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,

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.

‘I can’t pitch my tent in the board room of IBM!’: reciprocity, collaboration and new directions in ethnographic research

By Lois Watt

The terms reciprocity, collaboration and inclusion are being used with increasing frequency in the discourse on research ethics. Yet, the practicalities of implementing such ideas can quickly become muddled. For many newly starting ethnographers, the question of how one should approach these ethical conundrums can become enervating. But what do the seasoned pros have to say? I sat down with three HCAS fellows (Cris Shore, Nina Öhman, Wasiq Silan) to discuss what aspiring to such changing research ideals means for them and how they position these ideals against their own ethnographic research. The result is an interesting intersection of different perspectives, one which exemplifies the lack of clear answers to many of the ethical questions that we are facing today. 


Picture this. July 7th, 2022. It is officially a ‘post’ pandemic time, and we are only just warming up to the outside world after two years of social distance and virtual connections. I have just sat down, coffee in hand, at my laptop, which is opened to the livestream of an online seminar series hosted by the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI), entitled Before and After Malinowski: Alternative Views on the History of Anthropology. This year marks a full century since Bronisław Malinowski’s canonical work Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) was published. Malinowski is often cited as being the father of British anthropology, having been largely responsible for cementing functionalism within British anthropological thought, and – with Argonauts in particular – of leaving a huge mark on the legacy of how anthropologists should go about doing immersive, long-term study in ‘peripheral’ places, otherwise known as ethnography.  

A picture of Bronislaw Malinowski

Contact print made from the original Malinowski photo-negatives of the Trobriand Islands, undated. Bronislaw Malinowski Papers (MS 19). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

Yet, here we are – half-listening as we fold laundry and daydream – at ‘Home’: after two years of mandatory isolation. Many of us who use ethnography as a research tool have struggled to ‘go’ anywhere. Indeed, many scholars who use ethnography are increasingly turning inward. In epistemological textbooks, you frequently spot key phrases like multi-sited, ‘at Home’ and digital ethnographies. So, when listening to these scholars discuss what makes a text canonical, one cannot help but reflect on how much ethnography has changed since its early days, under the influence of figures like Malinowski.  

Today, ethnographic methods have extended beyond anthropology to include a host of different disciplines. Yet, the principle often remains the same: you should be there in order to get a sense of what is really going on. 

A picture of a woman with a laptop

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio,

This reflection is also linked to the question of why we consider texts like Argonauts to be disciplinary cornerstones. In the case of Malinowski, one cannot escape the dark past that lingers between the lines of his published works. In his posthumously published field diaries, his observations and assessments become more convoluted. As such, the legacy of ethnography often gives rise to a certain amount of unease for researchers. Yet, we still admire and acknowledge the feats of many early anthropologists despite their ties to the colonial project and orientalist gaze (Said, 1979).  

Over time, notes of resistance to the legacy of these early ethnographers have become more vocal (Smith, 1999; DeCastro, 1998). In this century, the rise of indigenous studies, the various anthropological ‘turns’ (literary, critical and ontological) as well as the advocacy for anthropologists to do multi-sited ethnographies has reshaped our relationship to ethnography as a tool and to our participants. These critical voices have raised a pivotal question: Who has the right to study whom 

The answer is often not at all clear. Ethnographers must grapple with such demands in their own way. But how have scholars finessed their way through this moral maze to continue doing fruitful ethnographic research? 

Nina Öhman, Wasiq Silan and Cris Shore (left to right)

Nina Öhman, Wasiq Silan and Cris Shore (left to right)

To try and gain some clarity on the matter, I interviewed three current HCAS fellows, anthropologist Cris Shore, ethnomusicologist Nina Öhman and Wasiq Silan, a scholar of indigenous studies, each of whom actively uses ethnographic methodologies. Despite similarities in their methodologies, the way in which they execute the methods varies greatly. I became curious: How do they navigate this troubled terrain, and how do they relate to ethnography?  

Cris: I say that I’m agnostic about ethnography. It is supposedly the crown jewel of anthropology’s tool kit. Yet we have created a bit of a fetish around ethnography, and it’s become something that defines what anthropologists do and what distinguishes them from other disciplines. People say that ‘We [anthropologists] do ethnography! We do fieldwork! We do long-term fieldwork and participant observation!’ But my own feeling about that is that it’s only one of many methods, and it’s not the be all and end all. I don’t buy into the idea that there’s an ontological imperative to always ‘be there’ because I see the world very much in terms of the wider, bigger forces that shape local events – history, politics, economics … these are important as well. To put it simply, the ‘truth’ (if you can use that word anymore) does not necessarily lie at the level of empirical reality. If you confine or conflate anthropology with ethnography, then you’re not going to get the bigger picture. And if anthropology is defined by its method, then it means that certain key areas, the areas that I love to research, would be out-of-bounds because you could only really do anthropology in the areas where you could do direct participatory observational fieldwork ethnography. I can’t pitch my tent in the board room of IBM! 

