“Truth, Injustice and Reconciliation in Comparative Perspective: Finland, Canada, United States” – Summary of the Webinar held at the Helsinki Collegium on May 25, 2021

By Sofie Henriksen

In anticipation of the work of Finland’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concerning the Sámi People (TRC), the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS) hosted the online event “Truth, Injustice and Reconciliation in Comparative Perspective: Finland, Canada, United States” on May 25th, 2021, for which 120 people from academia, government and civil society in 12 different countries registered.

Outi Pieski: Beavvit – Rising Together, installation, 2021. Photo by Sang Tae Kim.

In line with the Collegium’s interdisciplinary mission, the event brought together Professor of Political Science Rauna Kuokkanen (University of Lapland), Professor of Law Mayo Moran (Trinity College, University of Toronto), and Professor of History David Collins (HCAS/Georgetown University) to discuss historical injustice and reconciliation in a comparative perspective. The event was moderated by Karen Knop, international lawyer and Jane and Aatos Erkko Visiting Professor at the Helsinki Collegium in 2020–2021, and Tuomas Forsberg, the director of HCAS and an expert in international relations. 

Truth and Reconciliation Process in Finland concerning the Sámi People

According to its mandate negotiated between the Finnish government and the Sámi Parliament, the purpose of the Sámi TRC in Finland is threefold:

“to identify and assess historical and current discrimination, including the assimilation policy of the state and violations of rights, to find out how they affect the Sámi and their communities in the current situation, and to propose ways to promote links between the Sámi and the state of Finland and among the Sámi people.”

“By forming a common understanding of historical and current discrimination,” the TRC is intended to “lay the foundation for reconciliation between the Sámi and the state and for structural change and trust-based interaction that supports the ability of the Sámi to maintain and develop their own language and culture, including traditional livelihoods – at the core of which is the connection to land and water.”

Rauna Kuokkanen, Research Professor of Arctic Indigenous Studies at the University of Lapland, discussed the prospects for a truth and reconciliation process in Finland. Drawing on political theorist Catherine Lu’s work on justice and reconciliation, Kuokkanen focused on the TRC’s mandate to address contemporary as well as historical injustice and its commitment to structural change. Kuokkanen argued that it would be inadequate to focus only on the examination and rectification of historical wrongdoings and relations between victims and perpetrators because this “interactional” form of justice, as Lu defines it, depoliticises reconciliation by concentrating solely on individual psychological healing. Instead, the foundational problems of structural injustice embedded in institutions, norms and practices must be addressed because they continue to reproduce injustice. Kuokkanen argued that structural reconciliation would require the Sámi to have “genuine and meaningful capacity to govern the central aspects of their society and culture, which inseparably include land rights and land use practices”. In other words, the self-determination of the Sámi people is at the core of structural justice and manifests as what Lu defines as ‘structural dignity’ within a reconciliation context. Kuokkanen categorizes the current form of Sámi self-determination of the Sámi as self-administration rather than self-government, based on the theoretical distinction by Stephen Cornell. Whereas self-government has decision-making authority and has a structure designed by Indigenous peoples themselves, self-administration is often imposed by outsiders, e.g. the settler state, and limited to administering the dissemination of state funding for cultural programs, service delivery and distribution of resources such as jobs.

Furthermore, Kuokkanen touched upon another important aspect of reconciliation related to structural injustice: how to hold the majority population accountable for past injustices. For this discussion, Kuokkanen drew on Iris Marion Young’s distinction between a ‘liability model’ and a ‘social connection model of responsibility’. Whereas the liability model assigns responsibility to the persons who have caused the injustice, the social connection model of responsibility aims at forms of structural injustice, in which linking the injustice directly to individuals is impossible. This is especially relevant in regard to colonial processes which took place in the past but continue as structural injustice in the present. With the social connection model of responsibility, the accountability is related to working against the unjust structures, in the Finnish context settler colonialism, which the majority is benefiting from and often perpetuating. In this sense, the liability model is backward-looking, whereas the social connection model is forward-looking. To illustrate this point, Kuokkanen gave an example of today’s teachers. Although they are not held responsible for the discrimination and racism that took place in the Finnish residential schools to which the Sámi were sent, they do have a shared obligation to counteract unjust structural processes by educating their pupils about the history and culture of the Sámi people in an up-to-date and non-stereotyped way.

Truth and Reconciliation Processes concerning Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada

To contextualize the Canadian TRC, Mayo Moran, Professor of Law, Provost and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, introduced the background of the Canadian Indigenous-Settler relations and the Canadian colonial policies. Since 2007, Professor Moran has chaired the Independent Assessment Process Oversight Committee that assists in the implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Agreement, the agreement that led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.  Canadian colonial policies were designed to eradicate the Indigenous presence through dispossession of Indigenous land, cultural genocide and forced assimilation. As a part of the assimilation policy, Indian Residential Schools were established in partnerships with various churches. For 150 years, approximately 150.000 Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to brutal residential schools. Children were abused sexually, physically and spiritually.  Countless thousands of children never returned nor received any burial if they died. The schools have inflicted a profound intergenerational trauma within Indigenous families and communities.

Moran referred to the 1991 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP) as a forerunner to the Canadian TRC. A Canadian government appointed body, it included both Indigenous and non-Indigenous commissioners and had the broad goal of investigating the relationship between Indigenous peoples, the government of Canada and Canadian society. In 1996,  RCAP submitted its five volume 4000 page report.  It contained 440 recommendations including legislative changes as well as the establishment of an Indigenous Parliament to redress gaps in education, health care and housing – which, Moran pointed out, is interesting in the light of Kuokkanen’s discussion of forms of Indigenous self-determination. Moran also noted that RCAP was rather similar to the Finnish TRC in origin and scope. To some degree, Canada’s RCAP could appear to serve as a cautionary tale to those hoping that the Finnish TRC will result in significant changes. But while the majority of the recommendations of RCAP remain unimplemented, it was actually very important in paving the way for the later Canadian TRC.  Among other things, it began to draw the attention of non-Indigenous Canadians to the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples. Many commentators also believe it was responsible for inspiring efforts to address the legacy of residential schools which had been little spoken about until then.

