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The Nordic Exceptionalism Revisited

Published onMay 09, 2022
The Nordic Exceptionalism Revisited


The Nordic countries have been labeled exceptions with very high shares of the population who agree that most people can be trusted. However, data suggest that the Nordic countries, to a varying degree, are facing challenges that may have decreased the levels of trust in most people. The Nordic countries have experienced increasing levels of income inequality, coinciding with high rates of south-to-north migration flows in the form of labor migrants and refugees. This chapter describes the development of social trust in the Nordic countries using data from the European Values Study. Contrary to theoretical expectations for the detrimental impact of increasing levels of diversity and income inequality, the levels of social trust increased in the Nordic countries during the investigated time period. Likely explanations for this development are the increasing shares of the population with high levels of education and well-functioning government institutions.

28.1 Introduction

Many social phenomena depend explicitly or implicitly on trust between strangers, such as payment of taxes or business transactions (Wollebæk et al., 2012). Several studies have shown that societies with high levels of social trust, that is, trust in people in general, tend to be associated with many positive aspects, such as citizens with more prodemocratic and prosocial values, higher levels of economic development, better public health, a higher quality of life and lower crime rates (Kawachi et al., 1997; Knack & Keefer, 1997; Rothstein & Uslaner, 2005; Woolcock, 2001). Generalized trust (i.e., trust in people in general) has historically been very high and stable in the Nordic countries, to the extent that the concept of ‘Nordic exceptionalism’ was launched by Delhey and Newton (2005). Delhey and Newton (2005, pp. 320-321) stated:

The Nordic countries are exceptional cases. Norway, Sweden and Denmark have the highest levels of trust of any of our 60 nations. Finland and Iceland are not far behind. All five countries are Protestant, rich, and ethnically homogeneous, and have high good government scores.

In one of his academic contributions, Loek Halman (with Pettersson, 2001) has pointed to the role of religion for social trust; Putnam’s seminal study (2000) further highlights to the importance of engagement in civil society. However, these explanations have been challenged by an institutional explanation that underscores the importance of the quality of government institutions and the importance of an impartial and just public administration for social trust (Erlingsson & Lundåsen, 2021; Rothstein, 2013). The Nordic countries all have a long-standing tradition of public administrations that are relatively free from corruption and guided by principles of fairness and impartiality, which can contribute to explaining the countries’ high levels of social trust (Rothstein, 2013).

However, data suggest that the Nordic countries, to a varying degree, are facing challenges that may have decreased levels of trust in most people. The Nordic countries have experienced increasing levels of income inequality, coinciding with high rates of south-to-north migration flows in the form of labor migrants and refugees. On one hand, many of the Nordic countries (with the exception of Iceland) weathered the economic crises of 2007–2008 better than many countries (Fellman, 2019). On the other hand, these countries have also experienced rapid shifts in their populations. Against this backdrop, in this chapter we describe the trends of social trust in the Nordic countries. To do so, we use data from the European Values Study (EVS).


28.2 Possible Threats to Social Trust in Nordic Countries

Although Delhey and Newton (2005) stated that the Nordic countries were homogeneous, this may be less true today. For example, in 2009, 11% of Sweden’s population was first-generation immigrants, but in 2020, the percentage was around 20%. Over the past decade, migrants to Sweden have mostly come from countries that are considered culturally more distant, and today, the largest migrant group is no longer people originating from Finland but from Syria (Statistics Sweden, 2021).

Perceptions of the shifting balance between groups (majority-minority) are likely to spur negative reactions if the minority is perceived as a threat to one’s own group’s position in society (Craig et al., 2018). The perception that the outgroup makes up an increasing part of the population may induce outgroup derogation (Craig et al., 2018). For example, since 2010, the political parties that represent a radical right position have gained seats in the parliaments of the Nordic countries (Widfeldt, 2018).

