Knowledge on the Nordics

Denmark: Uncovering Nordic Collectivism with Cathie Jo Martin

April 15, 2021 Season 3 Episode 6
Knowledge on the Nordics
Denmark: Uncovering Nordic Collectivism with Cathie Jo Martin
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Listen to this podcast if you are interested in :

  • How a collective mindset has been discernable in Denmark and the Nordic countries at points in history – and whether this still applies today;
  • Mass education in the nineteenth century in Denmark and greater emphasis on vocational training;
  • Labour market relations;
  • Neoliberalism and threats to collectivism.

Join the editor of, Nicola Witcombe, on her sixth virtual visit around the Nordic countries in the podcast series ’The Nordics Uncovered: Critical Voices from the Region’. Cathie and Nicola spoke over Zoom in March 2021.

Sound credits :, including Lapping Waves.wav by Benboncan, and Short dance by szegvari.

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Cathie Jo Martin 00:08

The Danish vision of Darwin is not the survival of the fittest. It's more that societies that cooperate will do better. So it's a really different interpretation of Darwin than the British interpretation of Darwin. So I think above everything else, the strongest reason for Danish success has been this capacity to cooperate, and the capacity to make social investments that are going to enable Danish industry to move into new areas of economic growth.


Nicola Witcombe 00:49

Our last podcast was about micro histories and their importance with respect to colonial legacies. This podcast goes to the other end of the spectrum, and presents a broad historical overview of political development, taking examples of different types of collectivism from the last 200 years as well as the present. And these are provided by political scientist Cathy J. Martin, whose voice you just heard. Cathy is a professor at Boston University, and she has strong connections to the Nordics, particularly Denmark, not only because she has lived and worked here numerous times in her life, but through continuing research collaborations. For example, she has a guest professor affiliation at the Center for welfare state studies at Southern Denmark University, amongst many other things. Kathy is my sixth guest in the Nordics info podcast series, the Nordics Uncovered: Critical Voices from the Region.


Nicola Witcombe 01:58

My name is Nicola Witcombe, and I'm the editor of Nordics info. A normal part of my job is to travel to universities and conferences, to meet researchers and to encourage them to spread the word about their research to a wider audience. In these COVID times, I'm virtually visiting 12 researchers based in six different countries to try to find the answer to questions like: What is the state of the Nordics today? How do researchers investigate Nordic society and concepts? This interview was recorded in March 2021 over Zoom.


Nicola Witcombe 02:37

Well, Kathy, thanks very much for being here. The plan is to start by looking at some of your research, where you often take a historical look back at what has happened in the Nordic countries compared to other countries. And then we'll go on to look at more contemporary issues. But first, could you tell me a little bit about your research background, please?


Cathie Jo Martin 03:02

So sure, so I have been a comparative politics person for some time. So my PhD was actually on tax policy. And at the time, I was focused on American tax policy. But I've also done quite a bit of on Danish tax policy as well. Because I think those differences play into why there's such strong differences in support for the welfare state. So I've done a lot of work on welfare state studies, generally, in addition to education, which has been my most recent theme. And I've also done a lot on business government relations. I've done a lot on how employers form their preferences for active labor market policies and other social welfare policies.


Nicola Witcombe 03:46

So various different aspects of political science, but it's mainly from a comparative point of view as far as I understand it. 


Cathie Jo Martin 03:54

We tend to do comparative studies more than single area studies. And for that reason, people are enormously interested in the Nordic countries, but they typically will study the Nordic countries in comparison to other countries. I sort of like work that pushes outside of disciplinary boundaries. And so, the work that I'm doing right now I'm drawing from obviously, political science, history, and comparative literature, and cultural sociology. But I also think it's really fun to have a perspective that crosses geographical boundaries as well.


Nicola Witcombe 04:40

Yep. So you've spent time in Denmark on and off throughout your career, but what about other countries and the other Nordic countries?


Cathie Jo Martin 04:50

So I lived for a year in Japan. And I've certainly spent a lot of time in the other Nordic countries. Right now I'm part of a project, working with Norwegians on developing a new editorial series for Routledge and it's on Nordic studies. And so I talked to folks in Norway really quite frequently. And it seems like every time I have a zoom conference with Norway, the first thing that they say is, we're doing better on COVID than Denmark or Sweden. So I think that's interesting, that Norway has been doing better than just about any place in the world on COVID until quite recently, but the fact that they are singling out, Denmark and Sweden, I think, is quite telling for Scandinavian rivalries.


