Work Migration from Poland to Norway: A New Institutional Approach

Marietta L. Baba and Carla Dahl-Jørgensen

Marietta L. Baba

Dean of College of Social Science and Professor of Anthropology,
Michigan State University and Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim

Carla Dahl-Jørgensen

Professor of Anthropology and Manager of the Community of Organizational Anthropology,
Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim


Understanding institutions and their role in society have gained renewed attention in recent years, especially as phenomena  often explained by neo-classical economics (e.g., transnational labor migration) have not conformed to rational or maximizing expectations  (e.g., see  Massey et. al., 1998, Castles 2000, 2007).  Institutional theorists long have viewed economic phenomena as  embedded in socio-cultural  context, with economic action forming part of ongoing social  processes and practices .  While there is no consensus on the nature of institutions across social science disciplines (Scott 2008), an emerging acknowledgment of institutional influence on economic phenomena suggests that we should more fully incorporate the institutional dimension of human experience into social science inquiry.   We have come to the study of institutions as scholars with long term research interests in the areas of work and formal organizations, and discovered here a rich and challenging tradition of social science theory and literature that invigorates our own explorations and may, we believe, enable us to better connect our work with the research of others.        

In this paper, we consider the potential of new institutional theory as a framework or lens for examining transnational labor migration, especially as such migration has been observed in flows of labor migrants from Poland to Norway after May 1, 2004.  The current situation regarding labor migration from East to West in Europe could be described as reflecting a serious challenge to state and regional policies, and thus one that is in need of new approaches. Despite policy discourse aimed at the appearance of rationalization, international flows of migrants are not “under control” by the state or the region (Castles 2007, Favell 2008).  Transnational networks and informal economies do not reflect policy intent, yet in the meantime, politicians use the opportunity of migration to whip up support for anti-migrant sympathies, even while more migrants come into the picture or disappear into the informal sector (see Pijpers 2006).  Clearly, the rationalization has not been perfect by any means.

With respect to East-West migration flows since the EU expansion, probably one of the most significant is that of Poland.  Poland has many factors that make it a major contributor to labor migration, including: a long history of emigration that is connected to its geo-political situation and history of being vulnerable to invasion and domination (Magala 2008); a very large population that is comprised of both highly educated and less skilled sectors; a differential in wages and economic status between itself and the West; and other specific factors such as the large numbers of Poles who hold German passports (Kicinger and Weinar 2007).  For many years, Poles have been flowing outward to many preferred destinations, including countries in Scandinavia. 

While countries in Western Europe have welcomed Poles and other Central and Eastern European labor migrants to fill jobs that their own citizens did not care to fill, there also were widespread concerns that EU rules for open borders or market forces would encourage the in-flow of low wage workers who created a competitive imbalance in the social milieu, resulting in various forms of “moral panic”, one of which was the so-called “race to the bottom” or what has also been known as “social dumping”, the idea that there would emerge a discriminated-against lower tier of workers who did not receive the same rights as other workers and were not treated the same.  This persistent fear has expressed itself differently in different European contexts.

By examining the Polish case, it is clear that transnational labor migration in the European context is a complex social phenomenon, yet it has sometimes been explained by relying upon neo-classical economic theory; i.e., as a result of disparities in levels of income between geographic areas.  According to neo-classical economic arguments, a primary cause of labor migration is an individual’s efforts to maximize his or her income by moving from low-wage to high-wage economies (Borjas 1989).  However, it also has been noted that institutional forces may play a significant role in shaping labor migration patterns.  For example, the “new economics of labor migration” (Stark 1991) takes into account factors beyond income differentials and individual’s efforts to maximize their incomes.  This institutional approach considers factors such as chances for economic security, the availability of capital for entrepreneurial activity, and the need to manage risk over time (Castles 2000:272), all of which may be considered institutional forces within the socio-cultural context of migration.  

In this paper, we consider institutional forces that have contributed to labor migration from Poland to Norway following May 1, 2004.  We begin by providing a brief discussion of new institutional theory, followed by background on the socio-cultural context of labor emigration from Poland in the past, which will reveal some of the institutional factors that influence emigration in this context.  This discussion sets the stage for exploring some preliminary research results drawn from interviews with Polish labor migrants in Norway that suggest the influence of other specific (new) institutional forces shaping labor migration decisions for individuals and groups in the context of the receiving country (Norway).  The research provides an interesting juxtaposition of contrasting institutional forces in sending and receiving nations, and how these interact and thereby contribute to the transnational flows of labor migration.   