Partly as a result of the discussions that began in Indigenous communities after RCAP, in the late 1990s, survivors of Indian Residential Schools began to seek civil remedies for historic sexual abuse and to bring cases against the federal government and churches. By 2005, there were tens of thousands of claims also for loss of language and culture, as well as intergenerational harm. The only alternative was settlement and in 2006, the federal government, the Assembly of First Nations, and various churches signed the Indian Residential Schools Agreement. At an overall cost of between five and six billion dollars, the Agreement created several programs including most importantly the Canadian TRC. In contrast to RCAP, the context of litigation settlement meant that Indigenous people had a powerful voice—no agreement could be reached without their consent and the TRC was one of the most critical priorities of the Assembly of First Nations. Referring to Kuokkanen’s use of Lu’s distinction, Moran noted how the 2006 Agreement had elements of both interactional and structural reconciliation. The interactional element was addressed in several ways. For instance, there were two reparations processes, one for all who attended residential schools and an additional one for those who also suffered serious physical or sexual abuse.   In 2008, the Canadian Prime Minister delivered an apology in the House of Commons to the survivors of the Indian Residential Schools. The structural elements were addressed by the TRC which was tasked with the considering larger relationship and locating the history of residential schools within the broader context of colonial policy and ongoing discrimination.

Moran pointed out that although many worried that the focus on litigation and residential schools would distract from the larger narrative, the way that the TRC approached the residential school experience enabled it to serve as a focal point through which the whole Indigenous-Settler relationship could begin to come into focus for ordinary Canadians. Unlike RCAP, which involved broad discussions about politics, colonialism and sovereignty, the TRC approached settler colonialism from a profoundly human point of view: the terrible story of children forcibly taken from their families. Through this history, as Canadians we began started to understand something critical about our own history and place in colonialism. Moran noted that it is too soon to assess the significance of the TRC, since its 94 Calls to Action are only partly implemented. However, the discussions around the TRC have changed the conversation in Canada and forced contemporary Canadians to acknowledge themselves as settlers for the first time, which is in itself a critical step towards reconciliation.

Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation 

David Collins, Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University, spoke of Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, which he chaired in 2015-2016, and the projects that have followed it. The Working Group (WG) was established to address slaveholding in the University’s history. Founded in 1789, the University ran in part on revenues generated by enslaved labor on plantations owned by the order of Catholic priests, the Jesuits, who ran the university. That history includes a notorious sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838, revenues from which were used to relieve the university from financial stress. The dialogue begun by the WG has continued and broadened to include the descendants of those enslaved by the Jesuit order in the US. Together these parties have, as recently reported in the New York Times, announced the erection of a foundation – the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation – devoted to alleviating racial discord and inequity in American society.

Before turning to several general insights, Prof. Collins highlighted important differences between his case and the Canadian and Finnish examples, e.g., that WG’s efforts were sponsored by a private and religious parties, and the State had/has no role; and that no direct participants in the historical events, as far in the past as they were, could participate in the WG’s efforts. Prof. Collins then offered five insights from his experience in these efforts. First, he noted the crucial importance of the descendants as participants in the discussions. The emergence of the descendants as a participant group followed the WG’s public handling of the university’s slave-holding history. Their work inspired others, who were descendants, to claim, rightly, the history as not simply the university’s but also theirs. Engagement with the descendants was not part of the WG’s initial mandate, and their emergence – ultimately as multifaceted and heterogeneous – took time; nonetheless, engagement with them became a central recommendation in the WG’s year-end report to the university.  A second insight derives from this unexpected, difficult, yet fruitful engagement with the descendants: that a “common” history will still necessarily be look different from different perspectives, and to let one perspective dominate the story-telling inevitably leads to a distorted history. That was certainly the experience for the university as it was confronted by the history of the sale of 1838 as told by the descendants of those sold. The results have been enriching for the university and the Jesuit order.

Third, the WG’s work and the subsequent Descendant-Jesuit-University discussions took (and are taking) place in the larger context of race relations and tensions in the US, which constantly influence(d) those discussions. Several times over the last fifty years, the university and order had turned to address publically their history of slaveholding and slave-trading, but never before had the history attracted such widespread attention both within the larger university community and across the nation. Racial unrest since 2015 has provided a different backdrop to the historical investigations, and the history’s modern-day implications have been raised into high relief as never before. In short, context matters. Fourth, WG’s efforts as well as the subsequent dialogue have had a distinctive religious underpinning. On the one hand, this highlights a difference between the Georgetown case and many others, where religious language and divergent religious commitment can be an impediment to reparative projects on account of religious institutions’ participation in the injustices.  On the other hand, in the Georgetown case it gave some common language and values for the emergent dialogue. In this instance, Catholicism – with its concepts of sin, confession, penance, atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation – has provided the common values that could be used both in indictment and in aspiration. Without such a shared touchstone, it is unclear how the Descendant-Jesuit-University dialogue would have proceeded. Fifth and last, there is so much unpredictability in this work. Participants need to be open to that, even as they draft ways forward and work toward particular goals. In the Georgetown case, no one anticipated in September 2015 that descendants would in 2021 be at the heart of any program of atonement and melioration. And yet today their participation is the single-most gratifying component to the work begun in 2015. Openness to the unplanned, Prof. Collins concluded, is clearly among the most important qualities for any group undertaking a process such as this.

