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Danish Values: How Special Are They?

Published onMay 09, 2022
Danish Values: How Special Are They?


In this country study, we ask how special Danish values are in a European context.  In 2016, the Danish Ministry of Culture published the so-called Denmark Canon, which contains ten values ‘that have shaped our country’. Based on the EVS studies, we have scrutinized the empirical confirmation of three of the values: gender equality, trust and hygge. In relation to gender equality, Danes are more positive than the European average, but Norway and Sweden have a significantly higher preference for this value. Recent data suggest that interpersonal trust is a special national value in the sense that there is a particularly high prevalence of this value among Danes. However, the level of trust has increased within a relatively short time span, which shows that it is not a deep-rooted Danish phenomenon. Finally, although hygge may be a special Danish (and Norwegian) word, the activities related to hygge appear to be similar in many countries and equally prevalent. Therefore, in spite of the government’s statement, there are no indication that these values are special values in among the Danes compared to other Europeans and we conclude that what is named a special national value depends on which actors construct the values and for what purposes.

29.1 Introduction

Scandinavians tend to believe that their values are special compared to non-Scandinavians countries, and that they are largely uniform throughout Scandinavia. In 1994, Loek Halman published the piece ‘Scandinavian values: How special are they?’ which investigated and challenged this perception. Halman contended that “as far as values are concerned Scandinavian values are heterogeneous.” Halman based his analysis on data from the European Values Study data, tapping into what Simonsen (2018) calls informal national values. In contrast, formal values are constructions of national values expressed in elite narratives such as those conveyed through national branding, tourism literature, geography and history textbooks, government and company documents, etc. In this chapter, we conduct a case study of Denmark which analyses differences and similarities between formal and informal national values and compare these to national values in other European countries. The purpose of the chapter is to answer the following question: How special are Danish values, and are they really shared among Danes?

First, we examine the notion of national values. Second, we consider what ‘special values’ means in the context of national values. Finally, we compare a key formal narrative of Danish national values – a semi-governmental document called ‘The Denmark Canon’ – with informal national values among Danes and other Europeans. We conclude our paper with a reflection on how special Danish values are.


29.2 What Is a National Value?

At the individual level, a value is defined as a desirable moral entity, and in survey research, it is measured as a response to one or several questions that are operationalisations of a theoretically defined value (van Deth & Scarborough, 1994, Schwartz, 1995). Using survey data, the identification of prevailing national values is based on an aggregation of informal, individual values. From a theoretical perspective, national values are discursively constructed, and homogeneous national values do not exist in an essential sense. Instead, collective statements seeking to articulate formal national values are part of discursive struggles between various actors seeking to enhance their political and cultural positions and interests (Siim & Meret, 2016). It has been argued that the EVS was formed as part of such discursive struggles over formal national values and that the study was originally intended to fortify a social discourse of concern for the lack of social cohesion and support for traditional social values (Ester, Halman & de Moor, 1993; Kropp, 2017).

Formal national values matter to governments, and in several cases, governments have encouraged values education that aligns with specific articulations of formal values (Jones, 2009), such as human rights or democracy (Osler & Starkey, 2001). In some cases, governments even propose lists of core, formal national values. For instance, a 1991 Canadian commission stated the values that it deemed to form the bedrock of Canadian identity (Spicer, 1991); in 2016, the Danish government produced a so-called Denmark Canon of ten national values intended to be ‘a formative project […] to raise awareness about the historical and cultural social values’.1 National values, however, are not only a question of defining value characteristics, but also of characteristics that set a nation apart from other nations.


29.3 What Does ‘Special National Values’ Mean?

In the context of informal national values, Halman (1994) argues that European countries do not differ in the sense that some emphasise values, which others do not. Instead, Halman proposes that national values differ in the degrees of value preferences across countries, rather than in types of values (Halman, 1994, pp. 60-61). The characteristics of a nation’s values are measured as values highly preferred by the country’s population. Therefore, for Scandinavian values to be special, the prevalence of value preferences should be relatively similar among Scandinavian populations compared to other European countries. In his paper, Halman (1994) demonstrates that this is not the case.

Theories of national identity offer a different understanding of national values. In his seminal paper, Barth (1969, p. 15) famously states, “the ethnic boundary … defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses.” Members of ethnic groups (in this case nations) may disagree about what belonging means, but they agree that there is a we-them boundary between people in the ethnic group and other ethnic groups (Simonsen, 2016). In this manner, the nation is constructed as unique in relation to other nations, and the demarcation between the nation and other nations is socially constructed and maintained through social institutions and public discourses. Within this line of thinking, a special national value may be anything that people choose to define as characteristic of a nation. Therefore, the special national values ascribed to the boundary may be based on prevalent informal values within the population but may also reflect elite narratives involving formal national values.