Theoretical Background

Since there is no agreement on the nature or meaning of the construct institution within the social sciences at present, we examined the etymology of the term to gain a pragmatic perspective on the emergence of the concept in use.  The earliest usage of the term institution was in the context of an action – to “institute or establish, to set on foot or in operation, to found or ordain something” (dated from 1460; see Oxford English Dictionary 2nd edition).  Later, a second meaning evolved:  “giving form or order to a thing, orderly arrangement, regulation, or the established order by which anything is regulated” (OED, dated from 1500).  About a half-century later, the meaning expanded further to encompass established “law, custom, usage, practice, organization, or other element in the political or social life of a people; a regulative principle or convention subservient to the needs of an organized community or the general ends of civilization” (OED, dated from 1551).    This latter definition points toward the modern vernacular, in which the term institution denotes venerable establishments such as marriage, religious orders, and governments.

This etymology suggests both that the term embeds a complex dual meaning.  Institution implies action – to establish or found something new – while it also means order and regulation – to maintain conventions that already have been established.  The vast body of institutional theory is concerned with constraints (i.e., institutions support social stability), yet how institutions come into being or change over time is much less well understood.   The study of institutions challenges us to understand the processes of change and stability as distinct yet related aspects of the same phenomenon.    In this paper, we consider these questions in the arena of transnational labor migration.  That is, what role do institutions play in the action, initiation, and maintenance of such migration, what is their influence in the constraint or stabilization of transnational labor migration flows, and how do these forces interact across time and space? 

The “new institutionalism” (i.e., institutional theory after the 1970s) conceptualizes institutions broadly as elements of society that bring order and meaning through regulatory, normative, and/or culture-cognitive means (Scott 2001, 2008).  In Richard Scott’s (2008) review of the literature on institutions and organizations, he has conceptualized an “omnibus” definition of institutions that resonates to a certain degree with the broad meaning of the term that emerged in the mid-16th century.  This interdisciplinary conception, drawn from sociology, economics and political science (with the sociology assimilating certain aspects of cultural anthropology) holds that “institutions are comprised of regulatory, normative, and cultural-cognitive elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life” (Scott 2008:48).  According to Scott (2008), the regulatory dimension of institutions involves rule-setting, monitoring and sanctioning activity; the normative domains involves prescriptive, evaluative and obligatory aspects; the culture-cognitive component includes shared conceptions that constitute the nature of social reality (pages 52-59).  Rather than viewing these three dimensions as an integrated whole, and thus “over-determining” institutional life, Scott believes the “three pillars” are distinctive disciplinary approaches to the phenomenon. 

As an illustration, one form of institution that influences transnational labor migration might be a cultural-cognitive element such as the notion of risk, the chance of injury, damage or loss related to a particular set of circumstances, and the ways in which a given society perceives and interprets risk (i.e., a “culture of risk”; see Douglas and Wildavsky 1982).  In this sense, a particular set of meanings related to risk may have been established or “set on foot” in a given society under specific historical circumstances, and once established, this institution may come to be viewed as a “social fact” (Durkheim 1917; c.f., Lukes 1982) by new members of the society.   

Engaging such theory to think about transnational labor migration, one might ask:  How do potential labor migrants think about culturally-conceived risks related to emigration/immigration/migration?  What is the degree of risk assigned to emigration/immigration relative to other options, and what are the resources (or lack of resources) at hand to cope with or manage the risks? 

Beyond risk, one also might ask:  If transnational migration networks represent a new or emerging form of labor migration (compared with earlier assimilation/integration models; Favell 2008), how have these networks been institutionalized within particular societal contexts?  Are they institutionalized to different extents or degrees in different sending and receiving nations?  It is acknowledged that not all institutions have “crystallized” or come into being to the same degree (Barley and Tolbert 1997), and therefore it is possible that some contexts may inhibit, repress, or otherwise not be conducive to the expression of transnational labor migration networks (e.g., the US with respect to networks connected to Mexico).

Questions such as those posed above could be compared and contrasted across the contexts of the sending and receiving nation(s).  For example, one nation’s “culture of risk” is likely to be distinctive, given historical circumstances.  Different “cultures of risk” will interact, and the interactions will be complex, since they will depend upon the specific populations that are interacting (i.e., different risks may be associated with different populations).  Risk is only one institutional force acting upon transnational labor flows; there are undoubtedly many others, and these establish the context in which economic phenomenon unfold (Massey 1998).

