Is it legal? Is it useful? Some questions on targeted killing

By Walter Rech (HCAS Core Fellow)

Photo by sibsky2016, Shutterstock

Whether carried out by sharpshooting, poisoning or drone attacks, targeted killing has become a defining tool of war and counterterrorism in the twenty-first century. While the term of ‘targeted’ killing seems to indicate a limited use of force, its significance goes well beyond the elimination of single individuals.

Possible justifications of targeted killing: utilitarian and humanitarian approaches

From a strategic perspective, targeted killing has been deemed useful and effective in particular as a means to neutralize enemy entities that rely on charismatic leadership and may find it difficult to replace charismatic leaders adequately or adjust their internal structure in response to external attacks. This especially applies to criminal groups in the early stages of organizational development or to governmental authorities that have recently seized power. These entities may not be able to deal with ‘decapitation’, i.e. the loss of key leader figures.

In addition to being useful and effective under the above circumstances, targeted killing may paradoxically be justified for humanitarian reasons as it allows the state to achieve security goals without starting a full-scale war leading to innumerable civilian and military casualties. Already Renaissance authors noted that although the elimination of enemy individuals may look very much like sheer assassination and thus as blameworthy, it had a humanitarian component. As Thomas More put it in Utopia:

‘[The Utopians] think it likewise an act of mercy and love to mankind to prevent the great slaughter of those that must otherwise be killed in the progress of the war, both on their own side and on that of their enemies, by the death of a few that are most guilty; and that in so doing they are kind even to their enemies, and pity them no less than their own people, as knowing that the greater part of them do not engage in the war of their own accord, but are driven into it by the passions of their prince.’

The human rights perspective

Yet despite utilitarian and humanitarian arguments the practice of targeted killing still raises a number of legal and policy issues. At least in times of (formal) peace, the elimination of individuals without due process seems at odds with international human rights, in particular the individual’s right to life, and may not always comply with strict law enforcement standards typically required by liberal democracies. The elimination of foreign public figures, in particular, would be tantamount to political assassination, which is illegal under domestic laws and international treaties. It could qualify as an act of aggression against a foreign state, unless carried out in self-defence. Beyond the killing of public figures, even the elimination of terrorists, which might raise fewer legal and ethical issues, might turn out to be problematic in the long term if the targeting state deploys security arguments and emergency measures in ways that undermine human rights and constitutional guarantees.

Ticking bombs?

But surely, some might respond, there must be some justification at least for neutralizing terrorists who are preparing an attack, the classical ticking bomb scenario. This would clearly differ from the elimination of foreign leaders. One cannot deprive the state of its right to protect its citizens from terrorists simply because of the risk that some states will manipulate counterterrorism as an ideological tool. In a ticking bomb scenario, targeted killing would be a lesser evil compared with the consequences of a terrorist attack.

Yet the ticking bomb scenarios in which targeted killing seems most legitimate occur fairly rarely in the real world. Most targeted killings are meant to eliminate individuals who may not constitute an immediate threat. As a result, they should be apprehended whenever possible rather than killed, as most liberal legal systems require. If states decide to allow so-called shoot-to-kill policies to address security threats, strict standards of proportionality and necessity should be applied.

Breaching the law to protect the law?

Some have still argued that fully respecting ordinary criminal laws and human rights standards may in some exceptional cases prevent the state from properly addressing security threats, and terrorists should be eliminated as soon as the occasion arises. This might contravene liberal democracy standards, but it may sometimes be necessary to breach the law, or lower legal standards, in order to protect the law itself. The argument goes that when the legal system is threatened by people whose very aim is to destroy the law, legal protections should not be granted to them.

Is this a ‘war’? The law of armed conflict

In addition to utilitarian arguments, there would be a legal avenue for justifying targeted killing occurring in wartime. If terrorist attacks are recurrent and part of a continuous threat, the conflict between the state and opposition forces that the state regards as terrorists may legally be considered as a situation of outright armed conflict. The law of armed conflict would then apply, and this law offers more leeway to the state than human rights law or domestic criminal law. Under the law of armed conflict, all those taking active part in the hostilities – hence not only those constituting immediate threats – represent military targets and may lawfully be killed. There is no strict rule of armed conflict requiring the targeting entity to apprehend rather than kill the targeted person as long as the person is engaged in the hostilities, for instance by virtue of belonging to an armed group. Thus, the targeted killing of enemies during armed conflict does not raise many issues, and indeed states have often eliminated enemy troops and military officers through sharpshooting in wartime. Under this view, the central distinction would be the one between the state of war, in which targeted killing would typically be allowed, and a state of peace, in which human rights would play a major role and would place a heavier burden of proof on the targeting state to show that the targeting is lawful.

Operations abroad

Some further argue that a situation of armed conflict may also exist between the targeting state and terrorist entities based abroad. Under this view the targeting state, as a victim of terrorist attacks, would have a right to defend itself against those entities, including by means of extraterritorial operations. It has been argued that if a country is unwilling or unable to stop terrorists who threaten another state, the latter state has a right to take action to neutralize the terrorist threat on that country’s soil. This would be supported by Art. 51 UN Charter, which endows member states with an ‘inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs’ against them.

A slippery slope?

But could the justification of targeted killing turn into a slippery slope nevertheless? Even when targeting states do not intend to undermine the global human rights regime, merely resorting to and justifying targeted killing in an expansive way could weaken constitutional rights for ordinary citizens and introduce worrying precedents in international relations. The fact that targeted killing has sometimes been used by some states to neutralize internal dissidents shows that there is a fine line between legitimate counterterrorism and the more controversial elimination of internal opposition. Who will decide which kind of enemy qualifies as a legitimate target or rather the victim of domestic repression?

As the world order seems to be in transition it is important to keep in mind that targeted killing is part and parcel of broader practices of and discourses on the use of force in global politics. In previous centuries, targeted killing has been seen as a useful and even humanitarian tool, as More suggested, but it has also been used by some states to secure international influence and force regime change abroad. What is at stake in targeted killing policies and practices is not only the legality of specific acts but also the broader standards applicable to the use of force as a way of addressing domestic and international threats.

Walter Rech’s Collegium projectTargeted Killing and International Law, 1600–1800” investigates the history of state-sponsored assassinations and targeted killing in early-modern times, in particular in the period 1600–1800, when lawyers and government officials developed a set of core arguments on the matter. The project addresses the legal, political and ethical issues at stake in targeted killing and why it is important to rethink this practice today.

 

 

 

 

Mapping Care: Insights from the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies Retreat

By HCAS Fellows Andy Graan, Charlie Kurth, Lilian O’Brien, Wasiq Silan and Nina Öhman

In the tranquil summer retreat of 2023, the fellows of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS) embarked on a journey to Haikko, a picturesque manor near the charming artisan old town of Porvoo. The purpose of the retreat was to foster interdisciplinary dialogue and conclude the productive academic year. While indulging in the seashore where one of the most renowned Finnish-Swedish painters, Albert Edelfelt, made his paintings, we delved into the intriguing topic of ‘care’ and explored its multifaceted dimensions. This blog post sheds light on our Mapping Care workshop, which brought together perspectives on care, ranging from indigenous studies and feminist theory to musicology, philosophy and more.

HCAS Fellows in front of the Haikko Manor in May 2023

The concept of care has been extensively analyzed and interpreted across various academic disciplines. From indigenous studies and feminist theory to political philosophy and queer theory, ideas about care have formed into an intricate composite of different meanings and applications. Recognizing the significance of care as a concept, our workshop aimed to create a safe space where we could share thoughts, exchange ideas, and collectively unravel the complex nature of care.

