How does coronavirus affect academic research? How should it?

 By Tuomas Forsberg

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally impacted societies as well as the lives and wellbeing of people throughout the world. How will – and particularly how should – the crisis affect scholarly research? Relatedly, what lessons can be drawn from the crisis when it comes to the organization and funding of research?

Blue glowing human figure and several green coronavirus visualizationson a dark background

Photo: 123rf

Although the academic world was not exactly caught unawares, it is clear that much more research than before is needed to tackle the pandemic head-on, to find out where the virus originated from, and how it behaves. The pandemic also necessitates increased scholarly efforts to develop a vaccination and medicine, facemasks and ventilators: these preventive, protective and curative innovations require substantial research from the most basic level to practical and applied dimensions, while in times of crisis the cycle from idea to product needs to be accelerated.

The coronavirus crisis has also underlined the vital need for the social sciences and humanities. We are ostensibly dealing with (almost) the same kind of virus, but the societies it is infecting are different. If we want to prevent the virus from spreading, we need to know how societies work. Social norms and practices as well as beliefs vary. Social structures and spaces are diverse. The crisis exposed an interesting gap between research outputs based on simulations and those based on the real world (even though the simulations assumed certain elements of the real world). Hence, we need research and researchers that are knowledgeable about the various societal and cultural conditions and international networks, and that take account of the differences between them.

In Finland, a key area of expertise that has been in demand during the crisis concerns the law and the restrictions of basic rights. But the debate quickly extended to issues concerning language and communication as well as moral philosophy. Due to the crisis, we are rethinking some very fundamental questions about ethics and politics.

The value of the social sciences and humanities in bridging the natural sciences and societies is not always understood. Just before the coronavirus crisis, the populist party newspaper in Finland ridiculed research that the Academy of Finland had funded in the social sciences and humanities, claiming for example that a particular study on the history of mobile healers in sub-Saharan Africa was not based on science. But the whole point was missed: in order to foster vaccinations in Africa, we need to know what people believe and why they might have more faith in magic than science, because that will affect their willingness to be  vaccinated.

The coronavirus pandemic has also raised questions concerning multidisciplinary research. It has become fashionable to gather multidisciplinary research groups around certain topical phenomena and even to build study programmes focusing on them. Yet since COVID-19 did not exist before, there was no research group in place that would have been designed just for this pandemic. Accordingly, many multidisciplinary research groups were quickly formed to study questions related to the crisis. These groups, however, were not typically based on an array of scholars practising multidisciplinary research, but on scholars with disciplinary expertise. That said, good disciplinary research often requires interdisciplinary knowledge and input from other disciplines. Moreover, organizing a multidisciplinary research group to deliver new expertise in times of crisis is undoubtedly facilitated by background knowledge and experience of other disciplines and the way in which multidisciplinary research groups work. Either way, COVID-19 clearly did not obviate disciplinary knowledge – quite the contrary – since what is relevant in encountering new unforeseen phenomena is abstract, theoretical knowledge as well as methodological skills, not empirical knowledge of a different phenomenon.

In this sense, the crisis has once again demonstrated the importance of basic research. This suggests that the funding model for science needs to be based on the belief that basic curiosity-driven research will yield the best results at the end of the day. No applied or policy-relevant research that aims to make a difference can serve societies well without robust basic research. The more research funding is tied to narrow thematic projects, the less flexible it is in dealing with new crises as they emerge. The more research is tied to topics that have been defined top-down, the likelier it is that nobody has conducted research that is directly relevant to a crisis that was unforeseen by the authorities or funding agencies. In this context, I have in mind two researchers: one who had completed his PhD on the Great Lakes in Africa just before the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and another who had worked on Afghan languages just before the terrorist attacks in 2001. Both of them had been perceived as working on esoteric and non-policy-relevant issues and yet their expertise turned out to be of critical importance. Such anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Of course, it does not follow that core issues should be discarded. Yet, the bottom line is that when a topic has become important enough for the authorities to regard it as worthy of research funding, the research that emerges is already a few steps behind in terms of novelty.

Why should we trust in the fact that basic curiosity-driven research can respond flexibly to new problems? In addition to the belief that various topics might already be covered by researchers driven by curiosity  before they become acute problems, I believe that the key reason is the ethos that researchers, even when focusing on basic research, want to contribute to resolving common problems. There are many signs that researchers, if they have time, will immediately focus on crises such as the coronavirus. This spring, a number of seminars have been held and special journal issues edited on COVID-19 quite spontaneously. The coronavirus crisis will inspire a great number of studies in the years to come since it has provided data and raised new questions in a multitude of research fields.

How will the coronavirus crisis affect future research? I do not know the answer to that question. But if asked how it should affect research, I would use it as an opportunity to organize and fund studies in the following way. Sufficient funding is needed for basic research that is not directly tied to narrow projects. International cooperation and the exchange of ideas are vital, not least in the social sciences and humanities, but we need to rethink the role of conferencing and strengthen mobility by other means. Disciplinary expertise coupled with interdisciplinary input, knowledge of other disciplines and experiences of multidisciplinary collaboration are valuable not insomuch as we would be able to organize research around certain wicked problems on a permanent basis, but rather because they pave the way for the flexible organization of multidisciplinary research groups in times of crisis.

The allure of conspiracy theories in a time of pandemic

By Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius (HCAS Core Fellow)

Two people holding white paper with the text pandemic #covid19

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

I initially became interested in conspiracy theories when studying a blog of a key Polish far-right activist in the context of my Collegium research on mediated racism in Poland. Although this activist first gained public prominence and recognition during the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ as one of the leaders of the anti-refugee movement, my analysis quickly revealed that the crux of his writing was, in fact, the elaboration of a multi-layered superconspiracy machinated by the Jews. While the timeworn leitmotiv of the Jewish cabal secretly orchestrating the course of history survives and thrives primarily – though not exclusively – in the anti-semitic far-right milieu, the current proliferation of spurious theories related to the Covid-19 pandemic lays bare the societal and political significance of conspiracy theories beyond the radical fringes. In Poland, for example, a recent survey has found that as many as 45 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘some foreign powers or countries are deliberately contributing to the spread of the coronavirus’, compared to 42 per cent who attributed the pandemic to ‘natural processes’.

With this in mind, it is as worthwhile to dispel conspiracy theories forcefully as it is to try and untangle their appeal.

Old explanations for a new situation

At the most basic level, a conspiracy theory refers to ‘the conviction that a secret, omnipotent individual or group covertly controls the political and social order or some part thereof’ (Fenster, 2008: 21). Although they might be based on kernels of truth, conspiracy theories exploit undisputable facts as a source material for questionable extrapolations. In other words, they are based on ‘the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable’ (Hofstadter, 1966: 38).

