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

By Kaisa Kaakinen 

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

Portrait of Josephine Hoegaerts

Josephine Hoegaerts (Photo by Veikko Somerpuro)

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

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

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

 

Intellectual stimulation and collegial support at HCAS 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curiosity-driven research for the lucky few? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those lunches and coffees 

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

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

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

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

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

On Excellence

By Tuomas Forsberg

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

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

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

Societal impact from the bottom up

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

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

Speakers of the spring 2019 Kollegium Talks on Think Corner Stage

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

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

Can impact be measured?

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

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

Group photo of Helsinki Collegium fellows standing outside on grass

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

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

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

The makings of early Islamic identity

By Ilkka Lindstedt (HCAS alumni)

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

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

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

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

Photo by Ilkka Lindstedt

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

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

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

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

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

Arabic inscriptions and the “parting of the ways”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Qaṣr Kharrāna inscription (710 CE)

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

Photo by Hannu Aukia

Fig. 2, photo by Hannu Aukia

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

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

Religious categorizations and pluralism in early Islam and modern Islamic thought

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

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

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

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

 

Making of: Moral Machines

By Susanna Lindberg & Hanna-Riikka Roine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birth of Research from a Spirit of Intertextuality

By Anna Usacheva

Why are you a classical philologist?

Anna Usacheva

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

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

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

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

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

Different times – different horizons

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

Anatomical face, Leipzig, late 19th century

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

Questions for the sake of questioning

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

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

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on the Helsinki Collegium

By Tuomas Forsberg

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

Photo by Veikko Somerpuro

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

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

Time for Research and Collaboration

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

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

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

The Three Fs, or the Core Elements of Research

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

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

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

Tuomas Forsberg (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

 

Collaborative methods at the Collegium: Working together on a study of boys and masculinities

By Ann Phoenix and Marja Peltola

One of the dreams of a stay at the Collegium is of time to focus intensively on one’s own work, bringing long-dormant writing to publication and having space to do exciting new research and think fresh, fruitful thoughts fueled by discussions with outstanding fellows and other university colleagues. This is certainly to be prized but, for us, our sojourn also enabled a different version of collective working that would not have been possible without the Collegium investment of space, money and time that has been enormously productive and hugely enjoyable. Our experience underlines the point that collaboration is an important method that, in itself, informs the methods of fieldwork and analysis. We tell the story of those methods below.

In many continents, the media, politicians and organisations periodically raise moral panics about boys and masculinities. In particular, concern focuses on boys’ poor educational attainment in relation to girls, their disengagement from schoolwork and their propensity for violence.  While many researchers have explained that the picture is more complex than a ‘poor boys’ discourse would warrant, there remains relatively little research on boys and masculinities in Finland. We brought together histories of doing youth research and of studying masculinities in 11-14-year-old boys.

Stephen Frosh, Ann Phoenix and Rob Pattman: Young Masculinities (Palgrave, 2001)            Marja Peltola: Kunnollisia perheitä (Nuorisotutkimusseura, 2014)

We focused on masculinities and ethnicities in three Helsinki schools; this intersection was especially interesting since the ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015 had accelerated a shift in Finnish national identity so that multiculturalism, at least in Helsinki, became more prominent than previously. The three schools we selected differed, amongst other things, with regard to the pupils’ ethnic and class backgrounds.

We first asked boys and girls who brought back signed consent forms to take part in group interviews and then invited them to be interviewed individually. The group interviews allowed us to learn about the breadth of issues and opinions on masculinities that were important for boys, girls and particular schools before we explored these issues in depth with individual boys and girls. We asked about the meanings of gender, (masculinity and femininity), about life in school and at home, and general everyday practices for young people.

Marja Peltola (Photo by Ann Phoenix)

Collaboration was crucial throughout this process. Working as a British-Finnish team enabled us to take a more “international” perspective on the Finnish context while also benefitting from “insider” linguistic skills and knowledge of the Finnish schooling system and society. Since Ann does not speak Finnish, it was Marja, for whom Finnish is her first language, who communicated with the schools and conducted the interviews. Marja wrote fieldnotes of each school visit and each interview and we began a practice of discussing the minutiae of school visits and any issues or interesting points that had arisen as soon as possible afterwards.

The Collegium enabled both fairly fast transcriptions of interviews and translations into English, done by the Collegium paid interns Linda Sivander, Anna Koivukoski and Olli Heiniö.

The interviews were very different in nature. In a group interview with four boys, for example, jokes were a key way to cope with the potential risks of losing face and place in the hierarchy of popularity; whereas in a mixed-gender interview of two girls and two boys, everybody took care to avoid absolute categorizations and to present uncontroversial views. Gender organized physical positioning and interactions in both groups, but in different ways. In the former group, the boys used joking to signal their distance from girls in general and the woman interviewer in particular, and to try to establish power relations over her. In the latter group, the boys and the girls sat separately and indicated difference from each other by organizing the interaction in “the girls’ turns” and “the boys’ turns”.

