What makes a Finn? And why should we care about the answers?

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This week is international Anti-Racism and Diversity Week. We thought this would be a good context to discuss a recent poll by Ajatuspaja Alkio and Taloustutkimus and contrast and compare it to some other polls. The Ajatuspaja Alkio poll reveals how supporters of some of the largest political parties in Finland answer the question “What makes a Finn?” 

The poll did not only focus on that particular question. Other survey questions addressed other issues broadly related to immigration but we will only focus on this single question here. 

The answers reveal that a large proportion of respondents have a closed and immutable notion of Finnishness. This is not a surprise as discrimination and racism in Finland are well documented. We have discussed discrimination in Finnish workplaces in many blogs. Here and here are some additional sources that relate to discrimination in Finnish society as a whole.  

In revealing these attitudes, this report is then not surprising. However, this report maps these attitudes against political affiliation. Therefore, talking about this is particularly relevant now that the Finnish parliamentary elections are just around the corner.   

This poll is also relevant for discussions around labor shortage, as we’ll see later. For this discussion, though, it makes sense to compare that poll to some others. These comparisons reveal more about Finland, Finns, and Finnish attitudes than the results of just this one poll. This comparison highlights why we continue to have a problem with inclusion in this country, why foreign job seekers find it difficult to secure employment in Finland, and why that is a problem both morally and instrumentally. 

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The Ajatuspaja Alkio poll

The purpose of this poll was to find out the respondents’ attitudes towards Finnishness, immigration, and domestic products. 

This survey is part of Ajatuspaja Alkio’s research series on the Finnish middle class. They conducted the poll in January 2023. There were 2681 respondents of which 912 fit their status-based classification of middle class. In reporting the results of the survey, they did not, however, break down the answers by status-based class affiliation. Hence we won’t discuss the results in connection with that aspect at all. 

What makes a Finn?

The pollsters asked what criteria a person should fill at minimum to be considered Finnish. It is not clear from the wording, but I take this to mean that the respondents understood this to mean that they were asked what makes some other person Finnish. They were not asked to consider what makes them Finnish. This is an important distinction that we will get to later. 

The criteria from which the respondents were asked to choose were: 

  • Finnish nationality; 
  • a person identifies as a Finn; 
  • adoption of Finnish culture and habits; 
  • feeling proud to be a Finn; 
  • lives in Finland permanently; 
  • speaks Finnish or Swedish well; 
  • knows at least the basics of Finnish history; 
  • feeling proud of the area where one lives (neighborhood, city, village); 
  • Finnish or Swedish as a national language;
  • has been born in Finland;
  • at least one of the parents has been born in Finland;
  • grandparents have been born in Finland;
  • supporting Finland in sporting events;
  • has white skin;
  • has an outer appearance that doesn’t make a person stand out in a crowd on a regular street in Finland; and 
  • something else. 

The pollsters presented the results based on political affiliation. The publicly available report only has information on the views of supporters of four Finnish political parties. In their summary, however, they refer to other parties as well. The four political parties they discuss are the Centre Party, the National Coalition Party, Finns Party, and the Social Democratic Party

The Ajatuspaja Alkio poll results

Irrespective of political affiliation, the survey respondents said that the most important criteria for Finnishness are Finnish nationality (61 – 68 % of respondents depending on political affiliation) and the adoption of Finnish culture and habits (52 – 78 %). 

Self-identification as a Finn was an important criterion for the supporters of the National Coalition Party (61 %), the Centre Party (63 %), and the Social Democratic Party (66 %). it wasn’t, however, an important criterion for supporters of the Finns Party. Only 34 % of them said it was a necessary criterion for them to accept a person as a Finn. 

The Finns Party as an outlier

The supporters of the Finns Party were outliers in several of their answers. For example, 78 % of them said that the adoption of Finnish culture and habits was necessary for them to accept someone as a Finn. The next highest proportion of respondents agreeing with this position was among the National Coalition Party supporters. Of them, 66 % agreed with this position.

The Finns Party supporters also placed a lot of emphasis on Finnish and Swedish skills. 59 % indicated that in order to be accepted as a Finn, a person needs to have good Finnish or Swedish skills. Again, the supporters of the National Coalition Party were in the closest agreement with the supporters of the Finns Party. 44 % of them agreed with this criteria. 

