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SPRI Review 2010: Polar Social Science and Humanities

Polar Social Science and Humanities

Adolescent pathways to adulthood around the indigenous Arctic

This project, funded by the US National Science Foundation, examines shared and divergent stressors and resilience strategies among young people from communities among the Alaskan Inupiat, Alaskan Yup’ik, Canadian Inuit, Norwegian Sami and Siberian Eveny. The focus is on how rapid social change is manifested in the changing expectations and challenges which young indigenous people face in a world very different from that of their parents and grandparents. At a planning meeting held at SPRI, youth, adult and elder community members and university researchers established a shared set of cross-site research questions and data collection strategies to use throughout the circumpolar region, covering interviewing, data collection, analysis procedures and local dissemination of findings. The event allowed indigenous youth and adults from each community to articulate their own social experiences while encountering and communicating with people from other field sites. It generated new ideas about how to pursue collaborative inquiry across cultural, national and disciplinary boundaries. Fieldwork was conducted in Alakanuk (Alaska, USA), Kotzebue (Alaska, USA), Igloolik (Nunavut, Canada), Topolinoye (Yakutia, Russia) and Kautokeino (Finnmark, Norway). Data collection has been completed in all sites, and the project has entered a stage of data translation, transcription, collaborative analysis and dissemination. The resilience strategies identified among youth will be used by the communities for programmes and policies to develop youth well-being. Community elementary and high schools are starting to use the findings for prevention of youth suicide.

Olga Ulturgasheva and Piers Vitebsky

BOREAS - International research programme in Arctic Humanities and Social Sciences, European Science Foundation

The BOREAS programme, subtitled ‘Histories from the North - environments, movements, narratives’ and launched in 2006, came to a successful conclusion in 2010. It was initiated at SPRI by Dr Piers Vitebsky, who also chaired the scientific committee on behalf of the European Science Foundation (ESF) in Strasbourg. With a budget of 6 million euros, BOREAS is the largest programme ever funded for humanities research (including social science) in the Arctic. The ESF coordinated funding from Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and the United States, with additional associated partners in Belgium, France, Germany, Russia, Switzerland, and the UK. The circumpolar reach of the Arctic allowed and encouraged funding agencies from the USA and Canada to collaborate formally with the ESF for the first time. Compared with North America, European humanities researchers on the Arctic are widely scattered and without strong institutional support, and BOREAS has made a significant contribution to building capacity and team strength in Europe. As well as making distinctive contributions to the wider field of the humanities themselves, BOREAS complemented the International Polar Year with a distinctive agenda to enable the humanities to collaborate more effectively with the better funded and better institutionalised natural sciences. Another ambition of BOREAS was to make a significant global contribution to the wider humanities disciplines by ‘de-provincialising’ Arctic research, so that the Arctic becomes a better known locus for regional studies, on a par with India, Latin America or Africa. Current discourses about global environmental change, human adaptation, international partnership and regional sovereignty largely ignore northern cultures, which are numerous and diverse. BOREAS is named after the Greek god of the North Wind and the programme emphasises the fact that the Arctic, unlike the Antarctic, is virtually all inhabited, with a long and complex history of human adaptation in which the land and the sea have been traversed, named and known for millennia. The most strongly represented disciplines have been anthropology, archaeology, history, geography and demography, but BOREAS has also encouraged further capacity-building in core humanities disciplines such as literature, linguistics and philosophy. Numerous conferences and workshops were held throughout the Arctic and beyond. As well as hosting meetings in Cambridge, SPRI formally co-organised conferences in Halle (Germany), Rovaniemi (Finland), and (jointly with the Russian Academy of Sciences) in Novosibirsk. Details of BOREAS projects can be found at, which includes a 44-page list of publications arising from the programme.

