Why Anthropology? How four new PhDs found anthropology

We – Eero, Hanna, Jenni and Maija – are the newest recruits to anthropology, all starting our PhDs in the department in January 2020. It’s been an unusual first six months, with COVID-19 and working from home kicking in just as we started to get to grips with our new routines and got to know our colleagues and each other better. The four of us met as a group for the first time in June 2020 and soon realized that our paths to anthropology were as diverse as our research interests and projects. Here, on our first post for the anthropology blog, we wanted to introduce ourselves and explain the paths we took to end up as anthropology PhDs.

Maija

I first came across anthropology in my BA in Human Sciences, which took an interdisciplinary approach to studying all things human. I learned to integrate ideas and approaches from diverse disciplines – from anthropology to genetics, human behavioral ecology, and demography – in order to get a more holistic understanding of human life. After this, I studied an MSc in Demography and Health. Once again, I saw the importance of combining the biological and social sciences to improve our understanding of human behavior and society. I became very interested in child development, and in how it is shaped by biological, evolutionary, and cultural factors, and my MSc research project explored whether children who work outside the home have lower cognitive test scores, using data from the Young Lives study of Peruvian children living in poverty.

After graduating I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and spent some time exploring different work sectors, volunteering in Spain and Nigeria, and traveling in South America. I started a Ph.D. in Genetic Epidemiology in 2014 but realized soon after that the field wasn’t right for me and, after a working holiday in New Zealand, ended up in English education in Colombia for nearly 4 years. Missing academic life, I began to search for a Ph.D. project in which I could make the most of my interdisciplinary background and diverse experiences. I knew that I wanted to move to Finland so I got in touch with Anni Kajanus, whose comparative and interdisciplinary work really appealed to me. After meeting her I developed a proposal that combines methods from anthropology and developmental psychology and builds on my experience in schools in Colombia. Anni is now my main supervisor, and my research will explore how children in Colombia learn and enact social hierarchies. Running experiments will enable me to compare my results to those from China and the UK, while my findings will be understood in the context of extensive ethnographic fieldwork and a deeper understanding of local cultural norms and models of hierarchy.

One of the biggest challenges for me has been securing funding. I decided to start my Ph.D. without funding in January, and have applied to 7 or 8 different funding sources – I was lucky enough to be awarded a 12-month SYLFF fellowship recently, but I know that I need to start applying again soon for future funding. This can be a bit stressful but it also prepares me for the reality of never-ending funding proposals as a postdoc and during an academic career, so it’s good practice!

Jenni

I first came across anthropology while studying linguistics at the University of Tampere. I had never heard of anthropology before attending an introductory course organized by Mari Korpela. I think it was Mari’s way of combining interesting theories with vivid accounts of her own fieldwork that really impressed me. A year later, I was already an anthropology student.

During my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Tampere, I got very interested in South America, specifically in the Andean region. I did a research-based internship in Colombia and ethnographic research for my Master’s thesis in Northern Peru. My thesis focused on the political agency of rural villagers who lived near a large gold mine, many of whom were resisting further mining projects in their area. In my Ph.D., I continue with the theme of mining in the Andes. This time I plan to focus more on the role of legal frameworks in mining disputes and conduct ethnographic fieldwork in Ecuador. I think an anthropological approach is very important in understanding the complex ways in which mineral extraction affects people living near mining sites, especially as the global demand for minerals increases.

I am part of a fellowship group Environmental Rights in a Cultural Context at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. The group combines anthropologists and legal scholars working on similar themes in different parts of the world. In my Master’s I think I was in a sort of a bubble of social scientists, and I find it very interesting – although more challenging as well – to combine knowledge from different fields of study.

Eero

I’ve been into languages since I was a kid, and at the end of high school, that interest was about to lead me to study languages at the university, too – it seemed like the logical thing to do. Then a former student came to introduce us last-years to the disciplines at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Helsinki. After a few bullet points about social and cultural anthropology, I knew that that was what I really wanted to do – that I was actually interested in the cultures and societies behind the languages I had studied, more so than in the languages themselves.

So, I ended up doing a BA and an MA from anthropology here in Helsinki. Early on, I became interested in medical anthropology, the study of how health and illness are conceived of, and how illness is treated in different cultures. This interest also led me to attend lectures in gerontology and social disability studies. As had happened with anthropology, something with disability studies just clicked. A central tenet of disability studies is that disability is not merely a matter of physical or cognitive impairment, but also a product of how society treats the person with the impairment – a starting point that I feel is fertile ground for a comparative cross-cultural approach like that employed by anthropology.

I did my MA research on the identity work of persons with mobility impairments in Zambia, and in conjunction with my stay in the country, I got the chance to work with the Finnish disability NGO Abilis Foundation. Last year, my mentor from Abilis, Hisayo Katsui – by then the Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at Helsinki – became involved in a research project into the sporting opportunities of young people with severe disabilities in Finland. The project was looking for a Ph.D. candidate with an interest in disability issues to carry out ethnographic research, and as Hisayo knew I had experience with both, she contacted me. I was just finishing up my MA at that time and wasn’t initially sure I had the steam to carry straight on to a Ph.D., but after a few friendly faces from the department reassured me that being a Ph.D. candidate is essentially just a job, and I should take the position if the project itself interests me, I agreed. And I’m glad I did!

While I have had to fit my own thesis work around the realities of the VAIKOS project, being with VAIKOS has without question been a net positive. Most notably this takes the form of secure three-year funding as well as support from the other members of the project team and the constructive external pressure of having project goals to meet, not only my own ones.

Hanna

While in high school I was first thinking to apply for psychology as I wanted to study something related to human behavior, but eventually came to find its focus on the individual as not quite what I was into. It was probably my advisor who first dropped the word “anthropology” when I mentioned my interest in different cultures and languages. After high school I spent one year in a community college taking cultural anthropology courses via open university, getting even more convinced that this was what I wanted to go for. I got into a BA program in Social and Cultural Anthropology here at the University of Helsinki and ended up doing my MA here as well.

At the beginning of my MA, I attended a course held by Katja Uusihakala, later to become my thesis supervisor, on the anthropology of memory, and got very fascinated with this area of study. An exchange semester in Canada during my BA had sparked my interest in the history of colonization and the contemporary position of indigenous peoples in that country, and I was wondering if I could manage to combine these two themes somehow in my MA thesis. I had first learned about the history of Indian Residential Schools, an assimilative system of boarding schools for indigenous children, during my exchange program. After getting in contact with a local heritage project at an old residential school in Ontario, negotiation over the social memory of these schools eventually became my thesis topic.

I keep finding it extremely interesting to explore how the ways people think about the past shape contemporary politics and intergroup relations in societies, what gets left out of history books and why, and how meanings of the past are produced, transmitted, and negotiated in diverse social contexts. I find anthropological perspective and ethnography as a methodological frame especially fruitful for perceiving remembering as social practice; how people participate in shaping shared meanings of the past for the present in their daily interactions. In my Ph.D., I will continue about similar themes and the same Canadian context as in my MA thesis, this time focusing on structural legacies of past assimilation policies on indigenous children in the contemporary child welfare system as viewed and experienced by agents of the system as well as families involved with it.

I’m currently still applying for my first funding while working elsewhere, so time management has definitely been a challenge during this first spring as a Ph.D. student. Although happy about being able to reduce my working hours for the upcoming semester, I’m still hoping to get lucky with funding soon to get properly started with my project.

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