As a major part of the political and social (dis)order on a global scale, the ongoing pandemic has rapidly given rise to an impressive range of more or less half-baked conspiracy theories that seek to explain the situation. Symptomatically, many of them have latched onto the already existing explanations and implicated the usual scapegoats. Accordingly, it has been possible for politicians to tap into the seemingly bottomless deposit of antisemitism and represent novel coronavirus as a yet another Jewish plot to alter the world order, take control of sovereign countries and ‘neuter their populations’.

In a similar vein, White House officials have repeatedly intimated that the virus has been engineered in a Chinese lab, perhaps even as a biological weapon. This theory is a perfect illustration of a ‘curious leap of imagination’ that Hofstadter wrote about: it has been inferred from the Chinese government’s secrecy, the underestimation of the number of infections, and the underreporting of deaths. What makes this theory truly useful, though, is that it handily reinforces two anti-Chinese views at once: it confirms the malevolence and callousness of China’s pursuit of world dominance but also, through exposing the security compromises that enabled the virus to escape from the lab, it betrays characteristic Chinese incompetence.

The new villains: intangible, yet personified

More ‘grassroot’ conspiracy theories differ from those propagated by politicians in that in their search for an explanation they turn to the realm of the invisible and the intangible. In particular, the phony links between Covid-19 and technology and/or science seem to take centre stage.

In the technology department, the most popular conspiracy theory draws on 5G scaremongering. In this view, 5G technology weakens the immune system, rendering humans susceptible to viruses which, in turn, use the 5G network as a communication channel. The novel coronavirus is believed to have emerged in Wuhan because it was – counterfactually – the first city where 5G coverage was rolled out.

The next level of this conspiracy theory has been spun by the anti-vaccination movement, which eagerly combines scepticism towards (medical) science with mistrust of technology. The ‘vaccine hesitancy’ groups have piggybacked on the spurious connection between 5G and the novel coronavirus in the origin story that they have concocted for the Covid-19 pandemic. In that tale, the novel coronavirus is produced by 5G technology so as to warrant the creation of a bogus vaccine, intended not to cure the disease but rather to implant microchips through which humans could be remotely controlled.

At that stage, however, some questions still remained unanswered. Does 5G technology generate the virus autonomously? And who is supposed to take control of humanity once it has been microchipped?

A douche, with liquid dripping, photographed in front of a stash of cash

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Any conspiracy theory becomes complete when the ultimate orchestrator is unmasked. And for Covid-19 pandemic, Bill Gates emerged as the grand operator. As a vocal critic of the Trump administration, a technological mogul turned philanthropist, a zealous proponent and generous funder of vaccine development, the Microsoft co-founder is the perfect scapegoat for a crisis that emerges on the intersection of technology and (medical) science.

According to this theory, the evidence of Gates’s culpability abounds. In a 2015 TED talk, he publicly and brazenly anticipated his evil plan by criticising and revealing the shortcomings of global pandemic preparedness. He has even had the audacity to cipher his evil plan in the official name of the disease: ‘COVID-19 (C)ertificate (O)f (V)accination (ID)entification – (1)=A (9)=I “Artificial Intelligence“.’ Already all-powerful, Gates is set to benefit from the pandemic, and the vaccine it brings about, in two ways: through garnering financial profit and enslaving humanity.

The discreet appeal of conspiracy theories

Predictably, the conspiracy theories related to the Covid-19 pandemic are based on evidence that is circumstantial at best and, more often than not, simply absurd. As such, they have been repeatedly debunked, declared a public health hazard, and ridiculed. Yet, the old plots still circulate, and the new ones continuously emerge, in social media and certain legacy media alike. We must then ask: what currency do conspiracy theories have in contemporary information-rich societies?

Crucially, not only are conspiracy theories a conviction or a set of beliefs, they also fulfil certain cognitive and psychological needs which are otherwise unmet in times of crisis.

Firstly, a conspiracy theory is a mode of cognitive mapping: an attempt to disentangle a complex situation through concocting a graspable, though not necessarily plausible or logical, explanation (Fenster, 2008; Jameson, 1988). Thus, the belief in conspiracy theory helps people to make sense of and navigate a confusing and inhospitable reality (Bale, 2007: 51).

In the case of Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories provide complete, simple, seemingly rationalistic and watertight explanations. This is in stark contrast to the available scientific knowledge – complex, fragmented, changeable and contested – and to the actions of political decision-makers and state authorities, which appear haphazard and self-contradictory. Accepting that the pandemic has a singular cause (technological/military experiments), however absurd, might be more manageable than coming to terms with the complexity of the situation in which too many variables remain unknown.

Secondly, a conspiracy theory functions as a (maladaptive) coping mechanism. Under circumstances of social change, upheaval or crisis, conspiracy theories serve to grasp a rapidly unfolding situation that has a bearing on one’s life but is beyond individual control (van Prooijen and Douglas, 2017). To do that, such theories often rely on spurious new evidence to confirm what is already known, namely a superstition or a prejudice (Byford, 2011). By outsourcing blame onto the usual suspects, conspiracy theories enable people to rationalise, albeit in a way that does not stand to reason, their present difficulties (Bale, 2007). Accordingly, conspiracy theories provide a way for those who view themselves as innocent victims of the pandemic to explain their predicament as having a known, identifiable and evil source, be it the Jewish plot, Chinese incompetence, or Bill Gates’s machinations.

Thirdly, and relatedly, conspiracy theories are a paradoxical way partly to overcome the feeling of powerlessness (Bale, 2007). By denouncing culprits, individuals can reassert their own agency: while in the know, they are able to act on the previously incomprehensible and overpowering situation. If one believes that Bill Gates is single-handedly responsible for Covid-19 and the ensuing pandemic, taking to Instagram and bombarding Gates’s profile with accusatory messages might seem like a reasonable and potentially effective course of action.

Taking all the above into account, ad-hoc factual refutations and emotional dismissals might not do much to dispel the allure of conspiracy theories. In times of crisis, conspiracy theories will always be a step ahead of carefully crafted, evidence-based theories in providing an overarching, rationalistic, simple and, therefore, compelling explanation.

While I do not claim to have any practical pointers on how exactly to combat the adverse effects of conspiracy theories, it seems to me that a more effective way to do so would be to enable general public to accept, and cope with, the complexity and unpredictability of the world. Admittedly, this would require some sweeping changes in political communication, media crisis reporting as well as schooling and education, to name but a few examples.

Portrait of Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius

Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius (Photo by Tero Alenius)


Bale JM (2007) Political paranoia v political realism: On distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice 41(1): 45-60.

Byford J (2011) Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fenster M (2008) Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (2nd edition). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hofstadter R (1966) The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jameson F (1988) Cognitive mapping. In C Nelson and L Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 347-357.

van Prooijen J-W and Douglas KM (2017). Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations. Memory Studies 10(3): 323-333.

Freedom to Change Gears – An Interview with HCAS Alumna Josephine Hoegaerts

By Kaisa Kaakinen 

In 2017, Josephine Hoegaerts received good news. Being a Core Fellow at HCAS at the time, she would be able to stay in Helsinki with her ERC project “CALLIOPE: Vocal Articulations of Parliamentary Identity and Empire”, which she conceived at HCAS. We had a conversation about the impact of the HCAS Fellowship on her career and about tensions inherent in her current role as a Principal Investigator, who sets the research agenda not only for herself but also for others.

