Institutt for sosialantropologi

BSAS - Kelly McKowen: Down and Out in Utopia: Unemployment, Morality, and Social Democracy in Norway

We are happy to announce Kelly McKowen from Southern Methodist University to hold this department seminar.

Bergen Social Anthropology Seminar 2024, UiB-logo



Imagine that you have just lost your job. Your first question is something like: “What do I do now?” But what you are really asking is this: “Who can—and should—I depend on now?” It turns out that the answer to that question varies significantly from society to society—and that variation matters for how we understand ourselves and our relations with others. In Norway, you are likely to turn to NAV, the country’s cradle-to-grave public agency for income maintenance and employment assistance. Drawing on 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Oslo among the unemployed and a shifting cast of politicians, bureaucrats, trade unionists, and activists, Down and Out in Utopia argues that the experience of unemployment in a social democracy constitutes an integrative moral education—one that through everyday experience reaffirms the value of formal wage labor and clarifies that the relationship between the individual and the state has both material and ethical dimensions. While the state provides comparatively generous support, its various interventions, as well as the social, temporal, and spatial dislocations one experiences when out of a job, bring into relief the terms to which one is supposed to accede to build a "good" life congruent with the requirements of Norway's distinctive welfare regime.


Kelly McKowen is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University (SMU). His scholarship on the welfare state, unemployment, and morality in contemporary Norway has appeared in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Economic Anthropology, the Anthropology of Work Review, and various edited volumes, including Sustainable Modernity: The Nordic Model and Beyond (2018, Routledge), Digesting Difference: Migrant Incorporation and Mutual Belonging in Europe (2020, Palgrave Macmillan), and Migration and Multiculturalism in Scandinavia (2022, University of Wisconsin Press). McKowen received both his MA and PhD in Anthropology at Princeton University.


The department seminar, known as Bergen Social Anthropology Seminars (BSAS), is the main forum for dialogue and debate about anthropological research and theoretical development at the Department in Bergen. All is welcome!