Revolt of the Urban Periphery: Sweden’s Riots in Context

by Lisa Kings, Aleksandra Ålund, Carl-Ulrik Schierup

For years Sweden has ignored the cries of its marginalised suburbs. Now it has been forced to listen.

First published: 02 June, 2013 | Category: Europe, Housing, Inequality, International, Racism

On 13th May, Swedish police shot dead a 69-year old man in one of Stockholm's suburbs. Six days later, as the Swedish ice hockey team beat Switzerland for the world championship, the first reports emerged of a violent uprising in the capital. The tragic death and the suspicion of unnecessary police violence have been identified, in retrospect, as the spark that lit the flames.

The revolt spread to other areas in Stockholm, and then to other cities. Now, more than a week later, they appear to be dissipating—but public debate over the reasons for their emergence continues. 

Internationally, Sweden is best known as the epitome of a social democratic welfare regime.[1] Attentive observers, however, have noticed the changes in Sweden's economy. Earlier this year The Economist devoted a special issue to the Nordic countries, praising a 'quiet revolution' of reduced public spending, marginal and corporate tax cuts and the introduction of collectively financed but privately organized social services. It identified Sweden, along with its neighbours, as 'the next super model'.[2]

Inside Sweden the discussion has been considerably more nuanced.[3] Following the heyday of the social democratic regime, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the trend towards reduced inequality was reversed, and income inequality has increased steadily since the mid-1990s.[4] This development began under social democratic rule but intensified during the current right-centre coalition government. Today Sweden, although still relatively egalitarian, has the fastest growing social inequality in the OECD.[5]

Swedish suburbia

These developments intersect with residential segregation. Those living in marginalized areas of large cities, in particular youths with migrant backgrounds, have been hit hardest. As the sociologist Loïc Wacquant has argued, in order to understand processes of marginalization in cities we have to 'embed them in the historical matrix of class, state and space characteristic of each society at a given epoch'.[6] In the United States and the United Kingdom the term 'suburbia' usually denotes urban decongestion, lower residential density and private home ownership. In Sweden and France, by contrast, suburbia (the Swedish förorten and the French banlieu) signifies large-scale housing areas on the outskirts of metropolitan area. In Sweden in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an ambitious housing program (Miljonprogrammet—'The Million Dwellings Programme') sought to provide affordable housing to those with low incomes. Large estates were constructed on unexploited suburban land, such as Rosengård in Malmö and Husby and Rinkeby in Stockholm. However, what was intended as the pinnacle of Swedish modernity soon came to symbolize the shortcomings of modern social engineering.[7]

Since the 1990s, these suburban areas were transformed from 'mixed neighbourhoods' to areas populated primarily by a stigmatized 'immigrant' population. This concentration of immigrant households in marginalized neighbourhoods cannot be explained simply by their duration of stay in the country or socioeconomic status, particularly in the case of non-European immigrant groups.[8] Rather it is also a product of discrimination in different spheres of society. Patterns of upward mobility on the housing market underscore the racial dimension of inequality and segregation in Sweden: households with native Swedish backgrounds tend to move to higher status, predominantly middle class areas, whereas households with immigrant backgrounds tend to move to other, equally low-status areas.[9] The result is that spatial segregation, marginalisation in the labour market and public stigmatisation combined to generate significant social and economic problems, such as the erosion of educational infrastructure and achievement.[10]

From welfare to workfare

The state and local municipalities have sought through various means to ameliorate these trends. The 'new metropolitan policy' (Storstadssatsningen), introduced in the late 1990s, drew on extended collaboration between public policy actors and a remobilized civil society to combat urban segregation and social marginality. But major shifts in urban policy have taken place since 2000: from 'welfare' to 'workfare', from public sector and civil society partnerships to market driven collaboration, from 'segregation' to 'social exclusion', and from understanding marginality in terms of institutional and structural causes to a focus on individualized problems and solutions.[11] This has occurred in tandem with an emerging politics of securitization, and the increasing representation of suburbia as cradle of religious fundamentalism and threat to democracy and liberal values.[12] Reflecting on this development, Ove Sernhede argues that what were viewed as “problems” to be addressed through social policy measures in the 1970s, are now treated as matters for police intervention.[13]

Emerging grassroots mobilisation

Large grassroots mobilizations of urban youth have emerged in opposition to these developments, which very consciously connect the issues of spatial and social injustice. What unites them are the förorten (suburbia). They use the förorten to form a collective identity and to raise consciousness of processes that produce inequality, segregation, and racism and welfare transformation in Swedish cities. Education through individual assistance, study-groups, movie seminars and discussion meetings, all directed towards youth, are basic to their work. They are also present in public demonstrations and on conferences on urban issues. One such activist group is the Megafonen ('Megaphone'), which originated in Husby, where the recent violence started. 

Megafonen has assumed the role of spokesperson for suburban youth in relation to last week’s violent uprisings, insisting on viewing the events in a wider perspective. However, this self-imposed role and its attempts to nuance public debate about the riots by highlighting the political-economic background to their eruption have caused suspicion. On national radio, the police accused Megafonen on flimsy grounds of actively participating in the revolt. The radio's website was latest forced to publish a correction. 

Public and media ambivalence towards Megafonen reflects continuing tendencies towards marginalization of change- and dialogue-oriented organizations in Sweden's urban periphery. This selective deafness—together with years of austerity, welfare transformation and economic polarisation—is the key reason why last week's urban uprisings were no surprise, even in Sweden.

Lisa Kings works at REMESO (Institute for Research on Ethnicity, Migration and Society), Linköping University. She has a PhD in sociology.

Aleksandra Ålund is professor at REMESO (Institute for Research on Ethnicity, Migration and Society), Linköping University.

Carl-Ulrik Schierup is professor at REMESO (Institute for Research on Ethnicity, Migration and Society), Linköping University.


[1] Esping-Andersen, G. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

[2] The Economist, 2-8 Feb, 2013.

[3] E.g Schierup, C-U. & Ålund, A. “The end of Swedish exceptionalism? Citizenship, neoliberalism and the politics of exclusion,” Race & Class 53(1), 2011, pp. 45-64.

[4] Johansson, M. Inkomst och ojämlikhet i Sverige 1951-2002, Stockholm: Institutet för framtidsstudier, 2006.

[6] Wacquant, L. Urban outcasts: a comparative sociology of advanced marginality, Cambridge: Polity, 2008, p. 2.

[7] Hall, P. Cities in civilization: culture, innovation, and urban order, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998.

[8] Molina, I.  Stadens rasifiering: etnisk boendesegregation i folkhemmet, Uppsala: Uppsala universitet; Kulturgeografiska institutionen, 1997.

[9] Andersson, R. "Rörligheten i de utsatta bostadsområdena,” in Integrationsverket (eds), Hemort Sverige, Norrköping: Integrationsverket, 2000.

[10] SOU. 2000:39. Välfärd och skola. Antologi från Kommittén Välfärdsbokslut. Stockholm: Fritze.

[11] Stigendal, M. "Segregation som blev utanförskap,” Invandrare & minoriteter 12(1), 2012, pp. 5-9.

[12] As  presented in Ranstorp, M. & Dos Santos, J. Hot mot demokrati och värdegrund: en lägesbild från Malmö, Stockholm: Centrum för Asymmetriska Hot och TerrorismStudier, 2009. Försvarshögskolan, Report, 28 Jan 2009.

[13] Sernhede, O. “School, Youth Culture and Territorial Stigmatization,” Young 19, 2011, pp. 159-180. 

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