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Commentary: Dugnad & Janteloven

Courtesy of Rebekah Buchanan
Rebekah Buchanan in Norway

It's odd for me to be writing this commentary. It's been over a year since I've sat down to write something for TSPR. In that year, I've been away on a Fulbright in Norway where my family and I lived in Oslo and I traveled the country talking with upper secondary school students and teachers about the United States.

When I left Macomb, I left a community that was in many ways breaking. There was mistrust, anger, and resentment. The declining enrollment at WIU, the conflicts between university faculty and administration, and the strain of people and businesses leaving the town were all cause for tension and resentment.

Then, in the spring, I learned of the 132 employees let go from WIU, the latest in numerous rounds of layoffs. I was away from my home and out of the country, but I still felt the impact of how American beliefs and values influence our approach to community and social wellbeing. I thought of how Norway and Norwegian values would inform individuals’ reactions to what was happening in Macomb in very different ways.

There are a variety of ways to “be” Norwegian. But, while I lived in Norway, two cultural beliefs and values of community collectiveness came up time and time again as being distinctly embedded in the Norwegian way of being.  Dugnad and janteloven are approaches to existing in community that are often mentioned as reasons why Norway is consistently labeled as one of the happiest countries in the world. And they are two beliefs that I often wonder about how they would be applicable to life in the United States, and in Macomb.

Dugnad is the belief that everybody helps. Everyone does their part to complete a task and make sure things get done. It’s like a barn raising. If everyone pitches in, then we can get a project done that we couldn’t do on our own. In Norway, dugnad is a way of life. An accepted social norm. All parents are expected to help out at their children’s activities. They help at events, fundraise, or take turns at the front door letting children in for practice. At schools, teachers may take shifts loading and unloading the dishwasher in the teachers’ lounge or tidying up a mutual space. You do the work because you know that next week someone else will too. And, everyone does it. If you’re part of something, you help out.

Dugnad is just a way of life in Norway. The belief that everyone is part of an organization, activity, or workplace and that everyone in that space has equal responsibility for making sure it runs smoothly is never questioned. And, because everyone knows that they will contribute and everyone involved is helping out, more people can benefit from the experience.

The other concept that influences Scandinavian countries in janteloven. Janteloven is a set of rules that state you should put society and society’s well-being ahead of individual accomplishments. You should not boast about what you have done and not be jealous of the accomplishments of others. It’s a belief that you are not special or unique or smarter than others. You do not know more and are not more important than anyone else.

In Norway, this means there is more value on the social welfare of the society than the gains of individuals. For Americans, janteloven runs counter to what we engrain in our children and value in adults. We want to be different. We want to stand out. We often value what the individual does more than the collective accomplishments and the well-being of society as a whole. We give students awards for being the best. We compete to be the top athlete, scholar, money maker, and vote getter. And, we make this a fundamental American belief and practice. And, janteloven is complicated. It’s not always taken to heart. Even Norwegians make fun of the laws, yet they return to them when defining themselves.

As I spent the year in Norway, I spent a great deal of time thinking about American beliefs and how they are influenced by living and working in another country. I thought about the values and beliefs of my home country that I have come to appreciate and those I would like to see changed. I thought a great deal about what parts of Norwegian culture I wanted to bring back with me when I returned to the United States and I have often wondered how the values of dugnad and janteloven would impact my home.

I wonder how things might be different at WIU if we consistently thought that no one program or position was more important than the other? What if we looked at what is best for the community as a whole? What would happen if we were all treated as being essential to our community and we worked together to make sure that everyone’s needs were met?

I wonder how things might be different in my community if we practiced dugnad in real and sustainable ways? What would it be like if everyone participated? What would it be like if the whole community came out for cleanup days? What would it be like if all parents helped out with sporting events, school events, band, choir, theatre?

What would it mean if we applied some of these beliefs and values to our community? I don’t know if it would make any lasting changes. I don’t know if people would embrace these concepts and beliefs. I believe that we need to work within the societal structures of American values and culture in order to make meaningful change. But, if we do start to apply some of these beliefs, I wonder if we might start to strengthen our communities and see the value and meaning in all the members?

Rebekah Buchanan is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.

Buchanan will talk more about her experience in Norway during a presentation on Wednesday, November 13, at 6:00 p.m. at the Western Illinois University Art Gallery.