Nicola Witcombe 05:39

So let's move on to the first main theme, if you'd like, for the podcast, and that is related to some of your most recent work. That is the mindset in the 1800s, and how this influenced how education systems were set up. Could you tell me a little bit more about this, I believe you've compared Denmark to the UK. 


Cathie Jo Martin 06:03

But I'm actually asking why countries develop such radically different education systems. And so Britain, for example, has an education system that- you only got mass public education in 1870. And there was a real emphasis on perfecting education for elites. The British public schools are excellent, for example, and of course, public school in Britain means private school. But it came quite late. And also, when secondary school came to Britain in 1902, it was very much organized around the classic line of Classical Studies, there was one track science and math, in fact, were deemphasized, and there was a big fight about having more science and math, but the architects of British education didn't want that to happen. They really wanted to focus in on Classical Studies. And they had very little vocational training, nothing that was very systematic, are organized. Now Denmark was quite the opposite on the periphery of Europe in the 18th century, they still had serfs. And yet Denmark develops apart from Prussia, which was not yet a country. Denmark develops the earliest education system, mass public education system, in the world in 1814. And when it's time to develop secondary education, in 1903, Denmark develops a gymnasium system with three tracks Science and Math, Modern Foreign Languages and then the old Classical Studies. But it also puts a significant amount of funding into a separate vocational training track. It creates a one year in the middle school designed for people who are going to go forward into vocational training. And it has an 1891 extensive funding for all sorts of agricultural schools, trade schools, and the old Grundvig folk high schools. So why is it that the leader of the industrial revolution comes to it so late, and this peripheral country comes to it so early?


Nicola Witcombe 08:21

Interesting, great. I'd be interested to know further why you did choose Denmark and the UK.


Cathie Jo Martin 08:29

And I chose them because they're such extreme examples of education, approaches to education. And I wanted to understand why this develops?


Nicola Witcombe 08:43

Super, please go on. What are some of the reasons for the difference between the two countries?


Cathie Jo Martin 08:53

So I argue that the reason for that is in Denmark, from the very earliest time, they decided that they want to have education for all, that this is extremely important. Whereas in Britain, they decided that they only really want to have education for elites. And they envision this trickle-down system, whereby the middle class and the working class, kind of get educated by their affiliation with elites. And when education does come, in Britain, it happens mainly through these church societies in the first part of the 19th century. But still, those were mainly for middle class people, rather than the working class. So, I tried to explain that, and the way I explained it is that they're extremely different goals for education. And in Denmark, the goal has to do with building a strong society and trying to create a situation where everybody can make a social and economic contribution to society. Just as an aside, when the act of labor market policy debate came along, there was a saying that said: “Don't ask what people cannot do, ask what they can do”. And the idea being that you would create jobs for everybody to contribute to society in the economy. Well, that idea is very old. And so Danish education really came out of a really old commitment to social investment. In Britain, in comparison, the education was developed to create a perfect individual. Self-development was really essential. It comes through in the writings of John Stuart Mill, for example, and Coleridge who talk about the importance of education in fulfilling the self. And so as a result, British education really is interested in fulfilling the self of these upper and then middle class people. Workers aren't seen as contributing in any meaningful way. So Malthus, for example, creates an argument in Britain, that suggests that the working class doesn't really help. In fact, it hinders, because if you give them resources, they just reproduce like rabbits. And this overpopulation detracts from society. And so the best thing you could do is try to minimize the opportunities for the working class to grow. The working class also erodes culture. And that's a real problem in Britain. And you see, this idea conveyed by all sorts of people on the left and right culture was something that was defined as exclusive to the upper and sometimes middle class, and you wanted to keep the working class out. Whereas in Denmark, the whole idea of dannelse, or cultural formation is something that Danish elites were very eager, from a very early time, to encourage; dannelse. And it was expected that everybody would contribute in a meaningful way, not only an economic contribution, but also to be someone who could partake of Danish society. 


Nicola Witcombe 12:23

Great, interesting. So you've mentioned a lot of different names of writers and philosophers, Coleridge, male, etc., etc. Political Science, presumably, in its modern form did not exist in those days. I'd be interested to know how you choose the sources that you focus on, particularly when there's so much so many writers.


