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island conversations
podcast series

Jens AndersenIsland Conversations
00:00 / 46:13

"Island Notes" composition in Cretan Flat Mandolin by Christophoro Gorantokaki @"Melody Box"

Welcome to SICRI’s “island conversations” podcast series.

The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands’ research, arts, and culture landscape.

The podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece.

Dr. Evangelia Papoutsaki 

Island Greetings. I'm Dr. Evangelia Papoutsaki, SICRI’s co-convener and the host of this Island Conversations Podcast series. The aim of this podcast is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands research, arts and cultural landscape. And today we have with us an emerging islands scholar, Jens Westerskov Andersen, a doctoral candidate from Denmark, an islander by birth and a sociologist by training. His PhD-studies focus on the social reorganization of small islands in Denmark, in terms of the distribution and concentration of native islanders and newcomers, second home tourism and seasonal tourism in the past 100 years.


Jens Westerskov Andersen. Credit: Jens Westerskov Andersen 

Jens has acquired both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Sociology from Aalborg University, Denmark – and he will have to correct me on the pronunciation, very soon. He has previously worked with small islands, rural development and planning in municipalities, local associations and national organizations in both Denmark and Norway.

Jens, welcome to our islands forum.

Jens Andersen 

Greetings, and good morning here from Sweden. Thank you for having me.


Jens, let's start on a personal note. In your personal Island connections, you said that you are a born Islander, you were born on a small Danish Island, if I'm not mistaken. Would you like to share with us some memories of growing up on an island, a small Danish Island? And in what ways do you think these might have shaped your identity and your worldview?

I think my island background and my childhood as an island has affected me in so many ways. I think I will start by telling that in my father's family, we have been on that island for many, many generations. And in my mother's family, her family were one of the first second-home owners on that island. So I'm kind of the product of that trans-local attachment or pattern of belonging really. You know, when I was a kid, I went to school on this small island. And after some years, I had to locate to another school on the nearby mainland. And when I got there, it was you know, it was always a struggle to get back to the island with the preferred ferry, you could go at two o'clock or you could go at four o'clock. And it was a shared ferry between my home island and another island. So, the ferry at two o'clock was the direct one, the other one would go to the other island first, and so on. 


And one day, I'm getting a bit tired of almost making the two o'clock ferry, so I asked my teacher you know what, in this particular class, we are always done so I can almost, you know, make the ferry at two o'clock, could we work out some sort of arrangement or anything like that. So, I can be sure to get to the ferry in time. And she said, you know what, you should really have thought about this before settling on an island. And I mean, okay, I was just a kid, you know, so I went home that day, and during dinner, I told my parents how my day was and stuff like that, and I told this story with the teacher, and my father burst into rage and said, you know what, now our family has been living on this island for almost 500 years and then some teacher will tell us that we should think about moving to an island and consider those things. From then on, I knew islands are really, really interesting, because of attachment and because of the historical makeup of settling on islands and what it will produce, what kind of belonging it will produce. So, I think that was a very formative or significant event, really from there on, which is quite early. I mean, I was I think 12 or 13 years old, but by then I knew, okay, small islands and communities - that something interesting, you should go into that someday. So really that is when it started I guess - a long time ago.

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Photo from field work on the island of Christiansø. Credit: Jens Westerskov Andersen

Yes, and could you tell us the name of the islands that you grew up on?


Yes, it's called Lyø. It's a small island in southern Denmark.


And how far is it from the nearest mainland?


Depending on whether you go to the neighboring island first or afterwards, it's an hour or half and hour from the mainland. And when my parents bought my grandfather's farm there, sort of when my island story began, there were 150 inhabitants on the island. And today, it's less than 80 inhabitants. So really, the island of Lyø as a case on what has happened to the small islands in Denmark is also quite a good platform - I should do an autoethnography one day on this, on this island in itself, because really, you can understand the depopulation trend in the past 20 years. It's very obvious in that island also, in terms of second home usage, how much it has increased. So that today 50%, or a little more than 50%, of the houses on that island are second home use, which is really a large concentration of second home owners compared to many other small islands in in Denmark.