In line, studies have pointed to a negative association between ethnic diversity and social trust (Alesina & LaFerrara, 2002; Putnam, 2007). Following an article by Putnam (2007) that presented U.S. data supporting a negative relationship between diversity and trust, this topic has been thoroughly investigated empirically in several Western contexts (Dinesen et al., 2020; van der Meer & Tolsma, 2014; Wallman Lundåsen & Wollebæk, 2013). Scholars have posited different theories to explain the relationship between diversity and trust. One explanation points to humans’ innate tendency to prefer others they perceive as similar, and when the surrounding context becomes more diverse, fewer others are considered similar. Scholars argue that this leads to a sense of anomie and a tendency to withdraw from social life, resulting in decreased trust in others (Laurence et al., 2019; Putnam, 2007). According to this argument, trust is reduced in all groups, toward others who are similar as well as others who are different (Laurence et al., 2019; Putnam, 2007). Other explanations hinge on diversity heightening the levels of conflict over economic resources or cultural conflicts between groups in society (Hainmuller & Hopkins, 2014).

A different line of argument originates from the several studies that have underscored the importance of the quality of government institutions for trust (Rothstein & Stolle, 2008; Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2016). Previous studies have also shown that social trust is higher in countries with efficient and impartial government institutions (see for example, Rothstein & Stolle, 2008; Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2016). Fair and trustworthy public institutions can provide citizens with cues and signals that indicate trustworthy behaviour that is the norm, and behaviour that breaks with these norms will be sanctioned (Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2016). When public institutions are efficient, well-functioning, and impartial, they are assumed to make daily life less risky for ordinary citizens (Erlingsson & Lundåsen, 2021). When institutions are corrupt or inefficient, citizens need to rely more on their own resources to cope, thus making trusting others more perilous. If the quality of government institutions is low, free-riding behaviour among citizens is expected to be widespread (Rothstein, 2013). Given the overall high quality of government institutions in the Nordic countries, citizens are likely to perceive they have been treated in a fair and just way during contacts with government institutions (Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2016).

However, although the overall quality of government institutions is high, during periods of increasing immigration, the welfare systems of the Nordic countries may also become a source of conflict in terms of deservingness and create debates about whether immigrants should be included within these systems (Kumlin et al., 2017; Larsen, 2013). Experimental studies have shown that there is a deservingness gap between natives and immigrants, where immigrants are seen as less deserving of welfare benefits, even in scenarios where they have worked and paid taxes (Reeskens & van der Meer, 2019).

From the international perspective, the Nordic countries display relatively low levels of economic inequality, and equality is argued to have a positive impact on social trust (Uslaner, 2002). Theoretically, inequality is assumed to negatively impact trust in several different ways. One is similar to the explanation of the impact of diversity; a social psychological explanation that draws on the assumption that individuals dislike differences and inherently prefer those who are similar (Alesina & LaFerra, 2002). Therefore, inequality would reduce the probability that people would make contact with those who are dissimilar in terms of economic or social status, resulting in less cross-group interaction and thus, decreasing levels of social trust. Another causal mechanism driven by inequality is suggested to work through perceptions of fairness. High inequality may undermine individuals’ sense of being part of a shared community with common values and interests (Uslaner, 2002). However, there are indications of increasing gaps between rich and poor neighbourhoods in urban areas in for example Sweden (Malmökommissionen, 2013). In sum, trends such as rising levels of diversity through immigration and increases in income inequality may have a dampening impact on the high levels of social trust within the Nordic countries. On one hand, the Nordic countries share a historical legacy of government institutions that are guided by the rule of law and relatively low levels of income inequality, and on the other hand, changes have occurred, such as increasing diversity and rising inequality, that could potentially undermine trust.


28.3 Social Trust in the Nordic Countries

The data from the fifth wave of the EVS show that the share of the population who believe that most people can be trusted remains high in the Nordic countries compared with most other European countries (see Figure 28.1). In the figure, the darker the colour, the higher the share of the population who agree with the statement that most people can be trusted. Only the Netherlands and Switzerland display levels of social trust similar to those of the Nordic countries, thus confirming Delhey and Newton’s (2005) previous findings.

Figure 28.1 Share of the population agreeing that most people can be trusted, 2017-2020

Source: European Values Study (2021)


When the levels of trust in the most recent (2017-2020) round of the EVS are compared with the levels of trust at the end of the 1980s, the Nordic countries have higher levels of social trust (Figure 28.2). This development counters the often-dominant American discourse pointing to a general decline in social trust and an increase in the sense of anomie (Putnam, 2000).