To kickstart the dialogue, two influential readings were circulated among us. The first was an essay by Sara Ahmed titled “Selfcare as Warfare,” which delved into the transformative power of self-care, drawing inspiration from the influential writer and activist Audre Lorde. Ahmed’s exploration of care as an act of resistance provided a thought-provoking foundation for the discussions that followed. The second reading, a chapter from Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s acclaimed book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, was titled “Learning the Grammar of Animacy.” In this chapter, Kimmerer elucidates the indigenous perspective on care by emphasizing the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world. By understanding the animate nature of all beings, Kimmerer advocates for a more respectful and reciprocal relationship with our environment. With the help of these two articles, we started a discussion about what ‘care’ may mean.

Weaving the meaning of care

Our workshop became a collaborative journey of introspection and exchange. We started the discussion by mapping out what ‘care’ means to us in our current studies, and what we envision ‘care’ would be in five years. We wrote down what comes to mind, inscribing one or two keywords on post-it notes. Our goal was to create a visual storyboard showing how care takes form in our current and future projects. Here is a description of the storyboard of our creation.

 

Wasiq Silan:

I approach ‘care’ in relation to wellbeing and health in the Indigenous context. I started out to engage with notion of ‘care’ through my fieldwork at the day club, a social welfare project that takes place in many Indigenous communities in Taiwan to support older adults to age in place. Being trained in political science, my research design was to examine how Taiwan’s long-term care policies for the elderly impact older adults in the Indigenous communities.

However, I quickly realized being at the day club was like a ceremony that transformed my research, my positionality and the framing through which I see care. Namely, I am more interested in how Elders experience care, and more broadly what health and well-being mean in the Indigenous Tayal context. In practice, I followed my grandmother into the day club (community care center), using ethnography as well as Indigenous methodologies to make sense of what care means to the Bbnkis (Tayal Elders). I found out that contrary to the policies, where care is treated as a tool to delay the (often inevitable) functional decay, care for Bbnkis is relational. A way of life. Malahang (care, caring or governing in Tayal) entails strengthening relationships between people, humans and animals, and most importantly, with land.

In a similar vein, care workers in the Indigenous communities were under moral stress when they want to provide meaningful care to the Bbnkis. The stress points at a collective ethical labor that Indigenous care workers are subjected to when they decided to privilege Elders’ needs rather than policy guidelines. Care thus becomes a fundamental site of struggle in the wider Taiwanese policy environment where decolonization was only beginning.

What does it look like in 5 years? I envision further developing the framework of care in the context of Tayal knowledge. Specifically, I aim to collaborate with community researchers through Indigenous methodologies to explore caring about relations within millets growing.

Andy Graan:

My current research focuses on projects and the model of agency that is presupposed by the project form.  Projects are based on the historically specific assumption that society and nature are objects that can be transformed and they position human actors as the agents who both envision and execute transformation.  This model of agency underwrote the myriad modernist projects that resulted in rapacious European colonialism, the enclosure of the commons, and constitutional government, just to name a few. Moreover, this model of agency perpetuates technofuturism as a hegemonic form of problem solving in the world today.

My interest in “care,” then, stems from my desire to denaturalize and provincialize the project form as a model of action.  Projects are premised on human subjects acting on natural and social objects.  Care, however, as articulated by thinkers working in the fields of feminist philosophy, Black feminist theory, and cultural anthropology, describes a different kind of social relation and a different model of action, one based on reciprocity, mutuality, kinning, respect, and solidarity.  Care is focused on the here and now, rather than on speculative futures. Care can be a praxis of refusal and survival, of denying dehumanization and oppression, of continuing to live after apocalypses.

Indeed, groups facing marginalization and abjection—women in patriarchal societies, the enslaved, the indigenous, the poor, those subjected to apartheid and occupation, refugees, and immigrants—have born the greatest burdens of care but have been its most profound elaborators and practitioners.  Everyday care practices too often go unrecognized while commodified care practices are hoarded by some and denied to others.  As I see it, then, the literature on care provides us with an important provocation. In elevating practices of reciprocity, refusal and survival, it punctures recalcitrant myths of progress (for whom?) and centers the fiercely mundane labor of living together.

Lilian O’Brien:

In my current research I am very interested in the nature of commitment – committing to plans and principles is central to our ability to function as social agents who coordinate and co-operate with others. Committing is also something that can give meaning and value to our lives, when, for example, we commit to caring for and supporting others in close relationships.

I am interested in the relationship between committing and caring. They seem to be interdependent, at least sometimes, and I would like to better understand this relationship of interdependence, how they are different from, or similar to, one another, how they may reinforce one another, but also how they may be in tension with one another. Is committing to promoting the well-being of another necessary for caring for them? How does and should caring for another be constrained or informed by prior commitments to plans or principles that are unconnected to caring for the other? The discussion at our care workshop has helped me to appreciate the complexity of the concept of care.

The other area in which I have thought about caring is in the context of feminist philosophy, and specifically, in feminist ethics. Feminist philosophers have argued that ethical theorizing, which has in the past been dominated by male philosophers, has neglected relationships of caring that are found in everyday settings, particularly in domestic settings where, for example, parents care for children, where children are taught to care for one another and for nonhuman animals, their environments, and so on.

Some feminists have thought that ethics should have care at its core – ethics should be much less focused on the rights of freely contracting individuals and should instead focus on the relationships of responsibility that we have to one another in social settings. Whether or not that revisionary view of ethics offers a clear and plausible alternative remains to be seen. But even if this radical revision does not work, it would be an impoverished ethics that did not take seriously the ethical issues that arise because we are the kinds of creatures who are embedded in caring relationships.

Nina Öhman:  

I have not yet used “care” as a concept in my current research, but I have become inspired by its potential to elucidate – or should I say amplify – the audible bonds people build with each other. As a musicologist, my research engages with sound and recently I have been thinking about the many ways in which the idea of care guides musical lives of individuals and communities. And how I might understand and write about caring in its myriad sonorities. On the one hand, a well-known approach is music therapy as health care, but on the other hand, caring / uncaring can be seen more broadly as the power of music to soothe, or trouble, our lived experiences. Furthermore, music in communal life can express values and enforce relationships, conveying caring for one another. Yet, music can also be used destructively, for example to disturb peace, for harmful or purposeful noise, demonstrating carelessness or uncaring.

Additionally, I have thought about what the idea of care might mean for us as researchers in our work. Instead of assuming the position of a so-called objective observer, I ponder how might we engage in our work as thinking and feeling individuals enacting care. I still have a lot to learn and understand about this topic, but surely care is an integral part of the dialogue we have with our interlocutors.

Charlie Kurth:

In my research and teaching, I’ve approached care from a variety of perspectives: within biomedical ethics, as a way to understand the complexity of the doctor-patient relationship; within normative ethics, as a feminist-inspired alternative to ethical theory; and in my work on moral psychology, as a label for a range of related, morally significant emotions—compassion, empathy, concern, and the like. The workshop gave me the opportunity to think not just about these facets of my work, but also gain further insights from the other participants. On this front, the discussion helped me see that talk about ‘care’ is much more conceptually rich and complex than I had appreciated.

Conclusion

With our reflections on what role ‘care’ plays in research, we can begin to recognize how our work is deeply entangled with care and (un)caring across different disciplines. Care encompasses the future, but even more so it is about here and now; care is an embodied experience, but it also transcends; care seems to evoke personal emotions, but it also triggers relational commitments that at times are even inseparable from the communities one cares about. Care is both mundane and sacred. Care has aspired to be turned into practice that empowers and transforms. Meanwhile, care continues to be practiced every day, largely unnoticed, likely devalued and may hardly be reciprocated.

To summarize, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language game (see endnote below) may be helpful: there will be no one thing common to all forms of care, and no successful characterization of it in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but that there will only be “family resemblances” among a variety of things that deserve the title “care”.

The HCAS retreat of 2023 served as a platform for us to collectively explore the multifaceted nature of care. The workshop—and the retreat as a whole—fostered a safe space for intellectual growth, encouraging us to challenge preconceived notions and develop a deeper understanding of amorphous concepts, such as care. By bringing together various disciplines, the Collegium’s retreat demonstrated the power of interdisciplinary dialogue in enriching the depth of our thinking.