Institutional theory suggests that the methodology for examining transnational labor migration flows should consider regulatory, normative and/or cultural-cognitive elements that may influence such flows both in the sending and receiving contexts, as well as the interaction of these elements across national boundaries.  The theory of “institutional fields” predicts that institutionalization processes may gradually develop interrelated “fields” or complexes of institutional elements (Scott 2008; perhaps they are global assemblages; Ong and Collier 2006) that will influence and interrelate to one another in ways that are different from the ways they relate to other institutions, and that such fields constitute their own level of analysis (Scott 2008).  The emergence of a “migration industry” (Garapich 2008) may signal the rise of such an institutional field related to transnational labor migration (perhaps to stabilize migration flows, or to integrate institutional elements of migration into other existing institutions), and it may be prudent to consider research designs that examine elements drawn from such fields as well as their interconnections (e.g., in the area of finance). 


Data and Methods

The research reported here is one component of a larger project sponsored by the Working Life Research Program at the Norwegian Research Council, which is entitled:  “Work Unlimited:  Identity Construction in a Global Context”, on-going from 2008 to 2011.  The overall project focuses upon the subjective and personal experiences of global work migrants moving across geographical and administrative boundaries in different European countries.  The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration among anthropologists and psychologists.

This segment of the research is a pilot project focused on neo-institutional forces influencing migrants’ work experiences.  In this segment, we consider data from historical sources and archival documents and from content analysis of semi-structured ethno-historical interviews with Polish migrants who are currently working or actively seeking work in Norway.   Interviews were conducted in Polish, Norwegian, or English, and usually were tape recorded with permission.  The ethno-historical method focused on the individual’s TLM experience, with an opening grand tour question and follow-up probes for clarification.  Additional interviews may have been conducted to follow developments in job seeking and changes in jobs over time.

The pilot study has involved interviews with 11 Polish workers or work seekers in Norway, identified through a snowball sampling technique.  Six interviews were conducted jointly by both authors, and five interviews (with construction workers) were conducted by one of us (CDJ).  All but one of the interviewees migrated to Norway since the accession of the ten new EU countries in 2004; one migrated during the Solidarity period in the early 1980s. 

Two of the interviewees were physicians, one was an IT worker still seeking employment, one was a public sector service employee, and initially worked as a chambermaid who since has found a new job as a language teacher (teaching Poles Norwegian as a private contractor), one was a university-based engineer, and five were construction workers.  Seven were males and four were females.

The work history narratives for the 12 interviewees revealed a diverse range of interests drawing Polish migrants to Norway.  The physicians were recruited through an agency that seeks and places doctors for hospitals.  The unemployed IT worker was the spouse of one of the physicians.  The public sector service worker initially followed a “significant other” to Norway and then left him, while the chambermaid-turned-teacher had family in Norway.  The university engineer was an asylum seeker who was placed through the Norwegian Red Cross during the Solidarity period. There are two different generations represented, and more young workers. 

In the following sections of the paper, we review some of the most important regulatory, normative and cultural-cognitive influences on TLM in both the sending and receiving contexts and differences in their approaches to migration and “risk-culture” by drawing upon historical, archival and interview sources.

The Polish Context

The explanations behind the emigration of Polish workers are usually explained economically and historically. From an economic perspective the high unemployment rate and discrepancy in wages between what a Polish worker would earn as opposed to moving westward explains to a large extent why the Polish population seems to have a great need to migrate. However from a migratory historical perspective, Poland has always had a history of emigration. Studies show that Poland has been the most important emigrant country among the Central and Eastern European countries. By mid 1800 Polish seasonal workers were emigrating to Germany to work because of changes in the agricultural sector as well as increase industrialization had contributed to a surplus of labor in the Polish nation. By 1880’s and up to WWI there were somewhere between 100 000 to almost 200 000 who migrated to the USA. It is estimated that almost 3,5 million Poles emigrated to the USA at the turn of the century. After WWI emigration continued to other European countries, such as France and Russia, as well as emigration continued to former destination countries like Germany and USA. In the 1930’s even though there was some call for the labor migrants to come back during the economic depression, this was also a period when Jews were forced to leave because of socio economic unrests in the society. During WWII the number of Jews as refugees increased and was deported to Nazi Germany and Russia. It is estimated that around 5 million people left Poland during the Second World War and out of these 2.8 were deported to labor and concentration camps in Germany or areas occupied by the Nazis including Norway. Between WWII and 1970, in other words, during the communist period, the number of people emigrating declined. However by the early 1970’s the Polish state started focusing on the Western countries and started liberalizing their emigration policies that regulated tourism and work migration.