Discussion

One of the themes discussed after the speakers’ presentations was that of the understandings and implications of the word ‘reconciliation’. Referring to Kuokkanen and Moran’s presentations, Tuomas Forsberg brought up how reconciliation, referring to the reconciling of two conflicting parties, is a substantively “thick” concept and can seem demanding and infeasible to many. In the Georgetown context, reconciliation was initially a part of the DTRF’s mandate, but Collins described how, for reasons such as Forsberg raised, the word “atonement” was slowly replacing the use of reconciliation. Atonement was a word that emerged in the discussions in which descendants were involved. Collins told of a descendant who, in line with the Catholic sacrament of confession, reminded the DTRF that reconciliation comes with penance. In a comment that illustrated the complexities of the implications of reconciliation, Moran noted that in the Canadian discussions on reconciliation, a departure from religious concepts was necessary precisely because Canadian churches had been involved in the Indian Residential Schools.

An audience member asked whether and how the Finnish TRC could contribute greater collaboration and solidarity within the Sámi community – a community in which certain conflicts are directly linked to colonization. Kuokkanen emphasized that the Finnish TRC is mandated to focus on the relationship between the state and the Sámi, and cannot resolve all conflicts. That does, however, not preclude reconciliation outside the context of the State-Sámi relations. To this, Moran added that the Canadian TRC held seven national events that brought together different groups to discuss reconciliation in what were called ‘learning tents’. Subsequent to these events, community initiatives separate from the national TRC process emerged focusing on commemoration and reconciliation in various ways. Moran described how one initiative was to restore a previous Indian Residential School and make it into an educational center for students to learn more about colonialism. In a starkly opposite and more symbolic initiative,  an Indian Residential School building was burned to the ground.

The last topic raised by the audience was the role of human rights in TRCs, which varied between the Canadian and U.S. contexts. Moran described how human rights were at the core of the Canadian TRC, both in a backward-looking manner, in terms of describing the wrong doings as violations of human rights, and in a forward-looking manner, in terms of Indigenous rights. In contrast, Collins described how appealing to human rights in U.S. courts or through U.S. legislation is not very well developed in relation to slavery and colonization. In relation to the Finnish TRC, Kuokkanen observed that one of its strategies is to strengthen the implementation of Sámi rights, articulated as collective rights in the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People. Therefore, the human rights discourse is embedded in the mandate of the TRC, but it is obviously still too early to say whether it will in fact be central to the discussion and whether the final report will be framed in terms of human rights violations.

This event was held just before the tragic news currently unfolding in Canada involving the discovery of children’s remains in unmarked graves on the sites of a number of former Indian Residential Schools.  On June 30, the Lower Kootenay Band said 182 human remains had been found at St Eugene’s Mission residential school, near the city of Cranbrook, British Columbia. The week before, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced the discovery of 751 possible unmarked graves. These discoveries followed the May 27 announcement by the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc band that they had found 215 unmarked graves, most of which are believed to be children.

The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission addressed the issue in Volume 4 of its report entitled “Missing Children”.  In 2015, it identified over 4100 children who were known to have died while at residential school but noted that there were likely thousands more, many in unmarked and untended graves. 

Parents in Academia: How to Achieve Work–Family Balance?

By Kateryna Savelieva

At the beginning of June 2021, an online seminar Parents in Academia was organized at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Over 70 participants from the University of Helsinki and other institutions took part in the event (a detailed account is available for University of Helsinki employees on the Flamma intranet of the University of Helsinki).

Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

When the initial idea of the seminar occurred to me, I went to our deputy director Hanne Appelqvist to discuss it, not knowing where it may lead me or even in which format it could be held. But thanks to the support from the Collegium office (director Tuomas Forsberg, deputy director Hanne Appelqvist, and research coordinator Kaisa Kaakinen), and to the willingness and enthusiasm of the invited speakers, the seminar was organized at short notice and gave rise to a fruitful and multifaceted discussion. It also evoked some thoughts in me on work–family balance in academia, which I would like to share here.

The invited speakers were

Hanna Snellman (Professor and Vice Rector, University of Helsinki),

Anna Rotkirch (Research Professor and Director of the Population Research Institute, Väestöliitto),

Tuomas Forsberg (Professor and Director of HCAS),

Veronica Walker Vadillo (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Helsinki),

Christian Hakulinen (University Lecturer, University of Helsinki).

The organizer and moderator was Kateryna Savelieva (Postdoctoral Researcher and Core Fellow, HCAS).

WHY DO YOU WANT TO WORK IN ACADEMIA?

The core question every academic must ask themselves is: why do you want to work in academia? Do you have a clear sense of how scientific career looks like and which potential challenges you are likely to face? Academia is hard, and it is hard for both men and women, with or without children. However, women with children are still likely to face more difficulties in academia compared to men, women without children, or even men with children (for example, see Morgan et al., 2020). So, before even raising a question of how to combine parenthood and academia, you need to be sure about your motivation for staying in academia. As the panelists pointed out, it is really important to follow your passion and enjoy your work. Otherwise, you can drown in the constant writing of grant applications, deadlines to fulfil and revisions to complete, numerous rejections, and periods of prolonged silence from journals, funding committees or other evaluators.

What is more, academia is extremely time-consuming, as is parenthood, especially when children are still young. There is a common perception that if you want to be a serious scientist, you need to dedicate all your time to it. Hence, parenthood is often not a viable option, and this is especially true for women. Many female academics believe that not having children is a necessary condition for academic success (Ward and Wolf-Wendel, 2012). As a result, female PhD students or young postdocs with children decide to leave academia more often than their childless colleagues (Mason, 2013).

However, given that many highly successful academics have many children in Finland, it must be possible to combine parenthood with an academic career. Indeed, the invited speakers are good role models for just that. Especially, when we distinguish people who leave academia for truly work–family reasons from those who use parenthood as an excuse to leave the profession they do not like anyway, it may seem that being an academic and a parent is less challenging than the typical perception suggests.

DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HAVE CHILDREN?

The other question to ask is whether you want to have children. And if yes, how many and when. In academia, there is never a “good time” to have children, in a sense that taking care of children, especially when they are still very young, is time-consuming.