Portrait of Josephine Hoegaerts

Josephine Hoegaerts (Photo by Veikko Somerpuro)

 “It was a deeply uninformed decision”, says Josephine Hoegaerts and laughs, when asked about her reasons for coming to HCAS in 2015 to work on a postdoctoral project on the history of voice, after her first postdoc in Belgium. Hoegaerts now holds a position as Associate Professor at the Department of Cultures at the University of Helsinki, but back then she did not know much about the University of Helsinki or about Finland. But, in addition to the prospect of learning a completely new language, Finnish, she was attracted to Helsinki by the opportunity to do research in the interdisciplinary and international environment of HCAS.  

Hoegaerts turned down another postdoc in Germany connected to an archive of popular music, which would have directed her work more specifically towards musicology. The Core Fellowship at HCAS gave her the time and freedom to step back and look for a wider interdisciplinary framework.

“I was trying to get out of strictly doing history, and into interacting with musicology, sound studies, literary studies, and HCAS seemed like an environment in which people would let me get on with that.”


Intellectual stimulation and collegial support at HCAS 

It turned out that HCAS was an excellent environment for shifting gears as a researcher. Hoegaerts found that she could engage with people from different fields in a particularly meaningful way 

“My postdoc project was on history of voice but was mainly looking at educational scientific manuals. It had a very specific, history of science approach. I was looking to pull it more in a political and social direction. At HCAS I had the time to attend different reading groups with people from different disciplines, reading up on stuff that I otherwise would not have planned.”  

Many of Hoegaerts’ collaborations at the Collegium began by chance, at lunch discussions with colleagues, whose work resonated in interesting ways with her own. One of these discussions led to the symposium “Embodiment and Emancipation,” co- organized with political philosopher Leszek Koczanowicz and literary scholar Ulrika Maude. Another HCAS Symposium “Writing Voice and Speaking Text” was a collaboration with Mari Wiklund, French philologist specializing on prosody and university lecturer at the University of Helsinki, with whom Hoegaerts is now co-editing a publication. 

Hoegaerts also stresses the impact of the collegial and supportive atmosphere of HCAS. The career phase after the PhD is plagued by insecurities that, in her view, are related less to the content of one’s research than to institutional conditions. She found it rewarding to be constantly challenged in terms of content, as fellows from various disciplines posed questions about the very foundations of her project. The same people, however, were extremely supportive as colleagues.  

When I arrived at HCAS, there was a large group of youngish female postdocs, six or seven of us, very much in the same situation, going for sushi every week, complaining. But we were not competing for the same jobs, which meant that if you got a grant or if you got something published, everything was celebrated. There was this enormously supportive atmosphere.”  

Hoegaerts also praises the director Sari Kivistö and other HCAS administrators of the time, who were well prepared to assist researchers coming to work in a new country. She remarks that support structures for international researchers are too often lacking in other units of the university, especially after the centralization of the administrative services. There is nobody in her current unit responsible for answering questions about the structure of the MA program or the Finnish tax system, for instance. As a new employee coming from abroad, you do not initially even know which questions you should be asking, she adds. 

But what made Josephine Hoegaerts decide to stay in Helsinki, when she could have taken her coveted ERC funding to another European university?  

“A sense of loyalty, she says. “I had been supported really well by the funding services as well as by the Collegium.”  

She was also simply tired of moving, a sentiment shared by many early-career academics. And finally, University of Helsinki offered her career opportunities that were not available everywhere: a tenure-track professorship. 

Curiosity-driven research for the lucky few? 

When Hoegaerts thinks back to her career path, she cannot help but notice a contradiction in her current position as a Principal Investigator of an ERC project, who employs PhD students and postdocs. While she herself has always been able to find funding that does not limit scholars’ freedom to set their own research agendas, she is now, in a sense, forced to limit the freedom of others. 

“I get the impression that particularly at the postdoc stage, it is becoming more and more difficult to find a place that is not within a project. At the same time, there is a demand for people to be autonomous, and this is a very odd tension.” 

In her own career, the freedom to set one’s own agenda meant that she could come to her current research on citizenship, political influence, and empire from an unusual angle: through thinking about voice and sound.  

It takes time to build confidence, particularly as a woman in academia, to want to talk about politics. Five years ago, I definitely would not have felt I could say anything about citizenship. I was doing something quite weird, and I am still doing something weird, but I am now moving in a direction that could be considered a big and important topic. I feel that this was a better way of coming to such topics than being in a project, in which you are forced to think about big issues.” 

Hoegaerts finds it problematic, particularly in the humanities, that research is now so strongly connected to projects, in which resources are concentrated around a few PIs. The researchers employed by the PIs do not get to define their research focus freely, which makes it difficult for them to build a career.  

“The idea behind this is that they want us to be more collaborative. But I am not sure that is the result, because collaboration should be more horizontal than what we have now. There seems to be a growing gap, at least to a degree, between the haves and the have-nots. A few people are lucky at some point and start to get money and get to define the research agenda to a much larger degree than is perhaps necessary.” 

Hoegaerts wants to make sure she supports the people employed in her project in a way that brings them forward in their own careers. At the same time, she is held accountable to the ERC to stay within the limits she “defined one summer in Helsinki,” as she puts it.  

She is currently planning a new research project that tackles the problem of professionalization and the notion of excellence, taking a critical view on the frequent talk about the latter. She adds, smiling, that this effectively means that she is asking funding agencies to give her money so that her team can tell them why their whole rationale is wrong.  

Those lunches and coffees 

When asked what it means now for her to be a Collegium alumna, Hoegaerts says that there definitely is a “bizarre bond” between people who have been at the Collegium. As for how this has come about, we – as so often when talking to fellows of institutes of advanced study – come back to how shared lunches build a sense of community and spark bottom-up forms of academic collaboration.  

 This is the one thing I really miss from the Collegium”, Hoegaerts confesses. 

Helsinki Collegium fellows sitting at the lunch table in the Common Room of HCAS during Orientation Week in September 2019.

HCAS Fellows at lunch during Orientation Week in early September 2019.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020

Interview with Art Fellows, filmmaker Minou Norouzi and poet Matti Kangaskoski

By Irinja Bickert & Riikka Juntunen

For the academic year 2019–2020, the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies hosts two Art Fellows, researcher and filmmaker Minou Norouzi, and researcher and poet Matti Kangaskoski. HCAS offers a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Arts, funded by Kone Foundation, which aims to develop new forms of cooperation and dialogue between art and scholarship. The fellowship is intended for practitioners of all fields of art having a doctoral degree either in the arts or in a different academic field.

