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SPRI Review 2003: Polar Social Science and Humanities

Polar Social Science and Humanities

Moravian missionaries as Arctic natural historians

Field naturalists played an important role in exploring and revealing the natural world of the polar regions. This project aims to examine the contribution of Moravian missionaries to the study of Arctic natural history. During the eighteenth century, the Moravian church encouraged its missionaries stationed at disparate sites around the globe, including Labrador and Greenland. They collected plants and mineral specimens as well as describing local culture. While this work appealed to some missionaries as an interesting pastime, it was also done to acquire practical and useful knowledge about their adopted environments, as well as a way of meditating on the natural world as God's work. For the Moravian mission society based in London, collecting was a useful means of earning the patronage of powerful collectors, and hence social standing at times when non-established churches in Britain faced much hostility. The Moravian church headquarters, based in Saxony, established its own natural history collection at Barby, and in 1777 issued instructions offering advice to potential collectors in the field. As a sign of their desire to contribute to a larger European enterprise, they published a Hortus Barbiensis, placing the traditional Germanic regional nomenclature alongside the new, binomial Linnaean system.

Michael Bravo

The concept of self-sufficiency in polar societies

The idea of self-sufficiency has figured prominently in Arctic and Antarctic societies. The polar regions have traditionally been conceived as places specially suited to putting qualities of individual ingenuity, skill, and endurance to the test. Many indigenous peoples, as well as explorers, settlers, and missionaries have valued the role of the individual as an essential ingredient in preserving the self-sufficiency, coherence, and survival of the communities. Our research group made a detailed examination of self-sufficiency in the Arctic from historical and contemporary perspectives. Michael Bravo studied the artisanal ideals of skill and self-sufficiency in the social structure of Moravian missions in Greenland. Their failed attempts at small-scale agriculture required them instead to adapt to rely instead on local commodity networks. Marcelle Chabot continued to investigate the changing economic relations in Inuit family households to show how families sustain themselves by cross-subsidies from wage labour to subsistence hunting.

Michael Bravo and Marcelle Chabot

'Social orphans' and the changing family in the Russian northeast

A four-year project was completed on the rapidly increasing numbers of children in Russia who are brought up in children's homes despite having close living relatives, raising serious concerns over the future viability of the family. Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill conducted 12 months' fieldwork in Magdan and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, interviewing officials, parents, and former residents who are irreversibly institutionalised and often progress to prison. Adapting theories from child psychology, she analysed the structure and functions of institutions, prevailing concepts of the child, and the state's inclination to break-up a family in difficulty rather than support it. A discourse analysis of court hearings for deprivation of parental rights, using concepts of power, agency, and voice, reveals the intellectual and emotional deprivation of parents, fuelled by normative judgements about 'bad parents' that weave strands of Stalinist show-trial and European witchcraft accusation into a distinctive modern, post-Soviet discourse of accusation and blame. The study argues forcefully for a measure of de-institutionalisation.

Piers Vitebsky

Agency and constraints in the discourse around Komi reindeer husbandry

As part of the Institute's long-term programme on reindeer herding societies across Eurasia, Otto Habeck completed an anthropological study of the Komi in the far north of European Russia. He analysed forms of agency in various domains: the herding unit and enterprise, the household and village community, relations with oil companies using the same land, and relations with other actors farther afield. The concept of agency is pitched against forms of structural and other constraints to yield a complex picture of opportunity and resources. A key conclusion is the highlighting if the concept of 'tradition,' which an analysis of differing and contradictory scales of image and value reveals to be highly constraining, since it originates and is validated from outside the community. The research argues that in order for the reindeer herders and their family members to develop a viable future, it is vital to gain control of their own image.

Piers Vitebsky

Predictive dreams and personal destiny in the Siberian Arctic

The study of dream narratives collected by Piers Vitebsky during 15 years' fieldwork among indigenous Eveny people shows that predictive dreams cluster around specific anxieties for which Soviet and post-Soviet society offers scant reassurance: hunting luck, happy marriage, and sudden death. Such dreams are felt to grant or withhold vital clues that might enable the dreamer to take control of his destiny, but analysis reveals that dreams are often over-determined, suggesting that they are contained within a wider biographical trajectory, whereby the dreamer's multiple personhood is constructed like that of a shaman, although with weaker powers of insight. The study also examined the relationship between the timing of dream fulfilment and the cyclical forms of nomadic space, a relationship specific to reindeer herders and hunters. But new evidence shows that local Russians experience similar dreams, and research will explore whether and how they are drawn into a regional, indigenous style of sensibility.

Piers Vitebsky