NAVIGATING TRANSFORMATIONS AND TRANSDISCIPLINARITY IN NORTHERN FINLAND

This blog by Roger Norum originally appeared as the ICEHO pages in Global Environment 15.3 (October 2022). We are reposting today because Roger is the chair of the local organising committee for the 4th World Congress of Environmental History to be held in Oulu on 19-23 August 2024, whose CFP has just been launched!

‘Maps are for tourists’,  Juha pronounced, his mouth slowly turning up into a wry smile. In front of him, across the pine table around which we were gathered, we had just splayed a brand new Tyvek geological survey chart of Kilpisjärvi, Finland. Juha stepped back from the map and gave it a quizzical look. 

Figure 1. Juha questioning the wisdom of researchers’ using a printed map to understand the world © Roger Norum

A reindeer herder for his entire life, he had never needed the help of a map to navigate the undulating tussocks and meadows of his homeland. He slowly scanned the map, and within a minute, found two errors on it: one, the misnaming of a minor fell; another, the incorrect term used to signify a lake. As he told the history of the lake’s placenames, it struck me how foolish it would have been to rely solely on our own documents, our own knowledge, and our own observations to critically understand this part of the world.

Last October, as winter was beginning its perennial flirtation with the High North, several university colleagues and I travelled to Kilpisjärvi, the area in northwestern Finland where the Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian frontiers meet unceremoniously at a shoulder-high mound of yellow-painted cement. The undulating landscapes of this traditional Sami territory were popular with smugglers a century ago, and were first protected from development in the early 1900s, when Finland lay under Russian rule. For decades, Sami herders have grazed reindeer on these hillsides, but the area has become popular in recent years with Nordic border-hoppers who enjoy hiking (and the cheap EU booze) and with European families driving north in their gleaming white camper vans.

Laconic though people in this part of the world may be, the wild spaces of the North are rarely ones of quiet and remove. In the warmer months, helicopters break the silence as they carry provisions to research stations and heliskiiers to nearby Norwegian mountaintops. Tourists buzz about looking for provisions at the Kilpishalli general store, now owned by the Finnish chain K-Market. Swarms of mosquitoes descend to feed on anyone and anything that moves. Indeed, the biophonic and geophonic sounds of the Arctic – rushing rivers, birdcalls in the wind, the rustle of small animals through the brush – are everywhere.

We had ventured north to understand and to preserve the traces of twentieth-century reindeer herding around Lake Tsahkaljärvi. Juha Tornensis, a Sami herder, had invited us to help him record the material legacy of his family’s herding traditions before they disappeared.

Figure 2. Uneven grounds beside Juha’s home and reindeer farm. © Roger Norum

His son and daughter have hesitated to commit to reindeer husbandry as a vocation, and he is worried that his grandchildren will never know the pasts of their forebears. ‘Family histories are crumbling’, he told us one afternoon, solemnly.

It is not uncommon these days for teenagers to get out of Dodge once they come of age. It is less uncommon still in Europe’s Arctic stretches, a region where youth, deterred by a lack of opportunities, are often lured south to urban centres and into lifeways quite different from those of their parents.

During our autumn week in Kilpisjärvi, we accompanied Juha on several day-long hikes. Juha would stop now and again to rest his legs, but he rarely stopped telling stories. He spoke slowly, in Finnish peppered with Sami terms. In a deep voice, he recalled the histories of his family and the families of other herders. He discussed the ongoing conservation efforts of the village association and their recent heated arguments over land use planning. And he told of the old ways of reindeer herding, of milking, earmarking and slaughtering, from the time of the so-called snowmobile revolution (Pelto 1973) in the 1960s to the present day. 

Figure 3. Roaming reindeer herds are a familiar (and not always welcome) site in downtown Kilpisjärvi. © Roger Norum

We were a motley bunch – anthropologists, archaeologists, environmental scientists, historically minded geographers armed with GPS devices and drones, and a handful of Ph.D. students keen to get out into the world after many months of being locked down by COVID-19 restrictions. We were also, in some small way, a harbinger of an emerging scholarly practice of participation and engagement that spurs introspection and reflection.

As I was finishing up graduate school a few years ago, I slowly came to terms with the fact that there were things called disciplines, and with the notion that academics were expected to write and publish things called articles, typically within the discipline in which they were trained. Having done my degree in a rather conservative social anthropology department, I came to assume that anthropology was the only discipline in the world worth its salt. I had managed to spend the better part of a decade in a ravishing little English city barely aware that its fabled university also had departments of geography and sociology. I did once make an appearance at a history department event, but all I recall of that encounter was that everyone had lovely accents and wore tweed from head to toe. Anthropology, I remember telling myself, dealt with the present, the past and, increasingly, the future. So why would anyone need to study anything else? 

