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SPRI Review 2002: Polar Social Science and Humanities

Polar Social Science and Humanities

The disunity of the Nordic Arctic

In collaboration with a group of Nordic historians of science, we examined what the national Arctic histories of science and culture of Sweden and Denmark would provide when analysed together. If put alongside each other, would they speak to each other and reveal hitherto disregarded patterns of national strategies and agendas, of scientific practices, of indigenous relationships, and other themes? The aim was to discover either a unifying account or at least an explanation of the 'disunity of the field sciences'. Our conclusions were counterintuitive: the Swedish and Danish histories present a complex contrast of ideas and narratives about colonial presence. When it comes to the Arctic, the additional element of nationalism is unusually powerful. Arctic exploration and research was for a long time part of public memory and national myth-making; not until very recently has this been considered a worthwhile undertaking by professional scholars in the Nordic countries. A striking phenomenon of these nationalisms is that they have remained isolated in relation to each other. Despite the geographical contiguity, the linguistic similarities, and the close historical, cultural and political links between the countries there is no collective 'Nordic' memory, very scant knowledge of the history of the other countries, and a very vaguely conceived Nordic community. Just as it seems to be a universal fact that national symbolic communities are by themselves creating knowledge barriers and selected perception of time and space, so too, the curricula in schools have painstakingly avoided the details of any other Nordic country's history, apart from that of the mother country.

Michael Bravo

Ethnic tensions in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia)

Ethnicity is a crucial factor in discourses of regional self-determination in the Russian north, and local elites are the key actors in how these are played out. Tanya Argounova has examined the politics of ethnicity in the Sakha Republic. Throughout the Soviet period, the Sakha were subjected to a repetitive cycle in which a civil disturbance or incident was denounced as a manifestation of natsionalizm, which then triggered accusation and punishment of ethnic leaders. By analysing conflicts and contradictions within local cultural and political elites, she has shown how natsionalizm differs from 'nationalism' in western social science discourse, and how it functioned instead as a smokescreen to disguise, and prevent discussion of, a range of complex social, political, economic and ethnic issues. Her research highlights the role in these cases of the remote rural district of Tatta, a district that stands symbolically as the heartland of traditional Sakha culture. She also demonstrates how, despite this persecution, Tatta cultural and linguistic forms have come to lie at the core of a new homogenised pan-Sakha ethnic identity, in the name of which the Sakha Republic has staked its recent claim to increased self-determination and a share of the region's diamond revenue.

Piers Vitebsky

Oil development and local democracy on Sakhalin Island

Multinational oil and gas developments affect much of the Russian North, but public consultation procedures and social impact studies are poorly developed. Emma Wilson studied opportunities and limitations on local participation in natural resource management in northeastern Sakhalin, where the prominent involvement of multinational corporations and development banks has given rise to particular concern among international NGOs about social and ecological issues. Building on an ethnographic study of attitudes in this remote area of Russia, she analysed the dynamics of subsistence gardening, sea fishing, reindeer herding, and small-scale entrepreneurship, to reveal a web of moral entitlements, differential access to information, and conflicting everyday practices. The research distinguished diverse paths leading either to activism as resistance to globalisation, or to resignation as a retreat into subsistence and self-sufficiency. By focusing on space as locus of opportunity and dialogue as critical engagement, she challenges the assumptions of 'participation' and 'sustainable development' by deconstructing interventionist discourses and showing the implications of these for concepts of agency and responsibility, and thus the theoretical and practical difficulty of incorporating multiple voices into the decision-making process.

Piers Vitebsky

Space, psychotherapy and shamanic heritage in the Russian north

Starting from the wider post-Soviet problem of the troubled relationship between one's future and one's past, the social and psychological consequences of the drastic withdrawal of the state from Russia's northern regions as the country's economic crisis transformed huge distances from an asset into a liability has been explored. This state had systematically destroyed indigenous traditions of self-sufficiency and made indigenous communities dependent on a centralised infrastructure. Local psychotherapy groups were participated in to investigate the interplay of language, silence and non-verbal communication among the diverse ethnic groups and to demonstrate how indigenous people's belief that they are on the verge of extinction without this support is also a psychological state related to trans-generational collective trauma. Moving beyond a focus on present conditions alone, specific links between the high rates of depression and suicide among indigenous peoples and specific forms of state violence in previous generations have been identified. In studying the life histories of the children of shamans and the vicissitudes of a hereditary 'shamanic impulse' that may be blocked, transformed or fulfilled in various ways, a theory of the distinction between historical versus existential trauma has been developed.

Piers Vitebsky