Some would argue that the best time for having a first child is when one is working on a dissertation or approaching its defence. In fact, the prime time for childbearing for women usually coincides with the time they are working on their dissertation, given that the median age of entering a PhD programme is 29 years among the OECD countries (31 years for Finland) (OECD, 2019). Others will argue that having children when working on your dissertation is either so stressful that it is better to postpone childbearing to better times or to first acquire all the necessary research and only then have children.

Moreover, young researchers usually work on fixed-term contracts or personal grants and thus are in an especially vulnerable situation when deciding to take a family leave. However, if one waits until having a more secure position in academia, it may be too late to have children. So, the decision when to have children depends on one’s current situation and there are no ready recipes for that.

HOW TO ACHIEVE WORKFAMILY BALANCE?

After you have honestly answered these two questions and decided that both academic career and parenthood are important to you, how can you combine both? Of course, one will have to construct one’s own list of practices that work best for one, but we can also learn from the experiences of others, such as the invited speakers of our seminar, all of whom have children and successful careers in academia.

First, rethink your usage of time. All speakers addressed this topic from different perspectives. To succeed in both academia and parenthood, efficient time management is crucial. As Tuomas Forsberg suggested, you need to figure out what the most productive time of day is for you and use that time optimally. According to Anna Rotkirch, it is also important to appreciate the value of your time: this could mean cutting back on some activities (such as social media or watching TV) or outsourcing others (for example, cleaning or cooking). What is more, she also highlighted that you should remember to secure some time for yourself and not to reduce any activities that are a source of energy and well-being for you (e.g., exercising). Furthermore, although several days of uninterrupted work in a row are sometimes needed to complete some work, doing your work during working hours and saving some time solely for your family is a good idea.

Second, redefine your definition of success. Veronica Walker Vadillo raised an interesting topic of redefining your personal definition of success to achieve work-family balance. When you become a parent, the definition of success for you may suddenly expand: you now have not only an academic field in which you can achieve certain things, but also a whole new world of a family, in which you can be very successful. Parenting means that it is not only academic achievements that defines your success, but your relationship with your children defines this success as well. Parenthood brings inevitable changes to one’s life and identity, which should be embraced and cultivated.

Third, do not set the bar of good parenting too high. Currently, there are high expectations of good parenting (the so-called intensive parenting) and heavy investment in children (e.g., Craig et al., 2014). It is expected that if you are a parent, then you must focus on parenting 100%, 24/7. This is hardly comparable with one’s career and creates many demands for parents, which is often one of the reasons why people decide to postpone childbearing. It is good to remember that children do not need you 24 hours a day, but they do need you consistently, especially young children. It is better to spend 2 hours a day with a child, but spend them fully, than to spend 12 hours around a child while being constantly distracted by other activities.

Finally, make use of the available policies at your university. As already mentioned, young researchers usually work on fixed-term contracts, which put them in especially vulnerable position when they take a family leave. University of Helsinki offers paid family leaves and, as a rule, recommends extensions of fixed-term contracts for its employees (including doctoral students). As Hanna Snellman pointed out, this should be always negotiated and documented with one’s supervisor or head of the unit and HR personnel. Also, Christian Hakulinen reminded us that having good collaborators is an advantage when one is taking a family leave, because they are a source of support: it will help you to stay productive in research, and it will be easier to return to research work after a long family leave.

All in all, although it is challenging to be both a successful academic and a parent, it is surely possible and incredibly fulfilling. There are excellent role models for that, and hopefully, there will be even more in the future.

 

REFERENCES:

Craig, L., Powell, A., and Smyth, C. (2014). Towards intensive parenting? Changes in the composition and determinants of mothers’ and fathers’ time with children 1992-2006. The British Journal of Sociology, 65(3): 555–579. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12035

Mason, M. A. (2013). In the Ivory Tower, Men Only. For men, having children is a career advantage. For women, it’s a career killer. Retrieved from the Slate website: https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/06/female-academics-pay-a-heavy-baby-penalty.html

Morgan, A. C., Way, S. F., Hoefer, M. J., Larremore, D. B., Galesic, M., & Clauset, A. (2021). The unequal impact of parenthood in academia. Science Advances7(9), eabd1996.

OECD/UIS/Eurostat (2019). Education at a Glance 2019. Section B7. What are the characteristics and outcomes of doctoral graduates? https://doi.org/10.1787/f8d7880d-en

Ward, K., & Wolf-Wendel, L. (2012). Academic motherhood: How faculty manage work and family. Rutgers University Press.

Down by the Water, across the Time Zones – HCAS alumni host an innovative global webinar series on maritime archaeology

By Kaisa Kaakinen

When the global pandemic stopped all conference travel last spring, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies alumna Veronica Walker Vadillo, a maritime archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, realized that the unexpected situation required new forms of academic exchange. She sought help from Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, HCAS alumna and researcher of Roman law and archaeology at the University of Helsinki, and Kristin Ilves, assistant professor of maritime archaeology at the UH, to launch a webinar series Down by the Water – Global Conversations in Maritime Archaeology. This conversation that now connects scholars across continents began in the Common Room of the Helsinki Collegium a few years back.

Black-and-white photograph of a boat on a shore

This photo, adorning the website of the Down by the Water webinar series, appears in A History of the Philippines (1905) by David P. Barrows. www.gutenberg.org/files/38269/38269- h/38269-h.htm#pb201

Inaugurated in September 2020, the webinar series has biweekly sessions on Mondays (#MaritimeMondays, as the hashtag of the maritime research community puts it). While the focus of the series is on maritime archaeology, it reaches out to other disciplines, too. 

“Similar webinars are often focused on underwater or nautical topics or specific regions. Our series is about the whole concept of ‘maritimity’, what it means in different areas, and we also invite speakers who are not archaeologists to explain how they understand maritime communities,” Veronica Walker Vadillo explains. “Yes, and this approach really helps us broaden the scholarly discussions, as people doing maritime archaeology can tap into different disciplines,” Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz adds. 