By the 1980’ the movement of people started again and Poland once again became a big emigration country in Europe. Most of the emigration that took place in the 1980s and prior to the fall of the communist regime went to Germany, but also to countries in the Middle East such as Kuwait and Iraq. In 1989 when Poland got its first non-communist government, the economy in the country changed radically and contributed to an increase in unemployment rate. In this same phase, the liberalization of exit visa was increased and as such by 1990-1992 the Polish people could start travelling abroad without a visa. During this period the Polish government started negotiations with several countries in relation to exporting labor force. Negotiations were accomplished with several countries including Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland and so forth. By 1991 it was estimated that 300 000 to 350 000 Polish workers emigrated abroad. By 2004 and with the opening of the EU labor market for the Polish people, the number of emigrants grew and they paved their way to less known destinations for them such as to countries like Great Britain, Ireland, Sweden and Norway.

Most studies have pointed out that Poland’s emigration history should be seen and understood as a way of coping with economic and societal unrest within the country. As a nation, Poland is used to emigration; their people are and have always been on the move, going back and forth to countries close but also far away. Favell (2008) speaks of some countries having a “culture of migration”.  There are two events that can exemplify this notion. One is related to the importance of Poles living abroad for the Polish national identity. Kicinger and Weinar (2007: 14) argues how the political precarious situation in which Poland was under over the last 200 years, where they were either under partition or politically dominated by strong neighbors, made the population outside of Poland important symbols for their identity. The Polish government in exile in the UK as well as Polish broadcasting stations and diverse Polish Foundations that were formed in Polish communities in different parts of the world played an influential role in maintaining and spreading Polish identity during the Second World War.  Emotional ties and sentiments to those living abroad are still prevalent today, especially those who got deported under the Tsarist or Soviet regime such as those who are living in Kazakhstan  People living abroad were seeing as “martyrs” and “fighting” for their nation. This positive image of Poles living abroad and of emigration no doubt have contributed to a “culture” in which being outside of Poland, for longer or shorter period, did not make an emigrant less Polish.  This positive attitude toward the Polish diaspora could also be registered after 1989 by allowing Poles living abroad to vote at Polish parliamentary elections, allowing dual citizenship, by creating a new television channel called Polonia that broadcast all over Europe, Canada and USA and by the Parliament enacting a specific repatriation law for Polish exiles at the beginning of the 1990s.

Another aspect that could explain this specific culture was noted by a study undertaken by Okólski (1999) which argued that under the communist period the industrialization process did not follow the same pattern as in the western countries. In the socialist regime, the state-owned heavy industry did not contribute to a development in urbanization. This meant that most of the workers who came from the peripheral towns and villages could not stay in the industrial zones because of lack of urban infrastructure, housing etc. Okólski (ibid) points out how during most of the communist period the low-skilled workers circulated between the place where they work in the city and their household in the countryside. As a result the natural development of permanent relocation of villages and towns to big industrial cities that was common in the west did not take place in the former Soviet states. During the 1970s and with modernization of the industrial sectors the need for unskilled workers declined, but the patterns of behavior was established and the mobility pattern got extended to international arenas once the cross border policy was liberalized in the 1980s. Okólski (1999) calls this type of flow for “incomplete migration” and how as a result of this many Polish migrants have managed to live in two different worlds creating a form of “bivalence” life-style. 


The Institutionalization of Emigration in the Polish Context

The above historical summary show how the specific geo-political situation of Poland within the European continent, and its lengthy history of political and economic turbulence, uncertainty, and risk with respect to the designs of neighboring states, has fostered a society that for numerous reasons appears to have “institutionalized” emigration as a means of garnering a measure of economic and political security for its citizens.  Emigration has been “institutionalized” (established and normalized) through various mechanisms, including regulatory practices of the state (e.g., laws regarding emigration, support for temporary migration, rights of expatriates), normative practices of citizens (e.g., substantial proportion of Poles with relations and acquaintances living abroad, and regularity of experience traveling and working temporarily abroad to gain additional financial support), and the “culture of migration,” including the legacy of the Polonia diaspora, as well as the “Homo sovieticus”1 syndrome, which provided a “cultural toolkit” that adapted (some) Poles for a life of dodging authorities and entering into shady dealings in the informal sector, with the consequence that Western life may be perceived to be not all that different from life in pre-1989 Poland (Morawska 2001). 

These characteristics of “institutionalized” emigration established Poland as one of the most powerful sender nations in Europe, with several consequences for receiving nations:

Each of these factors may have served to counter moves made by EU and EEA states to restrict access to the labor market by Polish workers. 