So that can have its advantages. You mentioned that the population has almost halved, from the times that you remember, but a lot of houses are bought as second homes, what are the advantages or disadvantages to your island community?


I would say it's mainly a disadvantage. By this point, of course, if you can have 20 or 30% of the houses being used for second home usage, and the second home users in that case will be in a real sense, part-time Islanders, they're very attached to the place, they are members of the local organizations and associations, they use the local grocery store and so on, then it's very good. But we will have to remember that when we look at the small islands in the past 20 years in Denmark, really, second home usage has sort of pushed out all-year usage of the houses. When we look at house deals on the open market, we can see that second home users always carry a bigger bag of money to the table. So usually they win in that competition. And again, the geomorphological history of small islands in Denmark is a history that has produced agrarian communities. So really, we have what we could call a scarce housing situation in the small islands, because houses are in almost any Island, a product of how much available land is there.

If you envision a fisher community, you will have a lot more houses because a fisherman’s house does not require land. My point here is that the Danish islands, being historically agrarian communities, have a very small amount of houses. How we use these houses is very, very important and will affect anything else. If too many of the houses are in second home use, then where will you put all your new children's families and so on. If you cannot house them, eventually you will lose your school. So it's an important thing, you know.


Yes, I can really relate to that because down here in Aotearoa, New Zealand I live on a small island, Waiheke Island. It's an island close to the city, 40 minutes by ferry, and that proximity to the mainland, makes it a very enticing second home place. Also, as you've mentioned, people come from the main with more money, they can afford to buy houses, they increase the prices of the houses, there is a shortage of houses for locals. And even for people who come to work short-term seasonal work on the island, they cannot afford to do that. So that has multiple rippling effects on the small community. It seems that small islands share quite a lot of similar issues in terms of housing and the population and connections to the mainland. 


So, from what you're saying, clearly, you didn't need a lot of incentive to embark on research about islands and can you tell us a little bit what brought you to Island studies? Because you come from a sociology background? And what islands you're focusing on your research and why.


Yes, I studied sociology, and I knew in the middle of high school that I would eventually study sociology. And when I graduated from high school, I went to a graduation party on another small island belonging to my home archipelago. And it was an island called Bjørnø, and I saw all these similarities and stuff like that, thinking about my own island, and then I decided, okay, you know, I could use this small island case in my sociology studies. So eventually, when I started studying sociology, I used all these big year assignment, where I would go out and do very small samples of fieldwork; interviewing people, taking pictures, and stuff like that. Really, what I'm professionally doing today, but in a very small scale but with great help from a very encouraging urban sociologist, a professor in Denmark, which is kind of funny, that an urban sociologist would help formulate the island studies interest within sociology. 


You know, there's a Danish philosopher, who wrote a book on island studies, and it was the first book written in Danish about stuff like nissology and stuff like that. I read that book and befriended that author, and he really got me into the idea of island studies


And who was that author?


He’s called Jørgen Rasmussen. And he introduced me to this whole literature with Grant McCall and Christian Depraetere who are all the ‘old guys’, Godfrey Baldacchino.So, quite early on I got a sense of what is island studies is, institutionally speaking.


Did you find Island studies scholarly work resonated with you?


Yes, I guess, of course, you know, it was the early journal articles from island studies that caught my attention first, because I was at a stage in my sociological development where I was not ready to talk about decolonialization, or positionality, and stuff like that. The more recent journal articles have been something I have had to learn to engage with, but the early stuff really caught my attention and made me think about islandness and this scientific area that I could engage with in sociology.


That was during your bachelor's degree in Denmark, and then you followed up with your Masters studies. Was it also on islands?


Yes, exactly the same study just conducted in another archipelago in another part of Denmark, where I really tried to do more interviews and do more […] it was a small PhD project, being shaped there really. So basically, it was the same.


What did you find out from this comparison essentially, from your earlier and then subsequent research?