Another group interview with five boys illuminates well how narratives on gender difference were created collectively. There was a lot of echoing and in the fast-paced discussion, the boys often finished, or tried to finish, each other’s sentences, when creating the story that was presumed to be shared by all the boys present. This meant that they often cut each other off. At the same time, there was (some) room for negotiating acceptable, but exceptional, differences.

Luka: Boys do not use any–

Elias: Dresses or–

Luka: Do not use any, face lotion things.

Mikael: I do sometimes apply some lotion [laughs] if it is dry but otherwise I do not.

Luka: No but the kinda masks you know–

Mikael: Yea I know.

Luka: –to the face so–

Oliver: Yea the kinda, girly clothes and stuff.

Marja: You said about the makeup that sometimes boys do makeup-

Bikram: Yea.

Marja: Is it well is it then girly anyway, or?

Elias: Not like that

Mikael: Well depends on how you do it, slightly.

Luka: Famous people, men, they do makeup.

Bikram: Yea they do use makeup.

Mikael: They do put it on so that they are more visible [laughs] in the photos and so on.

Marja: So nobody here in the school?

Mikael: No, no no! [laughter]

Bikram: I do not know anyone.

We conducted joint narrative analysis of the English translations of the focus groups with Marja checking translations against the Finnish transcriptions, sometimes against the audio recording and with her memory of the interaction. We began the analysis of the first focus group interview by reading the whole interview together out loud and so staging it.  We first did the reading line by line, covering up the lines below so that we could not see them and read on. We spent a great deal of time analysing the meaning of each line and using the analysis of one line to anticipate what we expected to happen next in the transcript.

This method was developed from Marine Burgos’s notion, drawing on Paul Ricoeur’s narratology, that narrators have the difficult task of bringing together disparate events into an ordered and relatively coherent narrative so that there is always a struggle when people have to start telling stories. Even if they are not aware of it, Burgos argues that conflicts are often evident at the start of stories, as are the key issues that animate people’s narratives and the subjective positions that narrators take up in relation to their subject matter.  While line-by-line reading was too time-consuming a method to apply to the whole corpus of data, we continued reading the interviews out loud, staging them and discussing our interpretations to ensure that we shared understandings. We analysed both the researcher’s questions and the participants’ responses and comments in this way, on the basis that social interactions are co-constructions where comments and questions produce particular possibilities for response and new narratives.

All this sounds rather dry and earnest, but we were often to be found in the Collegium Common Room laughing and drinking tea/coffee around the sun lamp in the winter as we puzzled out what something meant and considered the dynamics of interviews. Having established the habit of Common Room convivial working, we frequently also worked there in the summer when the sun lamp had long been put away.

Photo by Meri Parkkinen

Ann Phoenix and Marja Peltola in the Collegium Common Room (Photo by Meri Parkkinen)

Our point in combining focus groups and individual interviews lies not in comparing the “authenticity” of the different types of data but in increasing understanding of how social context and ways of asking influence narratives of masculinity. Collaboration throughout the process has provided us with a more nuanced understanding and interpretations that each of us might have missed alone. It ensured that our stay at the Collegium was maximally productive.

Ann Phoenix held the Jane and Aatos Erkko Professorship at HCAS in 2016-2018. During the 2017-2018 academic year, she collaborated with postdoctoral researcher Marja Peltola on the research project “Masculinities in New Times: 11-14-year-olds in Helsinki schools”. 

Notes from the field: violence and insecurity in a Central American capital

By Florencia Quesada Avendaño (Core Fellow, HCAS)

It was a blue-sky day at the beginning of February in Guatemala City, our last day of fieldwork in the community of Arzú (Photo 1) – named after Alvaro Arzú, former Guatemala City mayor and former president of Guatemala (1996–2000). Arzú is a slum located in a high-risk area in zone 18, which is the largest and most populous zone in the northern part of the city. The municipality of Guatemala is divided into 22 zones, with the greatest number of precarious settlements being located in zones 3, 7 and 18 (SEGEPLAN 2015).

Photo 1: Panoramic view from the community of Arzú(Photo: Florencia Quesada)                                                                                         Many slums in Guatemala City are built in vulnerable places, like the ravines that surround the capital.

The fieldwork, conducted in cooperation with our local partners – a local NGO called “Perpendicular” – was both challenging and difficult.[*] The main goal was to conduct interviews in precarious settlements about the daily life, struggles, problems, organisation and perceptions of the inhabitants with respect to violence, insecurity and environmental risks. Local contacts with community leaders and the previous and recent experiences of our local partners working in the communities of Arzú and 5 de noviembre opened the doors rather quickly to a complex urban space.

