Anthropology in Norway

A Brief Introduction

By Finn Sivert Nielsen, 1996

Anthropology in Norway goes back to 1857, when the Ethnographic Museum was established in Oslo, and for many years this was the only institution in the country that was concerned with the subject. In the 1920's and 30's a small group did fieldwork and kept up relations with the international community of anthropologists: Boas's lectures on Primitive Art were originally published in 1927 by the Institute of Comparative Culture Studies in Oslo. Norwegian anthropologists themselves, however, were still mainly ethnographers, in the tradition running from the 19th century ethnographer-explorer Carl Lumholtz to Thor Heyerdahl today. Theoretically they were oriented towards German Kulturgeschichte, and the boundaries between their discipline and others, such as geography or archaeology, were poorly delineated. Norwegian social anthropology today is almost entirely the product of the post-war decades. Two decisive influences have molded the discipline in these years: Anglo-American anthropology, and the vast transformations that Norwegian society itself has undergone: from poverty-stricken periphery in the 1950's, to postmodern abundance today.

Norwegian anthropologists have often focused empirically on the transformation of Norwegian society, particularly in marginal regions where the effects were most evident, as in Northern Norway. But only about one third of all Norwegian anthropologists do fieldwork in Norway, and only one ninth in Norway's marginal communities, less than is done in regions such as Africa, South-East Asia with Oceania, or Latin America. Norway's four universities show some regional specialization in this respect. There has been a long-term commitment to North African and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Bergen. Oslo, a larger and more eclectic environment, has pronounced Latin-American, African, and South-East Asian foci. Oslo and Bergen are large universities (Oslo with about 37000 students, Bergen with about half). The two smaller universities (6-7000 students) are at Trondheim and Tromsø (at 70 N). The anthropology departments here were founded in the 1970's. They are smaller and have tended to specialize more: thus, Tromsø originally specialized on sub-arctic ethnopolitics, though diversification is now under way.

There have been hefty increases in the student population. In Oslo alone there are now 1000 anthropology students, about one third of them graduate students, doing fieldwork. Undergraduate work in anthropology is organized in two full-time courses, a one-year introductory course (grunnfag), and a half-year course (mellomfag). The requirements for commencing graduate work are grunnfag and mellomfag in anthropology, and two grunnfag in other subjects (Cand. Mag.). Graduate students enter a 2 1/2 year course after this, which includes at least six months of fieldwork, probably more. The Master's degree (Cand. Polit. or Mag. Art.) often produces dissertation work that would qualify for a Ph.D., though quality is variable. Since the late 1980's a Doctorate program (requiring a second major field project and giving the degree Dr. Polit.) has been in effect. Full financing for 3-4 years is required for entering the program.

One of the more interesting features of social anthropology in Norway is thus that students do first fieldwork for their Master's degree rather than for their Ph.D., hence, the number of students doing fieldwork is very large. From 1985 to 1994, 157 Master's dissertations, varying from 100 to 400 pages in length, were written at the University of Oslo alone, many based on a year or more of fieldwork. From 1957 through 1994, 218 Master's dissertations were produced at Oslo, 88 of which were concerned with Norwegian society. (National totals might bring the numbers closer to 230 and 95 respectively.) The themes here approached indicate how Norwegian anthropologists tend to view their own society:


Theme of theses Number of theses
Norway's peripheries, traditional culture, traditional minorities
Imigrants and refugees
Subcultures, youth, children, schools
Medical anthropology
Factories, organizations, work-studies

Today, there is increasing interest in studies of the former Soviet block countries: about 40 Master's students have done fieldwork in almost every country in the area. The University of Bergen has recently added two specialists on the former Yugoslavia to its staff, and in Tromsø, studies of the Russian North are on the increase.

The new Ph.D. program (with about 50 students today) has done much to enhance the profile of Norwegian anthropology internationally. The Department and Museum of Anthropology in Oslo, which is today the largest in Europe, has fostered this international trend by sponsoring the newly established Association of European Anthropologists (EASA).

There are about 45 university positions for anthropologists in Norway; with about 50% of each reserved for research. Ethnographic museums exist in Oslo, Bergen and Tromsø. Anthropologists are employed at the country's Regional Academies (Distriktshøyskoler) (e.g. Alta, Bodø, Lillehammer, Stavanger), and by numerous research institutes: examples are The Work Research Institute (Oslo), The Center for Environmental and Development Studies (Oslo), The Center of Developmental Studies and The Christiansen Michelsen Institute (both Bergen), Youth Research (Ungforsk) (Oslo), The Center for Children's Studies (Trondheim), and The Norwegian Institute of Urban and Regional Studies (NIBR) (Oslo). Funding for research is almost entirely governmental. The main source of funding for Ph.D. and University work is either the University itself or The Norwegian Research Council (Oslo), which finances both free research (about 10% of its budget), and program-oriented research (often initiated by government sponsors).

Most Norwegian anthropologists are organized in The Norwegian Anthropological Society (which publishes a newsletter and the journal Norsk antropologisk tidsskrift). Occasional Papers are published in Oslo and Bergen, and many publications are made either through The Institute for Comparative Culture Studies or The Norwegian University Press.

Finn Sivert Nielsen
University of Tromsø

Appended lists

For detailed statistics on anthropological theses at the University of Oslo, click here (in Norwegian).

A. Directories

* The only available directory of Norwegian anthropologists available today is the EASA Register which lists all members of this organization. A directory of University employed anthropologists in Norway is presently under preparation.

* An outline of the history of Norwegian anthropology is given by Arne Martin Klausen in Antropologiens historie (Oslo 1984, in Norwegian).

* A comprehensive history of anthropology, including substantial sections on Scandinavian, in particular Norwegian, anthropology, has since the writing of this article been completed by Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Finn Sivert Nielsen. For information, see the book's website: The website also contains extracts from the book and a comprehensive collection of links to online materials on the history of anthropology and the history of anthropology in the Nordic countries.

B. Key Centers

Department and Museum of Anthropology, University of Oslo, Pb.1093 Blindern, 0317 Oslo
Phone: + - Fax: +

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen, Fosswinckelsgt. 6, 5007 Bergen
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Department of Social Anthropology, University of Trondheim, AVH, 7055 Dragvoll
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Department of Anthropology / Saami Studies, ISV, University of Tromsø, 9037 Tromsø
Phone: + - Fax: +

Work Research Institute, Pb.8171 DEP, 0034 Oslo
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Center for Development and Environment, Sognsvn. 68, 0855 Oslo
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The Christian Michelsen Institute, Fantoftvn. 38, 5036 Fantoft
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The Saami University College, Hannoluohkka 45, 9520 Kautokeino
Phone: + - Fax: +