Cris Shore is a professor of social anthropology at Goldsmiths University, in London. His current work is concerned with shifting forms of university management, tentatively titled Metricised Management, Market-Making and University Futures. In dealing with ‘elite’ institutions, Cris frames his work as a form of studying Up’.  Unlike many of the classic ethnographers, who can safely be said to have studied Down’, Cris reflects on how he is often in a more marginalised position when entering the field. In that way, his research context is different from that of Nina Öhman, who works with various musical communities, and Wasiq Silan, who works with more disadvantaged groups.  

Nina Öhman is an ethnomusicologist who studies women’s roles in music cultures. She holds a particular specialisation in American popular music – with her most recent work focusing on African American gospel music in a project entitled Audible Subversion: African American women singers and gospel vocal expression. This is what she had to say about her relationship with ethnography. 

Nina: Ethnography is central to my work. Since I am an ethnomusicologist, for me ethnographic methods are very important, as well as the study of musical sound. In my work these approaches are closely connected, along with historical research. One can of course listen to music and analyse music digitally, which I do as well, but I think it is crucial to speak with people who are making music or engage with music in other ways and take what they say seriously. Therefore, ethnography has a real value to science.  

But whilst there is this value, one cannot escape the ‘troubled past’ that ethnography holds. Thinking of, for example, these famous classic monographs. As someone who actively uses ethnographic methodologies, there is constant reflection and thinking about the ethical implications of doing ethnographic research, as we [ethnographers] are learning all the time. As such, there are blind spots everyone is likely to have when we are in the field, and at least by acknowledging the limits of one’s knowledge, we can work through these, especially through reflecting and learning.   

Nina’s research interests are centred around the role of music – its expression, performance, significance and history. In that way, Nina enters a field in which she is not the ‘expert’ in the sense that she is working with musicians who are embedded within the sound that she is studying. As such, she stresses the importance of listening to the expertise and knowledge of her research participants. This collaborative effort marks a shift from the classical ethnographers, who – one could say – tended to meta-analyse culturally situated behaviours against Western moralities. This focus on collaboration, however, is pushed even further in Wasiq Silan’s work.  

In coming from an indigenous studies perspective, Wasiq Silan – a Tayal scholar from the Mstaranan river valley in the northern region of Taiwan – has centred her academic interests on her home country of Taiwan and has worked with the Tayal people on several different themes. Wasiq’s latest work is entitled Care in Relationships: Re-centring Indigenous Older Women’s Voices, an interdisciplinary, multi-sited project concerned with reframing the way in which being elderly is understood through engaging with alternative ways of perceiving ageing and care in Tayal indigenous and other cultural contexts. With a background in political science, Wasiq initially felt invigorated when employing a critical ethnography approach. However, despite sharing certain societal concerns, she found indigenous studies to be the most inclusive discipline in terms of epistemology. Within indigenous studies, the space to radically re-think, adapt and decolonise research in order to really listen to the voices of indigenous people and ontologies is far greater than it is in other disciplines, such as anthropology.  

Wasiq: I personally find ethnography very refreshing! And I think that is because I was trained in political science. So, [during my training] there was this tension in the application of these grand theories to local events. In many ways, I think a lot of the topics that ethnographers care about resonate with indigenous researchers. It’s just that there’s a way about doing things which is different. There are a lot of Western scientific ontologies that we [indigenous studies scholars] criticise. However, I think ethnography could be an exception because ethnographers are doing something that they think is critical, so we can work together in one way or another. In that sense, there are other methodologies that are further away, like those in political science. 

Despite remaining critical of ethnography, Wasiq points to the potential for ethnographic methodologies to adopt alternative ontological perspectives when compared to the methods used in other mainstream academic disciplines. Indeed, all three scholars emphasised a sense of the inherent flexibility of ethnography – regarding its ability to be moulded to fit vastly different research contexts. The terms research participants and collaboration have already been mentioned. These terms give an example of how ethnography has changed over the years: rather than referring to the people who take part in a study as ‘informants’ (as was once common), researchers are increasingly using the word ‘participant’. This shift in discourse signals a recognition of agency for those involved in academic research, an important point that Cris, Nina and Wasiq all touched upon, albeit by referencing different perspectives. In pressing on this point, I wanted to address the potential conflicts that may arise from this recognition of agency in ethnographic fieldwork. 

Collaboration or Complicity?

Question: A strong case has been made to further include ethnographic participants as research collaborators. However, can this approach be adopted in all research contexts? Furthermore, how can we, as researchers, negotiate alternative ontologies in cases where one’s own positionality and identity may cause conflict? 

Nina: Oh, I am a strong believer in collaborative research. It is a very valuable way to conduct ethnomusicological research. Certainly, it helps to level the power asymmetries. It is not always easy, though. It requires a lot of willingness to leave behind some of those things which, in academia, belong in a longstanding tradition. Indeed, in academia, there are quite set ideas of how to go about ‘doing’ ethnographic research, but collaborators may have their own ideas! They have their own wishes and expectations of what they want from the research, and their own ideas of what they want to do. In many ways, we researchers come to the field with our ethnographic ‘tools’ that we use to approach certain contexts, but every setting is different. One should not think that it is easy. One must be willing to change course. Especially in terms of things, like, what are the research outcomes going to be? As researchers, we typically want to publish. Yet for our interlocutors, they may wish for the research to help them build an archive or to inform the public about what they do musically. The question in collaborative research then becomes a matter of how we go about combining these aspects.   

