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Society & Culture of Iceland home > Icelandic Impression > Society & Culture of Iceland

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe with an average about three inhabitants per square km. Almost four-fifths of the country are uninhabited and mostly uninhabitable, the population being concentrated in a narrow coastal belt, valleys and the southwest corner of the country. In July 2006 Iceland's population totalled 304.334 people of which around 190.000 lived in the capital, Reykjavik, and surrounding areas. Iceland is a progressive modern European society with a high standard of living and a high level of technology and education.

(1) Education

The level of education is high in Iceland. Literacy has been universal in Iceland since the end of the eighteenth century. In 1907 school attendance was made obligatory for all children aged 10-14. In 1946 compulsory school attendance was extended, and at present it covers the ages between seven and 16. Those who wish to continue their education either go to various specialized schools or to secondary schools.

A fundamental principle of Iceland's educational system is that everyone shall be given an equal opportunity to acquire an education, irrespective of sex, economic status, residential location, religion, possible handicaps, or cultural or social background. Another important objective is to maintain and enhance the quality of the Icelandic educational system in order to offer Icelandic students internationally competitive training. Under law, everyone is entitled to free compulsory, primary, upper-secondary and university-level education. Education in Iceland has traditionally been organized within the public sector, but an increasing number of private institutions are now being operated within the school system. It is the government's policy to encourage the establishment of private schools and to enhance competition in the educational system.

In 1998, the Minister of Education, Science and Culture, announced an educational initiative by launching an ambitious new school policy for the primary and upper secondary levels. This new initiative aims at providing Icelandic students with an education that is comparable to the best in the world. The essence of the new school policy is an attempt at creating an efficient and flexible educational system that focuses on the needs of individual students, increases student choice and at the same time instils academic discipline, good working skills, healthy competition and enhanced student responsibility in their studies. 

(2) Health Services Iceland

All inhabitants of Iceland have the right of access to the best possible health service at any given time for the protection of their mental, social and physical health. The law ensures that there is no discrimination against patients on the grounds of sex, religion, beliefs, nationality, race, skin color, financial status, family relations or status in other respect. The health service in Iceland is primarily financed by central government. Financing is mainly based on taxes or 85% and 15% is fee forservice.

The country is divided into health care regions, each with their own primary health care centres, some of which are run jointly with the local community hospital. The primary health care centers have the responsibility for general treatment and care, examination, home nursing as well as preventive measures such as family planning, maternity care and child health care and school health care.

Hospitals in Iceland may be ranked as specialized teaching hospitals, general hospitals and community hospitals. Hospitalization is free of charge. The specialized hospitals perform most operations and procedures in all specialist medical fields. The health service is staffed by trained and qualified professional groups.

Life expectancy in Iceland (2005) is among the highest in the world. Average life expectancy at birth for females is 83,1 years and for males 79,2 years. Infant mortality is among the lowest in the world - 2,3 per 1000 live births. 

(3) Media and Publishing in Iceland

a) Newspapers

Morgunblaðið has for a long time been Iceland's largest and most influential newspaper. Its circulation exceeds 50,000 copies a day, making it certainly one of the most widely read newspapers in the world in relation to the size of its market. Morgunblaðið used to be a staunch supporter of the Independence Party, but has in recent years adopted a non-party political editorial policy.

Fréttablaðið and Blaðið are daily papers, distributed freely, mostly in the capital area. In addition to these there is large number of other papers appearing weekly or less often.

b)Federation of Icelandic Journalists

The Federation of Icelandic Journalists was founded in 1897 by Jón Ólafsson, with the stated aim of supporting honest and responsible journalism as well as increasing contact and cooperation among journalists. Membership of the FIJ now numbers approximately 450, some of whom work freelance. Unemployment within the profession runs at around 2.5%. Icelandic journalists have various backgrounds and training. Before 1990, education in journalism had to be sought abroad, mainly to the USA and Scandinavia. Now the University of Iceland is offering a one-year advanced course of study for graduates who plan to work in the Icelandic mass media.

c) Radio

The first radio station in Iceland started operations in 1925. The Icelandic State Broadcasting Service began broadcasting in 1930. Radio was to serve as an important vehicle for attracting visitors to Iceland, and for providing information about Iceland overseas by relaying to foreign stations and direct broadcasting to continental Europe. Now there are two national state radio channels and many private radio stations that broadcast around the clock. The first privately owned radio station, Bylgjan, went on the air in 1986, followed by several others in the months and years to come.


