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SPRI Review 2009: Polar Social Science and Humanities

Polar Social Science and Humanities

Historic and new buildings in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland
Historic and new buildings in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland

Reindeer-herding peoples and environment

Research has continued on the restructuring of herding enterprises and realignment of reindeer migration routes in north-western Russia. A comparative analysis of the social role of animals among nomads in the Arctic, Central Asia, and Africa has been undertaken. Important contributions from the Arctic to theory-building include ways in which reindeer as a 'keystone-species' invite scholars to rethink species-diversification and the niches of species for particular societies. The current diversification of Arctic pastoralists into non-pastoral species of game and fish lead them towards central Asian and African kinds of strategies and encourages us to re-think distinctions and typologies between hunter-gatherers and pastoralists among mobile societies. The symbiotic domesticity analysed by Piers Vitebsky in the spiritual beliefs of reindeer herders in northeast Siberia turns out to be applicable in these other regions too. Oral history methods have been used to investigate the coexistence of reindeer nomadism with the oil and gas industry in Russia, revealing a very different pattern from the western Arctic. The surprising richness of the stories of industrial workers and the intimacy of their connection to the tundra showed a considerable understanding of reindeer herders' concerns. Stammler worked with natural scientists to assess the cumulative social and environmental character of this coexistence, publishing this as a lead article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

Florian Stammler and Piers Vitebsky

Social orphans in northeast Siberia

This research is based on long-term fieldwork in north-eastern Siberia, supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. It examines the relationship between the state, the family and the child at the moment when the state judges that there is a breakdown, real or imagined, in responsible parenting. Through a detailed discourse analysis of court cases in which mothers are deprived of parental rights, a skewed power balance is revealed in which the state has the authority to make moral judgements which cannot be refuted. By analysing the ways in which state agents manipulate two contradictory Soviet-era models of kinship, environmental and biological, the research proposes a new way of understanding kinship through institutions and ideology. The state arrogates to itself a co-parenting role which allows it to negate the birth family and incorporate the child into the 'family' of the state through its residential care institutions. Through narratives of care-leavers, their views on 'social orphanhood' and on the experience of having the state as one's 'parent' have been explored. The research also reveals some disturbing similarities between Soviet/post-Soviet child welfare practices, and those in the UK and the USA. A book manuscript (to be published by Berghahn) has been completed on the pressing social issue of social orphans, or children who grow up in long-term residential care institutions.

Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill

Relatedness and loneliness in Greenland

As part of SPRI's ongoing research programme on the psychology of family relations, an anthropological study based on 18 months of fieldwork in a small village in West Greenland has been completed. Greenlanders have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and research on this is dominated by a medical and social-work discourse of statistics and causality in terms of an inability to adjust to something called 'modernisation.' This discourse is challenged by exploring the internal logic of Greenlandic culture, explicating indigenous evaluations of suicide within a broader cultural context in which everyone who dies is partially reincarnated in a new infant who is named after them. Infants then inherit the social roles, personal traits and even memories of their namesakes, acquiring rights and responsibilities within a kinship system of reincarnated persons that incorporates and supersedes so-called biological and social ties. Unexpectedly, the research revealed that despite their supposed Lutheranism, suicides are reincarnated in the same way as people who die by other causes. The power of longing, particularly under conditions of anxiety and separation (e.g. when men go hunting or children go to boarding school), revealed a hidden mirror-side to Greenlandic ideas of relatedness, namely a highly elaborated fear of loneliness. Suicide emerges, not as an extreme and permanent rejection of relatedness, but as the enactment of a desire to restore failing relationships through reincarnation. A desire for the total rejection of society does exist, but this is projected instead onto a figure called qivittoq, a person who walks into the wilderness forever and continues to exist in an uninhabitable space as a dangerous un-dead being; a category which is deeply feared but is not even recognised in medical or social-work discourse.

Janne Flora

Nenets reindeer herders' conversion to evangelical Christianity

SPRI's longstanding research focus on shamanism and religious experience in the Arctic continued with fifteen months of anthropological fieldwork among two communities of Nenets reindeer herders near the Russian coast facing Novaya Zemlya. These communities largely evaded the Soviet state, avoiding both registration and schooling. Research focused on how these groups, each a few hundred strong, coped with challenges of the post-Soviet period once their existence became public, as they experienced new kinds of relations with the state (being registered as citizens, schooling of children) and with the market. Having earlier been shamanists, with little influence from Communism, they are now the focus of intense evangelisation by Russian Baptist and Pentecostal missionaries, leading to great changes in their metaphysics, language practices, and concepts of personhood and agency. They are radically repudiating earlier forms of engagement with local spirits, traditional oral performances and their previous selves. The missionaries have introduced new moral teachings and strict behavioural rules which re-draw the internal boundaries of these communities. Splits are emerging as the new religion creates new criteria of inclusion and exclusion. While previous Nenets culture was extremely taciturn, evangelical Christians engage in elaborate verbalisation in order to narrate their conversion experience and demonstrate the sincerity of their faith. By studying changing language ideologies and speech practices among converts, research demonstrates how selves are transformed by gaining fluency in new kinds of evangelical speaking.

Laur Vallikivi and Piers Vitebsky

The politics of Inuit sea-ice knowledge and use

An international group of researchers used the International Polar Year to attempt to document observations by indigenous peoples of environmental changes around the Arctic, with a specific focus on sea ice and the use of ice-covered habitats by the residents of the Arctic. The SPRI contribution has been to examine how sea ice place-names and narratives have broader political uses. For instance, Inuit traditional knowledge about sea ice as a homeland or place to live plays a key role in Inuit claims about the impact of climate change on their human rights. Their highly detailed knowledge of sea ice recognizes that it is both a substance with dynamic mechanical properties as well as a material that sustains the nutrients and way of life of humans and the marine ecosystem. The potential impact of sea-ice loss on Inuit culture is therefore more subtle than simple predictions of cultural extinction, and yet more far-reaching than usually perceived in terms of mobility, territory and livelihood.

Michael Bravo

Traplines and tar sands: labour and the production of aboriginal space

A twelve-month fieldwork study examined the relationships between the values and expressions of labour within Canadian subarctic Aboriginal communities, and the ways in which these are implicated in the fashioning of spatial arrangements in the Canadian north. Based on fieldwork undertaken close to the Athabasca oil sands in the community of Fort Chipewyan, Canada, the study explored those ways in which the narratives and practices of Aboriginal labour action provide important challenges to the prevailing discourses of economy and space that permeate the modern Canadian provincial north. These narratives and practices revealed an emerging, hybrid and yet distinctly Aboriginal pattern of economy that re-aligns understandings of the relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies, and local and global influences across the Canadian subarctic. The study suggests that closely interrogating the practices and discourses of Aboriginal labour is fundamental not only to understanding the ways in which the spaces and boundaries of the provincial north have been brought into being, but how the on-going social production of Aboriginal spaces emerge as acts of discursive and spatial resistance by the Aboriginal peoples of the Canadian provincial north.

Sean Maher and Michael Bravo