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Snapshots from the Arctic 'Field'

2016Posted by Ruth Vingerhagen Jun 06, 2016 11:43

‘Snapshots from the Arctic Field’ was a one-day workshop held in May and organised by two PhD students Ingrid and Johanna from Durham University. The theme of the workshop was ‘Experiences and reflections from postgraduate and early-career research in and on the Arctic’ and sought to explore interactions between local people and external researchers. Although my own fieldwork has never involved contact with local people (Longyearbyen’s recent population is not representative of the wider Arctic), I was curious to attend and listen to a different side of fieldwork: from a social science perspective.

A key theme that came through was that of identity and that our own past shapes the way we view the world. We all enter the Arctic with pre-conceived ideas of what we will find there. Whether one introduces oneself as from university X or country Y may illicit very different responses, especially if one of those countries was a colonial power. Language also shapes how we think and this can lead to problems when conducting interviews in a second or even a third language. The Dene in the Sahtu region of NW territories have no word for ‘knowledge’ for example: but their culture is rich in storytelling.

Another theme was the tensions between academia, government policy and local people. Science is political. Often this involves differing perceptions of ‘resource’ and ‘wildlife’ e.g. whales. An example given was the Baker Lake mine road in Nunavut where there were issues with who would maintain the road, caribou and environmental impact assessments. In the end the road was built but is not called a road and the locals are not allowed to use a car on it: only quad bikes and snowmobiles. Related to this theme was the issue of maintaining distance when going into small communities. What happens if you witness violence or see something criminal happen: should you intervene?

A map is a snapshot of time and space and modern maps which look very precise may be giving an illusion of permanency which does not in fact exist: coastlines and settlements are changing. It was suggested that it may be better to roughen up maps so that it is more obvious they are not the ‘final’ depiction. The landscape and resulting map may look empty but is in fact full of connections and people moving.

I thoroughly enjoyed this workshop and listening to all the speakers. There were a lot of thought-provoking themes and has made me reflect more on my own research. As my research takes place in uninhabited areas it can be harder to communicate results to local people, or at least people living in similar areas. To paraphrase: science communication does not stop with the publication of a paper.

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