 

Endnote: Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations, sections 65-67:

  1. You talk about all sorts of language- games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language.”And this is true.—Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,— but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”. I will try to explain this.
  2. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!—Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball- games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.
  3. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.— And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Academic job interviews

By Tuomas Forsberg (HCAS Director 2018–2023)

What advice can be given about academic job interviews? There are plenty of tips and various lists of dos and don’ts on the internet, but here are some of mine. My first piece of advice, however, is that you might want to browse what people have written on academic job interviews. Knowing that the key issues are often very much the same will increase your self-confidence.

By Fauxels, Pexels.com

Having said that, academic job interviews can be very different depending on the position and national or institutional culture and traditions. For some academic positions, such as HCAS fellowships, there are no interviews. Interviews can be superfluous for research grants and arranging them takes a lot of time and effort. However, for a tenured or permanent position, or for a leader or member of a close-knit research group, interviews are normally indispensable. For a teaching position, a demo lesson as well as an interview is a basic rule.

Job interviews are for gathering information

The weight placed on interviews can also vary. Some consider them crucial, while others, such as psychologist Daniel Kahneman, think that they are often overrated and can mislead hiring decisions. In Kahneman’s view, interviews are most useful if the recruiting side knows what kind of information they are looking for in the interviews and can compare the candidates’ performance on the basis of clear standards. Intuition and first impressions are not reliable indicators.

However, very few academic job interviews follow Kahneman’s strict standards. Intuition and first impressions often matter, but they are seldom decisive. If you are the top candidate, first impressions are likely to be more positive than if you are further down the list. Poor performance in interviews can often be forgiven if the interviewers have formed a positive opinion of the candidate beforehand, and particularly if they already know the person. However, the top candidate can sometimes fail so badly in interviews that he or she will no longer be considered for the position. An excellent performance, by contrast, can put you high up on the list, but you will seldom be offered a position solely on the basis of an excellent interview if your other credentials are clearly weaker than those of the top candidates. The purpose of academic interviews is often to weed out unsuitable candidates.

How do we avoid failure in academic job interviews? The worst mistakes are typically that you do not seem to know or cannot explain the substance of your expertise, even when you have conducted research into it. You should be able to explain gaps in your CV or other apparent weaknesses but, in most cases, it doesn’t help to bring these up unless asked. You should know the key requirements of the position and the basic institutional features of the unit that is hiring. You can also fail if you don’t indicate the right motivation for the position, if you show no ability for self-reflection, or if you behave in an arrogant or strange manner. You don’t need to be the nicest person, but you should be able to interact naturally and be on the same page as the interviewers during the interview.

Prepare yourself

When you’re preparing for an academic interview, it helps if you can talk to people who are well informed about the position and the unit. At the very least, you should check the job advertisement, the webpage of the unit, and other relevant material that has been sent to you or is available before the interview. It is also worth gaining some knowledge about the background and profiles of the people who will be interviewing you, if possible.

You should be prepared to answer at least the following questions: What is your motivation in applying for the position?; What is your key (theoretical) contribution to research?; What is your teaching or leadership philosophy (depending on the position)?; What added value can you provide to the unit, or what is your development vision?; and What are your strengths and weaknesses overall?

Photo by HCAS

Consider what you can offer, not what you need or want. Think about the questions you would like to ask when you are given a chance to do so, typically at the end of the interview. Don’t ask how much time for research you will really have, although that is the key question that ambitious scholars usually have in mind when they apply for a new position.

Try to be as articulate as possible and address the issue directly. You can include short anecdotes and examples, but you shouldn’t be too wordy. On the other hand, your answers shouldn’t be too concise either. The best impression is when more questions could have been asked besides those that were prepared, but all the key questions were nevertheless asked in time. Be clear about your strengths but don’t oversell or exaggerate. You may be asked why you think you’re a unique fit for the position, but don’t overstate your uniqueness.

There are also some issues related to appearance and manners. These are often contextual, but being able to read the context could be one aspect of the interview. It’s better to be overdressed than too casual. It helps if you’re polite, but you shouldn’t flatter the interviewers. Sometimes the panel members want to shake hands, but often they don’t, in which case a brief greeting will suffice.

The hardest advice to take is the suggestion not to be nervous, because if you really want the position, you’re likely to be somewhat apprehensive. However, try not to show your nervousness: you should avoid fiddling with your hands, scratching your head, or fidgeting in your chair. Don’t worry if you do find yourself succumbing to nervousness, however. If you’re the top candidate, most interview panels will likely understand your nervousness. They may even forgive some otherwise weak answers because of it.

Tuomas Forsberg and HCAS fellows in the common room of the Helsinki Collegium.

Does interdisciplinarity require joint themes?

By Tuomas Forsberg

Tuomas Forsberg

HCAS Director Tuomas Forsberg (photo by Veikko Somerpuro)

Institutes for advanced study are based on the idea of bottom-up, curiosity-driven research. This has not prevented institutes for advanced study from having thematically defined calls. Some of them have an annually rotating theme guiding their recruitment, others support smaller thematically organized research groups. A few institutes for advanced study may also have a broad, interdisciplinary thematic focus that constitutes their brand.  

In general, research funders seem to increasingly prefer thematic rather than open-ended calls, believing that such calls lead to interdisciplinary synergies and more salient deliverables. The underlying belief is that understanding and finding solutions to the pressing problems that our societies currently face, such as climate change, economic instability and inequality, the growing role of artificial intelligence, or violence and war, require interdisciplinary research. While this is correct, the trend towards thematic organization of research is as much a problem as it is a solution, because it limits the strengths of bottom-up research. Investing in people rather than themes might be a more fruitful strategy. 

The Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS) has had a couple of thematic calls (e.g. solidarity, mortality) in the past, but none for many years. There are several reasons why, at least in the humanities and social sciences, open-ended calls may actually have an advantage over thematic calls.  

First, it is difficult to define a theme that, without being too abstract, would be broad enough to allow for genuinely interdisciplinary perspectives. Often, a theme is a concept that reflects some complexity. Yet, coming to an agreement about the meaning of a concept across disciplinary boundaries is often a very time-consuming – if not frustrating – enterprise. While conceptual research benefits from interdisciplinarity, it is often more productive if carried out by individuals rather than by groups. This is because conceptual research requires nuance more than a broad picture. 

Second, themes easily duplicate something that is already being done elsewhere. A theme in itself does not yet constitute a new and intriguing research puzzle. Themes that are recognized as up-and-coming and timely have typically already been around for quite some time. A top-down selection of themes may not lead to new innovations or cutting-edge epiphanies but instead just rearticulate something that would have been done in any case.  

Third, in an institute whose major strength is to provide an equal platform for researchers, thematic calls may create unnecessary hierarchies. Either there are those who are working on a theme and those who are not, or there are those who have more influence in defining what the theme entails than others. A theme without clear ownership is worse than no theme. 

Fourth, announcing a thematic call may lead to a gratuitous embellishment of applications. Applicants are often very clever in framing their research to match the given expectations but would like to pursue their own path if they get funding. Moreover, if the theme is somewhat abstract and open-ended, it is not always easy to discern whether the thematically designed framing of the research proposal actually benefits the proposed research. 

Open-ended calls do not entail atomistic research without any shared or interconnecting themes among the community of researchers. On the contrary, diverse themes tend to spontaneously emerge each year due to the daily interaction of researchers. Joint themes do not need to be overarching research topics but can be relevant empirical side-tracks, methodological components, or theoretical extensions in a fellow’s research project. Sometimes popular themes reflect the internationally recognized, strong research fields of the host country or the university of the given IAS, because they attract good applicants. Sometimes the themes reflect topical issues, such as health, sustainability, artificial intelligence, or peace and war. Sometimes the themes emerge bottom-up around concepts that are in the air in many disciplines within the humanities and social sciences but have not yet been pinned down with a single recognizable definition. Should that happen, the results are often the most impactful conceptual and theoretical innovations. 