In the following sections, we investigate how special Danish national values are. Specifically, we examine the relationship between a key articulation of formal national values (the Denmark Canon) and the informal value preferences for those values within the Danish population (EVS surveys data) to discern the level of correspondence. Furthermore, we use the EVS data to compare the value preferences in Denmark to those in other countries to evaluate the claim that these are special national values in Denmark. First, however, we must provide a short presentation of the Denmark Canon.


29.4 The Denmark Canon

In December 2016, the Danish Ministry of Culture published the Denmark Canon, which includes ten values ‘that have shaped our country‘. A canon is normally understood as an authoritative reading list of significant texts. However, in this case, it lists values in order to ‘raise awareness about the historical and cultural social values, traditions and events that have particularly shaped society and people in Denmark’.

The selection of the ten values included in the canon was based on a process that involved the Danish population. Individual people, organisations and companies were encouraged to submit suggestions of ‘genuine Danish values’ to a special government website. The suggestions were curated by six experts who made a list of 20 values. Based on the list, the population was encouraged to select the top ten values in the canon. The ten values were presented in a comprehensive campaign, which included a website, media productions and a series of debates, making the Denmark Canon a strong articulation of formal national Danish values.

The canon lists the following ten values:2

  • Civil values

  • Freedom (includes freedom of thought and religion, freedom of opinion and expression, right to assemble and freedom from discrimination)

  • Equality for the law

  • Democracy

  • Gender equality

  • Social and cultural values

  • Trust

  • Associations and voluntary work

  • Liberality and tolerance

  • Christian heritage

  • Culture-specific values

  • The Danish language

  • Hygge

A quick glance at the list suggests that the civil values represent formal values which are internationally recognised and codified in international policy documents, such as human rights declarations. For these to be considered special Danish values, a particularly high value prevalence among the population is required compared to other countries. The social and cultural values on the list comprise less universally accepted formal values. For instance, a Christian heritage or tolerant values are, for different reasons, not formal in some European countries while being dominant values in others. Finally, the culture-specific values in the canon are unique to the Danes and are therefore not formal national values in other countries.


29.5 Comparing Formal and Informal National Values in Denmark

In the following, we compare informal national values measured by the EVS studies (high prevalence of a given value relative to other countries) with the Danish government’s formal national values presentation in the Denmark Canon. Due to limited space, we have restricted the comparison to three selected values from the canon: gender equality, trust and hygge. In each of these cases, we briefly present the formal discourse and relate it to survey evidence.

Gender equality

The Denmark Canon states that Danish society is based on equality between the genders and the value that men and women must have the same rights and opportunities. This is in accordance with the UN Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, as well as the Treaty of the European Union. In Denmark, the Canon argues, gender equality is an aspect of national politics which is supported by all political parties and expressed in a law on gender equality. However, formal gender values are more pro-gender equality in Norway and Sweden compared to Denmark (Borchorst & Siim, 2008).

Concerning the informal values and the value preference for gender equality in the population, the picture is less clear. Data from the European Values Study 2017 contains numerous items that measure the population’s support for gender equality, cf. Table 29.1.


Table 29.1 Support for gender equality in European countries. Pct. 2017


Very important in marriage to share household chores

Disagree strongly:
men’s job to earn money, women’s  job to look after home

Disagree  strongly: 
men are better political leaders

Disagree strongly: 
give men  priority when jobs are scarce

Disagree strongly:
university education more important for boys



















All EVS countries






Note: Number of respondents 54.297-56.181. Missing answers not included. Data are weighted by weight that uses the  marginal distribution of age, sex, educational attainment and region Source: EVS 2017


The EVS data show a clear pattern. When asked about gender equality in relation to family, economy and politics, Danes are clearly in favour of gender equality much more than the European average. However, the Danes are less positive towards gender equality than Norwegian and Swedish people. This suggests a consistency between the formal Danish values in the canon and the informal value preferences among Danes: gender equality is valued to a high degree by Danes compared to the European average. However, there is no merit to the claim that this is a special Danish value, since Norway and Sweden have a significantly higher preference for this value.


Trust is also a cornerstone of Danish culture, according to the Denmark Canon; Danish scholars have explained the high level of trust in Denmark by the existence of historically deep-rooted institutions that have existed for lengthy periods. The institutions and corresponding organisations offer solutions to collective action problems (Svendsen, Svendsen & Graeff, 2012). It has even been claimed that the high social trust scores could be due to the region’s long-distance trade practices since the Viking age (Svendsen & Svendsen, 2012). Trust is, in other words, a formal national value.