The Norwegian Context

A brief look at Norway’s migration history shows that as a receiving country its “culture of migration” differed in many ways. Since the beginning of the last century, the laws in Norway have taken a restrictive attitude toward work migration except whenever the economic situation was such that the country needed workforce. It is tempting to claim that the Norwegian’s experience with” immigrants” started around the mid 1970’s. Experience, in the sense that it became a public and political issue and it set the stage for the immigration stop policy implemented in 1975.  It is interesting that it was when Norway decided to enforce a “migration stop” policy in 1975 that migration and immigrants as a social category became an issue in the public debate. Prior to this period Norway was primarily a country of emigration primarily to the US but since the beginning of the last century nonetheless decided to develop and enforce a law which controlled and restrict the flow of immigrants and particularly labor migration. After WWII Norway experienced economic boom period and decided to open up for work migration in the mid-1950. In 1954, Norway together with the other Nordic countries decided on a free movement of labor, and a common labor market within the countries. The majority of labor migrants that came during that period were mostly from Sweden, but also other Northern European countries and the USA. Norway did not consider itself an attractive destination and so it maintained its moderate yet somewhat restricted policy toward migration. This trend continued up until mid-1970 when the migration picture changed a bit and people from Pakistan and Turkey came as low-skilled laborers working primarily in the industrial and service sector located primarily in the Oslo district. Demographic data however showed that the vast majority of labor migrants were as yet from the Northern European countries, USA and Sweden.

As a precautionary approach and in response to the other European countries applying a more restrictive policy towards immigrants, Norway decided to implement an “immigration stop” policy in 1975. However, this restriction was aimed primarily at work migration since the restriction included controlling the issuing of first time work permits. The stop also was aimed at restricting the number of work migrants arriving from developing countries.  The policy did not include the recruitment of specific skills and expertise in the petroleum sector, and it also did not include asylum seekers and family reunion for the earlier labor migrants that had decided to reside in the country. Paradoxically, during this period the “stop” policy did not change the number of migrants arriving but rather resulted in a change of status in the migrating group: It changed from work migrants to mostly family reunions.

During the 1980s Norway’s experience with immigration changes when the number of political refugees from diverse parts of the world such as Iran, Sri Lanka, Chile and Somalia started arriving. As an example, statistic shows that while in 1983 there were 150 political refugees the number had increased to 8600 in 1987 (Tjomsland 2002). In the 1990’s this picture changed a in that the refugees came from Europe, mainly Bosnia-Herzegovina. Another change was in the agricultural sector. During this phase this sector got a special dispensation after informing their need for labor to the authorities. A quota program was introduced and most of the seasonal workers who came during that period were from the Eastern European countries, primarily Poland.  During these two decades even though political refugees were coming from other parts of the world,  the majority of migrants still came from the same countries as from the 1950’s in other words, Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain and USA. We also see a division in the type of immigrants coming: The majority was refugees or asylum seekers while a smaller number were labor migrants. Of the different national groups, it is the migrants from the Nordic countries that arrived primarily as labor migrants. In 1994 Norway expanded its free movement of workforce and a common employment market to include not only the Nordic countries but also the European Economic Area (EEA), but demographic data shows that this agreement did not have much effect on the migration pattern to Norway.

In the public and political arena the debate about migration has primarily centered on the non-European immigrants. Several studies have analyzed and discussed the paradox of how over the last 50 years Norwegian migration has been dominated by Europeans and primarily people from the other Nordic countries (Mork 2006). However, for the average Norwegian, the word “immigrant” has become synonymous with someone from a developing country and who is different culturally, racially and ethnically. At the same time compared to other European or developed countries, the percentage of the Norwegian population who are of migrant background is very small. Likewise it has been documented that the percentage of migrants who are actually labor migrants also is very low. In the academic debate, they have also focused on the discrepancy between the need for labor on the one hand and on the other the reluctance by employers to hire the labor force that is coming outside of the Nordic or Western countries (Mork 2006).  Researchers however have pointed out that up to now the Norwegian labor market’s need for competence has been acquired basically from neighboring Nordic countries. The seasonal workers on the other hand have been acquired from Eastern European countries, especially Poland. However, the need for labor is changing from one of lack of competence to an issue of demographic and as such it is questionable whether the preference given to those countries which are geographically and culturally similar could be able to supply the necessary labor force in the future.  The Norwegian migration experience seem to be that when it comes to migration from culturally similar and to a certain extent geographically near countries, this has not been seen as an problem. And as such their “immigration experience” is centered on those who are culturally and geographically far away.