Cathie Jo Martin 12:50

Fiction writers have a huge impact on the evolution of public policy and political institutions, and the 18th and 19th centuries. And the reason for this is that these fiction writers are really among the leading intellectuals in these countries, and one of the few sources of delivering public opinion back up to political actors. Fiction writers at that time, of course, are often philosophers as well. So people tended to write both fiction, as well as philosophy. And they tended to work and network so they would use their writings to debate popular issues, both in novels and poems and plays, as well as in these massive explosions of literary magazines. And so what's been quite interesting to me, is how radically different these authors’ depictions of education are in Britain and Denmark. And so in the project, I want to understand how authors get involved, and what impacts those authors have on the evolution of public policies such as education? Well, so you, you pose a very good question. What do you do in a situation where there are many, many different kinds of authors? And how do you choose which authors to focus on? So I've developed a method in which I can both look at individual authors’ contributions as actors or agents in political struggles. And you get people like Coleridge, for example, who was hugely important. Matthew Arnold was hugely important in Britain. Ludvig Holberg was hugely important in Denmark and of course inspired the folk school movement in Denmark, and the modern breakthrough authors are very important in the struggles at the end of the 19th century in Denmark. 



Nicola Witcombe  14:56

Yeah, and could you describe a little bit more about how you do that in practice?


Cathie Jo Martin 15:01

So I look at those authors’ struggles as agents. But I also look at the broad changes, and cross-national differences in the literary corpora of each country. And I use computational texts analyses, and machine learning to analyze these texts. And to try to look at these broad patterns. I find these absolutely profound differences in the depictions of authors over the long term. You get repeating narratives and Denmark, for example. And each narrative, they tell the kind of same story over and over again. And the story is about a young, bubbling, overly proud, usually male, somewhat idiotic, young person who needs to be educated to understand his duties, and responsibilities to society. And he is taken under the wing of various societal elders and receives education often through learning by doing. And in Britain, it's a very different narrative. The Brits love heroes; heroes are not overly appreciated in Denmark, and in Britain, it's people like David Copperfield, who, you know, young man kind of tossed in a too terrible situation in life, struggles against all odds to overcome the structural disadvantages, and triumphs. And at one point, David Copperfield reflects, and he says, it's only because of my own struggle and determination that I was able to triumph.


Nicola Witcombe  14:54

Yes, this leads on doesn't it? Into the individualist against the collective debate, if you like. Could you say a little bit more about this?


Cathie Jo Martin 17:05

Certainly. So getting back to this argument that Denmark creates education for all. Whereas Britain creates educational for some. Britain develops this individualistic culture that relies on curriculum theory, a lot of rote memorization, cramming, to try to give each individual access to all of the bits of knowledge that they need in order to become a well-educated person. They impose inspection regimes, that tried to impose certain kinds of standards, they have this uniform secondary classical education. A lot of the themes of the 19th century are resurrected in Margaret Thatcher's 1988 Education Act, which ties funding for schools to student test scores. That's something that Robert Lowe actually did in 1862, and Britain that tries to equalize education – the idea is that you want educational opportunity for all. Well, the Danes have a really different idea about this. And Denmark, as I mentioned before, it's more of a collectivist view of education, where if the ambition is to build a strong society and to create useful citizens, then what you really want to do is have each person learn a trade. And so you don't see curriculum theory in Denmark, you don't see national curriculum being imposed on localities, instead, you see a value of learning by doing strong vocational track, to allow people with what we now call other intelligences; we refer to multiple intelligences now. And these are these young people who are not particularly academic, often boys going into a different track.


Nicola Witcombe  19:05

Okay, so education, can we bring it a bit more up to date, then? Is all this still relevant? Now?


Cathie Jo Martin  19:13

What's happened recently is that Denmark has been asked to pursue more of this individualistic culture, in part because the PISA scores in Denmark in 2006, were pretty bad. And so everyone got worried about why they had these bad PISA scores. and the EU started putting pressure on Denmark to try to mandate more curricula, to have more uniformity. And there's been a lot of battling in the last 15 years over some of these requirements. The teachers have felt that a lot more paperwork has been introduced. They're spending much more useless time trying to make sure that everybody gets equal educations. And there's been a lot of pushback on that. So today the local governments in Denmark continue to have a lot of control. Denmark's managed to successfully avoid some of these changes. But I would say that this culture of neoliberal education reform has made greater inroads into Danish education now than it has at any time in the last 200 years.