An American TV station operated since 1955 on the NATO base in Keflavík about 50 km from Reykjavík. On September 30, 1966 Icelandic viewers were able to watch television programmes in their own language for the first time. In the beginning, the State Television Station was only on the air for two nights a week. Screening was gradually extended, but for years there was no TV on Thursdays. Less than half of the material aired is Icelandic. Foreign programmes are generally subtitled, but dubbed for children. American programmes predominate, followed by British material.

During the 1986 superpower summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in Reykjavík, Icelandic Television faced unprecedented competition from Channel Two, Iceland's first private television station. Channel Two grew very rapidly, airing most of its programmes encrypted, with decoders available for a monthly subscription. Late in 1995, two new commercial TV stations were launched.

e) Publishing

The average number of titles published during the last few years has been about 1,600 a year, of which a third represents translations from other languages. Considering the small size of the Icelandic population, the number of books published is certainly remarkable and a clear sign of great literary activity. However, many people are concerned about the prospects for book publishing in Iceland in face of increasing competition from other media and the high cost of publishing for a small market. While the number of titles has continued to increase, the number of copies of each book printed has probably fallen in recent years. One explanation for this new trend may lie in the great increase in the number and circulation of Icelandic periodicals. Sales of books and periodicals in foreign languages, particularly English, have also been growing rapidly.

Periodicals of all descriptions have played an important part in Icelandic cultural life for a long time. Many of them have proved short-lived, but others have been more resilient, most notable Skírnir which has appeared regularly since 1827, most of that time annually, but more recently as a twice-yearly publication devoted to literary and philosophical issues. By the latest count, made in 1998, a total of 880 periodicals were published in Iceland, up from 562 in 1990.
(4) People

There is still controversy as to the motives of the first widespread Nordic settlement in Iceland. Some sources say that the Norsemen were fleeing the tyranny of King Harald Finehair, who was uniting the whole of Norway under his command at the time. Others put this movement in the context of the general Viking expansion of the period, plausibly linked to population pressure in Scandinavia and increasing scarcity of farming land or to serious setbacks of the Vikings in Norse colonies in the British Isles. However, the core of the settlers were thus Nordic people, coming mostly from Norway and Nordic settlements in the British Isles. The Scandinavians from the British Isles brought with them people of Celtic origin, so there are traces of Celtic influence in, for example, some of the Eddaic poems and in a few personal and place names. This blending of people and cultures, in which influences from all over Scandinavia and other regions where Scandinavians had settled, may explain in part why the Icelanders, alone of all the Nordic peoples, produced great literature in the Middle Ages. Since the settlement of Iceland was mostly complete by the middle of tenth century, immigration of foreign elements has been minimal until the past few decades.

Around the year 1100, the population, then entirely rural, is estimated to have been about 70 - 80,000. Three times in the 18th century it sank below 40,000 but by the year 1900 it had reached 78,000. It had passed the 100,000 mark in 1925; in 1967 it reached 200,000 and in 1999 the population was 279,000. The population of the capital area in 2003 was 181,917. The average life expectancy for men is 78.7 years and for women 82.5 years - one of the world's highest averages.

In 1880 there were only three towns in Iceland, where 5% of the population lived. By 1920 about 43% of the population lived in towns and villages with more than 200 inhabitants. By 1984 there were 23 towns and 42 villages where 89.2% of the population lived, while only 10.8% lived in rural districts and 1998 there were 30 towns and 94 other municipalities in Iceland.

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe with an average about three inhabitants per square km. Almost four-fifths of the country are uninhabited and mostly uninhabitable, the population being concentrated in a narrow coastal belt, valleys and the southwest corner of the country.


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