Survey evidence indicates that generalised trust is high in Denmark, but it contradicts the claim that trust is a deep-rooted value in Denmark. EVS 2017 suggests that 74% of the Danes (compared to the European average of 40%) answer yes to the following statement: ’In general, do you think that most people can be trusted?’ These data also reveal that the high level of trust is a recent phenomenon. From an average European position, Denmark has gained a position at the forefront in generalized trust. Therefore, the high level of trust in Denmark is a relatively new phenomenon (Frederiksen and Toubøl, 2019), which challenges the theory of a historically deep-rooted cultural foundation of trust in Denmark. Instead, the contemporary level of trust in Denmark is dependent upon improvements in other factors such as education and institutional trust (Frederiksen, 2011; Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2014).

While the Danish state promotes formal values of trust as a unique cultural and political Danish phenomenon, the Danes’ informal values do not entirely support this notion. High levels of interpersonal trust are not a deep-rooted Danish phenomenon. Rather, trust has increased within a relatively short time span, and trust is less permanently  valued in the population than suggested by the formal expression of trust. However, the recent EVS results suggest that trust is a special national value in the sense that there is a particularly high prevalence of this value among Danes, compared to other European nations.


Hygge, the canon states, is ‘a special way of being together in a relaxing, nice atmosphere’. Hygge is claimed to be Danish-specific; it reflects Danish values and encompasses a broad range of social phenomena, including communicative style and interpretations of symbols (Levisen, 2012, p. 113); the concept of hygge is said to be one of the most important tools used to bind the nation together culturally (Pessel, 2018, p. 36). According to the canon, ‘Hygge has its own word and many people say that it can’t be translated”.3 Hygge is related to activities such as warmth, candlelight, eating candy and being with friends and family. The Oxford Dictionary defines hygge as ‘a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being’; there are books about hygge (e.g., Wiking, 2016; Søderberg, 2016; Brits, 2016) which celebrate the Danish way of living. It is a “social ethos of closeness warmth, relaxation, informality and egalitarian mutuality” (Jenkins, 2011, p. 253).

Hygge, as a formal national value, is commonly used by the tourist industry and has even been declared a soft power in international relations. For instance, Howell and Sundberg (2015) describe hygge as an example of presenting an affective atmosphere to foster the goals of small state geopolitics.

The idea that the word hygge cannot be translated into other languages, as well as the celebration of hygge in popular books and the national marketing of hygge make hygge a strong, formal national value.

Some people argue that hygge is difficult to measure, yet the Danish archive for survey data4 shows that researchers have asked people whether they experience hygge in various situations, such as at sports games, through memberships in voluntary associations or when shopping. In international survey studies, concepts such as ‘enjoyable’ (European Social Survey, 2006) or ‘pleasant’ (International Social Science Programme, 2017) have been translated into hygge by Danish scholars.

While hygge is a specific Danish word, people in other nations are most likely performing the same activities that the Danes call hygge. It is not easy to find comparative survey evidence of hygge, but in the 2006 European Social Survey, respondents were asked the following question: ‘how much of the time spent with your immediate family is enjoyable?’ In Danish ‘enjoyable’ was translated into ‘hyggelig’, in Norwegian also: hyggelig, in Dutch: aangenaam, in German: angenehm, and in Swedish: trevlig.5

Provided that these words refer to the same phenomenon, the ESS study indicated how much people engage in hygge activities and, perhaps, how much they value hygge. The percentage of people who answered ‘all of the time’ was 42% for all Europeans, 40% for the Danes, 38% for the Norwegians, 29% for the Dutch, 32% for the Germans and 39% for the Swedes. If we, perhaps somewhat boldly, accept that the ESS item is an operationalisation of hygge, we may conclude that even though the word hygge is a special Danish (and Norwegian) word, as a phenomenon it is by no means unique to the Danes; perhaps we might even ponder how the Danes have come to view it as inherently Danish.


29.6 Conclusions

The EVS studies of national values and various elite discourses of national values are supplementary means of studying the special national values in a given country. In the first case, special values are defined as (major) deviance scores from an average of a large number of countries. In the second case, what is special is anything that a discourse has defined as a method of drawing boundaries between nations. The identification of a special value most likely coincides in the two types of analysis. However, using Denmark as an example, this chapter has provided examples of variations between the two. Gender equality is generally recognised as core civil values and is promoted by many countries around the world, including Scandinavian countries. Nevertheless, the Danes score lower than the other Scandinavians. Official Danish discourses promote trust as a cultural cornerstone, but the level of trust in Denmark was much lower than today even a few decades ago. Formal discourses claim that hygge is an integral and special part of being Danish. However, although hygge may be a special Danish word, the activities related to hygge appear to be similar in many countries and equally prevalent. The conclusion is that what is named a special national value depends on which actors construct the values and for what purposes. In this context, the EVS, not least thanks to Loek Halman’s relentless, decades-long efforts, stands out as a major source documenting the values of the Europeans.


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