Guatemala City is the largest city and capital in the Central American Isthmus. Its metropolitan area has a population of 2.8 million inhabitants, distributed over 2189 km2 (SEGEPLAN 2015). At the same time, the metropolitan area accounts for the largest concentration of poor people by square metre in the country, with an estimated 412 precarious settlements (SEGEPLAN 2015).

In these unequal and unjust urban spaces, insecurity and fear are the daily bread of the urban poor especially in Guatemala City. Nevertheless, nobody escapes from violence in the country. Guatemala is one of the most unequal countries in the world. This extreme social urban segregation, characteristic of Latin America’s urban landscape, is well represented in zone 18. A high percentage of the population lives in poverty and extreme poverty. Some of the slums are located in high-risk areas prone to landslides, flooding and earthquakes. Precarious settlements are characterised by self-built housing, with very limited and insufficient public services and infrastructure (Photo 2). Over the years, and through the organisation of the community, the limited aid of the municipality, the State and NGOs like TECHO, some of these precarious settlements have improved their living conditions and services, but always still working from a marginal and excluded position.

Photo 2: Precarious settlements built in high-risk areas, Guatemala City(Photo: Florencia Quesada)

As part of the same complex urban panorama, these communities are also very insecure and violent. Certain parts of zone 18 have the reputation of being the most dangerous in the city. Especially in the lower-class areas, youth gangs like ‘Mara 18’ (18th Street gang) and other minor gangs control territory by extorting money from local businesses and public buses and taxis. Doubly stigmatised because of its poverty and the bad reputation of zone 18, daily life in both communities is a day-to-day struggle, as was evident in all of the interviews.

Paradoxically, the violence has been normalised: it is now perceived as a central and inevitable part of society. One of the reasons for the trivialisation of violence has to do with being bombarded with sensationalist TV news on a daily basis. Shootings, homicides, kidnappings, assaults and rapes dominate media; they are presented as the norm, the tragic reality that feeds paranoia – a big business for some – exacerbating those imaginaries of fear. Most of the interviewees highlighted how insecure and dangerous the city was by referencing their first-hand experiences, but they especially mentioned their perceptions being influenced by the television news.

In a post-war society such as Guatemala (after a civil war that lasted for thirty-six years), the expressions of violence originate from and overlap with a multiplicity of reasons, like State violence, high rates of impunity and corruption, social and economic exclusion of broad segments of the society, to name just a few. Citizens’ sense of insecurity is closely related to the failure of the State to ensure the basic needs and rights of its citizens and to offer security to a majority of the population. Violence is a direct expression of exclusion and inequality and has a devastating impact on the daily life of the urban poor.

One of the interviewees, a blacksmith in his late 30s, is at the same time a good and sad example of such structural and daily violence. His self-built house is located on a steep hillside. To reach his dwelling at the bottom of the hill, you must first descend the concrete stairs built by the community. Ironically, he earns his living by selling iron fences for the protection of such dwellings. Three years ago, he was shot by a member of Mara 18, the gang that rules the area. The gang member came to recruit his cousin by force, who was working at the time in the man’s workshop. His cousin escaped, he was not so fortunate. The young marero turned to him and started shooting without mercy: four bullets hit him in the arms (two in each arm). While trying to escape, the last one hit his spinal cord; the bullet is still there. He can no longer walk and is condemned to life in a wheelchair. Now his life is limited to a 5×5 space, disabled, without any support or economic aid from the State; his possibilities are quite limited. His extended family – parents, wife and two adult sons – are the only support he has. He seldom goes out of the house since the logistics of going up the steep hill are complex (Photo 3). He has diabetes, which affects his eyesight. His steady gaze is gloomy.

Photo 3: Looking down the hill in the community of Arzú                    (Photo: Florencia Quesada)

Nevertheless, although the gangs are directly associated with high levels of urban violence, they are not the only ones to blame in the multifaceted panorama of urban violence. Gangs are easy scapegoats for the State, helping it to avoid facing the main causes of violence in the region, such as poverty, unemployment, inequality, exclusion and the lack of possibilities to earn a decent living. Through this research project, we aim to understand and analyse the dynamics of these complex processes of violence and environmental risks in order to rethink alternatives and offer possibilities for these fragile urban communities, which only keep multiplying in Central American cities (Photo 4).

Photo 4: Precarious settlements in Guatemala City(Photo: Florencia Quesada)

[*]This research is part of a project funded by the Academy of Finland: ‘Fragile cities in the global South: societal security, environmental vulnerability and representative justice’, coordinated by Anja Nygren. The project aims to analyse the roles of new city-authority coalitions, organised civil-society groups and informal network-actors engaged in seeking new ways to manage societal insecurity, environmental vulnerability and representative justice in the fragile cities of the global South. Guatemala City is one of the case studies focused on violence and environmental risks, along with Villahermosa in México, Bogotá in Colombia and Calcutta in India.