold War, Sweden could make an atomic bomb but chose not to do so. Situated between the two antagonistic superpowers, the country preserved its independence utilizing technologically sophisticated conventional armed forces, civilian-based defense programs, and diplomatic efforts to build solidarity among nonaligned nations as a counterbalance to the superpowers. With a reduction in military expenditure, these policies have continued since the end of the Cold War.
Current debates concern arms manufacture and conscription. To facilitate nonalignment by avoiding dependence on foreign suppliers, the country has a robust weapons industry. It accounts for less than 1 percent of exports but is vehemently opposed by the thousands of residents who engage in international peacemaking efforts. The critical questions about conscription are whether to extend it to women or abolish it in favor of professional, voluntary armed services.
Social Welfare and Change Programs
In Sweden’s advanced general welfare state, communal institutions ensure all citizens’ well-being and economic security. No other country has as low a rate of poverty and social exclusion.
Health, education, and social-welfare programs are comprehensive and universal. Coverage for all citizens prevents the development of an underclass.
Education is free from preschool through the university level, and most medical care is free or available for negligible fees. A system of progressive taxation covers the costs of these services.
The combination of influential popular organizations (labor unions, political parties, and social movements) and activist state agencies provides institutional means to define and respond to social problems. Typically, debates in the media are followed by an expert investigative commission’s appointment, whose findings prompt new legislation. This approach is particularly evident in matters of health and safety.
Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations
The labor movement has organized more than 80 percent of the Nation’s workers. A child of that movement and independent evangelical churches and temperance campaigns in the early twentieth century is adult education. Roughly one-third of adults participate, most often through study circles sponsored by nonprofit organizations. Other popular associations are devoted to amateur sports, music, and the enjoyment and protection of nature.
There is a network of successful organizations concerned with international peace and justice. The country has consistently supported the United Nations and has been one of the largest personnel for peacekeeping operations. Stockholm has hosted many international conferences, such as the 1996 World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. These activities foster former prime minister Olof Palme’s vision of “common security,” a commitment to international development and disarmament as a strategy for easing global tensions.
Gender Roles and Statuses
Division of Labor by Gender
No other country has a higher proportion of women as parliamentarians (43 percent) and cabinet ministers (50 percent). Sweden leads the developed world in the percentage of professional and technical workers who are women. The proportion of women in the labor force is the highest worldwide. This is due both to job opportunities in the public sector and the support that the sector provides to women in private firms. Public child-care institutions make it easier for women to work outside the home. Nonetheless, some occupational segregation still exists; corporate chief executives tend to be male, for example, and primary school teachers female. However, the traditional gender professions (female child-care workers, male doctors, and police officers) are becoming more equally shared.
The Relative Status of Women and Men
With a robust feminist movement, comprehensive publicly supported child care, and a single percentage of women in government, Sweden is considered a leader in gender equality. Advancement in this arena is a significant national self-stereotype, a symbol of what distinguishes Swedes from others.
Two pieces of recent legislation reflect gender attitudes. In 1995, Sweden began reserving one month of parental leave for fathers. After the child’s birth, a couple receives fifteen months of paid leave to divide between them, with one month set aside for each parent; a father who chooses not to participate forfeits the couple’s parental benefit payment for that month. This policy has increased the rates of paternal participation in child care.
In 1999, Sweden became the first Nation to criminalize the buyer, not the seller, of sexual services. The law’s authors noted their aim of prosecuting only those they considered the exploiters (typically men), not the exploited (usually women). The sexual liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced by laws, attitudes, and enforcement regimes among the most stringent in the European Union.
Marriage, Family, and Kinship
The selection of romantic, sexual, and marital partners is a matter of individual choice. A prospective mate’s character and appearance are essential criteria, while family approval is not. Marrying for money and security is rare; the general welfare society frees individuals to base a marriage on affection, not economic need.
Public schools inaugurated modern sex education in 1955. Today free or subsidized contraception allows women to postpone or limit childbearing. Abortion is permitted through the eighteenth week of pregnancy, but 93 percent of abortions are performed before the twelfth week. Roughly one of four couples consist of unmarried partners. Such nonmarital cohabitation (called sambo, or “living with”) is socially accepted and has since 1988 entailed nearly the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage.
Many sambo partners eventually marry, particularly if a child is expected or has arrived, but illegitimacy is not stigmatized. If a couple does not specify a newborn’s surname, the child automatically receives the mother’s last name. The divorce rate has doubled in the last thirty years. Lesbian and gay couples can have a sambo relationship or can establish a registered partnership with the same legal consequences as matrimony.
Families are predominantly nuclear rather than extended. While the two-parent household with children remains normative, the rate of single-parent households is high. No industrialized nation has a higher frequency of one-person homes, particularly among young adults in urban areas and the elderly.
Women are the chief providers of social support for the young and the aged. This burden has been mitigated as women’s unpaid work has been partially displaced by state-supported professional child-care and elder-care services. Patriarchal family structures have declined as traditional male authority patterns, and reliance on communal institutions has supplanted female economic dependency.