Picture of Minou Norouzi and Matti Kangaskoski

Norouzi is a filmmaker, writer and curator based in London and Athens. Her project at the Collegium is called “Revolutionary Patience: The Ethics of Non-interventionist Documentary Encounters”. Through filmmaking and writing, she examines ‘the objectification of the real’ – the process of turning reality into material for the purpose of art production. Her film applies a mix of autoethnography and critical theory, exploring migration and political responsibility. She draws from her own experiences of coming to Europe as a child from Iran during the Iranian revolution.

Kangaskoski is a poet, novelist, and researcher based in Helsinki. His artistic-scientific study is called “Poetics of the Future: Logic of Selection, Cultural Interfaces, and Literary Production in the Age of Digital Media”. He is interested in exploring how contemporary digital cultural interfaces and their logic influence culture and society, and specifically literature. As digital media have penetrated all levels of society from everyday practices of work, politics, and communication to art, research, and even love, it is, according to Kangaskoski, crucial for both art and science to examine this condition and to reflect on its consequences.

“The research I do feeds the thinking that’s then the basis for the artistic work and of course, the other way around.”

Kangaskoski’s artistic project, a novel, imagines a near-future society that has reached full digital saturation, and explores the logic of thinking, being, and loving born out of this entanglement. The scientific part investigates current digital cultural interfaces and their influence on specifically literary production using interdisciplinary methods from philosophical cultural analysis, literary and media theory, and software, code and affect studies.

Meeting points of art and academia

The Collegium provides Art Fellows with a unique opportunity to create art in a scholarly environment, working as a part of a community of academics. What attracts an artist to work in this distinctive setting?

For Kangaskoski, the academic and the artistic are interconnected, as he has always been doing both simultaneously. “The research I do feeds the thinking that’s then the basis for the artistic work, and the other way around,” he explains. The Collegium provides the opportunity to cultivate this connection. Kangaskoski is pleased with his current work environment: “The Collegium is an amazing place both artistically and academically, because of the variety of ideas, people and disciplinary perspectives.” Sharing a physical space is important; fellows form a community, and interdisciplinary encounters take place in seminars, reading groups, yoga classes and coffee breaks.

Norouzi feels that, as far as her work is concerned, she is better placed in an academic context because it affords her the freedom of making work away from market pressures. Being a film maker in an academic environment allows her to maintain the position of an outsider from the inside, she notices.

“The Collegium does give us the opportunity to be process driven rather than outcome driven.”

The Art Fellowship programme at HCAS is based on the idea that having artists and researchers in the same space is not only an opportunity for the artist, but also benefits the academic community. We asked our Art Fellows for their thoughts on this notion.

Norouzi suggests that artistic practice expands the methodology of academic research. She points out that the methodologies of scholarship are distinct to those of artistic production and that she had to adapt her working methods when shifting from an artistic environment to academia. Since practice as knowledge production is still a little on the margins in academia, Norouzi sees value in artists ‘infecting’ the academic environment with their practice methods. “You need someone to create some chaos,” she concludes with a laugh.

Kangaskoski agrees and adds that cultivating art as another kind of creative activity with different means of exploration, results and performance can be beneficial for the entire community. During his fellowship, he is planning on writing about the differences in knowledge production in the arts and in the context of academia specifically.

Opportunities for good thinking

Norouzi praises the Art Fellowship’s ability to grant stable conditions for creating. “For an artist, it’s an incredible opportunity to get a one-year fellowship – the stability offers a rare privilege.” The chance to combine artistic and academic concerns creates fertile ground for cultivating new ideas.

Kangaskoski points out that there are not too many institutional positions that combine art and academia. Usually one of the two has to officially be the main job, and the other comes as an addition. “It is nice to have them equally present in this position.”

Ideally, research should lead to concepts and conclusions that one wouldn’t have been able to predict at the beginning of the research project. “Someone asked me the other day whether I am outcome driven. Who isn’t? But processes are important, and the Collegium gives us the opportunity to be process driven rather than outcome driven.” Norouzi concludes.

Expectations and future aspirations

When asked whether her expectations for the programme have been met so far, Norouzi answers, “Absolutely.” She commends the Collegium for striving to create social cohesion amongst the fellows.

After a hectic start of his fellowship, Kangaskoski is now looking forward to “the fun bit: good research, good thinking and good concentration on developing ideas”. Norouzi, too, is excited about getting to explore what she does not yet know. “Surely we’ll discover!”

Film maker Minou Norouzi has used pictures from her family album in her art projects.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020.

On Excellence

By Tuomas Forsberg

The stated mission of the Helsinki Collegium is to carry out high-level research in the humanities and social sciences. Given this key purpose, it is essential that in the international research assessment of the entire University of Helsinki in 2019 that focused on the past decade, the Collegium received the grade of “excellent” for both the quality of research and the research environment. As excellence ought to be recognised by others, it is important that what we say we are aligns with what we do.

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessors and all our former fellows who have contributed to this success.

We may, of course, ask how excellent is “excellent”. Something would be terribly wrong with the concept of an institute of advanced study if the Collegium were not recognised as a better research environment than teaching units and if the quality of the research environment did not translate into quality of research. However, following the academic good practice of doubt and self-criticism, there is no justification for resting on one’s laurels. Even excellence can be improved.

Societal impact from the bottom up

The Collegium received the grade “very good” in the assessment of societal impact. “Very good” is not a bad achievement but already literally a very good result. Yet, given the available resources, to what extent can we realistically improve our societal impact without also jeopardising our excellence in research? Many institutes for advanced study worldwide have reckoned that the old idea of the “usefulness of useless research” is not sufficient. Accordingly, they have started to pay more attention to societal impact to meet the expectations or even demands of the authorities, funding bodies and sponsors.

The Collegium’s visibility and outreach have emerged both locally and internationally. For example, it has been active in social media, through blogs and in public events organised at the new Think Corner of the University of Helsinki and streamed worldwide.

Speakers of the spring 2019 Kollegium Talks on Think Corner Stage

Public Kollegium Talks event “Unexpected turns in research paths”, with Erkko Professor Jane Cowan, Core Fellows Michael Langlois and Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz and Research Coordinator Kaisa Kaakinen on the Think Corner Stage, March 11, 2019 (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

However, probably the best way for the Collegium to foster societal impact is by facilitating the activities of its researchers. Just as the research carried out at the Collegium is bottom-up by nature, so should its societal impact be. Given that Collegium researchers are exempt from major administrative and teaching duties, they can in fact address new topical issues much faster of their own initiative as well as find more time for societal interaction. Many researchers already know how they can reach out to the relevant audiences. In addition, some researchers are better positioned for societal interaction than others. Moreover, research and societal interaction are typically sequential, since impact is based on research that first has to be carried out. Therefore a kind of division of labour should apply to institutions. Given the diversity of fields and issues represented at the Collegium, it is not easy to identify a core audience other than those interested in knowing what is going on and what is new in academic research in the wide sense.

Can impact be measured?