Nicola Witcombe  20:32

Yep. And a related issue is, I believe you've done some recent research, on those who are not in education, employment or training needs.


Cathie Jo Martin  20:42

The levels of needs have increased dramatically in Denmark, since 2005. And I believe that some of the reason for that has to do with some the global financial crisis, of course. In the early part of the 2000s, Denmark had half as many needs as Britain. And the number of needs today is much closer between the two countries. So Britain was bad to begin with, and is still bad, but Denmark has become worse, a little bit better in the last couple of years. And I think that has to do with the fact that some of the movement away from vocational training in Denmark, and the problems figuring out whom vocational training programs should serve, has been part of the problem. Part of the problem has been that a lot of young Danish students have gone into gymnasium when they don't have the skills to handle gymnasium. And it's because they think that in the knowledge economy, you need to have that gymnasium degree. So the students and their parents feel that way. And yet, if you look at a country like Switzerland, Switzerland continues to educate about 65% of its young people through technical schools and vocational training programs. And they've done a superb job at moving a lot of young people into new vocational training programs that explicitly address jobs in the post-industrial economy. Clerical kinds of workers or bank workers, for example, and they do this through vocational training rather than through regular gymnasium programs. So, I think that the neat problem in Denmark is huge. The third reason for it, of course, is the exclusion of second-generation immigrants, who are a big share of Danish needs, they need to keep working on vocational training, so that it can both serve people at the higher end of the skills levels, as well as people at the lower end. And this creation of and use of more short courses for people with fewer skills, I think, is a step in the right direction. And I also think that Denmark, and this is my most important takeaway point, needs to get a handle on the problems of attitudes toward and treatment of immigrants, children of immigrants, people from outside the national borders.


Nicola Witcombe  23:19

Moving on now, to labor market policy, which you've already mentioned. And you've researched it a lot, and you've looked at industrial relations, and specifically the model of the social parties. Those representing the employer and those representing the employee. When did these labor market policies or these active labor market policies begin, for example, in Denmark?


Cathie Jo Martin  23:51

So that's a very great question. Because what happens in the 20th century, which everyone thought was a real breakthrough, is that Denmark decides that they are going to expand the labor market, they have a conception called det rummelige arbejdsmarked, which means the expansive labor market. And they're going to find a place for all of these people who have become the long term unemployed within that labor market. Well, in fact, if you look at Britain versus Denmark, much, much earlier in time, already in the 17th century and early 18th century, there's an assumption that municipalities would find jobs for people. And that's formalized in the 18th century that each kommune has a responsibility to put the unemployed to work. Now, there's nothing like that in Britain. Some communities experiment with this mechanism for finding jobs, but it's very, very isolated. Whereas in Denmark, it's expected. And so I think that active labor market policy, like social investment is actually a fairly old concept in Denmark. 


Nicola Witcombe  25:09

So staying with industrial relations, it would be useful to get an idea of the background of the tripartite model or how the social partners work together. I believe this sort of occurred throughout the 19th century


Cathie Jo Martin  25:26

What Denmark was able to do is to figure out a way that gave employers organized employers and organized unions, a much more involved role and designation, the design of public policy than you see in the Anglo countries. So Niels Andersen, who is the guy, he's a businessman, who was the first president of the Federation of Danish Industry, Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, however you say it in English. It has a famous quote that says: “It's almost better to have a strong society than a strong state”. And Andersen develops the Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, and then he goes to his friends in the labor movement. He develops it in 1896, and in 1898 he tells the people in the labor movement, “Why don't you develop a similar overarching union for workers?”. And that's actually what leads to LO. It's really interesting that the employers actually did it first. And then they have this massive battle, which ends up in the September Compromise. And in the massive battle, the firms were actually winning, but rather than completely destroying labor, instead they use this battle to set up these industrial courts to manage labor market disputes. And that got put into place. And basically, you didn't get any strikes for the next 100 years. So you get a very peaceful cooperative era in industrial relations. 


Nicola Witcombe  27:05

Some commentators have said that the consensus culture aspect is presented to the outside world as if there is little conflict. But actually, the Tripartite System acknowledges conflict, and there has been a lot of conflict between the social partners, but the system enables compromises to be reached. Would you agree with that analysis?