Since 1845, sons and daughters have had equal rights to inherit. Today the law seeks an equitable balance between potential claimants. A single or widowed person’s estate is divided evenly between their children or other relatives. One cannot disinherit one’s children: the law overrides wills and sets aside half of an estate for the descendants. Upon a married person’s death, the estate belongs to the surviving spouse; when that spouse dies, the couple’s children can inherit. If the deceased had children by a former marriage or relationship, they might claim a partial inheritance. Sambo relationships do not entail the same rights of survivorship.
Kin solidarity is weak beyond the level of the nuclear family. Only 3 to 4 percent of elderly persons live with family members other than their spouses. Working adults typically spend time with their parents at Christmas, on birthdays and anniversaries, and during vacations; those who live in the same city as their parents may have some meals together. Detailed population records kept by the Church of Sweden make it possible for people to trace their kin over many generations.
Expectant mothers are entitled to paid leave from work during the last months of pregnancy. Both parents usually attend free childbirth-education classes; most mothers and some fathers continue with parenting classes. Fathers are generally present at birth. Nearly all mothers breast-feed their babies, a practice made feasible by the fifteen months of paid parental leave per child. Breast-feeding can be done in public places without embarrassment. Parent-child cosleeping is relatively prevalent. Infants are allowed to develop at their own pace; to “discipline” them in matters that they cannot understand is considered a mark of parental ignorance.
Child Rearing and Education
Most young children spend some of their time in professional child-care settings. These institutions are publicly funded and are available to all children. Parents may choose between day-care centers, part-time children’s groups, drop-in preschool activity centers, and childminders in private homes. Most of these services are municipally organized, but some take nonprofit foundations, private companies, and parent cooperatives. User fees cover about 14 percent of the total costs, with tax revenues covering the rest.
Schools are well funded and of high quality. Until the late 1990s, there were few private schools. The public school system emphasizes inclusive values such as aiding children with particular difficulties rather than targeting the most talented pupils. Much school activity cultivates independence and self-sufficiency. Simultaneously, cooperative social skills are of central importance and are nurtured in after-school activities, leisure-time centers, clubs, and sports leagues.
In 1979, the parliament passed a law forbidding corporal punishment, making Sweden the first Nation in which parents were forbidden to strike their children. The legislation is widely known and accepted.
Literature written for children is frank, open, and nonpatronizing. This sensibility was visible in the critical social realism of many 1960s and early-1970s works and is equally present in the more fantasy-oriented children’s books of the decades before and after that period. Self-reliant female characters have been a specialty; the most celebrated is Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking.
The frankness that characterizes children’s literature is typical of conversations between adults and children. Parents engage in serious discussions with their children on morally charged topics ranging from fair play to drugs to sexuality (sex education begins at seven). Taking children seriously is seen as a matter of basic respect for persons who exist in their own right.
About one in three students begin some form of higher education within five years after completing upper secondary school. Half of these students are women. Most universities and colleges are state-financed but locally administered. Free tuition and grants, and loans for living expenses make higher learning available without social class.
Concerning adult education, individuals have a right to continue their education in municipally organized programs, which have expanded significantly since 1997. Besides, 150 folk colleges (folkhögskolor) offer a wide range of state-subsidized courses for adults. Local governments, unions, churches, and voluntary associations run the folk colleges, which are usually residential and are situated in rural settings.
Much etiquette involves the ritual enactment of equality. Thanking occurs frequently, and it is common for the person to be thanked for offering thanks in return. People seek to repay debts of gratitude and thus restore symmetrical relations. Conversation partners rarely interrupt one another. Politeness requires attentive listening, which is often made evident by affirmative murmurs. When people disagree, they avoid an open expression of conflict.
Rigorous codes of modesty prevent interpersonal competition from sabotaging collective life. All forms of boastfulness are proscribed. Academic and corporate titles are seldom used, and conspicuous consumption is condemned. However, these norms are beginning to erode, particularly among business people who participate in a transnational corporate world in which self-promotion is seen as a virtue.
The Church of Sweden emerged as a national church during the Protestant Reformation. For centuries, this evangelical Lutheran institution had state support and cultural hegemony, although it faced competition from nonconformist churches born of nineteenth-century revival movements. In the year 2000, state and church divorced amicably, leaving the church with increased autonomy.
Eighty-five percent of the people are members of the Church of Sweden. There is considerable religious pluralism as a result of immigration. There are an estimated 700,000 Muslims and 166,000 Roman Catholics, and significant adherents of other religious movements. Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed.
Members of the Church of Sweden often say that they are Christian “in their way” and are uninterested in dogma. The most profound spiritual emotions are often experienced while one is alone in nature. Lutheran ideas and Renaissance humanism have engendered a demanding social morality with an openness to scientific modernity. Boasting about one’s faith is considered distasteful.