Prior to the economic crises which hit the construction sector at around early 2008, the number of Poles were coming in large number. Work permits issued by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) to Polish workers showed the following number of labour migrants arriving after the expansion:

2004: 4528

2005: 8632

2006: 20860

2007: 341292

2008: 41815

By May 1st 2009 it was estimated that there were 42083 legal work permits issued to Polish workers (Source:  In May 2004, Norway as one of the EEA countries, decided to enforce “transitional measures” in relation to the labor migrants from the EU-8 countries. By this it was meant that an individual job applicant from one of these countries could get access to the labor market, but that they had to have an offer of a full-time position for one year and with wage and working conditions similar to a Norwegian worker. The transition phase was continued after the first two years, in which national conditions were still valid, but after 2008 an extension was only allowed for another year, in other words May 2009.  The transition measure was a way of curbing with social dumping. However, this measure only applied to individual labor migrants working for Norwegian based firms or hired out workers from a subcontracting company based in Norway. The migrant workers who worked as independent contractors or worked on a contract basis for a foreign based company based in Norway did not form part of the transition measure.

Stories of social dumping soon appeared in the mass media in Norway and it was especially companies who had used subcontractors and independent individual contractors who were accused of “social dumping”. According to a study (Mork 2006), the transition measure managed to “protect” foreign employees who were acting as individual employees in Norway. However, the law did not include “service providers”. In other words, foreign employees working for subcontracting companies, temporary work agencies based in for example Poland, were defined as service providers and thereby were not obliged to pay wages in accordance with the generally applicable collective agreement. The result was that companies who used the services of subcontractors could pay their workers less and even breach the regulations of the health, safety and working environment act.  The largest actors who, in the mass media, were guilty of social dumping were from the construction sector.

In 2005-2006 the government came with an Action Plan (Handlingsplan) in which there was an agreement that companies hiring the services of another company will have a duty to ensure that the subcontractor complies with the terms made generally applicable in the collective agreement (allmengjøringsloven). As of today, the general applicability of the collective agreement is limited to the construction sector. This measure was a way of protecting against low wage and exploitation of workers.  The government also agreed to increase the budget and resources of the labor inspectorate. They also gave the inspectorate more power to sanction those companies who did not comply with the law. The third action was to demand that all employees, irrespective of the company who hired them, had to wear an ID card at a construction site. In order to obtain an ID, the employee has to be registered in all public registers that is required by the Norwegian law.  And finally, it was demanded that Norwegian wage and working conditions were to be abided by when the public sector entered a bid. The main contractor at a construction site was also given more responsibility, and the role of the local and regional safety representative was strengthened.

At the beginning of the EU expansion the labor market had no problem absorbing the number of labor migrants from Poland, however after the crises, the Polish labor migrants started losing their jobs. Unemployment rate rose among them and questions and uncertainties related to their rights to welfare benefits such as unemployment compensation and child support became a major issue. The once positive view of protecting the Polish workers rights and welcoming their labor in the boom period, turned into a debate about which rights and benefits they were entitled to, whether they were becoming “welfare tourists” and whether they should stay in Norway or return back to Poland.  The government even came out with an offer encouraging them to return back to Poland and receive some financial compensation.

Recent studies of Polish workers in Norway are showing that the labor market seem to be unwilling to accept the Polish workers entry into the labor force other than as unskilled workers, in other words, giving them a similar “transient” status in the labor market as the case was with the labor migrants from developing countries in the 1970s (Lexau 2008).  Major actors in the labor market seem to share this attitude. A study for example shows that the Norwegian Confederation of Employers (NHO) is positive to labor migration, but under the conditions that they return back to their home country once they are not needed (Mork 2006). This has been compared to the Swiss or Saudi Arabian labor migration model. Then there is the Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) who is in a paradoxical situation since they morally should be protecting the labor rights of workers on an international basis yet, they are caught in the dilemma of having to protect the labor rights and employability of the Norwegian workers. As such, they too do not seem to be encouraging an influx of labor migrants (ibid 2006).

How are we to understand the transient status of the Polish workers and the lukewarm attitude toward labor migrants in the Norwegian context? The number of Polish workers arriving to Norway after May 2004 was much more compared to other neighboring countries such as Sweden and Denmark. The number of Polish people residing in Norway today are unsure, but figures estimate somewhere between 80 000 to 130 000.  The demographic picture of the Polish people in Norway has also changed after 2004: Before it was primarily female dominated and the majority came as a result of family reunion and higher education. Today it is mostly male dominated and they work primarily in the construction and service sector.