Only after exiting the safe, monodisciplinary bubble of grad school did I come to appreciate the present-day realities of real-world academia, the importance of collaboration and the need to broaden one’s own field of view. I held a handful of postdocs in departments of geography, media studies and English literature, where I was introduced to a number of inspiring (and off-the-charts smart) scholars working in the then-emerging environmental humanities. There I met historians of media and science with critical minds that reminded me of the best anthropology students in my cohort. I met literature scholars and poets who had an interest in participatory mapmaking, geographers who made innovative films, philosophers who knew the canon of my own discipline better than I did. Through them I came to experience the intellectual excitement, and epiphanies, of doing research, discussing ideas and writing alongside people holding perspectives and knowledge vastly different from my own.

When I moved to Finland shortly before the pandemic, I observed that the then-fashionable terms ‘multidisciplinary’, ‘crossdisciplinary’ and ‘interdisciplinary’ looked to be giving way to the notion of a transdisciplinary science. Acceptance of the importance of transdisciplinarity by many fields and institutions came late and slow, but it did arrive. Though hardly a methodological revelation, the basic idea behind transdisciplinarity is that scientific research should take place not merely across and between academic disciplines, but beyond and outside academic institutions. Etymologically, trans-suggests a movement across, a traversing or a bridging of two distinct entities, and transdisciplinarity has been described as a practice that transgresses and transcends disciplinary boundaries as a means of responding to new societal imperatives. Perhaps more a framework of knowledge production than a research methodology per se, its objective is to understand the world holistically, in all of its biological, physical and socio-cultural complexities, rather than to focus on one part of it, or to espouse a single point of view. 

The practice of transdisciplinarity emerged from a growing worry that the hyper-specialisation and increasing fragmentation of science would threaten its ability to analyse wicked problems or explain emerging phenomena in the world. The differentiation of science into individualised and highly focused disciplines, fields and sub-fields has produced unprecedented scientific breakthroughs and progress, but it has also compartmentalised understanding into isolated analytical parts (silos, perhaps) that separate objects or phenomena from one another and their contexts. 

Fully realised, transdisciplinarity integrates both scientific and non-scientific knowledge and practice; it employs new forms of learning and problem-solving (involving cooperation between different facets of society) in order to define and unravel particularly challenging problems. Transdisciplinary approaches to research engage people from beyond the halls of academe to define the objectives set and questions asked. Proponents insist that such an approach promotes systemic change in the ways that challenges are dealt with. By enabling the flow of knowledge into, out of and across stakeholder communities, they build the capacity to address them. This commitment to active engagement privileges multiple situated ways of knowing the world, and allows stakeholders to better incorporate the results of research into their lives. The sense of urgency felt by researchers working closely with those bearing the brunt of local and global issues must be complemented by meaningful action. Integral to meeting the challenges of our times are six core dispositions that Fam et al. (2017) have delineated for transdisciplinary researchers and practitioners: commitment, curiosity, connectedness, creativity, communication and critical awareness.

All these qualities are particularly pertinent to studying and resolving environmental, or socio-ecological, questions. To engage with and resolve the challenges of environmental and societal sustainability in the Anthropocene requires more than transformative science. Radical changes in human attitudes and behaviours are necessary for any successful transition to sustainability. Achieving this will depend on the support of multiple actors across science, government and civil society. Researchers ought to cooperate and engage with them all, and include other appropriate communities in their endeavours. 

The tourist map that we placed on the table in front of Juha in Kilpisjärvi last autumn told a story. But it was a disembodied story, a narration from above, a technocratic perspective brought forth by an unmanned satellite and an army of anonymous coders, technocrats and machines. To flesh out the story told by the map  to make it more complete, useful and human — we needed historians, indigenous and environmental humanities scholars and people good with maps to interpret what was there, and to consider what maybe wasn’t. We also needed Juha himself. Guided, questioned and mobilised by Juha’s experience and memories, the group moved quickly to a new appreciation of the issues and a sharper sense of the priorities demanding attention. Circumnavigating the lake with Juha, away from the fluorescent lighting and height-adjustable MDF desks of the modern university, was essential to this process.

Figure 4. Scientists hiking through the undulating hills of Northern Finland. © Roger Norum

Listening to his stories and reflecting real-time on the process in which we were engaged in situ was vital to merging perspectives and developing new insights. Together our distinct voices melded with what each of us had known in the past and allowed us to think more acutely about the present and future, in ways that were inclusive and engaged.

In bringing disciplines together to engage with the world in all its storied material complexity, transdisciplinary research holds the promise of truly transformative insight and action.

REFERENCES

Fam, D., J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell, Transdisciplinary Research and Practice for Sustainability Outcomes (London: Routledge, 2017).

Pelto, P.J., Snowmobile Revolution: Technology and Change in the Arctic (Menlo Park CA: Cummings Publishing, 1973).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s