Societal impact, while definitely important, is difficult to measure reliably. In fact, attempts to do so, particularly when it affects funding directly, may lead to unintended consequences. As is well-known, measuring the societal impact of academic research is difficult because that it may take a long time before the impact becomes visible, and it is often impossible to attribute the impact of scientific knowledge to particular research outcomes. A related question is whether we should reward research that could or should have had an impact, but has failed to have one. Politicians and other decision-makers still make choices on the basis of their preferences and they may discard the scientific evidence. What if we reward outcome, in other words research that has had impact, but for reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of research? Scholars are expected to be active in the society and broaden their expertise beyond their own academic research. We should reward researchers for their societal impact based on their scholarly expertise, but it is very difficult to do so without rewarding them also for their societal impact that is based on mere civic activism. By the same token, there is no objective way of separating good impact from bad. And even if there were a clear definition of societal impact, it can remain a secret:  some of the most significant instances of societal impact – when advice is given to key decision-makers – are not meant to be publicly acknowledged.

Societal impact should definitely be part of the academic ethos that guides our research. This should not imply that research should be evaluated in terms of its short-term goal or that the societal impact of research can be measured accurately. Moreover, there is no contradiction in claiming that we should pay attention to the societal impact of research, and that we still need places where that is not the primary concern. The more universities and research institutes are required to demonstrate their relevance by addressing immediate societal concerns defined in a top-down manner, the more important it becomes that at least some institutes can focus on basic, curiosity-driven research.

Group photo of Helsinki Collegium fellows standing outside on grass

HCAS Fellows and staff in September 2019 (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg has been the Director of HCAS since August 2018.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020.

The makings of early Islamic identity

By Ilkka Lindstedt (HCAS alumni)

During 2016–2019, Ilkka Lindstedt was a Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. In this piece, he presents some results of his Collegium project “Early Islamic inscriptions as historical sources” and demonstrates that the development of a distinct Islamic identity was slower than what has commonly been thought in scholarship on early Islam.

Fred M. Donner begins his 2002–2003 article “From Believers to Muslims: Confessional Self-Identity in the Early Islamic Community” (Al-Abhath 50–51: pp. 9–53) as follows:

Studies of early Islam, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have almost without exception taken as axiomatic that Islam from its earliest days constituted a separate religious confession distinct from others – in particular, distinct from Judaism, Christianity, Magianism, and of course from the mushrikūn, those who “associate other beings with God.”

In this article and later studies (particularly his monograph Muhammad and the Believers, 2010), Donner has questioned this idea of a distinct Islamic identity during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 CE) and some decades later. As his evidence, he uses early dated and datable sources, such as the Qur’an, Arabic coins and inscriptions, as well as Syriac texts.

Photo by Ilkka Lindstedt

Fig. 1: The beginning of the fifth surah of the Qur’an, photo by Ilkka Lindstedt

First, he points out that the community seems to have lacked a proper name in its beginning. The in-group appellation used by the early sources is muʾminūn, “believers,” scarcely a word that would differentiate the community from Jews and Christians, who also called themselves believers. Second, Donner notes that the Qur’an and some other early sources often present the “People of the Book,” that is, Jews and Christians, favorably and as belonging to the community of the believers (though the evidence is conflicting and stereotypical and othering views of the Jews and Christians are present too).

For example, Qur’an 3:113–114 states: “There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelations during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the Last Day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds. These people are among the righteous” (transl. Abdul Haleem).

Thus, Donner argues, it is probable that the early community of believers included people from distinct backgrounds: Jews, Christians, gentiles, and others who accepted the stringent monotheism of the community and the Qur’an as a new revelation adding to but not necessarily supplanting earlier revelations. To use the terminology of social psychology, the believer affiliation that the Qur’an articulated and put forward was a recategorized and superordinate identity that did not exclude religious sub-identities.

According to Donner, it was toward the end of the seventh century – around 50 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad – that Islamic identity properly speaking started to be articulated. This occurred through e.g. discoursal processes where the believers adopted the names “Muslims” and “people of Islam” as their in-group designations and drew the border with Jews, Christians, and others by emphasizing the overarching signification of the Prophet Muhammad and rituals that were specific to Islam.

Arabic inscriptions and the “parting of the ways”

Fred Donner’s hypothesis of the late “parting of the ways” (to borrow a concept from early Christian studies) has been received with both appraisal and criticism. In any case, his studies have been widely read, and even those critical of the argument have had to react to them.

To test Donner’s hypothesis, I conducted, during my Collegium Fellowship (2016–2019), a systematic analysis of early dated Islamic-era Arabic inscriptions engraved or painted on stone. These are a unique corpus of evidence, because it is

a) produced by the members of the community of the believers, so it does not suffer from outsider stereotypes;
b) produced by both elite and lay people;
c) often absolutely dated by the writers;
d) the inscriptions are religious in nature and hence proffer information on how the believers perceived and articulated their religiousness and religious identity.

For a comprehensive examination of the available evidence, I collected the (around one hundred) published Arabic inscriptions dated to 640s–740s CE, a period when other sources are scarce. I reread, translated, and analyzed the inscriptions. My study will be published as an article entitled “Who Is in, Who Is out? Early Muslim Identity through Epigraphy and Theory” (Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 46, 2019). As my analytical framework, I used the social identity theory, promulgated in social psychology since the 1970s.

The Arabic inscriptions, I submit, provide evidence corroborating Donner’s suggestion. If anything, the inscriptions suggest that the Islamic identity-formation process was slower than Donner put forward in his article, with identity negotiation and permeable borders being attested in the epigraphic texts well into the eighth century CE.

To summarize my findings, the corpus of dated Arabic inscriptions attests indeterminate pious formulae up to the 690s CE, when the first instances of the emphasis on the Prophet Muhammad surface in the texts. In the 700s–720s, there are first mentions of specifically Muslim rites such as pilgrimage, prayer, and fasting. Moreover, it is in the 720s–730s when the words Muslims and Islam began to become consolidated as references to the in-group, supplanting the more ambivalent “believers.”

In my article, I suggest that it is around these decades (720s–730s CE) when we should date the “parting of the ways.” That is to say, since that time most Muslims have categorized themselves as being separate from other religious identifications, such as Jews and Christians, though intergroup contact and influence naturally continued throughout the centuries.

The Qaṣr Kharrāna inscription (710 CE)

As an example, let us cite the following text. It is written in ink on the wall of a building nowadays known as Qaṣr Kharrāna, in Jordan. The text is written by someone named ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar; the inscription is dated to 710 CE. The ink is badly damaged today (see Fig. 2, around the center of the photo, for the inscription), but most of the text is still decipherable.

