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Collecting research on racism

From the left: Mattias Gardell, Professor of Comparative Religion, Anna-Sara Lind, Associate Professor of Law and Irene Molina, Professor of Social and Economic Geography.

Understanding the growing racism in Sweden today requires collaboration between researchers in different disciplines. This is the idea behind the new Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism at Uppsala University.

Six faculties are behind the initiative, which has been eagerly awaited among racism researchers not only in Uppsala but throughout Sweden. In the autumn of 2016, a first national conference was held on the theme: ‘What is racism research and what challenges are we facing?’

“Bringing racism researchers together in one centre is unique not only in Sweden but worldwide,” says Mattias Gardell, who is one of the heads of research.

Gardell is a professor of comparative religion and conducts research on subjects such as Islamophobia, fascism and hate crimes. The other head of research is Irene Molina, a professor of social and economic geography. Molina conducts research on housing and segregation as well as structural, institutional and everyday racism at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research.

Mattias Gardell, Professor of Comparative Religion.

The two heads of research have different approaches to the subject, but common experiences. The difficulties of acquiring government research funding, for example.

“It’s been rather difficult to get research funding for projects explicitly using the term ‘racism’ as an analytical concept when this was applied to phenomena in contemporary Sweden,” says Gardell. “It’s worked in the case of racial biology or apartheid in South Africa or the South in the United States. Racism is attached to certain times and places as if it were a phenomenon that could be fenced in and kept at a safe distance from us in time and space.

“At the same time, a new generation of very skilled racism researchers has emerged, who have often been isolated in their various departments around the country but who have kept abreast with international research developments.”

Gardell draws a parallel to developments in gender studies, which also took time to become established in Sweden. It was only when research centres began to be set up and the term ‘genus’ was coined by Yvonne Hirdman in the 1980s that gender research in Sweden gained momentum, in this case, too, inspired by international theories. 

Molina stresses the need for research with a special focus on Swedish conditions and how racism expresses itself in Sweden.

“It wasn’t so long ago that racism researchers were met with scepticism,” Molina says. “An enormous amount has happened since then, but while there is a greater awareness that racism exists and that it is a problem that must be addressed, we also see that racism has expanded and become normalised. Every day, it gains ground and becomes more institutionalised, public and brazen.”

The Swedish Institute for Racial Biology. PHOTO: UPPLANDSMUSEET

Racism in Sweden up until 1945 is rather well-researched. We know, for example, a great deal about racial biology, which had its centre in Uppsala between 1921 and 1936 at the Swedish Institute for Racial Biology. Swedish racism during World War II is also well known, but much less research has been done on the situation after the war.

“There’s been some sort of idea that racism is a thing of the past and will become less and less relevant,” says Gardell. “Now we are beginning to realise that is not the case, but on the contrary racism seems to be embedded in our societies. Why is that? This is something we have to take seriously and investigate.”

Bergsjön and Långedrag are separated by just a
50-minute tram ride.

One of racism researchers’ most important messages is that racism isn’t only about personal ethics and morals, it also finds expression in the very structure of society, such as in how people are treated on the labour and housing markets and in healthcare and schools.

A study from 2014 shows, for example, that among the residents of Gothenburg, there is a nine-year difference in life expectancy between a man born and raised in Bergsjön, a suburb where many minority Swedish citizens live, and a man born in the affluent Långedrag, where most residents are white majority Swedes. These two neighbourhoods are separated by just a 50-minute tram ride, and yet they are a world apart.

“What this means is that if you belong to a racialised underclass in Sweden today,” says Gardell, “you have the same life expectancy as someone living in Vietnam. While if you belong to a white, affluent population, you will live as long as someone in Monaco. We have created a sort of reflection of the global imbalance in the chances of living a good life, which generates tension and frustration.”

There is a great discrepancy between the reality many face and the image of Sweden as one of the world’s most tolerant countries. This reality is one of the things the researchers want to describe and understand.

“It’s about people’s material conditions in their everyday lives,” says Molina. “It’s not only this aggressive, threatening and violent racism that impacts people’s lives. It’s also the structural racism that’s built into our institutions. It affects people in Sweden today so that they have poorer health, bad teeth or their children don’t have warm enough clothing. Racism is not just a matter of opinions – it’s also about material conditions.”

Irene Molina, Professor of Social and Economic

But are all of these problems really caused by racism? Aren’t there other important factors behind things like unemployment, for example? Certainly – racism shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, but rather in interplay with class and gender. The researchers will therefore study racism from several different perspectives, such as racism with a focus on gender issues or class issues.

Another important perspective is that of indigenous people – research on the situation of the Sami in Sweden, for example.

“We aim to contribute to the advancement of theory and develop new methods suitable for studying racist phenomena,” says Molina. “For us, multidisciplinary cooperation is key. We want researchers working with both quantitative and qualitative methods to feel welcome. The development we want to achieve needs both perspectives.”

Activities are already under way, with advanced seminars once a month and a new conference planned for next autumn on the theme ‘Racism and Welfare’. There are 150 people on the mailing list and about 25 usually come to the seminars, says Anna-Sara Lind, Associate Professor of Public Law.

“There is an added value in bringing people together and providing an additional venue for multidisciplinary research,” says Lind. “We must be open and inclusive and strengthen researchers throughout Sweden. I also hope that we can carry out a dialogue with the Swedish public sector. So much is in a state of flux right now and there are no quick fixes.”



  • The Centre for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism (CemFor) was inaugurated on 3 March 2017. A research council with a number of internationally renowned racism researchers is affiliated with the centre.
  • On 15 September, CemFor’s new premises will be inaugurated with a half-day of speeches, mini-lectures and music in the newly built Humanities Theatre in the English Park.
  • Advanced seminars will be conducted here once a month, as well as an annual conference, the next to be held on 11–13 October 2017 under the theme ‘Racism and Welfare’.

Differences in life span
In Långedrag, men live until they are 83 and women can expect to see their 85th birthday. In Bergsjön, average life expectancy is 74 years for men and 79 for women. This nine-year difference for men and six-year difference for women is shown in the report Inequality in Living Conditions and Health in Gothenburg, a survey conducted by the City of Gothenburg.

Swedish Institute for Racial Biology
The Swedish Institute for Racial Biology was established in 1921 in Uppsala under the direction of Professor Herman Lundborg. The researchers conducted studies on different population groups and charted the significance of biological heritage for diseases and heredity – but also for crime, depravity, alcoholism and insanity. After Lundborg’s retirement in 1936, views on racial biology changed. In 1958, the institute was renamed the Institute of Medical Genetics and incorporated into the University.

2 May 2017