Cathie Jo Martin  27:35

That's absolutely right. Because there's lots of conflict. But there are mechanisms for resolving the conflict. And by the way, in Britain, the guy, Dudley Docker, the guy that starts the Federation of British industries, wants to have some kind of an overarching employers organization that looks like the one in Sweden, Sweden is his model. And then the US, when the National Association of Manufacturers is created, it is created after the German model, they wanted to look like that because they love the idea of business and labor having these independent channels for negotiating public policy. But in America and Britain, the political system, the parties, especially the parties on the right, were unwilling to give the social partners that kind of autonomy. Because they feared that it would detract from their own political strings. 


Nicola Witcombe  28:34

Great. As well as the labor market policies, another key tenet of the Nordic model is also tax which you have looked into at various points in your career. Can you give us an insight into your point of view on tax here, it's often a topic raised by particularly Americans as a major downside of the Nordic model.


Cathie Jo Martin  29:05

So an irony of comparative tax policy is that social democratic countries with big public sectors initially created less progressive taxation of consumption and wages, and less taxation of capital and private property, but they ended up having higher equality. And the reason for that is there was an assumption when the tax system was initially developed, that everybody would be taxed, everybody would have to pay their fair share. It was based more on what you used as how you would be taxed. Whereas an America, we created this progressive taxation in 1916, but it only hit the highest members of society, who were bitter and resentful about being taxed. And then right after World War Two the Danes created “The Momsen” which was a forerunner to the Value Added Tax, with the idea that if you tax consumption, the limits on income taxation had been reached, so you should tax consumption. And America, we didn't do that. We created these tax incentives, which reduce taxation of investment. And so we have this system in America that, for a long time, was nominally more progressive, but riddled with loopholes, extremely unequal. Not a lot of broad taxation of consumption, we have sales taxes, and a really small welfare state, whereas in Denmark, you taxed everybody. You limited the taxation of income at one point, because you thought it would be counterproductive to do more increased taxation of consumption, which particularly fell hard on luxury items that have a lot of- because you tax the whole stages in the value added tax. The growth of the welfare state, and I think people have a better attitude toward taxation, because they like their welfare states, and they see that they get something from it. In America, we don't really think we get anything from taxation, because for one thing, a lot of our welfare state programs that we do have are handled through tax expenditures, and the public role is hidden. 


Nicola Witcombe  31:21

It'd be interesting to hear about your views on how the Nordic model is perceived in the States. I mean, is it relevant at the moment? For example, with Bernie Sanders, now budget chairman in the Senate, and Biden, in some ways, as if anything establishing a larger safety net? 


Cathie Jo Martin  31:43

There's not a single model. I mean, what's been happening in Sweden is pretty radically different from what's happening, especially in Norway and Denmark. I don't really see that the Nordic countries have been a particularly big theme lately. Certainly, especially in Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, people talk a lot about social democracy, and democratic socialism. And people looked to the Nordics quite a bit, and then you'd get the people on the right saying: “Yeah, but what about Sweden?”. Basically, that was the usual retort. Biden at this point is really trying to make a difference, kind of roll back some of the things that Donald Trump has done in the areas of social policy, environmental policy, foreign policy, etc., it's been quite interesting to observe. So for example, the recent stimulus bill, to address the COVID-crisis included $300 per child benefit, which is the first time in America we've had anything approximating a family allowance. One of the things that our American welfare state lacks, are some of the benefits for children that you find in European countries. So in America, we spend 38 times as much on the elderly, as we do on kids. In Sweden, they spend six times as much on the elderly, as they do on kids. So there's a real bias against children in America. And a lot more kids in America live under the poverty level than other places, something like 22% to 25% of American kids grew up in poverty. And in most countries, adult poverty is higher than child poverty - in America, it's the opposite. So Biden's trying to change some of these things, and he's trying to deal with inequality. 


Nicola Witcombe  33:40

As a political scientist, are you motivated by your own political views? And is it difficult to retain a level of objectivity when you argue, for example, for and against neoliberalism?