And no, this approach cannot be used in every context. One’s interlocutors might not be interested in collaboration, or they might not have the time for it. In my case, they are often busy musicians! Everyone is living their own lives. Perhaps the answer would be that it should be implemented in contexts where that – collaborative research – is the initial idea, the premise.   

Added question: Some ethnographers would challenge this question in asking, who do you ask to collaborate? In asking one person or a group, are you excluding others? There may be other interests or power relations within a certain space. So, how is that managed?  

That can be very true in some cases. When I collaborated with members of The Quba Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies in Philadelphia, which is an independent Islamic day school, learning centre for adults and a mosque, the research team together decided that the community members would conduct the filming and most of the interviews. Because, of course, as for ethnographers and anthropologists, the question is, ‘whose voice’ is audible/visible? In shaping the fieldwork in this way, we were conscious of the camera as a very powerful tool, that the ethnographer utilises in choosing what to film – to be managed by the community.    

A black and white picture of raised hands in a crowd

Photo: Luis Quintero,

Cris: [This argument] comes out of the context of increasing concern with research ethics and the change in the vocabulary of anthropologists. We used to talk of research subjects or informants, but now the discursive shift has renamed them ‘research participants.’ This sort of ethos originates from postcolonial critics and writers like Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Her book decolonising methodologies (1999) is on every research method reading list now. Linda argues that for Māori, ‘research’ is the dirtiest word in the English language. I know where this ethos comes from, but many people take that assumption and conclude that the ‘logical’ solution is for anthropologists to work in partnership with research collaborators so that research and writing become a co-authoring process.  

I applaud the sentiment. You should always treat the people with whom you work with huge respect, and I think anthropologists do, mostly. But this argument is deeply flawed, and it assumes an outdated vision of what anthropology is or how ethnography works. Implicit in that assumption is this idea that the anthropologist is invariably the more powerful partner in that relationship. You [the anthropologist] are studying down and […] the process and the project would be more ethical and democratic if people were included as fully blown participants. It also relates to the discourse that says ethnography is invariably tainted because it is all about taking people’s stories and making your own career off the back of others.  

What’s wrong with that assumption? Firstly, most anthropologists don’t work in that kind of environment. Most are working in contexts that you might define as, ‘at Home’. And if you’re studying the organisations which really do shape contemporary society, you are studying ‘Up’. The idea that you must make these organisations or their leaders (for example, politicians, managers, government officials, CEOs), research partners is unrealistic. You just wouldn’t be able to write anything, as you’d be giving these people veto over what you say or do. Even if you were studying, let’s say, a village in rural Italy or somewhere similar and you said, ‘Yep, I’m not going to be this objectivising person writing about their experience and their lives, I’m going to include them as full partners, full authors,’ that would still be problematic. The first thing anyone who does fieldwork in these kinds of community contexts would realise is that communities are riven with internal conflicts, competing interests and old animosities. So who are you going to include as your research participants in your collaborative, co-authored study? If you include one group and not the others, you’re just amplifying their viewpoint and excluding others.  

A photo of tall buildings

Photo: Pixabay

From a different line of thought, Wasiq drew upon her 2021 collaborative project, entitled ‘Coming of age in indigenous communities: ageing, quality of life and home-based elderly care in Sápmi and Atayal region’. Upon reflection, Wasiq discusses the oftentimes difficult intersection between mainstream feminist theory and regional indigenous ontologies. In the larger SamiCare1 project, Wasiq and her co-writers were able to further nuance this discussion while remaining critical of their positionality as researchers and indigenous scholars.  

Wasiq: In my experience, in talking with indigenous women and in indigenous studies, we have this strong idea that women’s indigenous voices should be heard. Women’s voices are legitimate voices. And this is because when we [academics] are talking about indigenous knowledge or indigenous wisdom, we are often talking about indigenous male wisdom rather than indigenous female wisdom or experience. For example, if we’re talking about hunting or traditional practices, these are often male-dominated experiences. As such, there’s not as much discussion of connecting with the land, which is more of a female experience. So, when I said to my research participants, ‘Oh, what you are doing is indigenous feminism!’, they were perplexed and didn’t quite know where I was coming from. Moreover, when we’re talking about feminism in the context of Taiwan, the discourse references this imported feminist ideology from the US, which is a very white and middle-class, urban-based version of feminism. An indigenous woman might have a vastly different way of achieving a certain goal, but because of social and historical experiences, this nuance gets lost if I call what she does feminism. In that sense, I’m also asking myself: how do I respect where they are coming from, and how do I say such things in a right and respectful way? It’s an on-going negotiation. We might not get it right on the first try, but we try again and make it an on-going process.  