Well, I found out that there is a segregation of pattern in Denmark when we look at small islands. 1/3 of the small islands are harvesting all the young newcomers from what we could call the ‘creative class’. The rest of the small islands in Denmark are really struggling with attracting new inhabitants, and they most often only get retired newcomers people who own the second home, and then they move into the second home. But really, it's only 1/3 of the small islands in Denmark that can attract young people and stuff like that. And this was not clear in the public debate in Denmark. In Denmark, all small islands where completely the same. There was no comprehension of this (segregational) distribution of newcomers. So I thought that was quite interesting.


Presenting research in 2022 at the ISISA Conference in Zadar, Croatia. Credit: Cecilia Lundberg

What were the characteristics of these islands that were able to attract younger newcomers, as you mentioned?


Well, first of all, they had local schools, and they had quite big communities in terms of a small island. They had 150, at least a population of 150, and so it was easier to attract more newcomers than smaller communities, and they had a relatively short ferry crossing; maximum 30 minutes. […] and that is the statistical evidence for when we look at newcomers since 2016, and three years ahead or four years ahead. But when you interview the newcomers, they do not react directly to the idea of a school or short crossing. It's the community that all these characteristics sort of made available. It was a social condition, it was a social setting that they were attracted to. 

And here again, maybe I'm going in circles, but now we go back to the urban sociology start point, for my island studies adventure, because really, that's what you see in the city, according to both old and new urban theory. That people tend to

move where they can identify themselves with the local inhabitants. And, of course, the characteristics are important, but it's the social that matters the most, especially for the new newcomers that are moving today.

And I can understand that - that the point of attraction of living in small islands is that they have a well-defined community. And this is what is attractive to people who come from bigger urban Mainland places. However, the question here is, although that is the first point of attraction, is that enough to keep those incomers staying? 

And you mentioned these other characteristics, that closeness to the mainland, The frequency of the ferry, perhaps even the cost, one would also add to that. That makes it possible, perhaps, for people who are attracted in the first place because of the community element to stay. And also services. You mentioned schools for instance, that's very important.

Well, I think we should envision that the communities that are desirable to migrate to. It's only possible where the characteristics that we talked about, ferry, schools and stuff like that, are in the first place. I think that is the way, I think the development of these successful islands…

So that was your Master's research and how did you move from that research to your current doctoral research? What are you focusing on? Have you shifted your attention into different areas or aspects of island life?

Well, I think I have expanded my […] from only talking about, what we could call ‘Island segregation’ or rural segregation, I have expanded my scope to ‘Island usage’. Because really, if we have say, in my home island we have around 80 inhabitants. We have perhaps 120 second-homeowners, and then we have almost 60,000 annual tourists, then it's not only the 80 inhabitants that are important to understand the whole picture, the whole societal picture of a given Island community. So I have expanded my interest to both second-home owning as an attachment and not only a problem, but then a valid cultural, social attachment to a place. A trans-local attachment, and of course, also the tourists. I tried to, instead of talking about segregation, I think about Island usage as the whole thing; as the concentration and distribution framework in my description, as you have stated.


Together with island studies colleagues Sime Barbarosa and Christian Depraetere in Croatia. Credit: Jens Westerskov Andersen

30,000 people, is that what you mentioned? Tourists coming, descending upon a small island…

Almost 60 

So almost 60,000 people coming on an island 80 permanent inhabitants? 


Yes, that's crazy. 


What is the distribution of these visits? Is it happening during certain periods of the year or is it throughout the year?

It's very much in the summer period, and in the middle of the summer - summer time you know. But really, if you construct […] you say, around 5% of these visitors will stay on the island for two to three days or something like that. And the rest will only visit for one day and you know, leave with the ferry the same day, then you can create what we call the total human pressure scheme, where you can calculate how many person days they are really spent on the island. And then if you distribute them evenly over a year, you can understand that around 60,000 tourists and the number of second homeowner, it's equivalent, if we had 350 permanent inhabitants all year round, they create the same pressure on our system, on our water, on our paths and so on. So really, that's another way of seeing, Wow, this is this is a big impact, really, more than we think.

