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SPRI Review 2008: Polar Social Sciences and Humanities

Polar Social Sciences and Humanities

Polar governance, security and geopolitics

The future of Arctic governance has become a topic of much discussion over the past year. High commodity prices and the prospect of new opportunities for oil and gas extraction have raised new questions about sovereignty, security and environmental regulation. Major issues such as energy security, climate change, sustainable livelihoods, and the protection of marine mammals and fish shape policy priorities very differently in disparate political regions. As prospective stakeholders like the European Union, China, and the extractive industries seek greater access to the Arctic Council, new governance fora seeking to influence the international machinery of governance have emerged. In such a climate, experienced Arctic researchers have an important role in helping to ensure that public policy debates are well informed by disinterested and objective research in scientific and policy-based processes. During 2008, Bravo was invited to provide briefings on the state of the Arctic for a broad range of stakeholders, including the governments of the United Kingdom and Canada. Bravo has also accepted invitations to make policy analysis presentations in such non-governmental fora as the Canadian Institute of Research on Public Policy (Montreal-based), the Institute on Applied Circumpolar Policy (Dartmouth College, Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks), and the World Wildlife Fund (Zeist, Netherlands).

Michael Bravo

A reindeer herding camp on Yamal Peninsula, Arctic Russia
Image as described adjacent

Setting Arctic research in a wider global context

Concerned that Arctic research is often isolated from research on other regions of the world, SPRI social scientists are making systematic regional comparisons. Following a recent special issue of Cambridge Anthropology co-edited by Olga Ulturgasheva which compared Siberia and Amazonia as resource frontiers, Piers Vitebsky and Otto Habeck organised a conference on 'De-provincialising Arctic research' at the Max-Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany, within the framework of the European Science Foundation's BOREAS programme of Arctic Humanities research, of which Vitebsky is the Chair. Teams of BOREAS researchers presented their ongoing projects for comment by researchers on or from South Asia, Latin America, and Africa, thereby revealing hitherto unrecognised synergies. Themes included frontiers and borders; indigeneity and indigenism; conversion and community cohesion; migration and relocation; development and conservation; and environmental change. A case-study considered the position of indigenous peoples at the margin of the industrial super-state, comparing nomadic hunters and reindeer herders in the taiga of Arctic Siberia with shifting cultivators in the tropical forests of Tribal India, and correlating forms of subsistence ecology, shamanic religiosity and historical resistance.

Piers Vitebsky

Negotiating pathways to adulthood: social change and indigenous culture in four circum-Arctic communities

SPRI is participating, with Sami University College (Kautekeino, Norway) and the Universities of Massachusetts, Alaska Fairbanks, Illinois Champaign-Urbana, Toronto and Oslo, in a study of youth resilience in Arctic communities in Norway, Canada, Siberia and Alaska. Dr Olga Ulturgasheva is principal investigator for the Siberian part of the study. This innovative project, funded under the National Science Foundation's International Polar Year initiative, brings indigenous youth and elders from these communities into direct collaboration with social scientists in order to identify the stressors and the social and material resources which shape culturally patterned resilience strategies of native youth. Through a community-based participatory research approach, the project seeks to provide insights into the family, community, and cultural contexts which support healthy youth development, to identify key protective factors which may promote the development of effective, culturally consonant prevention programmes so as to reduce current disproportionately high rates of substance abuse and suicide, and to build indigenous research capacity and a collaborative network of researchers and community members.

Piers Vitebsky and Olga Ulturgasheva

Extractive Industries Working Group (EIWG) of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA)

In many areas of the Arctic, industry is increasingly extracting mineral resources on territories that are also used by indigenous peoples. While these activities often cut across indigenous hunting and herding economies, mineral resources may also be the foundation of northern regions' hopes for future prosperity. During the 2008 IASSA meeting in Nuuk, Greenland, Piers Vitebsky proposed establishing an IASSA Extractive Industries Working Group, to cover oil, gas, mining, and hydropower. This proposal arises from the recent ESRC-funded workshop series at SPRI on oil and gas in the Russian North organised by Vitebsky with SPRI Associates Florian Stammler and Emma Wilson, and the resultant special issue of the journal Sibirica. The proposal was accepted and the working group is now coordinated by Florian Stammler. The group aims to become a 'think tank' of cutting-edge research and information on all social aspects of extractive industry activity throughout the circumpolar North, applying academic insights to contribute social science expertise to public documents, guidelines and legislation, and to process and channel requests by intergovernmental organisations, indigenous people's organisations, industry, NGOs and states.

Piers Vitebsky, Florian Stammler and Emma Wilson

The town of Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen
Image as described adjacent

Research stations and Arctic science policy

Traditionally, research stations have served states both as geopolitical expressions of Arctic intent and as platforms for undertaking scientific research. Today, there is a growing realisation that most key scientific research problems in the Arctic cross national boundaries and can only be studied adequately through international collaborative networks. The two states with the greatest area of Arctic territory, Canada and Russia, have both recently made significant investments to upgrade their networks of Arctic research stations, thus reversing decades of underfunding and in some cases, neglect. Seeking to demonstrate its commitment to the sovereignty and stewardship of its Arctic territory, the Canadian government announced its intention to establish a major new Arctic research station in the Prime Minister's 2007 Throne Speech. New strategies are required to meet the kind of research and monitoring required by states, industry, and the citizens of the Arctic. Recognising these policy challenges, the Council of Canadian Academies commissioned an international panel in 2008 to make recommendations on Arctic research priorities, and to advise how a new Canadian research station could best enable international Arctic science cooperation. Bravo was invited to act as rapporteur for the panel, which recommended a distributed 'hub and spokes' model for the new research station that could be integrated with upgraded existing infrastructure. In the 2009 budget, the Canadian Government acted upon the recommendations of the report (www.scienceadvice.ca) by allocating $87 million for the improvement of research stations and a feasibility study for the new station.

Michael Bravo