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SPRI Review 2005: Polar Social Science and Humanities

Polar Social Science and Humanities

Sledges and dogs at Ilullisat, West Greenland
Image as described adjacent

Cambridge Canadian Studies Initiative

In this, the second year of the Cambridge Canadian Studies Initiative, the committee launched a new web site at This is enabling the Canadian Studies community to build a virtual presence in the university, make new research links, develop better resourced teaching about Canada, showcase public events, and publicise funding opportunities. The construction of the website was carried out in tandem with a university-wide survey to discover who is working on Canadian themes or has significant links to Canadian universities. The survey revealed numerous researchers working on a broad range of topics, who can now be connected through the Initiative. The 2005 Canadian Studies public lecture, 'Travelling Passions: the Life and Legacy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the Arctic Explorer', was delivered by Gisli Palsson, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iceland. Stefansson, born in Canada and of Icelandic ethnicity, played a pioneering role in making the Arctic, particularly indigenous perspectives on living off the land, better understood to audiences all around the circumpolar North.

Michael Bravo

International Polar Year for the Humanities and Social Sciences

2005 marked the arrival of the humanities as a major contributor to the International Polar Year (2007-2008), following on from the acceptance of a new sixth Theme in the IPY Framework dedicated to the arts and social sciences. During the past year, the IPY Joint Committee issued two calls for proposals, to which approximately 200 were forthcoming from across the Social Sciences and Humanities, which were then reviewed by the IPY Joint Committee, and vetted again for final approval. A circumpolar team of historians of science, led by Dr. Michael Bravo, is conducting a project on the history of polar research stations. The project is the first to carry out a comparative historical analysis of research stations in any region of the globe. This group is proceeding by taking an initial sample of field stations across the United States, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and Antarctica. The project has received official IPY approval and will run from 2005 through 2008.

Michael Bravo

Building an Arctic community of knowledge

Through a case study of a development project designed to promote Canadian economic-development institutions and practices to indigenous leaders and bureaucrats in the Russian North, Elana Wilson analysed ways in which knowledge moves across cultural and political boundaries in the Arctic. Many recent cooperative endeavours involving Arctic indigenous peoples and governments are based on the belief that knowledge should be shared across the state boundaries that transect the Circumpolar North. The research challenges the popular notion of ideas and knowledge circulating freely in an increasingly interconnected and globalized world and points to specific strategies used by the Canadian development team as they worked to render their governance knowledge stable, replicable, and applicable to several oil-rich Siberian districts. These strategies were techniques for imposing discipline on Canadian-Russian communication, primarily by making assumptions about similarities and treating contentious political realities of the Canadian North as resolved. Drawing upon over thirty qualitative interviews and participation in the development project, it was concluded that the movement of knowledge cannot rely on the real or imagined imposition of commensurability between Arctic peoples and places and argued for methods of cross-cultural communication that can encompass and cope with cultural and political variation across the North.

Michael Bravo and Elana Wilson

Adaptation to environmental and social change: new ways of experiencing an old land

A case study of reindeer herders on the Barents Sea coast of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug highlights the role of local knowledge, memory and collective agency for adaptation. Taking advantage of recent legislation, an extended family broke away from a collective farm to form an obschina (private collective). As their total territory, they were assigned the autumn pasture of the larger state-owned herd where they had worked previously. Thus, on a land they had known only in autumn, they now experienced familiar territory in unfamiliar seasons as they struggled to create a viable year-round migration route. The project analyses how the herders calculated the direction and varying pace of migration on the basis of vegetation, topography, wind and reindeer behaviour, and discovered resources and opportunities they had not perceived before by learning how to read the land hidden under snow in winter and working out new uses for expanses of frozen water. It was found that they quickly developed a hierarchy of criteria for evaluating locations and resources, and ordering their sequence; and that the process of discovery and innovation by younger herders was combined with a revalidation and reinterpretation of the memory of an older herder who had used the same territory at other seasons under earlier management regimes. The use of a multiplicity of resources highlights a shift in ideology from a Soviet-style herding monoculture to a diversified, mainly subsistence economy of a small collective.

Piers Vitebsky and Florian Stammler

Diverse perspectives on oil and gas in the Russian North

The oil and gas industry has immense significance for global security. With recent geopolitical developments, international attention is turning to Russia's oil and gas potential. Local governments and communities face new environmental and social challenges related to oil and gas development in areas of particular ecological sensitivity. Corporate engagement with NGOs, communities and local authorities can be hampered by a failure of mutual understanding due to a lack of in-depth and locally-grounded analysis. Inspired by the long-term fieldwork experience of SPRI researchers, an ESRC-sponsored series of four seminars was organised in collaboration with the London School of Economics, the University of Leicester and consulting firm Environment & Community Worldwide (ECW Ltd). The seminars brought together speakers and participants from the UK and Russia, aiming to provide a forum for dialogue between academia, industry, government and civil society, and to facilitate a critical examination of Western and Russian approaches to sustainable development and corporate governance in Russia. In line with current ESRC emphasis, the seminars focused on the interface between academic research and the user community. Drawing on the diverse perspectives of investors, companies, consultants, pressure groups and academics, topics included ways in which Western oil and gas companies manage the social and environmental impacts of their activities in Russia, community involvement and sustainable development planning for local communities, new Russian legislation which allows for new forms of land relations, environmental impact assessments, social and health impact assessments, and use of the anthropological expert review (in Russian etnologicheskaya expertiza). The results of the seminar series will be disseminated in academic and non-academic publications, including a special edition of Sibirica: the Journal of Siberian Studies, and a publication aimed at the user community.

Piers Vitebsky and Emma Wilson

Rocks and flowers