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The man-in-green’s company: Assessing nature-based integration in central Sweden

Benedict Singleton | 9 November 2020

A picture showing a hand holding a leather case and a plastic tag that says "kryper"
Learning Swedish vocabulary with words hidden about the forest (photo by the author).

A growing set of practices, nature-based integration (NBI) projects are increasingly prominent in many Nordic countries. They are intended to address perceived societal issues: the increasing disconnect from nature within many societies and the need to integrate groups of newcomers to society in recent years. However, while there is growing literature and scientific interest in the subject, there was little effort to assess how NBI functions to integrate diverse groups of people. In a recent paper, I attempt a tentative first assessment of a series of NBI projects in Örebro County, central Sweden. I do this by utilising the theory of socio-cultural viability, a theory of plural rationality deriving from the work of Mary Douglas. In the article, I recognise and discuss the problematic nature of the term ‘integration’ but choose to leave that to one side in this short piece.

The theory of socio-cultural viability (cultural theory, for short) posits that the myriad ways humans view the world can be categorised within a fourfold typology (‘hierarchy’, ‘individualism’, ‘egalitarianism’ and ‘fatalism’). Each of these articulates particular discourses of the world concomitantly performed with different patterns of social organisation. Each of these discourses contains distinctive narratives about reality, including such things as human nature, ‘nature’ itself and related behavioural strategies. For example, members of the hierarchal “social solidarity” view nature as knowable and measurable and useable as long as expert-defined limits are respected and managed. These social solidarities exist in dynamic situations and people move between them throughout their lives. Thus, they are not fixed personality types. Throughout their lives, most people will pass through each of the solidarities (sometimes even during the same day). Likewise, the narratives of each solidarity are not better/worse or more/less correct than those of the others. Each integrates knowledge the others miss. As such, cultural theory is not concerned with pushing people into the ‘correct’ understanding of a situation.

The Nature-Based Integration projects that I look at in Örebro County utilise similar methods and are organised by much the same group of people. They involve guided walks through nature. Groups of Swedes and Newcomers can meet, avail themselves of the health benefits of accessing nature and (hopefully) acquire a particular environmental consciousness. These guided walks involve curated interactions with nature at various planned stopping points. These activities varied depending on the group and the purpose of the excursion. Thus, walks conceived as language-cafes in nature might involve activities designed to teach vocabulary, such as bingo-based games that solicit objects' names in different languages. Across the board, these NBI activities encouraged participants to engage with Swedish nature and to know and respect the rules of Swedish nature use.

These excursions generally functioned smoothly, however, it was unclear the extent that such piecemeal activities (taking place infrequently with an ever-changing group of participants) functioned to encourage or facilitate integration. Furthermore, integration is a term that is tricky to define. I thus use cultural theory to make sense of this. I recorded articulations of the narratives of the different social solidarities at various times, but it soon became clear that they predominated at different times, circumstances and social scales.

At the level of the excursions themselves, much activity followed the egalitarian logic. There was an emphasis upon group work, shared learning and mutually agreeable outcomes. While games might have competitive elements, there were no prizes for coming first. During such activities, Swedish nature was a common good for all to enjoy. Much energy was directed towards giving newcomers the same opportunities of access as Swedes. They learned their rights, how to safely use nature, and acquired a shared language of understanding. In this conceptualisation, all inhabitants of Sweden have the same right to access nature. However, there were times when conflicts emerged, for example, if participants were disinterested in planned activities. In such circumstances, the hierarchical solidarity manifested. Two roles (guides and participants) emerged with different characteristics. One of the guides’ roles was to discipline participants (e.g., by informing them when they had broken the rules), however this was often jarring with the overall egalitarian mood of the excursion. Hierarchy was also clearly manifest at other times. For example, project funding application documents revealed a narrative of integration as the transference of the information required to fit into the Swedish culture. It is trained guides drawing upon the expert knowledge on Swedish nature make this transference. Such a combination of social solidarities is common within institutions; indeed, this is often one way that the blind spots within each social solidarity are ameliorated. Within NBI excursions, the dominant egalitarian focus would be undermined when participants fail to self-organise. The solution within these NBI was to move towards a hierarchical performative mode with demarcated organisational authority.

A picture showing a group of people standing around a fire grate outdoors cooking on a pan.
A group bonding exercise, where participants prepare a meal in a nature reserve (photo by the author).

Having assessed the observed activities as the product of an egalitarian-hierarchy institutional alliance (each predominating within different contexts), it is possible to discuss how they function as a tool for integration into Swedish society. In cultural theory terms, NBI activities need to match in terms of social solidarities the contexts that migrants find themselves. Among the activities observed, attendance was sporadic and it was hard to gauge the difference they made. Indeed, it seemed particularly difficult to attract Swedes to participate, making it unclear with whom newcomers were to integrate. There were, however, hints throughout the research that other societal institutions encourage a more individualist orientation. Thus, I observed respondents at various times interested in improving their employment prospects, for example, via networking behaviour. Likewise, examples of successful integration presented by respondents tended to tap into extant social groups. This suggested that the NBI activities were arguably most appealing to those already integrated in particular institutions, be they families or activist groups. The article concludes by arguing for greater interrogation of newcomers' lives to Sweden and cultural theory assessment of the other institutions embedding migrant lives. Simultaneously, there is a need to investigate different nature-based practices within Swedish society with an eye to how they could complement or assist NBI.


Benedict Singleton is a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, where he conducts research on the project Intersectionality and Climate Policy Making: Ways forward to a socially inclusive and sustainable welfare state. His previous research publications include explorations of ‘nature-based integration’ projects aimed at migrants to central Sweden; investigations of Faroese whaling (grindadráp); research on carers of sick and disabled relatives in the UK; and HIV stigma and treatment in Jamaica.


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