The Networks that Rule Denmark

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“The Atlas of Power: Maps of Networks in Denmark” [“Magtens Atlas: Kort over netværk i Danmark”] by Anton Grau Larsen, Christoph Ellersgaard & Sarah Steiniz

Foreningen for Elite- og Magtstudier and Analyse & Tal, 2016, 143 pp.

The Atlas of Power is a book unlike any other I have read. On the outside, it resembles an artsy design collection and its pages are full of illustrations and statistics with very little actual text to compliment them. The authors write in the introduction that the book is not meant to be read from cover to cover, but rather to be used as an ordinary geographical atlas. This actually works quite well. Sitting with the book, it is hard to resist the urge to flip through the pages.

The book was published by the Association for Elite and atlas.pngPower Studies of which the three authors are all board members. It is the second of its kind, following The Power Elite: How 423 Danes run the country (Politikens Forlag, 2015), also by Larsen and Ellersgaard. In both books, the authors analyze the distribution of power in Denmark by looking at formal networks, such as company boards and political organs, to see who is connected to whom.

The result is an interesting and innovative description of Danish society, which tells an unconventional story of how societal power in Denmark is organized and distributed.

Illustrating power through networks

The basic argument of the book is that power can be measured by looking at the networks of individuals through the forums of which they are members. The authors bypass conventional discussion of the definition of power and instead use quantitative figures to paint a picture of the actual networks in Denmark, arguing that a large personal network enables you to both collect knowledge and coordinate with other actors which are central aspects of power (p. 23).

The book is full of illustrations of these networks, which come with helpful explanations. Each dot represents a forum. The connectedness of the dots defines their size, the color defines which sector (business, political, foundation, union etc.) the forum belongs to, and their proximity to one another shows how well-connected they are. Each small line between two dots means that the two forums share a member, so high concentrations of black lines mean lots of overlapping forum memberships.magt netværk.png

In this way, the authors illustrate the overall network of power, as shown above, but they also zoom in on the individual sectors, such as businesses or cultural institutions to show how well they are internally connected.

This method is not unproblematic. First, it misses informal ties between individuals who may not be in the same forum, but still meet regularly. Second, it does not account for previous memberships, meaning that individuals who used to be members of many important forums, but stepped down from some or most of them, will be invisible in the study. Finally, the network approach says nothing about the material means (i.e. money) or formal rights (e.g. voting rights) of individuals or the role of the forums themselves (networks notwithstanding, most of us would still agree that there is more power in being a board member of the national bank than of the local soccer club). There are thus many aspects of power that go unexplored. But within these limitations, The Atlas of Power does a great job of unfolding the contemporary formal structures of power.

Who runs Denmark?

As in their previous book, Denmark is the object of study. The Atlas of Power reveals that it is the Economic Council, a government-instituted economic advisory board, that is the most well-connected forum in Denmark (p.24) with its reach of 1,562. This means that the 25 members of the Economic Council are connected to 1,562 other individuals through forums they participate in. Other important forums include the leadership of ATP, the monetary institution responsible for distributing a number of social benefits, and leading organs and counsels of LO and Dansk Industri, both central actors in negotiating the Danish labor market.

Interestingly, while absent at the absolute top of the ranks of best-connected networks, it is the CEOs of large export-oriented companies, such as Danfoss, Arla and Mærsk, who have the largest individual reach. These CEOs meet in several business-related advisory boards, notably in Dansk Industri, where they have plenty of opportunity to share insights and coordinate their interests.

Another group which one might be inclined to think wields some influence, is the government. However, in itself the government (meaning all the ministers taken together) is only ranked the 109th most well-connected forum, and, although they do have a considerable reach, individual ministers generally score lower than large company CEOs.

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I found this interesting for two reasons. One thing, as the authors note (p. 41), is the tendency in Denmark for politicians to clearly sever their previous ties to business and special interest boards when going into politics, which accounts for their lower reach in the network of power. Instead they work through middlemen, typically in their ministries’ departments, effectively shifting a lot of the networking power from the politicians to the bureaucrats or to other individuals who are repeatedly appointed to governmental boards and official commissions.

The second interesting point is that this may reveal a fundamental flaw in the subject of public and media attention. News coverage tends to focus on politicians as the central actors in shaping society. But perhaps we should instead be paying more attention to CEOs and the individuals who keep on winning seats in boards and commissions. If The Atlas of Power is right to assert that network is power, these individuals have a much larger say in shaping Danish society than those who were elected democratically.

A sort of critical study with vast potential

While The Atlas sticks to a descriptive paradigm and lets most of the “maps” speak for themselves, it does round off on the critical note that Danish forums are only comprised of 27 % women (p. 137), and that women are severely underrepresented in all but the “feminized” areas, such as health and education. On the final page, they also encourage their readers to seize democratic influence in order to disperse power more broadly in Denmark. As they remark, “otherwise established interests will continue to determine how society develops” (p. 143).

This normative finale is interesting, but seems misplaced in The Atlas’ almost completely neutral account. Thus, it is simply unclear from the preceding chapters what the problem with the current structure is – except for the lack of women in forums – and this makes the final call for change feel unmotivated. On the flipside, I would like to see the authors use the findings of The Atlas to make a cohesive critique of power structures in Denmark in a separate piece.

All in all, The Atlas of Power is an enlightening read which both demonstrates some of the possibilities of quantitative sociological studies and tells a new story about Denmark which might surprise many. One such surprise is the continuing influence of the old nobility and the social circles around the royal family, which is especially evident in foundations. One might have thought such aristocratic structures had died out long ago in the democratic and egalitarian Denmark.

I would love to see Larsen, Ellersgaard & Steinitz’s method applied to other countries or to transnational sectors, such as particular industries or NGOs, though the work in collecting data for such a study would be enormous. The Atlas succeeds in its stated purpose of being an alternative map of Denmark, and it will hopefully pave the way for more critical network-based studies of power in Denmark and beyond.

Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen

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