May/June 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 5

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International Perspectives

Danish Sociology:
The Fall and Rise of a National Sociology

Kristoffer Kropp, Doctoral fellow, University of Copenhagen


Copenhagen, Denmark

Danish sociology plays a very small part in the world of sociology, and yet its turbulent history still highlights some of the often problematic relations to non-academic institutions in Denmark under which sociology has been practiced. The history contains both a very late institutionalization of sociological research and teaching and a closing of the all sociological departments and educations in the 1980s. In this short overview of the history and contemporary condition, I will try to show how the turbulent history of Danish sociologies has contributed to the present conditions and how it relates to both other social science disciplines and important societal interests and institutions.

Institutionalisation of Danish Sociology

Danish sociology follows in many ways a very common history of sociological research until the closing of the sociology departments in the 1980s. Parallel to most other Western countries, sociology was institutionalised in Denmark for the first time following World War II. By the end of the 1960s, the country had four main institutions carrying out sociological research: two departments at the University of Copenhagen (sociology and cultural sociology); a department of Organization and Industrial Sociology at the Copenhagen Business School (CBS); and a governmental Institute of Social Research (SFI) concerned mainly with social statistics. These research institutions were closely connected to the Danish state. One way or another, they participated in the reforms and social planning of the welfare state throughout the 1960s.

Student Rebellion and Closing of Sociological Departments

With the advent of the 1970s, all of the above-mentioned institutions were affected by student rebellion and Marxist radicalism. However, particularly for sociologists at the University of Copenhagen, change was quite dramatic. Conflicts were played out between an older generation of administration and faculty and a coalition of younger faculty members and students, adopting forms of Marxist theory and critical research agendas. Meanwhile, two new universities were founded in Denmark: Roskilde University (in 1972, RU) and Aalborg University (in 1974, AAU), both organized around transdisciplinary education (similar to the United State’s interdisciplinary programs) and research principles. From platforms at the new universities, a number of young sociologists attempted to challenge the political intentions embedded in these institutions, of basically educating “welfare state bureaucrats.”

These attempts to fundamentally challenge relations between sociological research and the Danish welfare state met with growing attention and, later on, with harsh political reactions. During the 1980s, three major departments of sociological research were entirely dismantled, either through state intervention or through administrative restructuring. Hence, in 1983, the social worker education at RU was closed down, and, a few years later, both sociology departments at the University of Copenhagen were dismantled through direct political intervention. While hugely contested amongst sociologists themselves, then and now, this drastic measure by the Ministry of Education was officially justified mainly by citing a lack of research productivity at the two departments. Danish sociologists, we might say, were starting to experience, in a rather extreme way, some of the growing demands for economically and politically efficient research.

Re-Establishing Danish Sociology

Danish sociology and sociologists found themselves in a severe institutional and intellectual crisis around 1990, which they worked their way out through two main strategies. Both strategies were aimed at rebuilding relations and reputation. On the one hand a professional strategy focused on sociology’s recognition within academia as a relevant and legitimate academic discipline. In this process sociologists focused on the theoretical legacy of sociology and classical sociological theory was institutionalized as the core of the discipline at the re-established department of sociology at University of Copenhagen. The tendency to promote classical sociological theory and alternatives to various Marxists traditions also showed in the themes of the annual meeting of the Danish Sociological Association, where the sociologists discussed the common core of sociology in 1992 and “forgotten” theoretical traditions in 1993.

This strategy of rebuilding academic reputation was in some ways a condition of the second strategy, which focused on rebuilding relations with non-academic interests and institutions. At the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen researchers established relations with different governmental research institutions in the late 1990s; at the transdisciplinary department at RU and AAU sociological researchers worked together with third sector associations and local administrations in developing and evaluating social initiatives and programs. Through this type of cooperation with non-academic institutions and interests, sociologists not only produced social recognition, but also provided empirical material and funding.

Common to both sociological researchers at the discipline-oriented and the more transdisciplinary-oriented departments was utilizing the changes in order to finance research that was introduced through the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1980s the universities had faced severe cut backs. Through the 1990s the total spending on higher education and research again rose, but resources were now located through projects and pools with specific themes, and different kinds evaluations produced for ministries and local authorities. This means that Danish sociology today—to a very large degree—depends on insecure funding and that sociological research has to build social relations with different kinds of strong non-academic interests and institutions in order to secure the next project.

A Weak Discipline in Non-Disciplinary Institutions

Following the two strategies Danish sociological research has nonetheless grown since it re-institutionalization in the early 1990s. According to official statistics, the number of sociological researchers has grown from 168 full-time equivalents in 1997 to 387 in 2006 and today we find sociological research at most Danish universities.
At the University of Copenhagen we find the Department of Sociology, which offers one of the two programs in sociology. The research at the department is very diverse, ranging from research in social theory to cultural sociology, science studies to industrial relation, and political sociology, as well as social policy and social work.

The second educational program in sociology is offered at the Aalborg University in the Department of Sociology and Social Work. The educational program has run since 1997. As the name of the department suggests, a large part of the research in the department is orientated towards social work and the master’s degree it offers for social councillors. Since the establishment of the educational program in sociology, the department has gradually expanded its research into other sociological research areas and thus broadened its research agenda into classical sociological research topics.

At the transdisciplinary university RU there are a number of sociological-oriented research environments. One of the largest is associated with the education in social science (established in 1994) and is oriented towards research in social work and social policy. This sociological environment has largely grown through an entrepreneurial strategy of establishing relations with various kinds of non-academic interests and institutions. Other sociological research environments at RU focus on industrial relations, work life, transportation and natural resource management, and sociology of education, all in transdisciplinary settings and often conducted by researchers with transdisciplinary educational background.

The Copenhagen Businesses School (CBS) is largest institution for social science research in Denmark and also contains one of the oldest still existing sociological-oriented departments, the Department of Organization. The sociological research conducted here and at other department at the CBS is often related to sociology of organizations, economic sociology, sociology of management and sociology of work. The CBS offers a growing number of transdiciplinary business educations with a significant amount of sociological theory about organizations, management and sociological research methods.

Until lately there was not a common sociological environment at the second largest university in Denmark, Aarhus University. But since 2010 many small sociological-oriented research environments have gathered in a research centered on sociology (CESAU).

As this short overview of Danish sociology shows sociological research in Denmark is experiencing renewal and growth. But the growth has taken place within transdisciplinary institutions or institutions of other social science disciplines and is, to a large degree, the consequence of an entrepreneurial approach from local sociology researchers. The challenge today is thus to establish and stabilize institutions within which sociological research and education can take place. 

This article draws on the author’s doctoral thesis and on this journal article: Kropp, K. & Blok, A. 2011. “Mode-2 Social Science Knowledge Production? The case of Danish Sociology between Institutional Crisis and New Welfare Sstabilizations” Science & Public Policy 38(3):213-224. 

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