Photo by Hannu Aukia

Fig. 2, photo by Hannu Aukia

“O God, have mercy on ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar and forgive him his earlier and later sins and those that he made public and kept secret and those that You know best; he … if you do not forgive me and have mercy on me, I will be among the losers [Quran 11:47]; my Lord, You bestow benefactions upon me, for You are certainly the Benefactor; and You have mercy on me, for You are certainly the Merciful; I ask You that You accept from him his supplication and prayer; amen, Lord of the world, Lord of Moses and Aaron [Quran 26:47-48]; may God have mercy on who recites it [the inscription] and then says, ‘amen, amen, Lord …, the Mighty, the Great’; and ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar wrote [this inscription] on Monday, al-Muḥarram 27, in the year ninety-two.”
[AH = November 24, 710 CE]

The writer asks God to forgive his sins and have mercy on him, among other things. The inscription contains some Qur’anic quotations and adaptations (referring to Qur’an 11:47 and 26:47–48), but apart from that there is nothing we might call Islamic identity signaling (and even the Qur’anic passages cited do not include anything that would not be acceptable to Jews and Christians). The writer does not mention the Prophet Muhammad, but instead refers to Moses and Aaron, figures that are venerated by Jews and Christians too.

Religious categorizations and pluralism in early Islam and modern Islamic thought

All in all, the epigraphic record, complimented with other contemporary evidence, show us that the Muslim affiliation came together around one hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad through the construction of perceived shared ideology, social history, scripture, practices, and other common features. It should also be noted that Muslims were, for many centuries, a minority group in the Near East, conversion to Islam being very slow.

The issues of religious categorizations, inter-religious dialogue, and pluralism have been revisited in the modern era by many Muslim scholars. There is an ample literature on these questions. To mention one example, Jerusha Lamptey’s book Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism (2014) tackles the question of religious categorizations head-on. She offers an insightful reading of the Qur’an that is in agreement with the idea of pluralism, suggesting that according to the Qur’anic categorizations the differences between religious groups are lateral rather than hierarchical.

She notes (p. 165) that “all revelation and messengers share a common goal of teaching people about God, of guiding them to correct practice, and of warning them of individual accountability and the Day of Judgment.” Since the Qur’an rarely mentions the Prophet Muhammad by name and more often simply talks of a messenger (rasūl) or the messenger (al-rasūl), Lamptey (p. 250) interprets that “in the Qurʾān all people are called to obey a messenger but they are not all called to obey the same messenger.”

Social categorizations are subject to change, if need be, as well as to social and historical context. Fred Donner has put forward a bold and intriguing hypothesis as to how early Islamic identity was articulated and established. In my article, I suggest that the evidence of Arabic inscriptions and social psychological analysis agree with the claims of Donner’s studies. This line of research requires naturally more probing and refining and comparisons with Arabic literature (which is, however, not contemporary but later). An increasing number of Arabic inscriptions and papyri, for example, are published every year, and scholars must take them into account. Furthermore, the studies on early Islamic identity that have been carried out so far do not discuss geographical and other contexts in detail. It is to be supposed that social categorizations functioned in divergent ways in different regions and environment. Hopefully, with more sources available, it will be possible to study the makings of Islamic identities in all of their variety.


Making of: Moral Machines

By Susanna Lindberg & Hanna-Riikka Roine

As our contemporary world is increasingly digitalized, the ethical, moral and political issues it encompasses require our immediate attention. Technology can no longer be considered as a mere tool since it has a significant effect on both its users and the surrounding environment as well. This can be seen, for example, in the way we assign new tasks to our computers every day. Needless to say, digitalization has been extremely useful in science, technology, economy and everyday life; despite this, however, we also need to examine our relationship to digitalization with a critical eye.

Moral Machines? Ethics and Politics of the Digital World conference began as an idea to bring together N. Katherine Hayles (Duke University) and Bernard Stiegler (University of Compiègne), the two prominent scholars examining the constantly increasing digitalization of our society. After they agreed to come, we started drafting the overall plan for the conference and quickly realised the vastness of the topic. The development of technology and digitalization are phenomena which comprehensively shape our society, and it is for this reason that such phenomena should be examined in an interdisciplinary context.

N. Katherine Hayles giving her keynote lecture at Think Corner (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

Furthermore, we saw an urgent need to reflect upon the moral and political implications of digitalization, not only the technological aspects. This is why we not only wanted to appeal to scholars from multiple different fields, but also to create an arena focusing on the humanities and social sciences perspectives. On top of that, we wanted to include an artistic programme.

Initially, Moral Machines was supposed to be a much smaller symposium, but after the call for papers closed, we had received so many good proposals for papers that the symposium doubled in size. This is also why we ended up having six keynotes in a fairly small conference: besides Hayles and Stiegler, we had contacted Erich Hörl (Leuphana University of Lüneburg), Maria Mäkelä (Tampere University), Frédéric Neyrat (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Francois-David Sebbah (Paris Nanterre University) about joining us.

Susanna Lindberg and Hanna-Riikka Roine opening the conference (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

Due to the wide variety of perspectives to the topics of the conference, the first day of the conference was dedicated to fiction, media and art, while the following two days had parallel session tracks focusing on philosophical and sociological discussions. The presentations ranged from fictional representations of moral machines and the understanding of social media as a moralistic storytelling machine to discussions of various uses of data and theories of thinking and knowledge in the digital world.

The first day culminated in the artistic evening programme organised on the Tiedekulma Stage, with Otso Huopaniemi’s performance, Riikka Talvitie’s composition for the solo clarinette of Fàtima Boix, and the performance of Black Mödernism, a group consisting of the poets Matti Kangaskoski, Eino Santanen ja Tuomas Timonen. The artistic programme proved out to be a real success. As many of the people participating in both the sessions and artistic programme of the conference pointed out, the performances engaged the same questions as the academic presentations but from a completely different – and therefore refreshing – angle.

black mödernism’s self-directing “A to B Networking Collective” presents: “A:sta B:hen. / From A to B. Kaksiarvoinen moraaliesitelmä / Binary Moral Presentation.” (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

The conference had almost 120 registered participants, and many more came by to catch the keynote talks and sessions and watch the artists perform. From our perspective, everything went quite well, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Moral Machines confirmed the fact that while the challenges that digitalization poses are complex and numerous, they are being addressed and examined within various different fields. To our delight, Moral Machines was able to bring some of these together in a way that easily surpassed the instinctive digiphilia or digiphobia. In the end, it appears that most presenters rejected the idea that ethical, moral and political responsibilities could be delegated to machines only (as in the famous “moral machine” experiment. However, in the contemporary world, digital systems affect all existential and social situations, either because computing itself takes over certain affective tasks, or because ethics and politics take an active stance to technological frameworks and human-machine assemblages. No doubt, in order to follow the transformations of ethics and politics in a digital world it is useful to assembly expertise from different areas, as the conference was able to do.

Researcher interested in Imperial Russia finds an archival heaven in Helsinki

By Minerva Juolahti, Vilja Myllyviita & Frida Wikblad

“The collegium has a great reputation and a great location. One of the attractive aspects of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies is that it has a broad spectrum of scholars in various states of their careers. I like that, I like to have that breadth.” Professor Peter Holquist reflects on the last six months he has spent at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS).