And the visitors visiting the island, because of its natural attributes. So for walking, sailing, what is your island offering to these 60,000 visitors?

I think it's a mix. First of all, it's an island that is quite easy to get to, outside of the island, it's quite easy to get to the mainland, the port. It's quite easy to go there by public transportation, also by a private car and stuff like that. And then the ferry is fairly often going per day, so it's not one of these islands where you have to stay there until the next day. And then the island in itself is not big, in the sense that you can go around it, and it's a very picturesque, it has traditional houses from the 1700s and typical Danish peasant community village where you have not seen farm houses being removed out into the open land. It has some historical value in a sense. You see a logical value that people also are attracted to.


So it's kind of a day visit small island that makes it, I guess, more appealing. What is the reaction position of the permanent Island inhabitants? I guess they see obviously a value in having visitors because that's a contribution to the island economy.

Yes, most certainly. When my parents bought my grandfather's farm, there were like, two people engaged in the “bed industry”. They started offering rooms and now today there's like 12 businesses on the island, offering different kinds of different quality where you can stay a night or more. So that's one thing.


And today I think we have five restaurants, when I was a child, that was only one restaurant. So of course, the local economy is heavily dependent on this tourism trend – this massive population of tourists. But also the municipal grid that our ferry is attached to is heavily dependent on a large number of visiting people from the outside because the islanders are not paying for the ferry, it's really society that is paying for the ferry. But if we can get 60,000 visitors in the summertime, where we have the highest ticket rate, that also helps the winter service really. So in many, many ways, we are heavily dependent on this industry both structurally and economically.

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Photo from field work on the island of Anholt. Credit: Jens Westerskov Andersen

Yes, absolutely. So, is your island part of your PhD research? How many islands do you include in your current project?

Well, my PhD project is divided into two phases. The first one I tried to work with as many inhabited small islands in Denmark as there is through a small mapping study where I tried to see what happened in the past 100 years, in terms of statistics and demographics and stuff like that. 


And the second part is a more traditional ethnographic study, where I visit four islands, and they are not my home island. But I thought I need to pick something new and try to look for something I am not thinking about beforehand. So I found four different islands in Denmark with a ferry crossing, from three minutes to three hours. So that's a big range, and the biggest range within the Danish archipelago. But they're very different in many different aspects. So it's a good sample.

So what are some of the highlights from your fieldwork that you could share with us?

20 years ago, a newcomer moved to an island to stay there for the rest of their lives. Newcomers today, do not think about Island Life for life. It's a time in their life. That's a great, great difference that will change how we work with Island development and how we work with population decline. But we will have to get used to the idea. I'm not saying that it should be like that. But that is the cultural trend today within Denmark. And I think it might be the same in at least Sweden and Norway, because we have almost the same views on how to live and how to work and what should a house be like and stuff like that. So, I think it will be the future.

So, if that is the future, what are the implications?

It will have great consequences for the accumulation of island culture, because it will become something that is disrupted or interrupted almost all the time. Before you could have very, very long strains of cultural activity in an island. Your grandfather could have been a local musician with local tunes, you would pick up these tunes not from him, but from the 10 people, between him and you in this sort of active living. And I fear that those kinds of island cultures will simply disappear when island living is not anymore for life, but for a period in your life.


Together with Jørgen Rasmussen at an island conference in the island of Samsø, Denmark. Credit: Jens Westerskov Andersen

It could result in new hybrid Island cultural expressions.

Also that, and we must also acknowledge, if you choose to live on an island, it's also your choice to go again and we cannot say okay, then you have no culture then you are not a real Islander. Of course, you are a real Islander if you live in on island, you are an islander. Of course, it will develop into something different, but I think the old culture will be the consequence of this new way of living in an island.

And as you mentioned, the reality is the population and so whatever can be done to retain a life on the island would be welcome to a certain extent, I guess. 




So, with your PhD research, you are taking a sociological approach. Talk to us a little bit about it. And also how island studies can inform or has informed your sociological view take on islands?

