The Nordic states are often treated as lessons for the rest of us, rather than states unto themselves. To some, they provide models that prove the welfare state can be both generous and politically popular, or that low levels of inequality contribute to a happy, prosperous nation. In studies of comparative criminal justice, countries such as Norway, Finland, and Sweden are seen as antidotes to penal populism and punitive excess elsewhere. But how true is any of this, and why do we seldom think about these places in their own terms?

In this academic year’s first All Souls Criminology Seminar, Vanessa Barker, Docent and Associate Professor of Sociology at Stockholm University, and visiting scholar at the Centre for Criminology, challenged the Nordic exceptionalism claim on three fronts. Her first question was whether it is accurate to think of the Nordic penal states, particularly Sweden, as mild and humane. While imprisonment rates are indeed relatively low and sentence lengths are comparatively short in international terms, Prof Barker cited evidence of the extensive use of solitary confinement, pre-trial detention, and migrant deportation in Sweden. The country also punishes drug users―not just dealers―relatively harshly and enforces compulsory treatment for alcoholics. One indicator of humaneness is often confounded by another.

Her second challenge to Nordic exceptionalism was about the purposes of comparison. Prof Barker suggested that much comparative work is superficial, failing to understand Nordic penal systems as states with unique historical, political, and cultural dynamics. Categorising states as egalitarian welfare, Christian democratic, or free market liberal risks missing important nuances for convenient shorthand descriptions. Much more needs to be said about the internal workings and context of a given state’s penal system for it to be understood. Bland statements about the background features of a place―its political system, forms of social solidarity, imprisonment rates, etc.―shouldn’t lead us to believe that we know how it works.

Invoking the Nordic states in discussions of criminal justice is more often about expanding or limiting the boundaries of political possibility than understanding places for their own sake. For example, Sweden and others are treated by liberals as paragons of tolerance whose best practice can be transplanted anywhere. By contrast, conservatives treat these as historically and culturally unique countries whose social make-up and egalitarian traditions are impossible to imitate elsewhere. Neither of these accounts is quite right. The urge to compare ourselves in the UK, for example, to the Nordic states for the purposes of self-improvement clouds our thinking about both places.

The third and final point, which formed the majority of the presentation, sought to challenge the received wisdom about the relationship between punishment and welfare. These two factors are assumed to be inversely related: states which punish more have less generous welfare and vice versa. Although there is some basis for this broad statement, Prof Barker argued that we need more sophisticated models of both punishment and welfare to understand the relationship fully. As indicated above, it’s difficult to assess how punitive a state is, given the wide range of possible indicators. A low per capita imprisonment rate, for instance, doesn’t guarantee humane penal policy.

More theoretically, it’s not entirely clear which factors cause continuity and change in punishment and welfare, and how exactly they are supposed to do it. Prof Barker eschewed the tendency among commentators to explain illiberal practices solely in terms of grand external forces such as neoliberalism or globalization, while giving internal factors such as community cohesion and low levels of inequality all the credit for humane policy. The notion that toughness comes from outside, and enlightenment from within, oversimplifies the role of the welfare state. For a start, Swedish welfare is strongly associated with two other key concepts: workers (arbetsmyra, literally ‘worker ants’) and the nation as home (Folkhemmet, literally ‘the people’s home’). The resulting concoction of welfare, work, and the nation means that the welfare state can be a mechanism for equality among citizens as well as a means of excluding outsiders who don’t belong, particularly those not in work.

An example of these intricate dynamics comes from Sweden’s recent attempts to crack down on illegal migration by conducting on-the-spot identity checks as part of a campaign to speed up deportations. These searches were originally for everyone but eventually, or rather inevitably, concentrated on ethnic minorities, often in public spaces. Interpreted by many as public degradation ceremonies, this policy was subsequently denounced by popular protest. Populism, it seems, doesn’t always meet with the approval of the people. Similarly, harsh policies for homeless migrants, particularly Roma people, can be presented by politicians as attempts to preserve the welfare state for Swedes, rather than as measures which undermine social solidarity and heighten inequality. Understood more completely, then, it seems that welfare can bind and exclude, reinforcing local unity while cementing divisions between Swedes and those who are foreign-born. The question then becomes about how to expand the circle of those who belong, whether as workers, citizens, or Swedes.

Prof Barker’s excellent presentation invited the audience to reconsider their images of Nordic countries, complicating the exceptionalism claim and questioning its premises. These places are indeed unique in many important ways, but no more so than anywhere else. By attending to Sweden’s distinctive period of social democratic state-building from 1932–76, as well as its historical strain of compulsory sterilization and other forms of illiberal social policy, Prof Barker painted a nuanced picture of Sweden as a penal state. The repeated use of the word ‘complex’ was a welcome reminder that welfarism, nationalism, punishment, and democracy are not harmonious units of a neat philosophical whole, but competing and contrasting elements of the social world. We would do well to understand each country patiently first before we begin trying to become more ‘Nordic,’ whatever that means.

The next event in the All Souls Criminology Seminar Series is with Dr Jennifer Fleetwood (University of Leicester) on 29 October 2015.