Interdisciplinary themes are not undesirable as such, and often they are needed for fruitful scholarly interaction. But thematic calls do not offer any shortcuts to enhanced interdisciplinarity or innovative research. They are useful for mending deficiencies in a field that has been neglected and sometimes for establishing an entirely new field. They may be worthwhile for branding purposes because themes are easy to communicate outwards. However, open-ended calls are needed, too. This is all the more true when the general trend in research funding is towards thematic organization of interdisciplinary research.   

Providing a shelter for exiled scholars – Additional Kone Foundation Fellowships to help researchers displaced by the war

By Kaisa Kaakinen 

In March 2022, Kone Foundation granted extra resources to the Helsinki Collegium, to enable support for scholars who cannot continue to work in their home country due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Anton Kotenko, Sergei Medvedev and Anna Sokolova, all scholars recruited to HCAS in 2022, talked to us about the significance of the Kone Foundation fellowship for them and about the impact the war has had on the Russian research context. 

The March 2022 Kone Foundation Fellowship call was open both to Ukrainian scholars, who could not stay and work in their home country due to the war, and to Russian academics who had to resign from their positions in Russia because of their opposition to Putin’s regime and the war. According to the current policy of the University of Helsinki, the Collegium cannot fund researchers, who are officially affiliated with a Russian institution.  

The additional funding, enough for a total of 48 months of research time, was distributed through the Collegium’s ongoing Kone Foundation Fellowship program. This program has brought researchers from the Baltic countries, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine to the Collegium already since the year 2004. Due to this existing structure, it was possible to recruit researchers quickly, and the first fellows began their terms at the Collegium in May 2022. 

Among the first scholars arriving in the spring 2022 was Sergei Medvedev, who is known both as a political scientist and as an active columnist and broadcaster. 

“I left Russia at the start of the war, which was a spontaneous but a long-awaited decision. It was a situation in which there were no other options left. I could not stay in Russia any single day longer, for moral reasons but also for safety reasons. But probably the moral reasons were prevalent.”   

Sergei Medvedev giving a talk in the HCAS common room.

Sergei Medvedev giving a talk at the Collegium in January 2023.

It was a happy coincidence for Medvedev that the funding opportunity brought him to Helsinki, which is a research context that he knows from before and has come to appreciate. The Kone Foundation fellowship made it possible for him to both continue his career after resigning from Higher School of Economics in Moscow and to organize all the practicalities in a difficult life situation.  

Anna Sokolova, scholar of Soviet history, notes that the Kone Foundation Fellowship call was a rare opportunity, because it was open also for Russian scholars, who had decided to resign from their positions and leave Russia. Sokolova and her family had left Moscow and moved to Yerevan, Armenia, soon after the beginning of the war.  

“During those first months nobody really understood how many academics fled Russia. That was absolutely unexpected even for us. When my family arrived in Yerevan, we suddenly understood that there are lots of colleagues and friends around, and Armenians were extremely helpful and supportive. They were trying to do their best in this situation, but they were also not ready for such a huge number of colleagues arriving,” Sokolova explains. 

Anna Sokolova in the HCAS Common Room

Anna Sokolova in the common room of HCAS

Sokolova is grateful for Kone Foundation and the Collegium for providing an academic safe haven in which it was possible to recover from the shock of the war and figure out what to do next. The fellowship at the Collegium gave her a sense of stability and security, which was the most important thing in the immediate aftermath of emigration. 

“Since the war started, I was not sleeping, nor eating, and we understood that, although we do not know where we are going, we must leave. […] It might be hard to imagine that a single year of funding can feel like providing stability, but in our case it meant a really high level of stability in comparison to the situation of many other colleagues who have, like, two-month fellowships, forcing them to change countries and organize documents all the time,” Sokolova says. 

Prospects for the future 

One of the benefits of the Collegium as a host institution was that the incoming researchers could be immediately integrated into an active research community of scholars from various countries and disciplines. Anna Sokolova stresses that it was important for her to be surrounded by the supportive atmosphere at the Collegium, by the friendly communication and events, which forced her to connect with others and helped her not to concentrate on the dark side of the situation only. 

Sokolova is working at the Collegium on her project “On the Edge of Socialism: State Institutes and Everyday Life on the Late Soviet Periphery”. She says that since the start of the war, she has seen her research topic in a new light, as she has come to perceive connections between the late Soviet period and contemporary Russia. She will continue her work in the fall 2023 with a one-year funding from the Finnish Cultural Foundation.  

“I got great support with my application to the Finnish Cultural Foundation, which I had to submit in October, quite soon after my arrival. Hanne [Appelqvist] and Tuomas [Forsberg] explained to me that this is exactly what I should do right now, and I did. I am very grateful for them for pushing me to do that.” 

Historian Anton Kotenko mentions that he has genuinely enjoyed the interdisciplinary setting of the Collegium.  

Being surrounded not only by historians of the nineteenth century Romanov empire, but by scholars studying such diverse topics as individual variations in perceptual chunking of spontaneous speech or general trust in society around you, makes one see the world in a whole new light.” 

When the war broke out, Kotenko resigned from his previous position at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg. At the Collegium, he is finishing the project with which he applied to HCAS, a manuscript of a book on the history of Ukrainian national territorialization in the nineteenth century. Since the beginning of his HCAS term in October 2022, he has been able to secure further funding in the form of a three-year fellowship from the German Research Society. Kotenko is hoping that these two projects at HCAS and in Germany will become the first steps for relaunching his academic career in the next few years.  

“In 2024 I will start working on the history of zoological gardens in the Romanov empire as a researcher at the Department of History of Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf. And as far as Korkeasaari Zoo was opened in 1889, I hope to be back in Helsinki quite soon to look for the primary sources in the local archives related to its establishment and the first decades of its existence.” 

Anton Kotenko giving a talk at the HCAS orientation week in September 2022

Anton Kotenko giving a talk at the HCAS orientation seminar in September 2022.

Kotenko is also actively involved with organizing an HCAS symposium for the fall 2023 on the validity of historical analogies and comparisons. The topic will be discussed in general theoretical terms but illuminated by reference to concrete cases such as the war in Ukraine, which has prompted different historical analogies by diplomats, politicians, scholars and journalists who have tried to explain the war and predict future developments. 

During his year at the Collegium, Sergei Medvedev has been able to finish his book “A War Made in Russia”, forthcoming in the summer 2023 with Polity Press. Furthermore, he has been able to contribute actively as a columnist for several Russian-language exile media outlets. 

In the fall 2023, Medvedev will begin work at Charles University in Prague as the academic supervisor of a new master’s program in Russian studies. For the past 15 years, he has been making a Russian-language television program called “Archaeology”, named after Michel Foucault’s archaeological method, which offers in-depth conversations with academics on current issues. In Prague, Medvedev will continue his work of hosting intellectual talk shows for Radio Liberty, which has its headquarters in Prague.  

Emigration and the Russian research context 

Sergei Medvedev points out that the Kone Foundation Fellowship at the Collegium has significantly contributed to the possibility of Russian academics to continue to work abroad after the recent political developments in Russia. He adds that the crisis situation has touched different fields differently.  

“It is of course difficult to ruin entire schools and institutions that have been there for decades, but especially in my field, political science, the Russian research context has been ruined. Let’s face it, these days Russia is a fully grown classical fascist country. How can you do political science and think freely in a fascist state? You have to comply with the ideological dictate.” 

While researchers in the natural sciences may still have good funding opportunities and a better chance to stay in Russia, also their lives have become precarious because all contacts abroad have been effectively banned and news about professors being reported to the police are abound. 

Medvedev has followed the changes at his former university, Higher School of Economics in Moscow, which used to be the most international academic institution and one of the best schools in social and economic sciences in Russia. 