Furthermore, the series brings together scholarly communities from different geographic contexts. For instance, the organizers have been able to connect Helsinki to Asian  scholarly networks and to the large Spanish-speaking community of archaeologists in Spain and the Americas. 

“We decided to take advantage of this pandemic and transform Helsinki into a kind of hub of maritime archaeology. People usually want to present at places like Oxford or Cambridge, not only because they are prestigious but because they are so well located close to London,” says Walker Vadillo. 

Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz have been happy to observe that the series run from Helsinki has acted as a bridge in the world of maritime archaeology, as, for instance, the event has put scholars from the Philippines and Mexico in touch, in what they hope is a first step in a fruitful collaboration.  

“Also for my own field this exchange is key, as scholars doing classics and researching the Roman Empire are often quite isolated in their own fields of research, “ says Mataix Ferrándiz. “Methods that we use can sometimes be used to understand other empires. Right now I am studying the Indian Ocean and find many parallels to what happened in the Roman Empire.” 

The events tend to draw about 50 online participants, a mix of people from various locations and career stages. Some recordings of the events have already reached over 1,000 views, and the video archive also presents a great resource for teaching. The project also has local impact, as there is always a good number of people attending from Finland. The events allow Helsinki-based researchers and students to get a glimpse of what is happening elsewhere and to find contacts for their future research endeavors.  

How it all began at the Helsinki Collegium 

The interdisciplinary concept of the series was born two years earlier, when Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz were fellows at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Both say that the series would most likely not have its current form had it not grown from the interdisciplinary exchanges at the Collegium.  

An important spark for the project came from a presentation by linguist Olesya Khanina, who presented at the Collegium’s weekly seminar about her research on Siberian rivers as language contact areas. Walker Vadillo, who was researching the riverine cultural landscape of Angkor at the Mekong river, and Mataix Ferrándiz, who specializes in Roman law connected to maritime commerce, understood that they could learn a lot from the way linguists approach riverine cultures. The seminar and lunch conversations grew into a symposium project, in which fellows working on archaeology, law, linguistics and anthropology set out to understand better the human–environment interactions in maritime and fluvial spaces. In addition to Walker Vadillo, Khanina and Mataix Ferrándiz, the symposium team included archaeologist Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä, a specialist in material culture and archaeological science. 

The resulting symposium Down by the Water: Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Role of Water Transit Points in Past Societies took place in November 2019 at the Collegium.  

“During the symposium, we were constantly talking about how all this was so rare, so out of our comfort zone. It became something wonderfully strange. That is what we want to continue, although the new series is more focused on archaeology and anthropology. We also aim to bring in people who are not from these areas,” Walker Vadillo and Mataix Ferrándiz explain. 

From seminar to podcast 

The organizers of the 2019 symposium are currently editing a book that will be published in the series Cultural Studies in Maritime and Underwater Archaeology by BAR Publishing. 

As for the webinar series, the organizers want to explore the podcast format, which allows one to listen to the conversations without being tied to the screen. As there are not many maritime archaeology podcasts out there, this is a promising direction. In addition to presentations, the series has already featured some roundtable discussions, such as a discussion on March 8, 2021, on women doing maritime archaeology. 

“As we change the format into a more conversational tone, I really want to emphasize the advances we are making in theoretical frameworks,” Walker Vadillo says. 

As an example of a session highlighting theoretical advances in the field, she mentions the event on April 19, 2021, with Roberto Junco, who works with the concept of temporal landscapes and talked about the archaeology of the Manila Galleons and current excavations in Acapulco. Junco studies how the temporal landscapes in the ports are dependent on a specific rhythm of different activities. In order to explain how the activities come together as the life of a port city, Junco draws on music and musicology. 

“I am very excited about the chance to have such speakers and conversations and to give the audience the opportunity to ask questions, it really enhances what we can contribute to the field in terms of theory,” Walker Vadillo says. 

In addition to welcoming new audiences, the organizers are open to proposals for presentations. If interested in giving a talk in the series, you can contact the organizers by email. 

Veronica Walker Vadillo: 

email: veronica.walker[AT]helsinki.fi 

Twitter: @VWalkerV 

Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz: 

email: emilia.mataixferrandiz[AT]helsinki.fi 

Twitter: @Mataix_emilia 

Website: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/downbythewater/ 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/4DownByTheWater/ 

 

Mediterranean Flows: Tracing ancient and contemporary mobility on Zoom

By Maijastina Kahlos, Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, Anna Usacheva and Elisa Uusimäki

The HCAS Symposium “Mediterranean Flows” was held on Zoom on December 10-11, 2020. As we stated in the rationale for this symposium, our aim was to create a space for interdisciplinary inquiry into the movement of individuals, objects, and ideas, focusing on the Mediterranean region. All of us organizers work on the ancient world, with texts and/or material culture, but thanks to our diverse group of colleagues at HCAS, it soon became clear that contemporary cases of Mediterranean-related movement would provide excellent conversation partners to ancient modes and moments of travel and mobility. This is how “Mediterranean Flows” came to be.

We are happy that we followed the Collegium’s cross-disciplinary vision, as the symposium turned out to be a delight. So many scholars, so many perspectivesso much to think about! We heard excellent contributions by researchers trained in history, archaeology, sociology, anthropology, classics, theology, study of religion, philosophy, and geography.

Poster for "Mediterranean Flows: People, Ideas and Objects in Motion". Photo by Maijastina Kahlos.

Poster for “Mediterranean Flows: People, Ideas and Objects in Motion”. Photo by Maijastina Kahlos.

MULTIPERSPECTIVES ON MOVEMENT

We started the symposium with a session titled “Mobility–Ancient and Modern”. The two papers delivered by Greg Woolf and Lena Näre worked admirably as the opening presentations of the conference because they invited us to think of movement and connectivity across time and place, both as documented in historical sources and as experienced and narrated by people today. These presentations introduced several useful concepts, prompting us to reflect on different aspects and agents of movement, whether movers and stayers, ranges of distance, direction of movement, or selectivity of flows. We were also encouraged to think about the role of imagination and emotions as driving forces of human mobilityand how these are reflected in imaginaries of daily life, as children’s drawings, for example, demonstrate.