Learning Finnish or Swedish, however, is not enough for Finns Party supporters. 42 % of them require having Finnish or Swedish as a native language. For the supporters of other parties, being a native speaker is not that important a criterion when assessing someone’s Finnishness. Of them, 11 – 24 % of them named this as a criterion for Finnishness. 

A larger proportion of the Finns Party supporters (42 %) also require at least some basic knowledge of Finnish history than others (24 – 34 %). Also more often than the others, they require that a person has been born in Finland (38 % vs. 16 – 20 %). 

Around 20 % of Finns Party supporters require that at least one parent has been born in Finland, grandparents have been born in Finland, both parents have been born in Finland or the person has white skin to be accepted as a Finn. These were individually far less important criteria for the supporters of the other parties. In each case, less than 10 % of them considered these to be important criteria for Finnishness. 

What connects Finns as Finns according to Finns?

In 2017, The Finnish Cultural Foundation and E2 Research conducted a much larger survey of issues related to Finnish identity, Finnishness, and values of Finns. The results of this survey were released in 2018 in 4 separate reports. 

This large survey revealed that Finnishness is one of the most important building blocks of identity to Finns. Over 90 % of Finns considered Finnishness a very or at least somewhat important part of their identity. 

They didn’t, however, ask the respondents to define Finnishness. The respondents were, though, able to tell what characteristics or features connect Finns in their opinion. They did this in the form of an open-ended question. In analyzing the answers, the researchers were able to group the named characteristics into 15 main categories. 

Most typically the respondents thought that Finns are connected by the stereotypical personality features that are usually connected with Finnishness. These are, for example, being tenacious or hard-working. About 40 % of the respondents named such characteristics as connecting Finns as Finns. 

33 % of respondents named language and culture as such characteristics. 30 % named Finnish nationality, national pride, and independence. 

The researchers concluded that the answers reflect an expectation of being a proper citizen of Finland. This means being patriotic, having national pride, being connected through language and culture, and having stereotypically Finnish personality characteristics.  

What makes a Finn: answers depend on the goal

So, when asked to think about themselves and what makes them Finns, this latter poll shows that it’s the internal characteristics that matter. 

And all of these characteristics are such that you can acquire them (such as pride of place or language skills) or characteristics that are actually not unique to native-born Finns (such as being tenacious or hard-working). 

In this latter poll, it’s not the external, unchangeable characteristics such as their birthplace, the birthplace of their parents or grandparents, or the color of their skin that connects the responders to other Finns as Finns. 

As the Ajatuspaja Alkio poll shows, however, those become important when exclusion is the goal. When the goal is to keep someone out, focusing on unchangeable characteristics (such as one’s place of birth) obviously helps.

And why that is a problem

If you are not inclined to think that this type of exclusionary thinking is a moral problem in itself, you may still recognize that it does present an economic problem for Finland. 

We know that Finland needs tens of thousands of workers to keep the economy going in the future. We’ve discussed these issues in several of our blogs. In those, we’ve described how the Finnish government and many entities of Finnish society are advocating for and working hard to attract more international workers to Finland. 

As a part of this discussion, STTK (The Finnish Confederation of Professionals) this week released the results of a poll that examined Finnish attitudes towards work-based immigration. The context of this poll is precisely this discussion centering around labor shortage and what the next government elected in the upcoming parliamentary elections can and should do about it. 

In summarizing the results of the poll, STTK highlighted how attitudes towards work-based immigration and employees with a foreign background had improved in recent years. Naturally, they deemed this to be a positive change.

In 2018, 12 % of the respondents had very favorable attitudes toward work-based immigration. An additional 39 % had somewhat favorable attitudes. In October 2022, these had risen to 21 % and 40 % respectively. So, about 60 % of respondents have at least a somewhat favorable attitude towards work-based immigration.

On the face of it this sounds great. It sounds welcoming. However, what the Ajatuspaja Alkio poll shows is that this welcoming attitude only goes so far. And therein lies the problem. Attracting foreign employees to Finland to solve our labor shortage crisis to even some extent requires the willingness to include them. Only then will people stay. The Ajatuspaja Alkio poll shows we are a long way from achieving that. 

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