“It is amazing to see how it is ruined from within. Since it is an important state institution, it is under the direct auspices of the presidential administration. The entire leadership has changed, and it is totally loyal to the war. There are war commanders coming there and talking to students, it has opened campuses in Luhansk in the occupied territory, there are recruitment points for students, and some of my ex-fellow professors are encouraging students to volunteer to go fight on the front. The university newspaper published reports about students who are fighting in Donbas on the Russian side operating drones and killing Ukrainians. It was just announced that there will be free education for anyone who participated in the war and for the children of those who are on the front. They are collecting money and goods for Russian soldiers at war, there are signs of propaganda at the university, without any reservation or shame. They have just joined the fascist operation. And this has been a global university where English speech could be heard just as often as Russian speech and with some Nobel laureates teaching. It is really striking to see such degradation in the educational scene in the matter of just one year, in an institution to which you belonged and where you worked for twenty years.” 

Anna Sokolova points out that while the total percentage of researchers who have left Russia may not be very big, the ones who left are those scholars who were the most active and the most connected to international academia. “In some departments, they lost only one or two scholars, but in other departments everyone left.”  

At the same time, there are many reasons why researchers opposing the current regime have been forced to stay, for instance, because they must take care of dependent persons such as their elderly parents.  Sokolova finds it important to stay in contact on a personal basis with her former colleagues who are still in Russia – not with institutions but with individuals.  

“Somehow I feel that my community is not complete without them, because we as a community of scholars in Russia were split in so many parts by this war, and I think if I can save any kind of connections in such a state of total disruption, it is very important both for us here and for them there,” she says. 

Anton Kotenko hopes that the crisis of the war will galvanize studies of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe.  

“Many problems that have been discussed since February 2022 have their roots in the age of empires, but unfortunately, these have not been properly studied. Hopefully, historians will realize that they must take more responsibility for the world around them and provide it with decent studies of the past, which will develop from a larger number of visionary research projects.” 

 

 

Democracy and Contrarian Epistemologies 

By Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius and Tero Toivanen

In democracy, contrarian epistemologies – such as conspiracy theories, scepticism and, perhaps to a lesser degree, denialism – float near the epistemic centre. Tentatively defined as relational epistemologies founded on the deep-seated distrust of power-wielding authorities and knowledge-producing institutions, contrarian epistemologies have a long history. This alerts researchers to their longevity as a social phenomenon and the referentiality, rather than newness, of their content. While contrarian epistemologies are always present and available, their popularity peaks in crisis situations, such as the contemporary ‘polycrisis’, in which political, social, economic, environmental, security and health emergencies converge.  

At least, these seem to be the key takeaways of the HCAS Symposium ‘Conspiracy theories, denialism and scepticism: Contrarian epistemologies between epistemic fringe and democratic core’. 

The symposium 

Organised on 1–2 December 2022, the symposium consisted of a two-day academic programme, featuring an opening address, three keynotes and five panel sessions, as well as the public event organised at Oodi, the Helsinki Central Library. The event attracted over 100 participants from Finland and abroad.  

Public event “Democratisation of knowledge and a crisis of democracy” at the Helsinki Central Library Oodi, with journalist Johanna Vehkoo (Tampere University), Alfred Moore (University of York), Emilia Palonen (University of Helsinki), Elżbieta Korolczuk (Södertörn University), and Martin Hultman (Chalmers University).

While the symposium website, including the programme, can still be viewed online, in what follows we would like to build on all the excellent contributions and reflect on what can be learnt from the symposium as a whole, especially as regards the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies to democracy.  

Our aim as organisers of the symposium was exploratory, as we posited the relationship between democracy and contrarian epistemologies as an empirical question. The answers given to this question by the symposium contributions appear to point to the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies in democracy in at least three ways. Yet, this epistemic centrality renders contrarian epistemologies ripe for exploitation by actors whose motivations, goals and modi operandi run counter to democracy. 

Contrarian epistemologies and knowledge infrastructures 

The first way in which contrarian epistemologies remain near the epistemic heart of contemporary democracies is through their close relationship to mainstream knowledge and its infrastructures.  

Indeed, as our symposium made plain, mainstream knowledge in its various guises is conventionally suffused with contrarian epistemologies. While conspiracy theories provide exciting plot structures for popular literature and conversational material for everyday talk  on social media, scepticism propels scientific debates and underlies investigative journalism.  

Although the imbrication of contrarian epistemologies and mainstream knowledge is inherent to democracy under the conditions of freedom of speech, it can also be exploited by undemocratic, or fiercely anti-democratic, actors who seek to colonise existing institutions or create their own.  

In this manner, the regime of Viktor Orban in Hungary hijacked state media while changing the law to populate private media companies with its cronies. The international ‘anti-gender’ movement, in its turn, has levelled up from producing its own pseudoscientific literature to establishing universities (vide the Collegium Intermarium in Warsaw linked to the conservative, ‘anti-gender’ think-tank, Ordo Iuris).   

Contrarian epistemologies and the status quo 

The second way in which contrarian epistemologies are epistemically central in contemporary democracies is their broad usage by elite actors engaged in protecting the status quo and business as usual. 

The most instructive example here is perhaps the climate crisis, which has not been properly addressed, despite overwhelming scientific evidence suggesting an impending catastrophe. The responses to such evidence range on the spectrum from wholesale denialism to scepticism towards its interpretations to the acceptance of evidence uncoupled from any meaningful action. Grouped together under the heading of ‘climate obstruction’, they can be understood as a contrarian epistemology of delay and inaction, which generates apathy rather than mobilisation while the planet rapidly warms; this epistemology has been promoted by fossil fuel companies, industries, neoliberal think tanks and contrarian scientists. 

Similarly, conservative political and social actors bent on preserving their privilege and position do resort to contrarian epistemologies if their status is threatened. An apt empirical example is, again, the ‘anti-gender’ movement, which both denies the existence of gender by binding identity with biological sex and discredits those who pursue, for example, gender equality, sexual rights or reproductive justice as agents of one or another global conspiracy. 

Contrarian epistemologies and political actors 

The third way in which our symposium demonstrated the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies was by showing that they can act as a springboard to the acquisition of power through democratic elections, as evidenced by the rise of populist politicians worldwide.  

The compatibility between populism and contrarian epistemologies resides in that both are distrustful of institutions of power and knowledge controlled by the elite, who are always already corrupt and continuously scheming behind the scenes to secure their self-interest at the expense of the ‘people’. It is perhaps a curious feature of contrarian epistemologies that they can be used both by the elite actors to protect the status quo and by the populists to challenge that elite and, at least superficially, the status quo. 

Going beyond the populist hype, our symposium also looked at the ‘usual suspects’ of contrarian epistemologies, who can hardly be mistaken for being committed to democracy, such as European far-right parties and ultranationalists in Russia. In their hands, contrarian epistemologies often take aim at the weak and marginalised as well as at democracy itself.  

To drive home the point that contrarian epistemologies can aid the process of exploiting democratic politics to undemocratic ends, we also discussed the case of Nazi Germany, where the entire fascist project was built around the naturalised threat of the so-called Jewish cabal. 

Contrarian epistemologies: A litmus test for democracy? 

Our symposium showed the centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies across the board. From popular culture and social media to journalism and the academia, and from the socioeconomic and political elites to the actors challenging those elites from the margins of democratic politics, the prevalence of contrarian epistemologies can be linked to the cherished democratic principles, such as freedom of speech. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that contrarian epistemologies are an indispensable element of any democracy.  

Yet, they can also be used to propel reorientation away from democracy. As much as the centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies is an empirical question, so perhaps is their democratic character. 

They can engender critical knowledge instrumental in alleviating inequalities but, taken to the extreme, they may also subordinate knowledge to the ideology predicated on those same inequalities. Similarly, contrarian epistemologies can both mobilise and impede collective actions geared towards the democratic common good. Finally, from the perspective on democracy as a system of political equality, contrarian epistemologies can be pro-democratic when they target the elite and anti-democratic when they are turned against the weak and marginalised.  