Cathie Jo Martin  33:57

So I believe that we're all guided by our own views. And actually, when I'm teaching, I'm pretty explicit about that. At the same time, my point with this recent work isn't just to say that neoliberalism has been problematic for the world, which by the way, I think it has, and I think it has, because I think individualistic solutions are incapable of addressing the collective challenges that we face today. Neoliberalism tends to create individualistic free market solutions, privatization, less date, etc., for problems that are more complicated and somewhat more structural. So social policies have been very much organized around helping individuals who are entrepreneurial and there's this idea of equality of opportunity. But the problem is that this idea of meritocracy, where those who can struggle will do well, is that it blames those who don't seize opportunity. But a lot of people don't have the option of seizing opportunity. The ‘blame of the victim’-mentality enables a sense of social exclusion, and right wing populist parties, I think, are on the rise because masses feel blamed by the meritocracy. So when I look at all these people that are furious with the Democrats in America, I think part of it is they feel like they're not getting the kind of resources and social investment that they need and deserve. And the Nordic model is really different. Because the goal is to protect society, and force everybody to contribute. So the state doesn't really tolerate exclusion, and they don't tolerate unemployment. They don't want people to be left out of this goal of protecting society. And also in the Nordic countries, you get the social partners, business and labor, participating in this project of overseeing skills production, negotiating compromise, creating all of these collective solutions, so everybody's kind of part of the deal. So a broader point here is to say that in Denmark, when the Danes start moving toward neoliberalism, there's essentially a disconnect between neoliberal philosophy and a lot of the old cultural norms and truisms in Denmark. So this may be quite the application of neoliberalism, it has been more confused and problematic in Denmark than it has in Britain. Where in Britain, Britain has always been kind of neoliberal. So it's not just that I'm arguing against neoliberalism, I'm also suggesting that there's a deep mismatch here. 


Nicola Witcombe  36:54

Yeah, when you say it's been confused in Denmark, can you give an example perhaps?


Cathie Jo Martin  36:59

Absolutely. So a concrete example’s in education. So, you know, you had this huge shutdown, I believe it was 2013, when the municipalities locked out the teachers, and I think part of the reason for that was they were trying to pursue these reforms that were suggested by the European Union, but they were very much building on these neoliberal reforms of, you know, standards for everybody and shifting power upward to the national government, rather than letting the community and the schools and the teachers retain control over what they taught, and how they assess students and how they manage quality. And, so it was a it was a major battle, because it just didn't fit very well with the strengths of Denmark, and dealing historically with these kinds of issues.


Nicola Witcombe  38:00

You have written several articles and given lectures aimed at trying to explain why the Nordic countries are successful. Successful being measured by, for example, standard of living, competitiveness, etc. Could you briefly outline why you think this is? 


Cathie Jo Martin  38:22

So I think that the Nordic countries have been extremely successful in part because of education, because they were able to develop very high skilled workers. And that capacity to have high skilled workers enabled them to move into market niches that were more profitable simply. But also, the Nordic countries have been very successful because of this capacity for cooperation, and consensual negotiation. So what that enables the Danish economy to do is to share technology among firms, to try to broaden their exports. The Danish cooperative movement, and agriculture is also quite important. And they don't waste time with industrial conflict. But Denmark is able to use cooperation as a means for greater economic, social and political successes. And in fact, that when Darwin comes on the scene, in the latter part of the 19th century, the Danish vision of Darwin is not that competition of the survival of the fittest. It's more that societies that cooperate will do better. So it's a really different interpretation of Darwin than the British interpretation of Darwin. So I think above everything else, the strongest reason for Danish success has been this capacity to cooperate and the capacity to make social investments that are going to enable Danish industry to move into new areas of economic growth, and to enable Danish society to feel happy with their government, because nobody is very poor. And everybody kind of gets what they need - not entirely, but to a great extent. The one thing that I think is really a pressing problem in Denmark today is you are getting much greater social exclusion, especially among second-generation immigrants. And so, this formula for a strong society, I don't think Denmark has managed to grapple with how they need to expand this formula for a strong society, beyond cultural homogeneity. And certainly in the early 19th century, guys like Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig did not have an idea that you had to have cultural homogeneity. In fact, he said quite the opposite. He had this conception of the people and the people as the workmen of the sun. And language was also important. But at the same time, Grundtvig envisioned a more multicultural world. And at that time, of course, there was both German and Danish spoken in Denmark.


Nicola Witcombe  41:26

Could you tell us why it's important for you to teach and study in your subject area?


Cathie Jo Martin  41:29

My biggest contribution over the years has actually been helping students to develop a more nuanced view of other political systems. And there are a lot of misconceptions in the United States about different European countries in different models. For example, the view that you often see expressed about the Nordic countries is it's all about big government. Whereas I've said before, and in this discussion, I actually think it's, it's more about Big Society. And so I point out to my students on a regular basis that Denmark does about a third as much through Folketinget, the parliament, as we do through Congress and in America, everything is politicized. And our lack of Industrial Relations systems and other kinds of strong society organizations to build a consensus position around public policy has made it much easier to get bogged down and polarized in in the political spheres.