When considering collaboration, I’m reminded of the methodology that I used with my Norwegian/Sami collaborators in my previous project, where we used photo-voice as a way of trying to transform the ‘participant’ or ‘informant’ into partners. What we did was, we asked our partners to take a photo around a certain theme. This prompt might be, what makes you feel safe? or what is a Good Life for you? In asking this, we were mapping out what a Good Life means for them. But rather than ask and record an answer, we visited them more than twice and looked at their picture, together. So, it was not just text-based but visual. In doing so, they can use these images to help answer what it is that they are feeling. In essence, what we researchers did was try to amplify their voice rather than interpret it. I think this goes together with what Linda Tuhiwai Smith talks about. Even though we are doing decolonial research, the dynamic of who these people are is still unchanged. You, as the researcher, are still very much up in the pentagon of knowledge and you shouldn’t be! I think the researchers and people who are privileged with these tools need to be humble, no? To really help and elevate different forms of knowledge and different forms of epistemologies through, for example, using new tools such as photo-voice. We are still only at the beginning of thinking how we can put this into words.  

The same question prompts different feelings both on the change in discourse and the ethics that are expected from the researcher when working with their research participants. The notion of power – who has it and what kind of authority it emits – is central. In Cris’s case, the idea of doing collaborative research may not only remove all power from the researcher but strip away any ability to be critical. However, for Nina and Wasiq, collaboration is essential. As Nina noted, the connection between researcher and participant can be fragile due to an existing history of trauma through the way in which their voices have been represented:  

Nina: There are, in the world, sacred spaces and the knowledge that communities possess within such spaces should not be made public (unless said community wishes to make it public). We [researchers] should not expect to be able to access it, either. In my dissertation, I wrote about my research in African American church communities and how I, as a researcher, had to consider that I represented an academic research tradition which has a problematic past. A past in which white American and European scholars went into African American communities because they wanted to study some social ‘“problems’ or conduct unethical research, like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Therefore, I was very aware of my positionality as a researcher and as a European white woman. 

Photograph of Participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Photograph of Participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Public Health Service. Tuskegee Syphilis Study. 4/11/1953-1972

The struggle of representation within African American communities during the late 19th and 20th centuries is a tragic period for anthropological and sociological research (Painter, 2010). Yet, as Wasiq points out, this trauma of representation continues to occur to this day. Thus, it is important to acknowledge that this article discusses the issues from a particularly ‘elite’ starting point. That is, how do highly qualified university researchers do research? Yet, the implications of reordering the relationship between researcher and researched has implications for authority figures within other institutions, as well. As Wasiq elaborates, the process of adapting alternative ontologies extends into ‘everyday’ interactions between indigenous or marginalised citizens and the State. 

Decolonising Ethnography 

Question: Mogstad and Tse (2018) argue, as do others, that there are places where anthropologists, ethnographers and researchers are simply not welcome due to a pervasive trauma of representation that has taken place over the centuries. How do you approach such a claim/have you encountered this in your own work? 

Wasiq: It is a problematic intervention when the ethnographers come in and try to interpret your culture and capitalise on their observations without coming back. This kind of intervention makes me agree with these authors, and maybe such scholars can think of other places to go. It’s quite traumatic. I can think about what has happened in Taiwan, as there used to be a lot of researchers coming in, and they explained [that] the short life expectancy of indigenous people was due to indigenous peoples so-called ‘irresponsible behaviour’. These authors are not trying to solve the problem, but rather make people the problem. Unfortunately, this is now a perception of research from the collaborators point of view. From my perspective, you must see that indigenous societies and cultures are not living in a vacuum. We interact with the outside world. Therefore, it is necessary that we work together and welcome those researchers who want to wholeheartedly contribute to the decolonial goal. They can come in. But for those superficial people who are not genuine … we must come up with a cultural protocol where we must be explicit in addressing these researchers and demand from them, that if they come in, they must respect these things. This is something that indigenous researchers could emphasise when working with non-indigenous researchers in order to cement certain ground rules. But ultimately, it is important to work together so we can advance the interests of the communities and reach new directions.  

For example, in social work. How do we decolonise social work? Social workers are very much needed and there are a lot of social workers in our communities; we cannot say no to them, as we are playing the same taxes and are therefore entitled to the same support as any other citizen. But, at the same time, we do not want them to come in and discriminate based on our indigeneity. Like, ‘let me tell you how to integrate into the wonderful life of being Han Chinese!’ No! I do not want this type of social worker. Instead, I want a social worker who understands where we are and works together and helps us achieve the goals which we want. 

Again, both Nina and Wasiq present anecdotes in which the meaning of collaboration is truly empowering and reshapes the classic hierarchy of research and can radically alter the philosophy of, in Wasiq’s case, social work. Yet, one can see the situational nature of this type of discussion. In Cris’s case, the argument for the critical researcher’s voice remains integral. 

Cris: I got criticised by a very well-known anthropologist who said, ‘I don’t know how you can talk about university managers like that. You are so dismissive of them. I’ve never heard of an account that was so derogatory towards your informants, your participants’. I was quite surprised to hear that, because I’m not talking about a community or group; I’m writing about a system that causes violence to the people below. And if I’m trying to do a critique of it, it’s not a personal attack on individuals but it’s a structural, systemic thing in the organisation of a workplace being reshaped by neoliberalism and capitalism. But, of course, there are some areas where I do a lot of self-censorship. There’s a lot I’ve discovered that I just think, ‘I won’t write about that’. It may be revelatory, but you don’t need to show where all the bodies are buried. It’s good to shine a light on systems and processes and structures, but I think you must be a bit cautious if in doing so you know that it will impact negatively on individuals. Ultimately, ‘do no harm’ should be a guiding motto.  