Recent reforms have made the Church of Sweden a more democratic religious organization. Members elect a General Synod that decides questions of doctrine as well as administrative matters. Women make up 30 percent of the priesthood, a proportion that is rising. Church workers often combine pastoral labors with civic engagement, particularly in support of refugees and international aid. Pastors’ presence as community leaders is most evident after collective tragedies such as fatal accidents and violent crimes.
Rituals and Holy Places.
Church attendance is low except on special occasions; less than 5 percent of the members regularly attend Sunday services in the Church of Sweden. Holiday observances are more popular. Three of four infants are baptized, of whom half are later confirmed. The Church of Sweden performs three of five marriages.
Death and the Afterlife
Ninety percent of funerals take place in the Church of Sweden. The practical arrangements usually are handled by a national organization that is part of the cooperative movement. Autopsies are standard to determine the cause of death, embalming is rare, and cremation is prevalent. Graveyards are noted for their natural beauty. Many individuals believe that death involves losing one’s existence while becoming part of something greater.
Medicine and Health Care
Sweden’s health- and safety-conscious society invests heavily in preventive public-health measures. Educational campaigns promote healthy lifestyles. Individuals can choose their physicians, and medical visits are free or subject to a nominal charge. As a result of this same system, social-class differences in health are small. Nonetheless, these differences have grown in the past decade because of rising income inequality and cutbacks in public budgets. Health care accounts for 7 to 8 percent of the gross national product, not counting its massive investments in medical research.
New Year’s Day (1 January) is welcomed at midnight by ships’ horns and civil-defense sirens. Public bonfires illuminate Walpurgis Night (30 April), a celebration popular among university students. On 1 May, trade unionists, Social Democrats, and their allies march through the cities to express solidarity and protest injustices. The National Day is observed on 6 June. Midsummer (near the summer solstice in June) is a long-awaited holiday of eating, drinking, and dancing, rivaled in importance only by Christmas. August brings crayfish parties. United Nations Day (24 October) is marked mainly in schools. Halloween (31 October) is a recent import. The king presents the world’s most prestigious scientific and literary prizes on Nobel Day (10 December). Candle-lit pageants break the winter darkness on Lucia Day (13 December). Other significant observances include birthdays (with an extraordinary jubilee at age fifty), name days, secondary-school graduation, royal fetes, and the long summer vacation. Widely celebrated religious holidays include Easter, Pentecost, Advent, and Christmas.
The Arts and Humanities
Support for the Arts
Artists are not entirely dependent on commercial sales and wealthy patrons. Public funding encourages their work, and the security provided by the general welfare society frees them to take aesthetic risks without fear of poverty. One result is an artistic community known for innovation.
Support is channeled through various public and partially public institutions. Recipients range from preeminent national museums to small literary magazines that could not survive without subsidies. Popular participation is also promoted: cultural centers, public libraries, and general music schools allow citizens to exercise their creativity.
Among the most eminent modern authors are August Strindberg, Selma Lagerlöf, Pär Lagerkvist, and Harry Martinson. The most influential living writer is Astrid Lindgren, whose stories are familiar to children in many countries. A genre of particular note is the literary documentary tradition, in which authors since the 1960s have reported on the lives of ordinary people. The national literature’s common elements include a brooding seriousness about social and existential questions, an appreciation of nature, and an avoidance of psychoanalytic speculation.
A 1934 political act stipulated that 1 percent of new public buildings’ expenditure be devoted to works of art. The country’s most famous sculptor was Carl Milles, who produced gravity-defying forms. The painter Carl Larsson’s loving depictions of children and domestic life, are popular with Swedes and tourists nostalgic for a rural past. For the design, Sweden is most famous, particularly in wood and glass, but also in other media. The interplay of handicraft traditions and social democratic ideals has led to world-renowned work in industrial design, ergonomics, child safety, and products for the disabled.
Celebrated performers include the soprano Jenny Lind, the film and theater director Ingmar Bergman, and the pop musicians ABBA. The country seldom produces superstars with astronomical incomes. Instead, resources are used to provide steady salaries and benefits to ordinary actors, dancers, and musicians, giving them a basic security level. State subsidies make possible a similar egalitarianism in ticket prices: traditionally, upper-class pleasures such as opera, ballet, and theater are affordable to all.
The State of the Physical and Social Sciences
A tradition of technocratic planning, widespread respect for professional expertise, and an increasingly high-technology economy encourage research investment. Public funding is crucial, and it is administered through national research councils, universities, and specialized institutes. Natural science is quite advanced, mainly as applied in engineering and medicine. Swedish social scientists are noted for their positivistic methodologies, which demand meticulous data collection. Thanks to the Nobel Prizes, foreign laureates and hopefuls maintain ties with their colleagues in Sweden. The Right Livelihood Award, or “Alternative Nobel Prize,” honors work that grapples with pressing human problems—in science as in politics, solving such issues is a national preoccupation.