Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Iceland: The First New Society

Richard F. Tomasson
Copyright Date: 1980
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 280
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    “Iceland, as described by Tomasson, has a fascinating, often contradictory culture,” writes Seymour Martin Lipset in his forward to this book, the first sociological account in English of modern Icelandic society and the forces that have shaped it. Richard F. Tomasson argues that Iceland can best be understood as an example of “a new society” -- the first such pioneer community to be founded in historical times. To the author the most significant influences upon Icelandic culture and social structure are the continuities that have persisted in this island society for eleven centuries, since its origins as an isolated Viking colony. Tomasson traces the ways in which Icelandic culture developed out of the medieval pre-Christian society -- in its language, relations between the sexes, egalitarianism, and the high frequency of illegitimate births. He also points out areas of contradiction and discontinuity, noting that Iceland has been transformed in the twentieth century by modernization of the society and international influences upon the culture. Among the topics Tomasson examines are the Icelanders’ involvement in their history and national literary tradition; their social, political, and economic life; the high level of literacy; the pervasive tolerance of Icelanders in moral and religious matters; their values; and the use of alcohol. Readers interested in the Scandinavian countries and in the comparative study of societies will find Iceland a useful analysis of a significant and little known national culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6471-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Foreword
    (pp. v-viii)
    Seymour Martin Lipset

    For the author of a work calledThe First New Nation,a book entitledIceland: The First New Societyis intriguing. Richard F. Tomasson well demonstrates that Iceland deserves this description. Once a completely uninhabited land, the island was settled by the Norse between 870 and 930, fully six centuries before Columbus landed in the West Indies.

    Iceland appears to be truly a fragment culture of medieval Europe. Lacking an aboriginal population to conquer or exploit, and never recruiting from a non-Nordic immigrant population, Iceland has remained, culturally, the, purest Scandinavian nation. Modern Icelandic is much closer to the language...

  2. CHAPTER 1 The First New Society
    (pp. 3-31)

    Iceland can be spoken of as a “new nation” and a “new society” in the same way these concepts are used by Seymour Martin Lipset (1963) and Louis Hartz (1964). There are also some parallels between the Icelandic and the American experiences as new nations. I do not mean to challenge Lipset’s view of America as “the first new nation.” He sees America as first only in the modern period, a world that was postfeudal, post-Protestant, and postcapitalist. Iceland, by contrast, was founded centuries earlier in a different historical epoch, in the middle of the period of the great expansion...

  3. CHAPTER 2 Modern Iceland and Its Making
    (pp. 32-55)

    With a population of fewer than a quarter of a million people, Iceland is the smallest nation in the world with a full panoply of the institutions of modern nationhood: a national language, a distinctive history and literature, a strong national consciousness, governmental institutions, a full-fledged university, and diplomatic relations around the world. Only the military is missing. Iceland is a minination, much smaller even than the “small countries.” Nonetheless, Iceland has institutions as legible and distinct as those of larger societies.

    This island nation bordering the Arctic Circle has one of the highest standards of living in the world,...

  4. CHAPTER 3 The Demography of an Isolated People
    (pp. 56-85)

    It may be that more information is available about the history of the Icelandic population than about any other national population. The Icelanders are the only European people whose origins have been recorded in history. We know that the island was settled between the years 870 and 930, and we know the names of some 400 of the original settlers excluding wives, children, and followers from theBook of Settlements(1972), which contains approximately 3,500 personal names and more than 1,500 place names (Jakob Benediktsson, 1969). From theBook of Settlementsand from other sources, we know where many of...

  5. CHAPTER 4 Men, Women, and Kinship
    (pp. 86-115)

    Relations between the sexes and family structure in Iceland show a remarkable continuity from the ancient Scandinavians to the present. Any schema of traditional to modern family systems does not fit Iceland as it might other societies. Some of the ancient patterns appear remarkably modern; some of the contemporary patterns, strongly traditional. In this chapter, I will discuss the institution of marriage, focusing on the legitimacy of children, the status of women, and the patterns of kinship.

    Nowhere in the North has such long-term continuity been maintained in the area of marriage and sexual relations as in Iceland. Neither Latin...

  6. CHAPTER 5 Literacy and Cultural Life
    (pp. 116-147)

    “We publish more books than other people, we buy more books than others, and, in all likelihood, we read more books than other people do.” So wrote Baldvin Tryggvason (1970), the president of the largest publishing house in Iceland. Many Icelanders, and perhaps most Icelandic intellectuals, believe assertions like this one. Indeed, the alleged addiction of Icelanders to reading books and the proportionately large number of bookstores are among the few items of information about Iceland that have reached the outside world.

    The amount and kind of reading done by Icelanders, the number of books in their homes, and their...

  7. CHAPTER 6 The Language
    (pp. 148-172)

    Icelandic is related to the other modern Scandinavian languages as Latin is related to the modern Romance languages (Wessen, 1965, p. 30). The major difference is that Icelandic has remained a living language. It is as though there were some isolated island in the Mediterranean where Latin was still the native tongue. Icelandic is unique among Indo-European languages in that its written form took shape during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and has changedrelativelylittle since that time.

    But what do I mean when I say that the language has changedrelativelylittle? How much the language has been...

  8. CHAPTER 7 Religion, Literature, and Alcohol
    (pp. 173-193)

    The grouping of religion, literature, and alcohol in the same chapter may appear incongruous; it is at least unusual. But there is some justification for such an arrangement. First, all three are fundamentally leisure-time pursuits; all involve activities that individuals and societies choose to devote their time and resources to after they have satisfied their requirements for sustenance and survival. Second, they are all modes of altering consciousness. Religion directs attention toward spiritual and supernatural concerns with various individual and social consequences. Literature (and all art) transports individu- als to a different reality and enhances aesthetic sensibilities. Alcohol contributers to...

  9. CHAPTER 8 Values
    (pp. 194-204)

    In no modern Western society has there been as much obvious continuity with a distant past as in Iceland. But this continuity is rapidly being attenuated by the pressures of the modernization of the society and the internationalization of the culture. In conclusion to this book, let me give a brief overview of Icelandic value orientations with concern for their continuity and how they are changing. Values may be vague and abstruse and difficult to get hold of, but this does not make an attempt to articulate them any less significant. A sophisticated definition ofvalue orientationsis that of...

  10. Appendix A The Interview Schedule
    (pp. 213-215)
  11. Appendix B The Interview Sample
    (pp. 216-218)