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SPRI Review 2007: Polar Social Science and Humanities

Polar Social Science and Humanities

The governance of scientific research stations in the Polar regions

The impact of the advent of research stations in the field sciences in the second half of the nineteenth century has been compared to the laboratory revolution in the same period. Permanent field stations enabled new kinds of scientific studies requiring specialised instruments and facilities to take place away from metropolitan centres of research. These stations fundamentally challenged previous assumptions about the limits to precision in scientific fieldwork, leading to the introduction of new research techniques, longer studies, and the adoption of new standards of evidence. They also served as geopolitical markers of state presence in what were often traditional indigenous homelands. Research stations, like trading posts before them, were sites of exchange of knowledge between states, scientists, and northern peoples. In recent decades, field stations have continued to play an important symbolic role in questions of national identity, presence, and sovereignty, as well as serving as vehicles for brokering international collaboration. As part of an AHRC funded research project on science and governance, detailed research into the management and record-keeping practices of field stations in Northern Canada was carried out. Processes of political devolution were found to have impacted upon on questions of funding and resource allocation. Research included extensive semi-structured interviews with station managers as well as extensive analysis of the station's management and project records. Thanks to an AHRC Research Leave award, Bravo was able to devote additional time to writing up this research for publication. The history of field stations is an ongoing International Polar Year project with members from seven countries, coordinated by Bravo. In May 2007, the Institute hosted a two-day discussion of pre-circulated papers following on from the successful workshop in January 2006.

Michael Bravo

Polar Bear female and cubs on sea ice in NE Greenland
Image as described adjacent

Enabling diversity: extending museums collections with Arctic communities

How can Arctic collections in museums become more meaningful to people who actually live in the Arctic? Dr. Michael Bravo and Dr. Robin Boast believe that the idea of online 'access' needs to be explored more creatively. Normally access is understood to mean viewing objects and their simple descriptions over the internet. The website at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is an excellent example ( Expert communities who know most about the objects – like Inuit residents of the Arctic – are able to add information and develop historical narratives. Technically, the contribution of northern experts is limited only by the consent of those wanting to add data to the collection, and the ability of the institution to respond by building these networks: the range of northern voices contributing to the collections becomes theoretically limitless. By enabling diverse user communities to engage directly with collections, this project will broaden the information base, both its extent and expertise, directly in collaboration with individuals and communities. Creating this kind of access requires what developers call 'on-line social computing (Web 2.0) systems'. This means making the process of access to the collections more meaningful to all users, not just those who like computers. Having developed some prototype software, Boast and Bravo intend to work with people in Clyde River, Nunavut in Northern Canada to trial a system for their museum collections. To achieve this, the museums will invite the user communities to decide what descriptions best suit the objects in the collections. The radical solution proposed here is to vastly extend access and use to the communities themselves. The project has so far made available, on-line, the documents, photographs and objects from the Graham W. Rowley, Thomas T. Patterson, Thomas Henry Manning and Sir James Wordie collections, thanks to a grant of £97,180 from the Designated Challenge Fund of the Museums Libraries and Archives Council.

Michael Bravo

Power, knowledge and the state in North Norway

An ethnographic study of the modernisation of indigenous Sámi reindeer pastoralism in northern Norway, based on 15 months' fieldwork, examined the role of the state, the social effects of industrialisation, the politics of animal welfare and the history of scientific interventions into herding practice. Research focused specifically on the neglected study of reindeer killing and slaughter, demonstrating that in recent decades, human powers vested in the conduct of reindeer slaughter have created entirely new conditions for practice, placing the identities of reindeer and herders at stake in ways that are still only beginning to be conceptualised. The research seeks to broaden existing debates concerning pastoral modernisation, both in the Arctic and worldwide.

Traditional Sámi reindeer slaughter is a routine and visible everyday practice, conducted by all members of the community. In recent decades, industrialisation has increasingly shifted this slaughter into the closed space of the modern slaughterhouse, within which the moment of death is reconstituted as a domain of unseen experts, operating behind closed doors. By drawing out the parallels with the religious sacrifice of animals, as well as with Giorgio Agamben's 'bare life' in concentration camps, the transformation of slaughter was analysed as a juncture between individual acts of embodied killing and a broader sacrificial economy of biopolitics that regulates the destruction of life at aggregate or populational levels.

Hugo Reinert and Piers Vitebsky

Graveyard at Illulisat, West Greenland
Image as described adjacent

Children's views of their own future in northeastern Siberia

A twelve-month fieldwork study examined children's ideas about their own future among the Eveny, a small indigenous group of nomadic reindeer herders in northeast Siberia. A detailed examination of the narratives of children and adolescents explored how local social practices and ideologies shaped their constructs of time, space, agency and personhood. Analysis of narrated and written future 'autobiographies' revealed significant differences in socialisation between children reared in two distinct but inter-related cosmological and social spaces: the forest, a zone of traditional habitation; and the village, created recently by the Soviet regime. Each space is associated with the formation of a different kind of person and consequently with a different life trajectory. Forest children show a particular construct of time and space, which is grounded in indigenous practices of sharing and in which the child's developing personhood is likened to that of a reindeer calf. The village life trajectory, by contrast, more directly affects the community's despair, alcoholism and collapse of infrastructure and social welfare (the study village is considered particularly accursed, since it is built on the site of a former GULAG camp and is said to be haunted by the ghosts of the camp's Russian victims). In both sites, children's stories about their own future reveal their response to the present as they take their parents' lives as a template, but reverse their parents' widespread alcoholism, poverty and broken families. Research reveals two distinct constructs of agency: the village child imagines leaving to settle in the city, while the forest child imagines bringing the fruits of city education back to their family of origin, corresponding to a difference between the shapes of historical (linear) and nomadic (cyclical) time. Both kinds of agency transform children's autobiographical narratives into an improvised, cosmologically sanctioned genre of prayer. While village children's vision follows a modernist ideal of urbanisation and advancement, the forest children's scenario follows indigenous formats of the redemptive absence and return of the epic hero or shaman.

Olga Ulturgasheva and Piers Vitebsky