I think historically, Humanities within island studies have been solely conducted by ethnologists and of course, anthropologists, social anthropologists and so on. So within a traditional way of thinking differently […] schools of theory and stuff like that, then sociology and island studies is a good mix, whenever you can find a sociological problem in small islands; say small islands within a modern welfare state, within the rural theoretical scheme, where we cannot get funding for activities on islands. That's basically the same problem they have on the mainland, within the neoliberal scheme, and stuff like that. 


So from a traditional point of view, maybe islands within a modern welfare state should be a sociological phenomenon rather than anthropological, but again, that distinction does not hold any more, of course, but traditionally, you could say that. I think, when I started working at the University in Lund, sociology in Lund is the biggest sociology in Scandinavian countries. It's very prestigious. So, I felt like everyone else starting to work there, like a sociologist with a big ‘S’. And when I started going to conferences within island studies, I became so confused, because I really enjoyed it, and I kind of saw that I think I have more in common with all these different schools of training within island studies. When I talk with them when I mingle with him, when I listened to their research presentations. It amused me much more than going to a seminar in my home department. So then I began feeling like an island studies scholar or person rather than a sociologist. So it's very difficult on a personal level for me to say, Who am I anymore? Because I'm so into island studies. 


I think Godfrey Baldacchino is an example of a sociologist, transferring sociological knowledge, sociological analytical schemes into island studies. I think that's very interesting. Of course, I do not have a problem with Godfrey Baldacchino, but I think his work is mainly focused on large islands, whereas mine is very, very small islands compared to Malta or Gozo. So, I think big islands are over represented in islands studies today. Most of the research that we have in island studies are on quite big islands. So, there's a difference. I think sociology has a lot to offer to the social life, to the island studies family as a whole.

Yes and they're not mutually exclusive. One can be a sociologist, engaging with island studies, or in island studies using a sociological frame of analysis. I think that is the beauty of island studies; that is not excluding its transdisciplinary […] I feel on occasion saying I'm non-disciplinary. So, it's kind of an open space. 


Because I believe the island is an invitation to be seen as a whole, not just from one angle, from the economy or the culture or sociology or different aspects of tourism. You cannot study one single phenomenon on an island, everything, anything happens on the small island has an impact on everything happening on the island. So, I don't see the contradiction in there. 


So, as you're embarking on your career, your scholarly career, how do you see your research developing within this space of island studies? Where do you see yourself going to?


Doing ethnography with my family in the island of Christiansø, Denmark. Credit: Jens Westerskov Andersen

Well, I have given that some thought. And I think when my PhD project is done, I will leave the small islands of Denmark for a while and look to bigger islands outside of my home country. And outside of Sweden, also, maybe the Svalbard island in Norway; it's quite an interesting place. I've been there once. My agenda is to, in the long run, is to bring island studies into rural research in Denmark, because we have a few really good people engaged in island studies in Denmark. But we have so much focus on rural research, and so much support for rural research in Denmark, and islands are very small within that research, so I think I should focus in the long run on bringing Island studies into rural research in Denmark.

Which is very surprising because Denmark has such a high number of islands and small islands particularly. 

45% of the Danish surface area - it's Islands, bridged and unbridged. But yes, most rural research in Denmark is about industrial cities, in rural areas. And then you have a school of people working with smaller villages, but almost nothing on islands as such, and especially not small islands. And we all need that. We all need to go into that, I think.

I can't help wondering, what are the implications of using a certain language that excludes the existence of such large surface areas? […] when you say rural, but you're not actually acknowledging the island, as a space.

Well I think the language is a great picture of a big knowledge gap, really, that are quite often being thrown into the media in Denmark, so that when you have a political struggle, or anything in some small islands between the local government or the local municipality. You will get one of these rural researchers, and quite often, they give very, very broad opinions or it's very obvious that they're not doing empirical research in small islands, because then it would become much more detailed, the advice they would give the public, or how they would comment, stuff like that. 


I will say, sometimes it's a bit annoying to really follow these political conflicts when you hear from an expert, and you find that the expert is in a totally different field than island studies, and you can really tell from the points that the expert is making, and I think that's quite annoying.