Current debates on the ethics of doing ethnographic research are not easy. For the early-stage ethnographer, they can feel debilitating. Yet, the above interviews highlight the importance of context and how it is central to the way in which power is revealed and negotiated.  

Whether studying ‘Up’ or ‘Down’, as the quote from Cris used in the title suggests, there are certain spaces that cannot be touched in the same immersive fashion of the classic ethnographers like Malinowski. When studying ‘elite’ spaces and institutions, the ethnographic concept of the field stretches into a different space. In other words, ethnographers interested in studying ‘Up’ are increasingly working undercover.  

Yet, for those ethnographers who do opt to ‘pitch their tent’ in more conventional field sites, many may find themselves barred from such spaces. In such cases, rather than force their way in, ethnographers must adapt. Like Nina discusses, ethnographers must re-consider the aim of their research, to make it worthwhile to those who they wish to study. Moreover, the willingness to address the uneasiness felt within the legacy of many ethnographic 20th-century giants show the promise of ethnography to continue being critical. It is a matter of ‘Staying with the Trouble’ (Haraway, 2016). In that, through embracing our ‘response-ability’ (Haraway, 2016) as researchers by undertaking new forms of collaboration, we continue to recreate one another so to become something new. As a closing statement, this line of thought was further echoed by Wasiq: 

Wasiq: We are both in the social sciences. Sometimes it is a very narrow space. There is a lot of normalising of what social science could be and should be. This is accepted by a certain standardisation, which is set by notions objectivity and other sets of Western ideals that explain what makes ‘good science’. I think the methods developed in indigenous studies could be very transformative. But there’s still a long way to go. Of course, a lot depends on the culture that is cultivated in specific research institutes and how much researchers could do transdisciplinary research, such as what we are doing here. With an open mind, there might be a new way of doing social science that [can be] combined with indigenous methodologies, especially when it comes to the world that we are living in, with climate challenges and sustainability issues. So, with different disciplines and those methodologies found in indigenous studies, I think it could be quite a push for a new way to think about the same old problems but in a different light.  

Lois Watt is a master’s student in social and cultural anthropology at the University of Helsinki and a former research intern at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (autumn/winter, 2022). Her current research concerns the practice of open water swimming (otherwise known as ‘wild swimming’) in the Northeast of Scotland. The research project takes a specific interest in the intersections of gender, place-making and the more-thanhuman encounters experienced within sporting communities.  


De Castro, E. V. (1998). “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4(3). 469–488.  

Delgado Rosa, F. & Vermeulen, H. (2022) “Before and After Malinowski: Alternative Views on the History of Anthropology [A Virtual Round Table at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, 7 July 2022]” BEROSE Publisher  

Haraway, D. J. (2016) Staying with the trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Malinowski, B. (1999) Argonauts of the Western Pacific: an account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge. 

Mogstad, H. & Tse, L. (2018) “Decolonizing Anthropology: Reflections from Cambridge.” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 36(2). 53–72.  

Munkejord, M.; Hætta, S.; Eira, J.; Glæver, A.; Henriksen, J.E.; Mehus, G.; Ness, T. & Silan, W. (2021) Coming of age in indigenous communities: ageing, quality of life and home-based elderly care in Sápmi and Atayal region Vadsø, Norge: Susannefoto Forlag. 

Painter, N. I. (2010) The History of White people. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton. 

Said, E. W. (1979) Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books. 

Smith, L. T. (1999) Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books. 





HCAS 20 years – The June 2022 Anniversary Celebration in pictures

(Photos by Veikko Somerpuro)

HCAS interns standing at the main doors of the University of Helsinki Festive Hall

The Festive Hall of the University of Helsinki is ready for the HCAS Anniversary Celebration (June 15, 2022, 2 pm)


Audience members walk down the steps to take their seats in the hall.

Audience arriving to the Festive Hall


From the left: HCAS Deputy Director Hanne Appelqvist, Prof. Sari Kivistö (Former Director of HCAS), Prof. Sami Pihlström (Former Director of HCAS), Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum, HCAS Director Tuomas Forsberg


Prof. Morten Kyndrup (HCAS Advisory Board Member, former president of UBIAS, former Executive Director of the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies)


A string quartet play in the festive hall.

Meta4 performing Jaakko Kuusisto’s “Play III for String Quartet, Op. 21” (Antti Tikkanen, violin; Tomas Djupsjöbacka, cello; Atte Kilpeläinen, viola; Minna Pensola, violin)


A host addresses the room and another stands next to them.

The hosts of the celebration, HCAS Fellows Sean Griffin and Kinga Polynczuk-Alenius


Director of HCAS, Tuomas Forsberg, giving a speech at the celebration.