(c) Minerva Juolahti

HCAS has had the privilege of hosting Holquist from the University of Pennsylvania as a Core Fellow since last fall. In Helsinki he has been able to focus on his research concerning the role of Imperial Russia in the codification and practice of international law of war. His time in Helsinki has now come to an end and his next stop is the American Academy in Berlin.

Helsinki – a rich site for research on Russia and law

Holquist decided to come to Helsinki and the HCAS for many reasons. First of all, he had already visited the city several times, the first time already in 1983 for orientation prior to study in the Soviet Union. Secondly, the University of Helsinki has several research areas of his interest, where especially Russian studies and law are well represented by two of the university institutes: the Aleksanteri Institute is an important center concentrating on Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies, whereas law is well represented by the Erik Castrén Institute for International Law and Human Rights.

The Slavonic library of the Finnish National Library (formerly the University library), located right next to HCAS, was also important for Holquist’s decision to come to HCAS. Why Helsinki currently has a world-famous Slavonic library can be traced back to the period of Russian rule in Finland. When the University library was first moved to Helsinki in the 19th century, the Russian government designated the library to be a deposit library to store everything that was published in the empire. This is why the Finnish National Library now has such a stupendously rich collection of published materials, especially of the period that is the key point of interest for Holquist, the last third of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century. The Slavonic Library has been very convenient to access and use, and the staff has been remarkably helpful in looking for material also from other Finnish institutions.

“The library has wonderful working conditions and an amazingly rich archive. I was able to order several different editions of the international law text books of the scholars that I’m studying. It’s wonderful having the entire run of the shelfs on many of the key Russian journals,” as Holquist describes his experience, when working at the Finnish National Library.

Free Public Spaces and Openness of Finnish Society

For Holquist, one of the great aspects about staying in Helsinki has been the chance to get to know a different cultural environment better. He has greatly enjoyed the openness of Finnish society, for instance the great availability of free public spaces, such as libraries. He has, for example, been able to use the resources of the Finnish National Library, the Library of Parliament and The National Defence University library. Also, Holquist’s wife was able to join him for his stay in Helsinki and, as an independent writer, she has greatly enjoyed the entirely open access to the libraries of Helsinki.

“There was a certain book I couldn’t find that wasn’t part of any of the Finnish university systems, but it was available in one place in Finland, the Library of Parliament, and that library is a public space as so many things in Finland are. They had no trouble giving me, a foreign researcher, a reading card.  And to my great surprise, I learned that it’s also a lending library! Most parliamentary libraries that I know of are on site libraries. So, I was able to work on this very fundamental book in my office alongside all of my other materials,” describes Holquist.

Wonderful Time at HCAS and Tips for Future Fellows

For Holquist, a collegial working environment and the freedom to focus on one’s research is valuable. What makes HCAS special from many other institutions of a similar nature is the fact that HCAS entails the entire career spectrum of scholars: early career and senior researchers work side by side. Time at the collegium has allowed him to concentrate on conducting research without having to spend time on administrative or teaching duties. The fact that HCAS is located at the very center of Helsinki, right next to the other essential institutions, has made it a very convenient place for him to work and do research. The possibility to present his own research, to interact with other scholars at the formal Tuesday seminars—as well as gathering at the informal get-togethers on Tuesday evenings—and the winter weather have been a few of the highlights of his stay at HCAS. During his stay, he also serendipitously discovered other scholars working on topics closely linked to his own study, both at HCAS and also at such unexpected places as the sauna in Töölö Towers.

(c) Minerva Juolahti

Holquist is now looking forward to incorporating into his academic writings the material that he collected during his time in Helsinki. He is also preparing his new book under the name ‘By Right of War’: The Discipline and Practice of International Law in Imperial Russia, 1868–1917.

As a tip for future fellows of the collegium Holquist states: “Reach out to people! For instance, in terms of research, I didn’t simply rely on what was available in the online catalogue, I went and asked for help from the researchers. The collegium is a wonderful place, but you also need to think whether there are communities outside of the collegium that you can benefit from.”

The Birth of Research from a Spirit of Intertextuality

By Anna Usacheva

Why are you a classical philologist?

Anna Usacheva

People often ask me what I do as a researcher. The questioner is clearly not interested in day-to-day practicalities: it is common knowledge that nowadays everybody from physicians to judges and football players to politicians spend as much time in front of their laptops as office workers. What the questioner really wants to know is why I spend so much time in front of my laptop reading or writing about thinkers or civilizations long obliterated from earth. Why don’t I devote my “screen-gazing” time to a more productive goal, such as comparing the number of likes given to one politician’s speech against those given to another, or to making and promoting culinary videos? The immediate benefit of these occupations is obvious and undeniable, while showing what is essentially useful in studying the lives and ideas of people who lived more than a millennium before us – this is a more formidable task. In what way can the experience of these people be relevant to our modern-day lives? And is there any real possibility of accurately interpreting this experience, given that their living conditions were so different from ours that even armed with the richest grammatical expertise in ancient languages we may fail to grasp the sense of some short casual letter inscribed on a piece of papyrus?

To this question one often hears the following response: Despite all the cultural differences which separate our age from the ancient civilizations, certain primordial and archetypal, or simply conventional, similarities nevertheless exist between our cultures, which may enable us to discover some useful information (like a recipe for some strong aphrodisiac) or entitle us to happily admit that “They were so clever that they even used bathrooms and plumbing systems as we do!” Though I do not deny an element of truth to this position, I don’t think it does full justice to either ancient civilizations or contemporary scholarship. I believe that our desire to study ancient cultures is due not to some sort of similarity between them and contemporary culture, but rather to the apparent difference between the two. Scholars may be mildly surprised when they start investigating the life of Roman citizens, but as they go further in their study, they are often astonished to discover the prosperity, intellectual and cultural achievements, and general self-satisfaction which many of the past societies enjoyed in spite of the defects of their medical care or transport systems. This fact suggests that our contemporary civilization has not discovered a universal theory of how to procure people’s happiness which would entitle us to look at previous civilizations as at infusoria under a microscope. We do not have the right to suggest that we know the correct method of reading “the book of human history” written on the scraps of papyri, manuscript pages or preserved in archeological finds.

How does one read “the book of the past”?

However, what seems to me to be rather inspiring in this status quo is that in our perception all the textual and material data that we have represent a continuum of the texts and stories in the book of our past. Versatile and miscellaneous as they are, these texts and stories have worked their way into the same leathery binding of human history, which will incorporate the texts and stories of our generation just as casually as it did with the opera of our ancestors.This simple fact allows us to cultivate in ourselves a healthy humility, which can prevent us from two misleading and, unfortunately, rather popular approaches to the research. The first consists of claiming that we can perfectly understand the texts of the past without bothering to study the historical context and original language of these texts, because there is no essential difference between the past and the present. The second approach exaggerates the gap between various historical epochs to the extent that renders it useless to make any inquiry into historical material because its meaning is unfathomable to us.