At the current conjuncture, we know that our democracy is in crisis but we cannot really gauge the direction in which it is moving or grasp how far it has already gone. Under such circumstances, maybe we can turn to contrarian epistemologies – their content, prevalence and function – as a litmus test.  

We know that 21st-century authoritarianism and fascism do not come marching, clad in brown shirts. Instead, they may be creeping in on us through institutions of ideological indoctrination that disguise themselves as places of research and learning, through ‘petromasculinities’ that masquerade as objective economic realities, and through political actors that pretend to challenge the ‘elite’, all the while pitting the ‘people’ against other people. More research on contrarian epistemologies may be just what is needed to make sense of what is happening to contemporary democracies and to take stock of the extent to which they are still democracies at all. 

Exploring Emotions at the Collegium

By Charlie Kurth

I’m a Philosopher from Western Michigan University, spending two years as a Core Fellow at the Collegium. The project that brought me here looks at “negative” emotions—things like anxiety, disgust, shame, and anger. I’m trying to understand whether they help us become better people. My working hypothesis is that they can when they are felt at the right time and in the right way. This means that the hard issue—the one I’m really wrestling with—is about emotion cultivation. What, if anything, can we do to shape these emotions for the better?

Charlie Kurth: Emotion (Routledge; book cover)

The cover of Charlie Kurth’s recent book “Emotion” (Routledge, 2022)

In my first six months at HCAS, I’ve been making great progress on the book. This is in part due to having—as the HCAS motto states—the freedom to think: to have the time to work slowly and meticulously through the details of the book I’m writing. But at least as big a driver of my progress comes by way of my interactions with other Fellows and the opportunities to engage with scholars throughout the University of Helsinki.

As one example, at the end of February, I had the chance to present some work-in-progress at the HCAS Fellows Seminar. I’ve been working on a paper that develops a novel account of shame where I’m trying to better understand both what shame is from a scientific perspective and, from a philosophical vantage point, how shame might be morally valuable. While I felt that the paper was coming together, I also want to get it published in an interdisciplinary journal. So even though I was pretty happy with the progress I was making, I was also worried about whether I was framing the issues in an intuitively accessible manner.

The seminar feedback was tremendously helpful. I’m used to talking to philosophers in the language of philosophy. But the HCAS crew is a very interdisciplinary group. So as I was preparing my presentation for the Seminar, I was forced to focus on explaining what the core elements of my account of shame were, and how I could present them in a way that was accessible to non-philosophers. Wow—that was hard! But the payoff was big. Not only did the process leave me with a better sense of what I was trying to say, but the questions that I received from the other Fellows made me rethink some of the central assumptions that I was making. I’m now putting the finishing touches on a revised—and much stronger—version of the paper that will be sent out for review in a few weeks.

Antti Kauppinen, Anni Kajanus and Charlie Kurth at the Kollegium Talks event "Is There an Upside to Unpleasant Feelings?"

Antti Kauppinen (on the left), Anni Kajanus and Charlie Kurth at Think Corner on March 15, 2023

Shortly after my Fellows Seminar session, I also had the opportunity to put together a panel discussion for the HCAS Kollegium Talks Series at Think Corner. The session’s title was, “An Upside to Negative Feelings?” and it consisted of three scholars discussing how feeling bad can be good for us. Anni Kajanus, Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Helsinki, talked about her recent work on irritation. Based on her study of individuals in the US, Finland, and China, she’s found not only that we tend to be (particularly) irritated by people we are close to, but that this irritation can be a valuable tool—one that helps us protect (even strengthen) our relationships. In short, being annoyed at your spouse can be a good thing!

Antti Kauppinen, Professor of Practical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki, discussed anger. Feeling angry when someone harms something you care about is an important sign that you value the thing that’s been harmed. And being angry about these harms can also be an important source of motivation to protect what’s been damaged. For instance, if someone insults your friend, it makes you angry and you’re likely to feel moved to stand up for them as a result. That can be a very good thing.

My contribution was to talk about some of my work on anxiety. As I see it, anxiety is an emotion we feel when we are uncertain about what to do or say. And our anxiety can be helpful because it can motivate useful reflection: it makes us think about how best to resolve the uncertainty we face and so come to a better decision about what to do. The result of the Think Corner event was a lively discussion, not just between the three of us, but a lengthy and enjoyable Q&A session with the audience.

HCAS 20 Years – Anniversary Greeting

By Morten Kyndrup, professor, Aarhus University, HCAS Advisory Board Member, former president of UBIAS (University-based Institutes of Advanced Study), former Executive Director of the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies

Prof. Morten Kyndrup giving a talk at the HCAS Anniversary Celebration on June 15, 2022

Professor Kyndrup’s speech was delivered at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Helsinki Collegium in the Festive Hall of the University of Helsinki on June 15, 2022. (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

It is an honor and a pleasure for me to convey my greetings today on the occasion of this 20 years birthday of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. So first of all: Congratulations on the anniversary!

One might ask: Why celebrate such an occasion? There is nothing really honorable about age in itself. Everybody acquires age over time! What counts, of course, is what you have achieved, what you do, and how you do it. This indeed applies to Institutes for advanced study.

I am not going to repeat today the beautiful story about the rise and development of the phenomenon of institutes for advanced study since the first one was created in Princeton in the 1930’s – in fact based on an amalgamation of two different European University traditions, the British Oxbridge system based on colleges, and the continental Humboldt-tradition of free, individual research. As such, a nice example of import-export, since this American invention inspired by Europe was subsequently re-exported back to Europe and to the whole world. Moreover, the idea of institutions like institutes for advanced study has spread increasingly fast over the last 50 years.

Why, one might ask? This is another long story. But at this occasion two points should be emphasized (to avoid widespread misunderstandings): First of all, institutes for advanced study were never thought of as alternatives to the ordinary university systems, but exactly as tiny supplements, exceptions, lacunas, with space to work and to meet with, temporarily, top notch colleagues from other disciplines under alternative circumstances. And secondly: Meeting not in order to turn disciplines into interdisciplinarity, but to let disciplines fertilize each other in their proper disciplinarities respectively. The two are by no means the same thing.

Anyway, the idea of institutes for advanced study is not an easy one to realize. It certainly produces “structural difficulties” to be a permanent, marginal exception to an overall system – especially if that overall system owns you. Unfortunately, such difficulties have led many universities worldwide to opportunistic shortcuts. Over the last decades, many institutes have been launched under the name of “advanced study” without actually fulfilling the criteria for or following the tradition of such institutes. There are quite some examples of initiatives, which have aimed at profiting from the IAS-connected prestige without actually engaging in the necessary endeavors to create such an institution, being, literally spoken, just a sign on the wall, a name without any real substance. I have seen – and visited – institutes with just a couple of fellows, institutes with local fellows exclusively, and institutes which were in fact nothing but a university’s visiting program or a traditional disciplinary institute just under another label.

Now this is why two international network organizations, the UBIAS (University-based institutes of advanced study worldwide) and the NetIAS (A European network of institutes) were created, both with stringent membership criteria (grosso modo identical) concerning institutional status, admission criteria, kinds of fellowship programs, scientific independence etc.

This brings me back to the good reasons for celebrating the Helsinki Collegium on its 20 years anniversary today: Here in Helsinki no shortcuts have been taken. The Helsinki Collegium is a real “classical” institute for advanced study, and as such, it is a core and distinguished member of both international networks. Like any other institute for advanced study, the Helsinki Collegium has led a life full of dangers and obstacles, because that is how it is to be a small institutional, permanent exception in the margins of a much bigger system. But the Helsinki Collegium has stuck to the principles, has built up and preserved its status as a genuine institute for advanced study. As such, the Helsinki Collegium has been an ideal to many of its sister-institutes worldwide. When I myself was about to create the foundation for AIAS, a new institute in Aarhus, some 12 years ago, I traveled around to learn from existing institutes. The first three I visited was the WiKo in Berlin, the SCAS in Uppsala, both much older, well-established institutes, and the Helsinki Collegium, by then less than 10 yrs old.