As we have seen the Norwegian society has always had a controlled form of labor migration and immigration in general. The Norwegians have primarily accepted immigrants from what is known as “culturally similar and near” regions of the world. And as such, even though immigrants from the Nordic countries have dominated, they have not been viewed as an “immigrant” in the Norwegian mind and experience3. In 1968 Rogoff Ramsøy edited a book called “The Norwegian Society”. In this work, Rogoff Ramsøy and colleagues described the Norwegian society as a “highly homogeneous country” (1968:392) and an “anti-.pluralistic country” (1968:395). Their definition of homogeneity and anti-pluralism was based on the percentage of population speaking the country’s dominant language, in other words, Norwegian and that there were no major divisions based on ethnic or racial criteria. Likewise it was pointed out that Norway had very low immigration and emigration rates and which resulted in that everyone living in Norway was Norwegians and that the majority of Norwegians lived in Norway (with the exception that Norway was one of the main source countries for sending immigrants to the United States early in the 20th century; Massey et. al., 1998).  Furthermore the authors argued that the degree of pluralism was measured by the extent the inhabitants were subjected to the same type of influence from the same institutions. This was also confirmed in that the Norwegian society from that point of view was  “extremely anti-pluralistic” in that they had “…one school system, one set of institutions for higher education, one church denomination, one national broadcasting system for radio and television” and that all of these important institutions were state controlled.  Over the last decades this image of a homogeneous and anti-pluralistic society has change over to one of pluralism.  However, values related to “equality” are said to the backbone of the Norwegian society. The Norwegians' strong sympathies for placing values on equality have been documented in several works (Barnes 1978; Gullestad 1989, 1992). But the notion of equality in the Norwegian context has been shown to mean sameness. Accor­ding to Gullestad (1989), the Norwegian way of talking about equality, which may well diffe­rentiate them from other Westerners, can be seen in their manage­ment of differen­ces. Differences should be downplayed at the same time as notions of sameness are empha­sized in everyday interactions. A sense of sameness is usually developed by creating a feeling that people "fit together" (passe sammen), belong together and that they make themselves accessible to each other (Gullestad ibid).

The result of this correlation between equality and sameness is that in a pluralistic context and where people are not perceived as the “same” subtle social barriers are created by Norwegians against those whom are considered different.

 The Institutionalization of Migration in the Norwegian Context

In contrast to Poland, one could make the argument that Norwegian society has not focused so much upon emigration as it has upon establishing means to regulate and control “in-migration”, short or long term, conceived of generally as the movement of non-Norwegian persons into the territory of Norway for more than a short stay.  The focus of regulation has been restrictive -- to limit the number and kind of migrants and to control what such migrants will do while they are in Norway.  The primary mechanisms of institutional regulation have been laws established by the state reflecting the normative order; the government makes laws and rules that express the central ideals of equality and sameness that were discussed above.  Over the course of many years, Norway has favored in-migrants from countries that are similar and near (e.g., Nordic, northern European, or US), and has restricted permanent settlers from countries that are different and far (e.g., developing nations), with the exception of asylum seekers and family reunions with same.  This pattern has held true, with the exception of the post-World War II economic boom period in which labor migrants from developing countries were permitted to immigrate until the 1975 migration stop. 

Norway’s response to the EU expansion may illustrate the “liberal paradox” ((Hollifield 2004:887; c.f., Garapich 2008:739), in that open markets for goods and capital were countered by restrictive rules governing labor movement.  Yet in Norway, the way around this paradox was through “service providers” (out-sourcing to non-Norwegian contractors or sub-contractors, primarily in the construction industry) whose workers were not paid wages or given working conditions that met the norms of “equality and sameness” required by Norwegian society, leading to critical charges of social dumping that violate these same norms4.  True to institutional form, the Norwegian state stepped in to regulate this loop-hole, supposedly closing it down with an Action Plan focused on construction. 

The Action Plan did not address the problems encountered when the global economy experienced a crisis in 2008, and Polish labor migrants began to lose their jobs.  In this case, those who had been working for more than one year were owed social welfare benefits, but the attitude of the state was that the unemployed workers should return to Poland, suggesting that even though they were to be treated as Norwegians while working, they were not to be treated as Norwegians while not working.  This response would again appear to reflect a version of the “liberal paradox” (i.e., open market to goods and capital, but closed market to labor).  Restrictive regulation toward non-Nordic in-migration still appeared to be in effect.

Yet, is the Norway-Poland scenario such a clear-cut case of “liberal paradox”, with the state caught on the horns of a dilemma that appears to trap it between economic and political forces?  Our pilot research suggests that there may be more subtle institutional practices at work in Norwegian society than those manifested via formal state regulation and control.  One aspect of new institutional anthropology that sustains the heritage of earlier disciplinary approaches (e.g., see Baba 2009) is an interest in the informal dimensions of institutional practice, including the market as well as those found in civil society. 

