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SPRI Review 2006: Polar Social Science and Humanities

Polar Social Science and Humanities

The migration of Brigade 5 of the Nenets collective reindeer herding enterprise in Russian Siberia
Image as described adjacent

Polar field stations and International Polar Year (IPY) history: culture, heritage, governance (1882-present)

Amongst historical studies of scientific institutions, field stations have until now been conspicuous by their absence. This project, based at SPRI, brings together an international team of scholars to undertake a comparative analysis of a sample of circumpolar field stations with the aim of identifying national, disciplinary, or logistical approaches and trends. Although field stations are now taken for granted as part of the scientific landscape, they were only introduced 150 years ago and are still sites of innovation by architects and scientific planners. They have multiple functions in the production of scientific knowledge. These include: offering laboratory facilities to support analysis in the field; maintaining transport vehicles to extend the geographical range of field research; providing local resources for engaging local communities; and pedagogical opportunities for training future scientists. To launch this project, the group's first workshop was held at SPRI in January 2006, where a programme of research was planned. As well as managing the project, Bravo's role includes undertaking extensive archival study and fieldwork in Nunavut, Northern Canada.

Michael Bravo

Cryo-Politics: public engagement with environmental politics in the future Arctic

The group of interested stakeholders in the Arctic is growing. Future debates about Arctic security will involve northern peoples, environmental NGOs, international governance structures, as well as traditional states. These stakeholders may form temporary or long-lasting coalitions around these issues, but they will not represent a single perspective. To explore how future Arctic environmental debates will take place and engage audiences, we have begun a study of the emerging public understanding of sea-ice loss in Northern Canada. Events in the future Arctic will become more visible and acquire greater immediacy as stakeholders deploy new media and communications technologies. The Arctic will become an increasingly contested political ground, and arguments using evocative images of ships, pollution and Arctic sea mammals will circulate and inform audiences around the world. Sea-ice imagery, showing decreasing ice concentrations in summer since 1979, will inform wider public audiences while, at the same time, challenging other public representations of the Arctic by either contesting existing assumptions or finding new ways to show layers of complexity.

Michael Bravo and Gareth Rees

Marine mammal hunting in the contemporary Arctic

The hunting of marine mammals by Inuit in the Canadian Arctic has significant cultural, social and economic importance. The subsistence hunting of such animals as beluga whales and polar bears is embedded in notions of Inuit identity and attachment to the physical and social environment. The knowledge and skill possessed by Inuit hunters to safely and successfully hunt these large marine mammals is acquired and refined over lifetimes of engagement with the environment and its animals, and through the social relationships with other Inuit, which are enacted and reproduced through the marine mammal hunting complex. Contemporary Inuit must also engage with the concepts and realities of wildlife management, climate and environmental change, and industrial contamination of the food web. Inuit hunting practice continually adapts to these new influences and occurrences, as does the role played by marine mammals in Inuit culture, economy and cosmology. Through case studies of subsistence beluga whale hunting and trophy polar bear hunting, the evolving relationships between Inuit, marine mammals and the world beyond the Canadian Arctic are being explored. What impact are these global issues of wildlife management and environmental change having on small local communities where identity, kinship and knowledge are often so closely linked to the land, the sea, and the hunting of animals? Preliminary results point to Inuit interpreting and incorporating these global concepts in culturally meaningful ways, that allow for continued engagement with the environment on their own, local, terms.

Martina Tyrrell

An innovative approach to the problem of suicide in Greenland

Suicide in Greenland is studied from an anthropological perspective. Suicide is recognised as a major social problem among most indigenous peoples around the Arctic, but research generally falls within the idiom of public health, using epidemiological methodologies. By contrast, this study, funded by the Danish Research Council and based on 18 months' fieldwork, asks what it means to die or to end one's own life in a context where the nature of the living or dying person may be completely different from that assumed in such methodologies. The research explores local concepts of family, emotions, person, reincarnation and spirits in the landscape, and argues that suicide should be understood (and prevented) within the interplay between two local core categories of "relatedness" and "loneliness." The result is to reinterpret suicide within a framework of indigenous ideas of responsibility, agency, morality and destiny.

Janne Flora and Piers Vitebsky

Siberian shamans and their clients

Siberian shamans' relations with their clients are analysed, based on a year's fieldwork in the city of Kyzyl. Whereas earlier shamanic ritual focused on afflictions by spirits, urban clients today frequently believe that they have been cursed by family and colleagues. This apparently pervasive paranoia is set in an historical context through the post-socialist structures of social groups and networks. It is argued that the paranoia draws on a previous latent potential in the indigenous cultural repertoire of the imagination. The shaman's initiation does not only involve spirits, in one dramatic, Eliadean moment of transformation, but is the outcome of several stages in the unfolding of social relationships and events in the shaman's own biography. These autobiographic events form the raw material for the shaman's technique of healing, by bringing them into implicit or explicit parallel with the biography of the client and blending them with motifs from epic legends to develop narratives of power, revenge and closure. However, a psychoanalytic model of transference and counter-transference would suggest that the shaman's continuing vocation depends on an ongoing failure of any such resolution in his own psychobiography.

Kostas Zorbas and Piers Vitebsky

A Nenets woman visiting the town of Amderma, Russian Siberia
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SPRI initiates BOREAS, a major new research initiative in Arctic humanities and social sciences

BOREAS ("Histories from the North - environments, movements, narratives") is an international programme of innovative research on the Arctic in the humanities and social sciences. Initiated and drafted by Piers Vitebsky at SPRI in 2004, it was adopted by the European Science Foundation (ESF) and launched in 2006. The circumpolar reach of the Arctic has allowed the ESF to use BOREAS as a pioneering experiment in collaborating with funding agencies in Canada, the USA and Russia. In two years, BOREAS has grown into the largest humanities programme ever seen in the Arctic, with a budget of 6 million Euros from research councils in Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the United States, and with associated partners in Belgium, France, Germany, Russia, Switzerland and the UK. BOREAS ( has three capacity-building aims:

  • To add a humanities counterweight to the longstanding dominance of the natural sciences in Arctic research. Rather than a token add-on "human dimension" to a natural sciences agenda, BOREAS has been designed as an entire programme based on agendas and methods of the humanities.
  • To strengthen the integration of Europe's scattered researchers in Arctic humanities, who do not enjoy the level of coordination or support available to their colleagues in Canada and the USA.
  • To de-provincialise the Arctic humanities themselves. While scholars studying Indonesia, Africa or Amazonia frequently use each other's work, Arctic researchers remain largely isolated from those working on other regions.

The BOREAS call for proposals focused on the following topics in particular:

  • Time and space, change and movement, to link the long time-scales of geology and archaeology with the shorter time-scales of colonial history and living memory.
  • Governance and sovereignty, industrialisation and subsistence, as Northern societies face southern demand for natural resources and revenue dependence on world markets.
  • Mutual identity formation between indigenous communities and immigrants at the Northern frontier; vulnerability, resilience and the limits to social and cultural adaptability.
  • Languages, philosophies and religions, especially conceptualisations of the non-human environment (landscape, animals) as a nexus of quasi-human social relations and a field of multiple and contradictory agencies.
  • New ways in which researchers and Northern residents can collaborate as partners in the production of knowledge and the framing of political, cultural and science agendas for the North.

Piers Vitebsky