Over the years, I’d like to add, a close and fruitful cooperation has been flourishing between the AIAS and Helsinki Collegium – at staff level, between fellows and of course between directors, bilaterally and in the international networks. At this occasion, I will take the opportunity to thank the Helsinki Collegium warmly for this cooperation on behalf of AIAS and Aarhus University.

All in all, there are indeed good reasons for celebrating this anniversary of the Helsinki Collegium. Not because of age, but because of the institute’s achievements as a genuine, classical institute for advanced studies. The Helsinki Collegium has developed itself and thrived in spite of occasional hard times and difficult conditions. On top of that, the Helsinki Collegium has also contributed substantially to making the very concept of these institutes thrive and evolve internationally.

Achievements like that are of course not signed by the walls of the building. They are the result of ongoing endeavors of the staff, of the board members, and not least of the fellows of the Helsinki collegium. Nothing comes out of nothing, and real world achievements certainly do not.

So, congratulations to the Helsinki Collegium, to all of you behind these achievements, no one named, no one forgotten. But I can think of at least a handful of living persons, having over the years done the most honorable, determined efforts to make this come true.

However, I would also like to congratulate University of Helsinki on this occasion. You can be proud of the Institute for advanced study you have created. It contributes immensely, not least symbolically to your reputation as one of the world’s leading classical universities.

The Helsinki Collegium is a distinguished member of the leading international networks of institutes for advanced study. I am confident that I can extend my greetings today to be on behalf of also NetIAS and UBIAS.

Finally, as we do on anniversaries, I wish you a long and healthy life in the times to come. I can promise you that it is not going be easy. However, I am confident that you will survive, develop yourself and thus remain among the best, classical institutes for advanced studies worldwide.

Morten Kyndrup and other guests at the HCAS Anniversary Celebration

(Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

 

Peer review in scholarly publication: A cornerstone or a stone in the shoe?

By Maria Kuteeva (Erik Allardt Fellow at HCAS, Fall 2021)

Photo of a door knocker made of metal and shaped like a lion

Photo: Pixhere

Peer review is a cornerstone of academic activity, a marker of quality research and publication. As HCAS Director Tuomas Forsberg (2021) points out in the HCAS Newsletter 2020–2021, peer review is paramount to various activities at the Collegium, starting with the evaluations involved in the fellows’ selection process. In a broad sense, peer review can take many forms, ranging from formal written evaluations to informal spoken interaction. One of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences during my stay at the Collegium was the Fellows’ Seminar, where we discussed our research from different disciplinary perspectives and gave and received constructive feedback in a supportive and collegial environment.

At the same time, we are all engaged in other peer-reviewing activities in our own fields of research, and the demand for peer-reviewing keeps growing. For me, the year 2022 started with several requests to review two journal articles, a book, a research grant application, and a tenure application. Requests for peer reviews of journal submissions have been increasing, as a peer-reviewed journal article is now the most prestigious and desirable type of publication in many fields of research.

In this blog post, I focus on the ‘occluded’ genre (Swales 1996) of the anonymous peer review for academic journals. In today’s world of academic publishing, the journal and the complex of norms associated with its activities represent the main centres of authority. As concrete representatives of this authority, journal editors act as gatekeepers in the process of knowledge production, and peer review is meant to inform and support their decisions. The way in which peer review is currently set up often results in a hierarchical and structured activity, geared largely towards journals as centres of authority rather than our research peers. Has peer review become an oxymoron? What role do reviewers play in maintaining or challenging the authority of academic journals? How is this power dynamic manifested in the discourse of peer review? My discussion below engages with these questions.

The discourse of peer review: The reviewer, the author, and the manuscript

As we all know, not all peer review is conducted in the same spirit as our HCAS Fellows’ Seminar. The discourse of anonymous peer reviews is not always transparent, as criticism can be hedged and requests for essential changes can be phrased as polite suggestions (e.g. the author(s) might want to edit …). On the other hand, not all reviewers are as polite and tactful: harsh criticism can take rather personal undertones (see https://shitmyreviewerssay.tumblr.com). Hyland (2021) points out several other potential pitfalls associated with the peer review process: long decision delays, bias and subjectivity, and even dishonesty. For example, during the reviewing process for what would become a well-cited article co-authored with my then doctoral student for a top journal in our field, one reviewer provided comments littered with capitals, exclamation marks, expressions such as ‘gee what a finding’ and ‘what does this mean, honestly?’, and even threats ‘I really want to see this out of this paper and if it is not, I cannot recommend it for publication’. Although this was not the case with our submission, when taken to the extreme, peer review can be a mechanism for censorship.

As the sheer number of scholarly publications keeps growing, they seem to become increasingly standardised. Academic genres, such as the journal article, have evolved to reflect the rhetorical norms of research communities. Behind the façade of these normative genres is a process involving dialogue and negotiation, the main primary purpose of which is to advance knowledge in a research field. Journal reviewers and editors play a key role in this dialogic process, and their comments reflect the disciplinary, socio-economic, socio-cultural, and socio-political contexts in which they operate.

Research on the discourse of peer review is scarce because data are notoriously difficult to obtain. Previous studies conducted in applied linguistics have drawn on a limited dataset of reviews from one journal (e.g. Paltridge 2017). At the same time, interest in this topic is growing, and researchers are being asked to examine their own practices in order to demystify the peer-reviewing process. I have recently contributed one such study to a forthcoming volume titled The Inner World of Gatekeeping in Scholarly Publication (Kuteeva, in Habibie & Hultgren, forthcoming). The idea was to critically reflect on my own trajectory and practices as a peer reviewer, based on an analysis of 50 reviews that I have written over the last decade in response to manuscripts submitted to 15 academic journals.[i]

A black-and-white photo of a group of blindfolded people sitting at a table

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Although the peer review is an academic genre, its discourse features are not the same as those of published genres like journal articles or books. The dialogic and evaluative features are more pronounced, as evidenced by the abundance of stance expressions and directives (Paltridge 2017; Samraj 2021). In line with previous studies, my initial corpus-assisted analysis points towards the centrality of evaluative and attitudinal stance in the discourse of my peer reviews, manifested in the frequent use of the pronoun I accompanied by various stance verbs (e.g. I agree, I believe, I (cannot) recommend, I find, I suggest, I wonder). All stance-taking acts involve two subjects (e.g. the speaker and the audience) and an object, thereby forming the stance triangle (Du Bois 2007). In peer review, this triangle involves, above all, the reviewer, the author of the journal submission (the audience), and the manuscript as the object of the stance-taking act.

Unlike in spoken interaction, the dialogue in peer review is written and asynchronous. In this context, the centrality of the journal adds a communicative dimension in line with Bakhtin’s (1986) concept of ‘superaddressee’, a metaphor used to describe a complex of norms or a larger body of authority. In academic publishing, this dimension involves journal readers as individuals, the research community as a collective and abstract entities, such as research ethics and language standards. Thus, the reviewer’s utterances are not only directed at the author of the manuscript: they are also shaped with reference to a higher evaluating authority of a perceived centre, in other words, the editors or the journal readership more broadly.

Although the object of the stance-taking act – the journal submission – remains the same, the reviewer role can change from that of evaluator to advisor, peer or (proof)reader. Accordingly, the audience of the reviewer’s utterances may expand to include the editor, the journal readership or the research community more broadly. Evaluations are accompanied by different stances towards the journal submission. Shifting between different reviewer roles can also involve different alignments with the audience to either include or exclude the author or the editor. For example, the reviewer may address the author directly (I suggest swapping the order of the subsections) or else choose to align with the journal editor by mentioning the author in a dependent clause (I recommend that the authors review some more recent literature).