In the second session, Sarah Green expanded our notion of movement by reminding us that movement does not concern only people, objects, or ideas. Indeed, other living beings like animals and insects also move or are forced to move with people. Such travel companions can also influence human travel in unexpected ways. Antti Lampinen, in turn, explored mobility-related anxieties in antiquity, urging us to think of otherness and the process of “becoming Greek”. In his talk, Lampinen captured ancient testimonies concerning the intriguing interaction between movement and the process of building self-identity, whether the question is about the travelers or their hosts.

In the third session, which also focused on antiquity, Peter Singer explored Galen’s testimonies to educational travel and demonstrated how laborious the movement of such an ethereal thing as knowledge could be. Miira Tuominen, in contrast, focused on reception as a type of intellectual travel of ideas and on the change that accompanied it. Both of these topics resonate with our own professional lives that typically involve exchanges, library visits, field trips, and conference travels, all driven by the desire to know more, though Corona has now prompted us to create new ways of acquiring knowledge that we can’t obtain at home. The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria may be right in saying that “Many persons … have come to a wiser mind by leaving their country” (Praem. 18-19). Similarly, another ancient Jewish author observes that “a person who has roamed has learned much”. Yet, we are also lucky to live at a time when technology enables us to come together virtually. Thanks to  Zoom, we were able to invite the experts abroad into our own homes and offices.

On the second day of the symposium, we had two wonderful sessions, or in fact three, given that we had to combine sessions 5 and 6 because of some last-minute cancellations. In the fourth session, we studied material culture across time. David Inglis talked about global wine dynamics and related waves of globalization, after which Andras Handl analyzed long distance relocations of relics in antiquity. On Friday afternoon, we heard three papers that ended the conference with intellectual fireworks. Bärry Hartog introduced the concept of glocalisation and read the Book of Acts in light of it, while Elisa Pascucci and Daria Krinovos analyzed labor and transnational mobilities. In the final paper, James Gerrard explored fascinating cases of travel and movement in the Roman periphery.

ORGANIZING A CONFERENCE AT THE TIME OF COVID-19

The symposium went through some major changes because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Initially, we had planned a workshop with invited speakers, who would have flown to Helsinki for two days, and a mainly Finnish audience at the university. During the first wave of the pandemic, we postponed the event from September to December, but it soon became clear that we had to change it into an online conference. We wanted to address as wide and international an audience as possible. Therefore, the conference was advertised in the e-mailing lists of classicists, archaeologists and biblical scholars.

We realized that an online conference is an opportunity to reach a wider and more international audience than would have been possible in the case of a traditional conference. Preparations for an online meeting were also different, but we obtained assistance from the HCAS office and interns. Initially, we were concerned that the online conference would be lacking in the informal social gathering typically enjoyed at traditional conferences. However, to our pleasant surprise, the audience, the speakers and the chairs were very active both in the discussions and in the chatas well as in the final discussion. In the future, when online seminars and conferences will be everyday life, the social aspect should be developed and informal conversations could be encouraged in many ways, for example, by making use of the breakout room function on Zoom.

This word cloud made of all the abstracts of the conference displays the word "people" as the unifying element of the diverse presentations.

This word cloud made of all the abstracts of the conference displays the word “people” as the unifying element of the diverse presentations.

There is obviously much to digest after this conference! Overall, we sought to offer a series of perspectives on the Mediterranean and thus create an event that would encourage us to step outside of our disciplinary comfort zones and enable us to learn from scholars in other fields, whether they study the past or present. We feel like we succeeded in achieving this goal.

We wish to express our sincerest thanks to HCAS, our speakers, chairs, and participants! We especially thank all the speakers for taking their time to prepare and deliver their presentations. The year 2020 was troublesome, and we all had so much to take care of, which makes us extra grateful that you made this event happen. Thank you, or kiitos, as we say in Finland!

Framing the push for Open Access

By Aleksi Pelkonen

When Natalya Bekhta was completing her MA, she realized she had a problem.

“If a department, like mine in the humanities, did not have money to pay for articles we could not get access to them,” Bekhta, now a literature researcher at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, explains.

And so, as she did not have access to the latest research in her field, Bekhta had to use her personal contacts in order to get what she needed to complete her project.

“What ended up happening was that my friends and family, whenever they would travel abroad, would bring back books for me,” she says.

With their help, she was able to complete her work.

While these methods may seem unconventional, they are in fact something of the norm in many academic endeavors; Bekhta’s experience is not the exception but often the rule.

Academic institutions being priced out of access to relevant literature strikes one as inherently unfair.

“The results of publicly funded research should be a public good,” says Hanne Appelqvist, deputy director of the Collegium. “If they are made into a commodity for which you have to pay, then neither the further use nor critical assessment of the results is maximized.”

How then to maximize it? The commercial publishing model leaves many academics frustrated.

“Researchers do not get paid for their contributions to journals, and also the editors and referees typically work pro bono,” says Appelqvist, who also is series editor for the Collegium’s OA academic publication series AHEAD and Editor-in-Chief of OA aesthetics journal Estetika. “When the article gets published, it is the [commercial] publisher that collects the financial profit by selling it back to the community that originally produced the academic content and guaranteed its scientific quality.”

cOAlition S, an initiative of “a group of national research funding organisations, with the support of the European Commission and the European Research Council,” has one proposed solution. They call it Plan S, and its objective is “making full and immediate Open Access a reality.”

Under Plan S, any academic material that received grant funding from signatories of Plan S would be required to make the academic output freely and openly accessible; hence the name: Open Access.

This all begs the question: What is ‘full and immediate Open Access,’ and how does one make it ‘a reality’?

Easy as APC

A good starting point to understanding OA is by looking at cOAlition S’ plan itself. Plan S contains ten principles for ensuring an Open Access model which they claim will improve access to research papers. Plan S claims that Open Access can be made ‘a reality’ as long as these principles are upheld.

