Daily Life in Danish Associations - Not so Altruistic After All


By Bjarne Ibsen
Denmark has a lot of associations for non competitive sports. Here sports sociologist Bjarne Ibsen explains some of the characteristics and peculiarities of the Danish associations.

Analogous to other countries Denmark has a lot of sports clubs - clubs for competitive sports-activities, where the members participate in tournaments, competitions, etc. But in addition Denmark also has at lot of associations for non competitive gymnastic and other physical or cultural activities. We have a special term for that kind of sport: Folkelig idraet (popular sport).

The roots of "folkelig idraet" is Swedish gymnastics and the rural social movements from the 19th century. Swedish gymastics became an integrated part of the political and cultural modernisation of the farming class in the second half of the 19th century, and a symbol of it.

Until the beginning of the 1880s, gymnastics in both schools and clubs had primarily been inspired by German gymnastics. But the Danish version of these gymnastics was perceived as the gymnastics of those in power, while Swedish gymnastics, which gained a footing from the middle of the 1880s, had Nordic roots and symbolised opposition to those in power.

The broadly-based popular gymnastics was not just one sports discipline among many others, but on the contrary a different sports culture with different values and attitudes to sport: a means of popular enlightenment and without competition and without an elite. This gymnastics tradition still influences the picture of sport in Denmark, not just gymnastics, but also sections of the other club-organised sports - even though the gymnastics practised in clubs today have little in common with the original Swedish gymnastics.

When 'sport for all' became a goal and to a great extent a reality, it could in Denmark build on, and be inspired by, the gymnastics culture and its popular ideology - expressed in the phrase "den folkelige idraet", non-competetive sport associated with the rural social movements - with a different ideology and practice for sport for all than the social and health-promoting idea that characterises 'sport for all' in other countries.

Many countries look upon associations as something very peculiar for the country, and something which distinguish the country from other countries. In articles and papers from different countries I have seen statements like: - Germany is the country of associations - Finland is "the promised land of voluntary associations" - When two Danes meet they form an association.

The number of sports clubs continues to rise
The different countries believe, that the associations is something very unique for the culture. However, the association is an international phenomenon, which we find in almost all democratic countries. On the other hand there are important differences between the associations of the different countries. In this lecture I will emphasize some of the peculiarities of the Danish associations. 

How large is the voluntary sector: the number of and importance of the voluntary associations and organizations? According to several economic theories, great homogeneity and a large public sector should result in a small voluntary nonprofit sector.

1) Denmark is a very homogeneous society, ethnically as well as religiously. And compared with other countries, there are relatively small differences as regards real wages and the relative position of men and women in society. For example, Denmark is the country with the highest proportion of women in the labour force.

2) Denmark has a large public sector, we pay more than half of our income to the state or the municipalities, and the welfare schemes are universal and egalitarian Generally, the role of the state in Denmark and the other Nordic countries seems to be more legitimate than in other countries, among other things because the public sector is to a greater extent created from the bottom up. We are a state-friendly country.

If these theories are true we should not find at large voluntary sector with lots of associations in Denmark. However,despite the fact that both the market and the state constantly have extended their areas of responsibility, the voluntary sector has grown very strongly.

1/3 of all the clubs and local associations were founded in the 1980s and 1990s, and the number of voluntary clubs and organisations and participation in them have never been greater, and it is reasonable to see this growth in connection with the expansion of the welfare state. The sports clubs are exponents of this trend.

Since the middle of the 1960s membership of sports clubs has increased explosively with a doubling of both the number of clubs and members, in spite of the fact that a growing number of those athletically active in the same period have chosen to practice sport under commercially or municipally organised forms.

The total number of sports clubs in Denmark is about 14,000 - one sports club for every 400 inhabitants - and about 7,000 company sports clubs.

More and more people volunteer
But what characterises the voluntary sector and the voluntary associations and clubs in Denmark? I will describe three important dimensions of the associations.

Voluntary work is a central characteristic of voluntary associations, indeed perhaps that which primarily differentiates them from other types of organizations. Not just because voluntary work is an important resource on which the association and its activities completely depend, but also because it is a prerequisite for the ideals and principles on which associations as such are based: democracy and independence of the state and the market.

In the past 10 years, however, many people have questioned the value and continued existence of voluntary work. Nevertheless, investigations in Denmark do not support the notion that voluntary work is in a deep crisis.

First, more people than ever before are today engaged in voluntary work in an association. A third of the associations do not use paid workers at all, and  only in a third of the associations do wage expenses amount to more than 25% of total expenses.