The shifts between different reviewer roles and audiences are manifested through register variation, in which ‘clustered and patterned language forms (…) index specific social personae and roles’ (Blommaert 2007: 117). Resorting to a particular register is a way to index belonging to a particular group with its own repertoire of voices, e.g. the reviewer as an evaluator and expert in the field (e.g. I cannot recommend this article for publication) or a friendly and supportive peer (e.g. have you considered doing it this way?). For example, the reviewer as evaluator can resort to conventional ‘reviewer speak’, aligning with the journal editor (e.g. I cannot recommend this article for publication) or indicating to the author how the manuscript can be improved (I found this section surprisingly short). The expert role concerns the reviewer’s knowledge of the field and what research is needed to advance knowledge in the field (the article has the potential to offer new insights into…). As an advisor, the reviewer is likely to either directly or indirectly address the author (I suggest swapping the order of these subsections). The peer role is similar to that of advisor but involves more proximity with the author, for example through the use of the pronoun you. As (proof)reader, the reviewer may comment on the quality of the text and point out specific infelicities.

The reviewers’ role: Maintaining the status quo or challenging the journal’s authority?

Authority in accepting an article for publication resides with the journal editors, and the peer review process is meant to inform and support the editor’s decision. To make a convincing recommendation for the journal, the reviewer is likely to resort to register features that index their proximity to the journal as the centre of authority. In this context, the very concept of peer review appears to be an oxymoron, as it is, in fact, a hierarchical and structured activity oriented primarily towards journals as perceived centres of authority and expertise rather than our colleagues and research peers.

Although academic journals hold strong authority and have established gate-keeping mechanisms, they may also have their caveats. Since these journals represent both real and perceived centres, their practices risk becoming too centripetal and inward-looking. Based on the existing literature and my own experience, I would argue that there are two main limitations, which can be broadly described as anglo-centricity and ‘disciplinary navel-gazing’. The question of anglo-centricity has been debated in connection with the reported challenges experienced by non-anglophone researchers in getting their work published (e.g. Canagarajah 2002; Hyland 2016). For example, a great deal of debate in the applied linguistics research community has revolved around questions concerning linguistic (in)justice caused by the dominance of English and the need to move away from norms based on established varieties of Standard English (see, e.g. Hynninen & Kuteeva 2017; Kuteeva & Mauranen 2014; McKinley & Rose 2018).

There are also more subtle and serious biases that extend beyond language issues. In 2020, the journal Applied Linguistics (OUP) hosted a debate about knowledge production in the field, challenging the dominance of certain modes of enquiry and raising awareness of the need to decolonise scholarship, for example by engaging with epistemologies of the Global South. Hultgren (2019) shows how the controversies around the dominance of English disregard the importance of socioeconomic factors in shaping publication practices. Finally, we cannot underestimate the importance of languages other than English in increasing societal impact and sustaining language diversity in research activities, not only publishing but also assessment, funding and so forth. The Helsinki Initiative on Multilingualism is at the forefront of this movement by promoting equal access to research findings in a variety of languages, offering support to national publishing infrastructures and providing equal rewards for publications in different languages.

‘Disciplinary navel-gazing’ appears to be a side effect of the need to provide journal publication outlets in specific fields, which can ultimately lead to (re)producing the same kind of knowledge. Academic journals have a key role to play in maintaining or challenging this status quo. Much too often, publications end up harping on the same note, as the authors are encouraged to cite previous research that appeared in the same journal, whose authors then act as reviewers of new submissions. The need to increase the journal impact factor also makes it easier for highly-cited authors to have (any) work accepted in quality journals because it is likely to attract more citations. The two perceived limitations – anglo-centricity and disciplinary navel-gazing – may be intertwined, particularly in fields where English is the dominant language of research communication and where evaluation is based on quantitative indicators.

Three marble statues depicting people who gaze at their navel

Satyres en atlante, Unknown Artist, II century after J.C., Rome. Photo by Gregg Tavares. https://www.flickr.com/photos/greggman/4305490456/in/photolist-7ysLj5-a5Vsnw-hGT6T-hGT8v. Photo uploaded on 16.1.2010. Accessed on 1.2.2022.

Where does the peer reviewer stand in this landscape? Is it possible for peer reviewers to contribute to addressing the aforementioned caveats regarding academic journal publishing? I would argue that it is possible. The reviewer is in a position to challenge centripetal journal practices without misaligning with the journal and its editors. This involves a balancing act between aligning with the journal as an established centre of authority (e.g. through the use of an appropriate register) while at the same time questioning aspects of research that are associated with the two limitations.

In my experience, one straight-forward strategy is to alert the authors and editors of journal submissions to cutting-edge research carried out in non-anglophone contexts (sometimes in languages other than English) and to encourage them to engage with it more thoroughly. It is not unusual for authors working in an anglophone context to assume that their readers would share background knowledge about their research context. However, the same cannot be said for authors who write in English but are based in non-anglophone contexts. This kind of indirect benchmarking can be limiting. In my peer reviews, I have encouraged authors working in both kinds of contexts to take a reflective approach and discuss their own positionings.

Last but not least, it is important – particularly for scholars in the humanities – to keep an open mind about writing conventions and not to be overly confined by the straitjacket of templates and increasingly standardised academic genres. I am sure there are other good strategies for overcoming limitations of the perceived centres of authority in knowledge production and would be delighted to hear your views.

To sum up, although academic journals function as the main centres of authority in writing for research publication, they come with their limitations, as centripetal trends in the practices surrounding knowledge production and publication can be counterproductive to moving the research field forward. By mediating the dialogue between the authors and the journal, peer reviewers have a key role to play in both maintaining and challenging the journals’ authority as centres of knowledge production.

References:

Bakhtin, M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (C. Emerson and M. Holquist, eds) (V. McGee, trans.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, J. (2007) Sociolinguistics and discourse analysis: Orders of indexicality and polycentricity. Journal of Multicultural Discourses 2 (2), 115–130.

Canagarajah, A. S. (2002). A geopolitics of academic writing. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Du Bois, J. (2007). The stance triangle. In Englebretson, R. (ed.), Stancetaking in discourse: Subjectivity, evaluation, interaction. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Forsberg, T. (2021). “The Quality of Academia Depends on the Quality of Reviewing”, Tuomas Forsberg (HCAS Newsletter 2020–2021, https://www2.helsinki.fi/sites/default/files/atoms/files/hcas_newsletter_2021.pdf)

Hultgren, K. (2019). English as the language for academic publication: On equity, disadvantage and “non-nativeness” as a red herring. Publications, 7 (2), 31.

Hyland, K. (2016). Academic publishing and the myth of linguistic injustice. Journal of Second Language Writing, 31, 58–69.

Hynninen, N. & Kuteeva, M. (2017). Good” and “acceptable” English in L2 research writing: Ideals and realities in history and computer science. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 30, 53-65.

Kuteeva, M. (forthcoming). Polycentric peer reviewing: Navigating authority and expertise. In Habibie, P. and A.K. Hultgren (eds.). The inner world of gatekeeping in scholarly publication. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kuteeva, M. and Mauranen, A. (2014). Writing for international publication in multilingual contexts: An introduction to the special issue. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 13, 1-4.

McKinley, J. & Rose, H. (2018). Conceptualizations of language errors, standards, norms and nativeness in English for research publication purposes: An analysis of journal submission guidelines. Journal of Second Language Writing, 42, 1-11.

Paltridge, B. (2017). The discourse of peer review: Reviewing submissions to academic journals. London, UK: Palgrave.

Samraj, B. (2021). Variation in interpersonal relations in manuscript reviews with different recommendations. English for Specific Purposes, 62, 70-83.

Swales, J. (1996). Occluded genre in the academy: The case of the submission letter. In E. Ventola and A. Mauranen (eds.), Academic writing: Intercultural and textual issues. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

[i] The reviews were written for the following journals: Applied Linguistics, Discourse, Context and Media, English for Specific Purposes, Higher Education, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Journal of English for Research Publication Purposes, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Journal of Pragmatics, Journal of Second Language Writing, Linguistics and Education, Multilingua, Nordic Journal of English Studies, Studies in Higher Education, System.

“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.