Points for Discussion on Developing the Iowa/Icelandic Linkage

Stephen Wieting
Department of Sociology
University of Iowa
February 1999


The Iceland/Iowa exchange formally began in the mid-1980’s and since has supported a large number of visits between the U.S. and Iceland. A student exchange has been established. Over 30 University of Iowa faculty members and administrators have traveled to Iceland to work, and roughly the same number from Iceland to Iowa. James O. Freedman visited Iceland to “send off” the linkage. Gudmundur Magnusson, Sigmundur Gudbjarnason, and Sveinbjorn Bjornsson, Rectors of the University of Iceland have visited our university. We hope to encourage President Mary Sue Coleman to visit Iceland; informally, I have encouraged the current rector, Pall Skulason (ethicist and philosopher) to visit Iowa.

Everybody who has gone to Iceland from Iowa was prompted by reasons of the strategic import of Iceland as a research site and as a fruitful locus for collaboration. In an age where “globalization” is on everybody’s lips, increasingly it seems choices need to be made and justified by researchers and institutions over what practically this means about priority, positioning, and investment in particular countries and regions, and what forms of globalization to study and participate in (movement of labor, images, knowledge, currency, and capital goods?) In brief, a question I have been asked repeatedly for nearly thirty years is: Why Iceland? Here are a few thoughts directed at two sources of the skepticism embedded in the “Why Iceland?” question.

The Matter of Smallness

Iceland is considered small and somehow, as a result, non-representative. Many sociologists, to my embarrassment, often leave out Iceland in multi-country studies because of this (At 280,000, Iceland’s population and its national statistics can be seen as a multiple of 1/1000 of the U.S., for useful comparative purposes.) It turns out relative to the population of nation-states and protected territories (N=232, give or take), the exception claim quickly deflates. Most countries are small. 35% are less than a million; 56% are less than 5 million.

The Matter of Isolation

I could not count the number of times I have heard the source of skepticism resulting from some notion of Iceland’s isolation, be it physical, linguistic, or, recently, in terms of political posture toward the European Community. Crucial in the explanations we provide to such skeptical questions is the information that these very features add to the strategic importance of the country as a research site and model political economy. Having kept its language intact since the 11th century makes it possible to learn modern Icelandic and then move backward in time though this vehicle of an essentially continuous natural language. The isolation, first purely physical, then externally imposed, and now partially selected by design, allows study of a culture across many variables (genetic, linguistic, health patterns, musically, for example) with considerable background “noise” or extraneous variation already partially controlled. Being so isolated, and often having to deal with material, environmental, and political problems alone, lends us an astonishing store of records that they have felt obligated to maintain and an extraordinary pattern of successful cultural and national problem solving against daunting political and environmental pressures. It is not surprising that for the Icelanders, their favorite book is still Halldor Laxness’ Independent People.

Plans are on for the maintenance of a newsletter about developments and work. Items would be variably of interest to different fields, but certainly it would be nice to be aware of what each of us are doing. I do know that the organization of Icelanders in Iowa City would like to be aware of what is going on (Felag a Island I Iowa).

Within the framework of developing common resources, some of us from Sociology, Political Science, Communications Studies, and the FLARE program are talking with the director of the Center for Scandinavian Languages at the University of Minnesota to explore ways in which our students and faculty might obtain language training in Icelandic, Norwegian, and/or Swedish. Nordic citizens know English well, and for many of our exchanges they are gracious enough to speak in what for most of us is our native English tongue. But for scholarship and certainly for training graduate students the matter of learning these languages becomes a necessity. Hence the effort to try to develop this training opportunity.

Stephen Wieting


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Last updated: May 1, 1999