Director Tuomas Forsberg welcoming the audience


Prof. Morten Kyndrup addresses the audience.

Prof. Morten Kyndrup’s anniversary greeting

(Prof. Kyndrup’s speech has been published on this blog at

Vice Dean Minna Palander-Collin addresses the audience from the podium.

Vice Rector Hanna Snellman’s address was delivered by Vice Dean Minna Palander-Collin (Former Director of HCAS)


Professor Sami Pihlström introducing the keynote speaker Martha C. Nussbaum

Prof. Sami Pihlström (Former Director of HCAS) introducing the keynote speaker Martha C. Nussbaum


Professor Martha Nussbaum giving a speech from the podium.

Professor Martha Nussbaum giving the keynote address “Music and the Costs of War: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Bodies, and Reconciliation”


A front view of Professor Martha Nussbaum.

Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum at the podium


A twelve person choir sing during an interval.

The Academic Choral Society performing after the keynote address


Former Jane and Aatos Erkko Visiting Professors Jane Cowan and Molly Andrews


Members of the audience begin to leave the hall.

Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum, Deputy Director Hanne Appelqvist and Director Tuomas Forsberg on their way to the reception


The choir sign to the guests during a reception.

The Academic Choral Society singing the new drinking song of the Collegium celebrating freedom to think


At the reception


Three people discuss at a table with coffee.

Professor Emeritus, Academician, Chancellor Emeritus Ilkka Niiniluoto, Docent Elina Kahla and Chancellor Emeritus Kari Raivio at the reception


A photo of Professor Martha C. Nussbaum and Professor Sami Pihlström

Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum and Prof. Sami Pihlström


Guests at the reception reading posters presenting current research of HCAS Fellows


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 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. 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.


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,

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.

The Content of Our Character: Coming to terms with Racist roots.

By Keith Brown

The recent debate at the University of Helsinki around the beloved Finnish boardgame Star of Africa—and in particular how to respond when cherished family traditions turn out to be vehicles for the unwitting transmission of racist stereotypes—hit home for me.  I have my own warm memories from growing up in England, playing games like the 1938 Buccaneer or the 1965 Mine-a-Million where the goal was to bring riches home from exotic locations.

We didn’t ever talk about race and racism. It wasn’t, after all, a life and death issue for my parents or for me—the way it is, so immediately, for black families in the United States. I knew nothing about sundown towns or “the talk” that most black parents have with their children, in the hope it will save their lives when—not if—they are stopped by police officers.

Instead, I enjoyed the privilege of obliviousness. As we played those games, or when the stick-figure battle scenes I drew included British soldiers fighting off Zulu attackers, neither my teachers nor my parents took it as an opportunity or an imperative to discuss the ways in which the modern world, and our own privileged position in it, was the product of resource-transfers and ideologies of white entitlement that were shaped by conquest and colonialism. Like most of the enthusiastic British audience of the still-popular feature film Zulu, which tells the story of the heroic defense of Rorke’s Drift, I never asked, or was asked, what exactly the British army was doing in the middle of Africa.

“The defence of Rorke’s Drift” (1879), Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

50 years on, even after studying for a doctorate in anthropology and teaching international relations and global studies for almost two decades, I still have a lot to learn. That’s been especially clear to me over the past decade, as a naturalized U.S. citizen witnessing the heightened political polarization that followed the election of the country’s first black President. And even more so, watching the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 2021 and the disinformation that preceded and followed it.

Crowd at the Capitol, January 2021. Wikimedia commons.

I say witnessing and watching, because even though my wife and daughter are American-born, I have maintained the illusion that my English roots make me an observer, rather than participant, in America’s long struggle with its racist roots.  Graduate school room-mates in Chicago had to instruct me on the significance of Harold Washington’s legacy as the city’s first black mayor. And it was later still that I came to appreciate the distinctive legacy of Martin Luther King; both his commitment to non-violence, and his dream that future Americans would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I still struggle to understand how anyone of good conscience can support action or speech that opposes those values. I know that some people, wittingly or not, do; but I’ve imagined that they and I have little or nothing in common.

And then, last month a letter I found in my parents’ flat shattered my illusions of innocence. Sorting through my late father’s papers, I found an envelope, postmarked Albany, Georgia, USA, and addressed to my great-grandfather, H.J. Decker, in Liverpool, England. Inside was a ten-page handwritten letter from his father-in-law, W.H. Gilbert, bearing the date July 20 1912. And on the very first skim through, on the penultimate page, two sentences stood out, which included the names of H.J. Decker’s wife and W.H.Gilbert’s daughter (Maud), and H.J.’s daughter and my beloved grandmother, after whom we named my own daughter (Chloe). Those sentences first bound me intimately to the sender and recipient, by naming the person we knew in common; and then repelled me. “Give lots of love and kisses to Maud and the kids,” writes W.H. Gilbert. And then, breezily, with no inkling of how his choice of words might resound decades later, “What did Chloe think of the postcard I sent her? ‘N***** in a cotton patch.’”