In my opinion, to find the middle way between these extremes, we should follow the “spirit of intertextuality”, which allows us to see the intertextual connections between the past and the present, the connections which neither blur nor exaggerate the distinctions between the texts and stories of different epochs. Belonging to our generation, we at the same time are the authors and the heroes of our stories as well as the readers of the texts of the past. To navigate in this stream of syllables and meanings, we should remember that the texts of the present are different from the texts of the past and that together they form a unique continuum of human history. In such a way, the all-embracing spirit of intertextuality binds and sews together various disciplines and attaches to them a particular anthropological strand. Whether written a millennium or a second ago, every story in the book of the past concerns human beings. Whatever the initial goals and aspirations of various disciplines may be, they all pursue their long and glorious journey through the universe, just as light travels to the earth unobstructed for nearly 93 million miles and emphatically a few feet above the ground it stumbles upon man and becomes a human shadow.

Different times – different horizons

 An example of this situation can be easily found in my own research project entitled “Physiology of Human Cognition in the Scientific, Theological and Monastic Contexts of Late Antiquity”. If I were to advocate the necessity and actuality of this study, I could speak about the fascinating brain mapping theory, found in the late antique treatise On the Nature of Man, which I am going to study. Although historians of medicine have recognized that this work contains the first evidence of the theory of the ventricular localization of various physiological functions in the human brain, so far nobody has really explained how this theory could have been formulated without fMRI machines and in circumstances where medical scholars were not even permitted to dissect a human body. Captivating in its own way, this is not the chief interest of my research, because I marvel not at vague and illusive similarities between ancient and contemporary medical theories but at the apparent contrast between the scientific methodological approaches of late antiquity and those of contemporary science. The author of the treatise I study saw no fault in combining the most progressive medical theories of his time with the philosophical and theological concepts of his and previous periods. Thus, he even claimed an analogy between human and divine natures, and in building his theological theory, he heavily relied on the treatises of famous Greek physicians.

Anatomical face, Leipzig, late 19th century

I find it difficult to imagine a contemporary priest using an anatomical or pharmacological textbook in his or her preaching along with (or even more extensively than) the Bible. We all used to believe that a reasonable gap between science and humanities should be preserved in order to prevent our civilization from falling into “the chaotic alchemical obscurity of the Middle Ages”. While solid and legitimate in its own way, this methodological principle cast a shadow on the collaboration between the sciences and humanities, which meant that many of the brilliant theories which were successfully deduced from experience failed to find their way back into the life of people. The peculiar skill of combining these branches of human knowledge exemplifies one of the differences between contemporary and late antique societies. This fact inspired me to study and learn from the experience of conducting interdisciplinary research in the past.

Questions for the sake of questioning

Different disciplines complement each other not only because a historian may one day discover that their curiosity concerning ancient numerical systems has something of the rigorous interest of a contemporary mathematician, but because both scholars may be startled at recognizing various ways of looking at such a regular and stable phenomenon as a number.  Understood in a broad sense, intertextuality is an integral part of successful research, not so much because somebody can reasonably hope that all the numerous aspects of phenomena can be identified and a comprehensive explanation of them provided. To expect and strive for this result would be equal to voluntary (though perhaps unconscious) suicide, because for all the mysteries surrounding the human mind, one thing is more or less clear – it lives as long as it runs and runs as long as it lives. Therefore, there should and, hopefully, will always appear many more questions and fascinating strands to long-recognized and abundantly discussed problems. Eventually, a very practical and obvious effect of this everlasting scholarly thirst is that every generation has the right to discover our universe for the first time and to make it a comfortable and even more beautiful place for us. And this goal can be achieved only if we understand those people whose comfort and well-being we enthusiastically promote. To understand ourselves, we need to compare our society with a different one, which may well be one that lived more than a millennium before us.

Anna Usacheva has been working as a Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies since September 2018. Her research project focuses on the physiology of human cognition in the scientific, theological and monastic contexts of late antiquity.




Some Thoughts on the Helsinki Collegium

By Tuomas Forsberg

More than one month has passed since I began as director of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. The first month has been extremely busy but also very rewarding: the new fellows arrived just a fortnight after me and the new academic term has started at full speed.

Photo by Veikko Somerpuro

Director Tuomas Forsberg with the Fellows and staff of the Helsinki Collegium in September 2018 (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

The HCAS is a wonderful, unique place as an interface of international scholars and interdisciplinary research in the field of humanities and social sciences, including law, theology and education – the five faculties of the City Centre campus in Helsinki. My own background is in political science and international relations, but I realized that I have many close academic friends in all these fields, and I have published at least one article in anthologies edited by a researcher from each of the five faculties of the City Centre campus. In fact, back in the late 1980s when I was a University of Helsinki student, I also completed at least some courses in all these faculties (yes, even in theology). And not only that: I cannot escape thinking that I have grown up alongside all the above broad disciplines: my parents were theologians, my dear aunt and godmother was a philologist, my aunts and uncles teachers, and one uncle – as well as my wife – lawyers.

Time for Research and Collaboration

The mission of the HCAS is in line with the key idea of advanced studies institutes to produce top-class research that crosses disciplinary boundaries and creates something original. This often means applying the metaphor of building: we do not tear down an old house and quickly build something new and different; instead, we solidify the building’s foundations so that the house can be renovated. For that, fellows need time to focus on their research and the freedom to develop their own agendas.

The HCAS also needs to be a community. A strong identity and esprit de corps has been a strength of the institute in the past, and without a sense of community the whole HCAS idea would be lost. The joy of research comes from discoveries and findings that are often very subjective moments, but no researcher would be able to achieve much alone. Although researchers in the humanities and social sciences often have their own projects, sharing ideas with others is crucial. HCAS fellows come to the institute as individuals, but they hopefully leave with many friends and partnerships that might even be more important in the long term than the research carried out during the fellowship.

The HCAS mission also includes collaboration with the university faculties. Although the point of the HCAS is to enable scholars to focus on their research, “splendid isolation” may distract the younger fellows from taking the necessary next steps towards teaching positions. Many researchers based in the faculties would also be very happy to get even a glimpse of a famous scholar who has landed at the HCAS for a year.

The Three Fs, or the Core Elements of Research

This balance between focusing on research and internal activities vs. teaching and outreach is a longstanding issue often to do with perception and visibility rather than substance. Having a strong esprit de corps is not the same as being inward-looking. Even if the HCAS’s mission concerns the area of basic research rather than policy-oriented knowledge, it can still be vitally important in many different ways. A good example of how the HCAS can be “useful” and reach wider audiences was to promote the lectures on “useless knowledge” that in fact became very popular.

When I was the acting director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs 20 years ago, we used to describe three core elements of research with three Finnish words starting with H: hyvää (good), hauskaa (fun) and hyödyllistä (useful). I wonder what would be the best translation of this slogan. Maybe three Fs: research should be fun, functional and freaking good!

One feature of the HCAS known widely in Finland has been to reflect academic practices and contribute to debates on science policy. Here, I see no reason to change course, and I hope that this blog can find readers and contributors and in this domain as well.

Tuomas Forsberg (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)