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"Hygiene as Metaphor: On Metaphorization, Racial Hygiene, and the Swedish Ideals of Modernity"

Chapter in book
Authors Ola Sigurdson
Published in Culture, Health, and Religion at the Millennium. Sweden Unparadised. Edited by Marie Demker, Yvonne Leffler, and Ola Sigurdson
Pages 19–50
ISBN 9781137472243
Publisher Palgrave Macmillan
Place of publication New York
Publication year 2014
Published at Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion
Pages 19–50
Language en
Keywords Swedish Modernity, The Swedish Model, Hygiene, Alva Myrdal, Gunnar Myrdal, Lubbe Nordström
Subject categories Faith and reason, Philosophy of religion, History of Ideas


In his autobiographical account of growing up in the working-class neighborhoods of Gothenburg on the Swedish west coast, Ronny Ambjörnsson, a professor of the history of ideas, makes the following observation: “Mother fulfilled the commands of hygiene through frantic cleaning. Everything was polished and rubbed to surfaces so shiny that the germs slipped and swirled out through windows that were almost always open for airing. Light, air, and cleanliness became during the 1930s metaphors for enlightenment and rationality. Mother’s cleaning and father’s studies could be said to belong to the same sphere, two versions of the credo of modernism.” This observation is telling in more ways than one. First, Ambjörnsson establishes a connection between seemingly disparate but very mundane activities (such as cleaning and studying) and a certain cultural condition characterized by versions of enlightenment and rationality. Second, this juxtaposition is not incidental or provisional, but actually illustrates “the credo of modernism”—or in other words, a distinguishing belief of a certain period of Swedish modern history. This interrelationship between a domestic duty and a formative belief characterizing an age poses a question that is simultaneously philosophical and historical: how does hygiene work as a metaphor for the version of Swedish modernity that characterized the 1930s and beyond? If Ambjörnsson is correct in his characterization of the Swedish “credo of modernism”—and indeed, I think there is reason to believe he is—this would provide an important background to the image of Sweden presented and presumed in popular fiction (both then and now), promoted and implied in public policy, and disseminated as a norm in Swedish culture at large.

Page Manager: Webmaster|Last update: 9/11/2012

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