This is easier than it would seem from the layperson’s (i.e., my) point of view: academic publications have extensive peer-review processes which are demanding and critical. As a consequence of this, the costs associated with academic publishing are high; this system persists to ensure that high-quality articles are produced.

A work-around for this problem, for OA journals, is to have authors pay a publishing charge (called an ‘APC’) in order to fund the editing and publishing of works. If authors pay, then any prospective readers can read high-quality articles for free (provided they have access to the internet), while publishers still are able to adequately fund their services.

However, this can be prohibitive for many researchers, especially from low-income countries or less-well-funded research institutions. Instead of ‘democratizing’ academic output, this ‘pay-to-publish’ model is sometimes criticized for widening existing gaps.

Plans S plans to address this issue with principle 4 which states that, “[w]here applicable, Open Access publication fees are covered by the Funders or research institutions, not by individual researchers.” This would help researchers clear the APC-wall that could potentially lead to their research projects going unpublished.

The Invisible (Sleight of) Hand

Whatever publishing model is chosen, the money must come from somewhere, and a lot of it, if current numbers are anything to go by.

To prove this, one can peruse the financial reports of academic publishers. Take, for example, a company called RelX that owns Elsevier, a widely used academic publishing resource. RelX’s ‘Scientific, Technical & Medical’ market segment, which owns many of the world’s leading academic publications and distribution platforms, posted an adjusted operating profit in 2019 of just under £1 billion (page 7, link is to PDF). Taylor & Francis, owned by Informa PLC, posted an operating profit of £163,5 million in 2019 (page 178, link is to PDF).

“When this commercial model is applied to research it creates problematic consequences,” Appelqvist says. “Given that the free exchange of ideas is a condition for scientific progress, we should be concerned about the commodification of research results.”

One would not get the impression that academic publishing houses are similarly concerned when reading their financial reports. T&F stated that 2019 was a year of “good growth in our Open Access (OA) business” (above T&F hyperlink, page 73, emphasis added).

RelX was even more bullish: “Our open access publishing programme […] saw its growth rate in articles submitted and published accelerate further as we continue to gain market share” (above RelX hyperlink, page 15, emphasis added).

Both large publishers seem to support the OA movement. T&F’s website states, “We want to make the option to publish in open access journals available to as many researchers as possible.” Elsevier is no less exultant on its own OA page.

The reader will perhaps notice a potential contradiction here. OA is supposed to ‘open’ research results to the community. That this would be at all possible while big publishers continue to gobble up ‘market share’ is questionable. Publishing an OA journal after sending an expensive APC invoice to a public institution leaves one wondering how this is any kind of solution to the problem of equality.

Plan S, while very specific on the OA requirement, is comparatively vague on the issue of fees, only appealing for ‘transparent pricing,’ according to its Principle 5. Furthermore, on cOAlition S’ website they state that:

To reassure publishers, who may have concerns regarding legal implications of sharing price and service information, we will ensure that any system we support to collect and share the price and transparency framework data is developed in a way that fulfils competition law requirements. […] [O]ne likely solution would be through the establishment of a registration and authentication system, which would allow customers (researchers, funders and institutions) to access these data but would not allow publishers to access their competitors’ data (Source: cOAlition S, all emphasis added)

Market Madness

There are purposes here which seem to be unaligned with one another. Academics ‘produce’ and ‘consume’ academic research for its intrinsic value, while many major publishers have the tendency to prioritize profitability.

cOAlition S emphasizes in its principles and recommendations that it is not attempting to minimize the commodification of academic research. Customers, after all, are sold commodities; it would be unusual to frame something as such when referring to public goods. The terminology seems to be selected so as to be inoffensive to major publishing companies and their interests.

This in and of itself is not an issue per se but seems to be relegated to a secondary concern in much of the discussion regarding OA. OA is a development that can be fit for many different ends. It can be a step in academia’s privatization journey, depending on how it is designed.

The transition to OA has the potential to further complicate an already convoluted publishing model.

“To take just one example, there are many academic journals run by professional academic society associations,” explains Tuomas Forsberg, director of the Collegium. “Their subscription fees enable them to exist, pay salaries and support their research community in various ways. So, if we change one part of the publishing model, we need to think about how others will be able to create income.”

By characterizing the academic system as a market, with publishers, operating for profit in a competitive environment, selling output to ‘customers,’ the Plan S framework further imbues a certain kind of logic into academic research. In the current ‘market,’ some producers (academics) are excluded, while some consumers are unable to pay for the commodities they want.

Plan S seeks to replace this dysfunctional market with a different kind; one where costs are shifted onto funders, rather than producer-academics or ‘customers.’ By setting its objective in this way, cOAlition S sidesteps a more fundamental question:

Should market logic dictate academic research at all?

Aleksi Pelkonen is an intern at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

For further reading see Jutta Haider and Philip Mirowski.

Why are we so exhausted? We are deeply entangled beings

By Christine Daigle

We are all exhausted. Even when we manage to get enough sleep, which is not possible for many, energy levels are at an all-time low (as described in this CBC radio feature and this article from The Insider). Of course, the many disruptions, large and small, brought into our lives by the COVID-19 pandemic have required that we rethink almost all aspects of our lives. This is exhausting.

The pandemic has not only brought with it a disruption of habits and an increase in the number of decisions we have to make, but also an overload of information and negative news. This has consumed a great amount of cognitive energy, in an effort to either deal with or ignore the flow. In addition to these cognitive challenges, we are deeply affected in our bodies. Our chests feel compressed even if we know, rationally, that we are safe. Our guts are twisted in knots, even if we just filled the pantry with essential (and non-essential) foods. Our bodies are fatigued, despite the plentiful sleep and reduction in physical activity caused by staying so much at home. But we are also exhausted by the social collapse we are going through.