Piers Vitebsky

Dilemmas of state-induced migration in the Russian North

This project studies current state-induced migration in the Russian North linked to the recent collapse of northern living standards, and the future viability of northern industrial communities. With field sites in the Vorkuta and Magadan regions, researchers examined problems of individual agency and community fabric during rapid deindustrialisation and managed depopulation under World Bank and Russian Government restructuring initiatives to relocate up to 600,000 non-indigenous residents back to Moscow and the Russian “South.” This policy marks a critical retreat from earlier Soviet policies of northern development through mass settlement, with profound implications for settler and indigenous communities alike in Russia’s Far North, as well as for the national economy and demographic structure. Researchers have analysed the reception of this policy in local contexts, by developing an actor-oriented analysis of adaptation strategies and social capital in communities experiencing migration-related flux. This has yielded not only a top-down account of emerging Russian state policy on the North, but also an ethnographically rich analysis of its reception and effects in local human settings. Topics include: responses to resettlement pressures and opportunities; coping strategies of actors and communities in movement; how forms of social capital and community identity are preserved or lost as people resettle; sentiments of belonging in place, versus the desire for mobility among local actors, leading to an understanding of how people living in conditions of northern isolation derive power by balancing mobility and rootedness; mobility as an ingredient in the construction of individual and group identities; and how histories of movement serve as a basis for self-understanding. Results will be of practical interest to stakeholders in northern restructuring. The project forms part of the BOREAS programme.

Elena Khlinovskaya Rockhill and Florian Stammler

Women’s experience and the reindeer herder’s family life

Research has followed the different survival strategies of herding families among a community of Eveny in the northern Sakha Republic (Yakutia). The imposition of collectivisation on reindeer herders in Soviet times industrialised their previous subsistence herding into a system of ranching, converting the vast landscape filled with spirits and family memories into a giant open-air meat factory. Children who were removed by helicopter to harsh and distant boarding schools now lack the skills or sensibilities to work with animals. The removal of women from the land and their placing into newly established villages forced them into quite separate orbits of work and movement from those of their male herders. As a result, the very existence of family life is now threatened by alienation, alcoholism and suicide, especially among young men. Through a focus on gender, research reveals a spectrum of adaptation or resistance to the organisations which have succeeded the state farm, revealing diverse possibilities of fulfilment (or its absence) for their women as an older model of integrated family matriarch is replaced by that of a hired dinner-lady. Whereas previous management regimes aimed for, and often achieved, uniformity of experience, the fine-grained approach of this research shows how people can become vulnerable in drastically different ways because of small differences in their demographic and personal circumstances, but also suggests that significant improvements can be made by small local adjustments to budgetary or schooling procedures.

Piers Vitebsky

A warm August day in Verhoyansk, Siberia; women feed reindeer salt to keep them tame

A warm August day in Verhoyansk, Siberia; women feed reindeer salt to keep them tame

Supernatural and disembodied experience in nineteenth century narratives of Arctic exploration

This project re-thinks our knowledge of Arctic experience by investigating the debates surrounding the legitimacy of supernatural and disembodied knowledges as they were manifested in narratives, speculations, imaginings and other Regency and Victorian representations of Arctic exploration. They were far from being merely ethereal and intangible. By examining how the ‘unseen’ played a role in Western polar activity, attention is drawn to the embodied aspects of exploration and the engagement or entanglement of the explorer in the environment. Figuring the Arctic as a passage rather than a static object, where British stoicism could be enacted, highlights the extent to which place could be constructed ‘in the field’ and not always according to the precepts of ideological chauvinism or romanticism.

Shane McCorristine

Environmental security in the Arctic Ocean

The environmental shift in the Arctic Ocean from a semi-permanent sea-ice cover to a seasonally ice-free sea underscores the potential for political, economic, and cultural instabilities in the High North. These security matters are related to significant opportunities for living and mineral-resource exploitation as well as challenges for marine-ecosystem protection and spatial planning with unresolved territorial issues and a new trade route emerging that will influence the global balance of power. Convened at the Scott Polar Research Institute on 13-15 October 2010, the NATO Advanced Research Workshop on Environmental Security in the Arctic Ocean provided an opportunity to discuss challenges and opportunities in the Arctic Ocean. The workshop involved co-directors from the UK and the Russian Federation, creating an important bridge to consider security issues in the Arctic Ocean through a shared dialogue. Participants included government diplomats, scientists, legislators, administrators, corporate executives, students and other members of civil society from 17 nations, including all the Arctic states, as well as from Arctic indigenous peoples’ organizations. The workshop was designed to facilitate sharing of insights about the dimensions of environmental security in the Arctic Ocean, building on the “common Arctic issues” of sustainable development and environmental protection. The challenge was to think holistically about how to balance national interests and common interests within the framework of the law of the sea. Results of the NATO workshop will be reflected in an edited book that is being published by Springer.

Paul Berkman