Our interview data uncovered several cases in which Polish immigrants were finding ways to remain in Norway despite the lack of readily available of jobs that had brought them to Norway initially.  For example, we learned of cases in which unemployed Polish workers, after having lost their formal jobs in Norway, continued to work through informal employment while other members of their family (e.g., spouse) remained employed in formal but lower paying service roles.  This suggests that other people (Norwegians?) were hiring them “off-the-record”, perhaps because they could not find anyone else for such work.  Some unemployed Polish immigrants who worked in Norway for more than one year were successful in securing unemployment benefits, as guaranteed by law (although it appears that this was not anticipated by the state).  In one local area, the municipal government established Norwegian language courses to help unemployed Polish construction workers to learn Norwegian and thereby find new jobs locally, since language skills usually are required to work in non-construction jobs.  This practice contradicts national policy, which only provides language training for refugees and asylum seekers, suggesting that (locally, at least) a public agency has acknowledged the presence of seemingly “permanent” (not guest worker) Poles who do not speak Norwegian (a contradiction in itself) and is seeking to integrate them.  In both of these cases, the civil society and the state are responding to the actions taken by unemployed Poles who have declined to return to Poland when they lost their jobs, and in each case, the responses are ones that enable “integration” of Poles into Norwegian society, but in quite different ways. 

In other cases, we interviewed individuals who migrated to Norway from Poland without work, and lived with a relative or lived on accumulated savings and sought employment in low paying service roles that did not take advantage of skills they had obtained in Poland, thus foregoing wages they could earn if they had remained at home.  These individuals continued to accumulate new skills that would support upward mobility in Norway over the long term (e.g., Norwegian language skills), but without a guarantee (i.e., they took a risk).  In the meantime, while they learned Norwegian, English served as a lingua franca. 

In each of these cases, economic factors were not the sole or even necessarily the primary reason that Polish migrants came to and/or remained in Norway.  Other reasons were cited, such as the relative advantages of the Norwegian welfare state (e.g., to obtain health care benefits), the attractions of the Norwegian life style and culture (e.g., an orientation to nature, a more “calm” society), and/or the difficulties of a severely competitive economy and culture in Poland.  Norway offered not only work, but a way of life that Polish people were choosing, while their native Poland was not that far away. 


In thinking about institutionalization of migration patterns in the history of a nation, it appears to be necessary to juxtapose sets of nations that are relevant to transnational flows, in this case, Poland and Norway, and to view them together as sets -- dynamic and interactive, or networks of responses.  The Polish people represent a connected worldwide diaspora, sensing and moving around Western Europe and the world, seeking opportunities to extend their reach and having created a highly adaptive “cultural tool-kit” (Morawska 2001) for survival and success in many different types of societies. 

Norway, while not an obvious choice initially, has in fact presented a welcoming environment that many Poles have settled into in one way or another.  Poland and Norway are relatively close geographic neighbors; they have good memories of one another from World War II that have carried over through two generations; Poles have been given favored status among labor migrants in Norway; they have been invited to be treated as “Norwegian” in several respects; they have been championed by Norwegians who have declaimed efforts to “socially dump” them.  This is quite a favorable scenario. 

It is possibly the case that the Norwegian context has tended to restrict in-migration, but the question is:  can Norway resist the powerful force of Polania, especially when Norway has opened its doors so widely to the Polish people for several years of economic boom?  There is evidence that it cannot, despite the best efforts of the state.  Already, the primary Bank of Norway, DnB, has added a third official language to its website – Polish, second only to English – and this suggests that a significant amount of money must be flowing through it, even during an economic crisis.  Norway may extend formal regulations to control in-migrants, but Polonia’s main adaptation is not necessarily formal, it may be a bit more informal and thus perhaps not capable of being controlled directly. 

Further, we should not ignore the issue of demographics, and the need for Norway to admit more workers from outside its borders and the traditional recruitment zones.  Poland seems to represent a compromise between the “culturally similar and near” and the “culturally distant and different”.  Durkheim believed that demographics represented one of the most institutionalized “social facts”, and indeed, a shortage of workers is a very hard fact.


1. Homo sovieticus, or “Soviet man,” is a term first coined by the Soviet satirist Aleksandr Zinovyev.  A satirical reference to the improved form of humanity that supposedly would emerge within the Soviet society, H. sovieticus was known for indolence, petty theft, and fascination with Western trade goods.  

2. The World Bank (2008) has documented that in 2007 approximately 36,000 people from Poland entered Norway and stayed for more than three months.

3.The colloquial term “Nordic culture” exemplifies the feeling of sameness that unites people from the Nordic countries.

4. Many of the labor migrants entering Norway during the post-Accession period were Polish, as indicated in data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which shows that in 2007, more first generation immigrant Poles were in Norway (over 30,000) than any other ethnic group, including immigrant Swedes (25,000).


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