I had known that my grandmother Chloe was born in Georgia and spent significant time there in her youth. I recall also that, early in my teaching career in anthropology, she and I had at least one conversation about race, in which I tried to articulate to her the value of cline theory in helping students understand that racial boundaries are not inscribed in biological difference, but are rather culturally and socially constructed. We didn’t agree.  And perhaps for that reason, our conversations tended to focus on the more exotic and glamorous side of her family heritage; her Russian émigré grandparents, H.J. Decker’s parents, who left Moscow soon after their 1861 wedding to settle in Liverpool.

Gilbert-Decker-Brown Family tree. Graphic: Anita Mezza.

As Canadian-Scottish journalist Alex Renton discussed in the context of his recent book Blood Legacy, doing family history is not about passing judgement on our ancestors’ characters. It represents the opportunity and the debt we owe our elders to pay attention to the clues they leave behind, as we struggle to try to leave the world better than we found it for our children. I treat this letter, then, as a gift handed down through 3 generations, and seek to honor the legacy by trying to understand what they are telling me. I take as the core challenge—still relevant in these polarized times—to explain how good people embrace and pass on bad ideas.

The Experience of Combat

The start of Gilbert’s letter emphasizes an aspect of life that evokes our enduring curiosity and interest. Gilbert expresses as his goal to provide “a little history of my war experiences” on which, he hopes, his son-in-law H.J. can “elaborate… and make it interesting to your soldier boys over there.”

The opening of the letter.

In 1912, H.J. was a commissioned officer in Britain’s Territorial Force, established in 1908 as an Army reserve. His day job was as a cotton broker—the profession he had entered direct from Sedbergh School in 1890, and which had brought him across the Atlantic to the American South almost every summer. In the course of multiple visits to Albany, he and Gilbert had surely had prior conversations about combat, and H.J. had now solicited a written narrative that he could share with the young soldiers in the artillery unit that he would go on to command during the First World War (1914-18).

British artillerymen in combat, World War I. Image: UBC Library Digitization Centre, no restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gilbert’s narrative ties me back to the US Civil War (1861-65)—and specifically, to the Confederacy of eleven Southern states which broke from the North after the election of President Abraham Lincoln. W.H. Gilbert enlisted as a volunteer in Georgia in April 1861, at the rank of private. The letter provides a chronology of his active service, listing sixteen “big battles” in which he participated, including 2nd Manassas (Bull Run, August 1862), Sharpsburg (Antietam, September 1862) and Gettysburg (July 1863). Reflecting on his extended service, Gilbert marvels at the charmed life he enjoyed for so long, and reports the moment his luck ran out.  “I guess I was engaged in about 40 battles and skirmishes during the four years, and I assume you don’t see how I came out as well as I did, for I rarely ever went into one that something about me was struck with a ball. Clothes, cartridge box, cap, haversack or something, and I had about concluded I would escape sound and all right, but the 12th of May 1864 I lost my foot as you know, and has been a drawback to me all through life.”

Luck and loss.

The letter includes other details of the experience of war.  He recalls the hardship of life on short rations, especially in the campaign leading up to Antietam, which other veterans also described as the ‘Green Corn Campaign.’”  He recalls the carnage of the battlefield at the 2nd Manassas, where “…we met a Brigade of Red Pants, …, Zouaves, and when the battle was over, one could walk full length of the Brigade on red britches, I never saw such a destruction of life in my life, red britches were discarded after then for they made too good a target.”  He speaks proudly of his own and his fellow-soldiers’ resilience and undertaking long forced marches where he saw “many a soldier marching without a shoe on and almost without clothing.”

Image: A.C. Redwood, Courtesy, New York Public Library, Digital Collections.

He mentions crossing the Potomac after Gettysburg, when ”water came up to my armpits and we tall men had to float the little fellows over.” And the experience of sleeping in the open, utterly exhausted, and waking up to find the camp was blanketed with snow.  These vivid, telling details are the common stuff of military memoirs, recalling comradeship, horror and a sense for the suffering and loss on both sides.

Trauma, Heroism and Impossible Odds

Understandably, Gilbert’s writing dwells in particular on his own personal trauma. He was at the “Horseshoe”—a defensive position designed to exact heavy losses on Northern attackers during the Battle of the Spotsylvania Courthouse—when he lost his foot. After first mentioning his injury, Gilbert then refers to the wound and its long-term negative effects four times in the course of ten sentences. He also reports his brother’s death at the fall of Petersburg (March 1865).

Apart from these intimate losses, and the description of piled bodies at the 2nd Manassas, the only other death he describes in the letter is Stonewall Jackson’s, in May 1863. Gilbert had already praised Jackson’s leadership, drive and inventiveness, and devotes extended time to the moment that he, like others, saw as a tragic turning point for the war effort.

Stonewall Jackson – as remembered and mourned. Image: John Esten Cooke, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The day he was killed, or wounded and died from his wounds, at Chancellorsville, he marched us 23 miles by 2 o’clock on a flank movement and we drove the enemy 3 miles by nightfall, with a terrible loss to them in killed and wounded, and we captured around 4000 prisoners and 16 pieces of artillery and that night he lost his life, which in my opinion broke the back of the Confederacy, because we never could fill his place.

