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Physical Traces of Religion in Public Spaces


In 2013 there was a discussion in Norwegian media about the use of cross-shapes jewelry in Norwegian state television. The debate was released by a concrete incident, where news presenter Siv Kristin Sællmann was denied wearing a necklace with a 14 millimeter cross during transmission, after one complaint to the television company. Many were provoked by this decision, and a vivid media discussion followed. In recent years several discussion have taken place in media and political fora about religious symbols in public spaces, for instance the right to wear religious garments and symbols for employees in public health services, teachers, in the police and so on.

Media debates on religious traces in public spaces tend to become polarized and somewhat abstract. Maybe everyday reflections on such issues are more relaxed and generous? Our aim is to study how people reflect on such religious traces when they meet them in concrete situations. Do we at all notice such traces, and how do we react? Are there different implicit grades of acceptance, so that religious traces are accepted some places while they provoke negative reactions elsewhere? We are also eager to find out what kinds of symbols are experienced as religious – based on various definitions of religion. Finally, we want to find out more about the degree of tolerance for traces from different religious traditions. In sum, we want to study the relationship between various religious traces and the public context in which they occur.

We intend to do a reception study where we interview people passing by places with visible religious traces. Most of these traces are to be found in the city center of Kristiansand, Norway’s fifth largest town, but we will also include historical traced (old stone crosses) outside Kristiansand. Most traces are various kinds of crosses, but we will also interview people about more open and ambiguous traces, and traces outside a mosque.

This is an explorative study following up a theoretical and programmatic view-point that we have expressed earlier (Løvland and Repstad 2014), namely that social semiotists and sociologists should co-operate more. Social semiotists need sociological concepts and perspectives to analyze context more precisely, and sociologists need the tools of social semiotics to get a better grasp of graphic traces and other signs as an important part of social realities.


Løvland, Anne and Pål Repstad 2014: Sosialsemiotikere og sosiologer – forén dere! Tidsskrift for samfunnsforskning (55)3. [Social semiotists and sociologists – unite!]