Figure 28.2 Most people can be trusted, Nordic countries over time

Source: European Values Study/World Values Survey, longitudinal data set 1981-2008 and integrated data set 2017-2020.

Note: The Norway 1999-2004 data extrapolated from a linear trend because of missing data.

Contrary to theoretical expectations for the detrimental impact of increasing levels of diversity and income inequality (Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2014; Uslaner, 2002), the levels of social trust have increased in the Nordic countries. How can this increase be understood? Previous scholars have argued that the expansion of education levels within the population of the Nordic countries from the 1980s until the 2010s has contributed to the increased share of the population who trust most others (Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2014; Wollebæk & Segaard, 2011). Older cohorts with lower levels of education and lower levels of trust are gradually being replaced by younger cohorts with higher levels of education and higher trust within the population (Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2014).1 As the data show, the levels of trust are generally higher in the Nordic countries (Figure 28.3) among those with the highest levels of education.

Figure 28.3 Levels of education and trust by country

Source: European Values Study 2021, integrated dataset

Moreover, studies have pointed to increasing levels of quality of government institutions as an important explanation for the trends in social trust in the Nordic countries (Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2014), and that the experience from high-quality institutions tends to outweigh other experiences (Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2016).

However, in-depth studies of Danish data have also revealed increasing polarization between groups in terms of social trust (Fredriksen & Toubøl, 2019). Although the average levels of social trust have increased in Denmark, there is an increasing gap between those with lower levels of education who have lowskilled jobs and those with tertiary education and high-skilled jobs (Fredriksen & Toubøl, 2019). In Sweden, studies have found a similar and increasing gap in the levels of trust between respondents who are unemployed and employed, those who have high and low levels of education, and those with excellent and poor self-rated health (Holmberg & Rothstein, 2020).

Furthermore, studies have found that those who distrust others often are clustered in highly diverse and low-income urban neighbourhoods (Dinesen et al., 2020; Ivarsflaten & Strømsnes, 2013; Trägårdh et al, 2013; Wallman Lundåsen & Wollebæk, 2013; Wollebæk et al, 2012). Figure 28.4 shows that there are considerable differences across neighbourhoods within the metropolitan areas of Malmö and Stockholm in Sweden. In the Fosie, Rosengård, and Rågsved districts, the majority of the population are first- or second-generation immigrants. These districts have levels of social trust that fall far below the national level average and are closer to the levels of trust in many other European countries. However, well-off and more ethnically homogeneous districts in Stockholm, such as Södermalm, have levels of social trust above the national average.


Figure 28.4 Share of natives and social trust across districts, metropolitan areas of Malmö and Stockholm.

Source: Trustbarometer 2020; Statistics Sweden. Figures for natives in districts based on neighbourhoods with respondents.2 

A question often posed in the public debate is whether these diverse neighbourhoods represent a possible future as populations are becoming more diverse, and due to trends of urbanization, to an increasing extent live in these metropolitan areas. Possibly, these types of neighbourhoods receive more attention in the Nordic countries than they would in other instances as they are considered areas of distrust within generally trusting societies. The data from the EVS and other surveys indicate, however, that the average levels of social trust remain high, and are even rising. Social trust, measured as trust in people in general, in the Nordic countries appears to be resistant to some social transformations.


28.4 Concluding Remarks

In this chapter, we showed that despite a public discourse that often laments a crisis of trust, the levels of social trust within the Nordic countries have been rising since the first waves of the EVS. The majority of the population within the Nordic countries believe that most people can be trusted, although some of the Nordic countries have experienced periods of economic downturn and a sharp rise in levels of diversity. During the fifth round of the EVS, a larger share of the populations within the Nordic countries than during the first and second rounds believed that most people can be trusted. Likely explanations for this development are the expansion of higher education among younger cohorts and the high quality of government institutions.

As shown, however, there is considerable variation within countries, such as Sweden, where the most diverse neighbourhoods in metropolitan areas have averagely low levels of trust that are similar to those of the central and eastern parts of Europe. However, these urban clusters of lower trust have a limited impact on the overall levels of social trust. Social trust continues to be purported to be the Nordic gold.

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