The Nordic Exceptionalism Thesis Revisited

By John Pratt, professor of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Thank you for inviting me to write this opening blog. It coincides with a chapter I was asked to write for a handbook on comparative criminology.1  This is my final contribution to the continuing debate that, to my never-ending astonishment, my 2008 two part “British Journal of Criminology” prompted, even though my work has long since moved on.

What does the new chapter do?
It re-examines and updates the original argument. That is, at the time of my research from 2003 upto 2010, there were important differences in prison rates and conditions between the Nordic and Anglo-American countries (is that statement really as controversial as some make out?). Part 1 of the BJCrim article and subsequent book, “Contrasts in Punishment”, explained how formal accounts of punishment differed between the two societal clusters and what this told us about their respective modes of governance. It was a largely cultural explanation, like much of my work, influenced by Norbert Elias and latterly Zygmunt Bauman. Of course, the picture painted in 2008 does not stand for all time: it attempted to explain a landscape then in existence – it would be absurd to think otherwise.

Even then, though, that landscape was being eroded, as I made clear in the 2008 Part 2 article (which receives considerably less attention than Part 1 – why is that?). Growing immigration concerns at a time when social democratic governance seemed to have reached its limits were already fuelling right wing populism. These nascent trends have since become more extensive, as elaborated in my 2015 “Punishment and Society” article, ‘Inspector Wallander’s Angst…’ (my own favourite in all my Nordic writings!). This does not mean, that I have since ‘changed my mind’ about the exceptionalism argument, as one critic claimed. Sadly, it means 2008 Part 2 was all too prescient.

The result has been the emergence of what Vanessa Barker refers to as Nordic ‘welfare nationalism’, rather than recourse to some sort of Anglo-American punitiveness. While Nordic prison rates have further declined or stabilised, there has also been a bifurcation of prison conditions and populations, as a number of scholars have noted. If those caught up in Nordic criminal justice systems demonstrate their legitimate place in these countries, they are likely to experience conditions largely comparable to my 2008 pictures.  But if they fail Pakes and Holt’s (2017) ‘deportability test’ they not only face administrative procedures that undermine the rule of law, but are likely to be subject to more stringent detention controls, enforced by guards performing a more paramilitary role.

What does this mean for Nordic exceptionalism?
It has not disappeared. It was never a myth, as claimed by those writing in Pat O’Malley’s (2000) ‘criminologies of catastrophe’ mode. It has, though, been reconfigured to take account of early 21st century dramatic structural and demographic changes – while showing the Nordic countries’ remarkable resilience in the face of them.

Some last thoughts from New Zealand on the far-off Nordic world. Thank you.

  1. John Pratt (2021), ‘The Nordic Exceptionalism Thesis Revisited’, in Hamilton, C and Nelken, D (eds), The Research Handbook on Comparative Criminology, London: Elgar Publishing (in press). A copy of the chapter is available on Researchgate. A slightly updated version can be obtained from the author.
Professor John Pratt standing in front of a fence and some houses, close to a beach. Professor Pratt wears sunglasses and a white shirt.
Professor John Pratt. Photo: Private.

Professor Pratt´s research on punishment and social control has received numerous awards and honours and has been translated into 11 languages.  His most recent book “Law, Insecurity and Risk Control: Neo-liberal Governance and the Populist Revolt” was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2020.