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Church and graveyard in my home island. Credit: Jens Westerskov Andersen

Yes, that has implications on policy and real lives and communities. So if you can not name it, how are you going to own it and do something about it.

If you do not understand the importance of the local ferry, because you're used to researching quite a big industrial town on a bridge Island. And it's quite easy to miss some points on just how important the local ferries (are), how often it sails, when a day it will sail and stuff like that.

And, of course, we cannot leave out of this conversation, the impact of climate emergency on all these very small islands, which are going to be affected, perhaps already are affected.

Well, I know for a fact that the first […] it's 10 years after the first energy projects in small islands. And now we see climate adaptation or climate mitigation projects in small islands. Some of the islands are quite close to the sea level. My home island is not, at its highest point is 27 meters or something like that. So it's not in the danger zone, but some of the islands are. Already by now you'll see projects where they are working on how to meet the future in terms of rising sea levels, because we know that will happen. To some extent, we don't know how bad it will be, but it will also in Denmark be a problem. But it's not an area I have researched, really. So I can't tell much about climate change in Danish islands.

But it seems to me that you have your work cut out for the next few decades there, in terms of infiltrating the Danish Rural Research Development in Denmark from a sociological Island studies perspective, that can have an impact on policy, as well. 


That's true. 


So you mentioned that you're seeing yourself sort of continue your island research going perhaps to another country, exploring some other islands settings and contexts to enlarge your understanding of how islands operate. Do you see yourself going back to your small island to live there one day as a scholar? Is there such a possibility?

Yes, absolutely. When you grow up on an island, I know my brother had the same feeling when we were kids, we could not wait to get away from the island, being old enough to move. And almost immediately after we moved, we started thinking, how can we come back? Where should we live? What should we do? and stuff like that. So yes, I have had this ambition for many years to one day go home. And resettle in my small island. But I don't know how precisely it would come together with my academic career. I mean today, you can live in one place and work very distantly because of the computers and internet, so maybe that will be the solution.

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Traditional houses in my home island. Credit: Jens Westerskov Andersen

Coastal scene from my home island. Credit: Jens Westerskov Andersen

Could be, you can set up your own island Research Center on small islands.


Oh, yes! Actually, the farm that I grew up on, it's my father's family's farm. And if I take over I will be like the 12th or the next generation in that house. But I don't think I will move there because it's very developed in terms of tourists, and they have a small restaurant together with my brother and apartments and stuff like that. So I don't think I will have time for Island studies if I move there, but maybe my brother will, but yes, something remote from an island on islands studies that would be quite cool.

It’s big legacy, though that one, being the 12th generation on a small island, you can’t easily just say, I will not take the responsibility of it.

No, of course, of course, but I mean, it's relative. My great grandfather was a big farmer on the island. He had 12 Cows. Today, a big farmer has 700 cows in Denmark, or 500 cows or something like that. So it's relative; how big the legacy really is to continue a place.

True, true. But this has been a fascinating conversation Jens. Not only because you are embarking now through your studies into island spaces. But also your particular personal experience growing up on small islands. I remember we had a conversation some time ago about doing some auto-ethnography as an Islander.

Yes, but, we should […] I'm always, working on a small island side project, because there are so many conceptual things you can investigate, Community Action, Community Ownership, Action Planning; a lot of small things. You always can go into research through […] like an essay investigation or something like that. 

I know, it's a very addictive kind of life, and everything becomes a research topic or a possible investigation. It's an all-consuming life and activity. Well, thank you very much for your contribution to island podcasts, I really, thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. I'm going away with a few terms that you used ‘Island Segregation’, ‘Island Usage’ at ‘Translocal attachment’, or ‘Total Pressure Scheme’. These are all interesting terminologies that you brought into our conversation and made me think about the island from your sociological perspective, slightly differently. So thank you very much. And I'm looking forward to working with you more in the future as you are going to lead a SICRI’s new network on young and emerging Island scholars.

Yes, thank you a lot for having me, I really enjoyed it, and I'm looking very much forward to getting on with the Emerging Scholars Network.

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