Romi Crawford has argued that “I can’t breathe” are now America’s defining words[1] (see her blog entry “Connecting Breaths”). These are the words uttered by those directly suffering from one or the other virus affecting the USA: Sars-Cov2 and racism. These two diseases are both potentially deadly. I would argue that even when one is not directly infected by these diseases, one still suffers from them.

Protestors wearing face masks wear shirts that read "I can't breathe".

Photo by Clay Banks from Unsplash

In a book chapter to be published in 2021,[2] I explain that we are radically entangled beings and, as such, we are open to the world and what happens in it, whether we consciously choose to be open or not. This means that our bodies are permeated by things like the pollution we breathe in or the chemicals we ingest, but it also means that we suffer a high degree of mental pollution via the news, discourses, and ideologies we are constantly exposed to. This is a posthumanist material feminist point of view, that sees humans as constituted by manifold material and subjective entanglements. The beings we encounter, materially and/or subjectively, shape who and what we are, just as much as we shape who and what they are. In a world currently permeated by various toxicities, from the new coronavirus to resurgent fascist and racist modes of thinking, we are constantly exposed to these toxins—and sickened in body and spirit from them.

The pandemic has certainly taught us this lesson: we are interconnected in ways we often don’t suspect, yet one of the measures taken to combat the spread of the virus was to try to minimize this interconnection via lockdowns and physical distancing. However, can one really cut oneself off from the violence in the world, and the discourse and ideologies of those perpetrating it? Is it desirable to turn oneself into one of the three wise monkeys, or all of them at once? If one does not see, does not hear, and does not speak evil, then evil does not exist … does it?

One of my old uncles shared with me his impressions of his trip through Central America with his wife and brother and sister-in-law, back in the days when such travelling was still possible. They drove an RV across several countries, and then cut across Mexico and the USA to come back to Quebec. He commented: “It is so poor down there [he was referring specifically to Mexico], it is horrible. I don’t want to see this!”’ I still love him dearly, even if he was being a wise monkey.

Statues of the three wise monkeys.

Image by Joao Tzanno from Unsplash

As users of media—traditional, digital, social—we are constantly exposed to the evil in the world, and cannot cut ourselves from it. It can be argued that we all suffer from at least a mild case of PTSD as a result, since we hear about, read, or even see the beating and killing of humans on a daily basis because of their race, their creed, or their objection to the dominant political and economic powers. I have been exposed to the violent assault and killing of many American black people via my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Activists I follow, such as Shaun King (@shaunKing) and Michael Moore (@MMFlint), populate my feed with such news. The violence needs to be exposed so that we may resist it. However, each and every exposure is a punch in the viewer’s gut, as it also exposes us to the racist worldviews and hatred of the perpetrators, as well as the senseless pain and death suffered by their victims. Such exposure is violent and destabilizing; but, I would claim, it is necessary.

The unfolding social unrest in the USA and the heightened crisis following the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing BLM protests are potent signs of the erosion of the social fabric in that country. But it is also a reassuring indication that resistance to oppression can be revived. The BLM movement is not new, but was suddenly and powerfully re-energized by this act of hatred as well as the many other killings of black people at about the same time, such as Breonna Taylor and Daniel Prude. The killings never seem to stop. But resistance does not seem to wane either. Indeed, cities like Portland have seen ongoing unrest as masses of people protest such killings and systemic racism. The state reacts through the violent oppression of their protests, thereby continuing to fuel the fire.

Portland Police line up blocking the street while protesters rally in front of them at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse.

Portland Police line up blocking the street while protesters rally in front of them at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Allison Dinner)

The almost daily occurrence of such killings has been going on for years—for decades—and may have caused a sort of short-term desensitization to their brutality. There are moments when the amount of bad news is just overwhelming. We feel despaired and disempowered. It was heartbreaking to hear Michael Moore cry on his Rumble podcast episode 120 “Emergency podcast system – R.I.P. RBG. Wipe Your Tears and Fight!” on September 19, discussing the devastating news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing and what consequences this was going to have, but also the fact that there is so much intense evil and violence going on in the world. He sums up the feelings of activists and members of the population:

“Do we just sit by and say ‘What are we going to do? I can’t take it anymore. There is a pandemic going on. There is a thug in the White House. Black Americans are being shot by police. Every few days there is a new piece of footage of our police treating black people like animals. How many people have died since March? It just doesn’t seem…’ I know, I know. I know what you are feeling, I know. But my friends, we have to buck up and we have to just wipe those tears away and move on, immediately.” (transcription of segment starting at 11min 28sec)

Even such a staunch activist as Moore, who has fought so many battles over the years, can feel overwhelmed by all of this. Simply reading the summary he provides is overwhelming. And you may feel overwhelmed again reading this blog entry. I am by writing it. But, we have the capacity, and we have a duty, to expose ourselves to the many evils out there and convert our feeling of despair into anger, and to feed resistance with this anger so as to strengthen it. Perhaps it is the case that the higher the degree of despair, the greater the anger and resistance must be. This means that it is affectively extremely painful. But trying to avoid the pain and the anger will not be successful. We will continue to be exposed to the pain and suffering, and may be directly impacted by the violence and hatred. Indeed, if it is not resisted, it will only worsen. We cannot afford the wise monkey strategy, since it would only lead to our demise.

References

[1] By which she means the USA, a point Canadians like me are eager to raise. We get irked by this misuse of the name of a continent to refer to a country. This misuse serves to lump us together and erase our identity, at least symbolically. But we consider ourselves very distinct even as we are immediate neighbours.

[2] “Fascism and the Entangled Subject, or How to Resist Fascist Toxicity.” In Rosi Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn (eds.). Deleuze and Guattari and Fascism. Deleuze Connection Series.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (forthcoming 2021).

Christine Daigle, a Core Fellow at HCAS in 2020-2021, is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Posthumanism Research Institute at Brock University. Her current research project explores the concept of posthuman vulnerability and its ethical potential from a posthumanist material feminist point of view.  

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)

References

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.