Nicola Witcombe  42:41

And what are some of the key research questions that you would like to see explored in the next five years or so?


Cathie Jo Martin  42:48

I'm trying to get political scientists to think more about culture, because one of the things that happened historically is that political scientists made a lot of generalizations about culture, in the battle days of the 1950s and 60s. But the thrust of these arguments was to say that: “American culture is great, and let's make the world safe for American democracy, we're going to export the American model,” and it was just closely associated with American imperialism. So, my view of culture is quite different. It's grounded empirically in an analysis of cultural works themselves. And historical studies of how authors and policy makers work together to put certain kinds of ideas on the policy map, the authors in the 18th and 19th centuries were the original spin doctors of these political movements. And so one of the things I can show with my quantitative research is that the authors’ discussions predate political reform. So the authors build this momentum in advance, and it results in these transformational policies. 


Nicola Witcombe  44:03

So, as you know, last time on this podcast, I interviewed Lill-Ann Körber, who is professor at the University of Aarhus. And she has put the following question to you. She asks, what do we gain from comparison? What are some of the most fascinating comparative moments you've come across? And how do you meet the common criticism directed at comparative studies? That comparison as a method is problematic, and so far as it is based on the assumption of distinct or fixed entities. 


Cathie Jo Martin  44:40

First of all, thanks so much to the professor for posing those questions. I think that we spend a lot of time in political science trying to be as cautious as possible about the comparative method. In the work that I'm doing now, for example, because I'm looking at corpora of literature that are derived in the same way that represent roughly equal units of analysis in the two countries. And so I think being as precise as possible in a comparative analysis is really important. The most interesting comparative moments for me… One important moment was when I first started doing this project, and I read Niels Klim’s Journey Under the Earth by Holberg and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. And Holberg was a big fan of Defoe, there was a lot of interaction, in fact, between these Danish authors and British authors, and yet, they were radically different books. They were such stunningly different books. And I thought, oh my god, you know, I've lived for all these years on this earth, I've never thought of using literature to understand these profound differences. And yet, when you read these things side by side, and you do things like word clouds and quantitative analysis as well, you just understand that people who are writing the same kind of book they think, are delivering incredibly different products.


Nicola Witcombe  46:16

So thanks very much for that answer to Lill-Ann’s question. So the next person I'm going to be interviewing is Caroline de la Porte, who is professor at the Department of International Economics, Government and Business at Copenhagen Business School. Please, could you put a question to her?


Cathie Jo Martin  46:41

She's written a lot about how small states have an advantage in the world and in numerous ways, such as some of the modes of cooperation that we've been talking about. What I would like to ask Caroline, as an American, is what do you recommend in terms of strategies, political strategies, for large states such as the United States? What examples? What lessons from the study of small states can we apply to our desperate struggling with large states? 


Nicola Witcombe  47:16

Well, we've had a really interesting discussion today, Professor Cathie Joe Martin from Boston University. Thanks so much for your time.


Cathie Jo Martin  47:24

So it was really fun. I really appreciate it.


Nicola Witcombe  47:37

As Cathie says there is of course, not really one Nordic model, but some argue that collectivism is one of the key tenants of the Nordic societies. Observers have commented that everyone's sticking to stringent COVID guidelines has allowed at least some of the Nordic countries to avoid the worst effects of the pandemic, for example. Historical successes in the Nordics include universal education and a society which values vocational training. Cathie has found that historical references to coordination are much higher in the Nordic countries than elsewhere. And it appears that different strands of collectivism, including resolving conflict through industrial partners, and Big Society, rather than a big state, has characterized political and cultural life and Denmark. But to what extent it does so now and will continue to do so is certainly more questionable.


Nicola Witcombe  48:42

You've been listening to the podcast. Thanks go to our participants this week, Cathie Jo Martin, to our research hub, Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World, and our funders, NordForsk. If you would like to find out more, please visit

Education policy-making in Denmark & the UK in the 19th century
Learning by doing Versus the natural traits of the hero
Denmark today: Schools and the growing number of NEETs
Active labour market policies started early in Denmark
US/Scandinavian comparison: tax, child poverty, social exclusion
Disconnect between Danish norms and neoliberalism
Political scientists should not discount culture