One of the reasons for the growing voluntarism is, that most of the associations are very small or the large associations are divided in small sections or groups, and all investigations show that the voluntarism is high in small groups and associations. The Danish sports clubs are very small if we compare with fx Germany. However, the voluntary work not very idealistic or altruistic: In an interview one of the voluntary leaders answered: We do what we like to do, when we like to do it.

As an example of voluntary work and local cooperation I will describe how a sports centre was built 25 years ago in the district where I grew up. A local initiative group collected about 10 per cent of the building sum for a sports hall and swimming pool  from the people in the district. Furthermore, approximately 4,000 hours of voluntary work was done, led by a local carpenter. The local brickworks sold the bricks at a very low price, a local smith made the diving boards for the swimming pools, and part of the building loan was taken up in the local banks. Finally the local authority presented a closed-down gymnastics school to the association's new sports centre.

Today, too, many facilities and tracks are built on a voluntary basis, particularly for new sports activities. For example, local people in a small town in Jutland established a track for BMX cycling a few years ago. The local authority put a piece of land at their disposal, the local citizens' association and the bank gave economic support and the work was done voluntarily and without wages.  

Interdependence between associations and public authorities
In the sociological literature, it is a widespread assumption that there are conflicts in the relationship between the public authorities and the voluntary sector, and that the establishment of the welfare state has led to a general weakening of the voluntary sector. However, in Denmark the relationship of the associations to the public sector is characterised by cooperation, division of labour, and reciprocal dependency.

Historical research on the establishment of associations in the last century shows that in many cases there were close contact and cooperation between the state and the voluntary associations. Fx. the rifle shooting associations, and later the sports clubs too, got public subsidies and grants at a very early stage. And today, public subsidies account for about a third of the income of the leisure-time and cultural associations and three quarters of the associations use municipal facilities which are at their disposal free of charge.

The large public subsidies to leisure-time and cultural associations are, however, not conditional on particular requirements as regards content, standards, and professional qualifications, and generally there are very broad and unspecified expectations.

This reflects the political culture in Denmark and the other Nordic countries, which are sometimes described as consensual democracies. These are countries which, more than other societies, solve problems and conflicts by talks, debates, compromises and controlled conflicts, and where all types of organisations have easy access to the political decision-making process and are included in it at an early stage. At the same time, important social areas and sectors are characterised by great autonomy and self-regulation:

- The most important social reforms fx, were implemented in an alliance between the Social Democrats and the non-Socialist parties. 

- The labour force is thus mainly regulated by agreements between employers and strong trade unions that have a considerably higher membership than outside the Nordic countries;

- and in the educational field, there is a strong tradition for friskoler (private schools), efterskoler (private boarding schools for children between 14 and 16), and folke-højskoler (examination-free residential educational institutions for young people, based on the ideas about popular enlightenment), which despite large public subsidies have very great scope.

The association is an inward-looking unit
But what characterises the democratic culture and the daily life in the clubs?

The daily life in the associations in Denmark - and the other Scandinavian countries - is characterised by ideas about unity, harmony and equality, which generally characterise the Scandinavian culture.

1) The voluntary sports leaders in the clubs are primarily inwardly oriented, that is, oriented towards the club and its members, while only a small proportion of the leaders are outwardly oriented, that is, oriented towards the local community, its social problems and the needs of the inhabitants for sport generally.

An investigation from 1989 thus showed that under a fifth of the leaders gave high priority to the idea that the club should... offer activities and take part in projects that help to solve social problems, leisure-time problems etc.

This is not because the sports leaders are socially irresponsible. Compared with many other associations, there is great tolerance for "dissidents", and there is often a strong network between leaders, instructors and members, who help each other if there are "problems". But the social responsibility is limited to the club fellowship around one or several sports activities, and if people do not want to be part of this fellowship it is their own business. The leaders' interest is linked to the activity and to club fellowship, and is not based on a particular social commitment in relation to a certain group, or people who are not part of this fellowship.

2) Association life or club life is based on an assumption that an assembled club is a unit, and in Scandinavia, this unit is understood as meaning that members also agree. It is expected that decisions are made in agreement and efforts are made to avoid decision-making procedures with indications of inequality or disagreement (for example, ballots).  

It is on the strength of the members' expectations of homogeneity or unity that the club defines itself as a social category in relation to the rest of the community. When one is in a club, one is regarded as an equal. While in life outside the club, it was particularly financial capital and class status which decided a person's prestige, social position and promotion prospects, within the club, it was rather the individual's symbolic capital that determined his or her social position and promotion (Salamon 1992: side 113). 

From the book "Society's Watchdog - or Showbiz' Pet?" Inspiration to Better Sports Journalism, Danish Gymnastics and Sports Associations 1998

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