Gilbert’s focus and tone, up to this point in the letter, highlight how the Confederate army’s prowess, combined with its leaders’ skill and cunning, brought early battlefield success. From this moment on though, the letter’s tone shifts, emphasizing that Confederate bravery and skill is not enough to overcome their foes’ superiority in numbers. On the first day of Gettysburg, he writes, “Our brigade drove the enemy through the wheatfield and city and our casualties were very small, but we gave them a terrible loss, but of course we could not hold it, for the odds were too great.”

“Harvest of death” – Gettysburg after the battle. Image: Timothy H. O’Sullivan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

And when reflecting on the larger course of the war, later in the letter, he inserts an observation about the ultimate reason for the war’s outcome. “I shall always believe that had Jackson lived, we could have gone into Washington from Gettysburg” he writes. But then he adds, “I don’t think we could have held it, for the reason we fought the entire world, capturing a good many who could not speak a word of English.”

This comment is consistent with data on the significant role of first-generation immigrants in the Union Army.  Most historians of the Civil War also agree that Jackson’s battlefield leadership was charismatic and dynamic; that Robert E. Lee was a highly effective general; that Gettysburg marked the decisive turning point of the war. Once the Confederate attempt to enlist foreign assistance against the Union failed, the industrial and numerical superiority of the North was bound to prevail in the war of attrition.

“Lost cause” and preserved convictions

Gilbert then builds on these data points—derived from his own intimate and immediate experiences of combat—with a reflection that is more open to question.  He first makes what looks like a straightforward statement in favor of peaceful negotiation over deadly war, writing “I had enough fighting then to last me up to date and a poor settlement is better than one fight.”  He then shares with H.J. his larger perspective on the causes of the war in which he lost so much, writing:

“There never was a war as useless…”

There never was a war in my opinion that was as useless as ours, for by listening to reason and common sense, of such men as B.H. Hill and Alex Stephens matters could have been amiably (sic) settled. And to the best interest of all. For slavery was a doomed institution and could have been abolished gradually, without a drop of blood being shed, but hot-headed politicians inflamed the people with their fire-eating speeches and the people went wild, and into war we plunged head fore-most.

The two men referred to here as champions of “reason” and “common sense” were both professional Georgian politicians. In the run-up to war in the 1850s, both had opposed secession on grounds of Southern self-interest. Both held office during the Confederacy—Benjamin Hill as senator, and Alex Stephens as vice-president. Both were jailed after the war before returning to public life and elected office.  They were both fierce critics of the ideas and practices of Reconstruction—the period of 1865-1877 in which serious and sustained efforts were made to undo systems of racial inequality across the South.

In Dreams of a More Perfect Union, Rogan Kersh offers a close reading of Benjamin Harvey Hall’s strongly worded critique of the impacts of Reconstruction in Georgia, delivered in speech at Atlanta’s Davis Hall in 1867 and reiterated in the widely circulated “Notes on the Situation.” He disputed the war’s victors’ claim to represent the Union, insisting instead that “This is not the Union of our fathers. This is, emphatically, a Reconstructed Union.” Hill told his Southern audience that both during the conflict and in its immediate aftermath, they had been targets of “a diabolical sectionalism in the very teeth of every principle of the American Union” (cited in Kersh 2001: 198).  In Kersh’s analysis, Hill advanced a vision of the Union with “space for southerners to manage local affairs, and particularly to determine the status of blacks in the region” (2001: 222).

In 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens laid out what was at stake for the South in his “Cornerstone” speech. Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd, he made the tendentious claim that the Founding Fathers’ criticisms of slavery as a violation of natural law were mistaken. Their error, in Stephens’ argument, was the cause of the political crisis of the Republic, and the government’s fall.  In the same logical vein, he labels abolitionists as fanatics who demonstrate a “species of insanity” because, “they were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.” Invoking divine authority, Stephens asserts that the new Confederate constitution would correct this fatal flaw.

Writing after Stephens’ death in 1883, A Macon Telegraph writer recalled that Stephens “always prided himself on what he called his “corner-stone” speech, wherein he declared slavery the great corner-stone of the new republic.” Kersh describes Stephens’s post-war views as demonstrating “warmed-over confederate doctrines” (Kersh 2001: 221). An example of Stephens’ revised language but unchanged mindset appears in his 1868 A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States, in which he claimed that the labor system in place in the antebellum South was “so-called” slavery, which in his words “was not Slavery in the full and proper sense of that word” but was rather “a legal subordination of the African to the Caucasian race” (1868: 539).

In his choice of figures to praise, and in the statement that slavery was an insufficient reason for the war, Gilbert tacitly endorses what numerous historians—including Gaines Foster, Gary W. Gallagher,  Alan T. Nolan, David Blight and Nicole Maurantonio—identify as Lost Cause mythology. By denying that slavery was the sectional issue, Lost Cause ideology painted the South as the true heirs of the Constitution and the North as the aggressors. Lost Cause ideology continues to distort U.S. understandings of the past, and underpins contemporary racism. When Gilbert refers to “hot-headed politicians” with their “fire-eating speeches”, it is possible that he is thinking primarily of abolitionists like John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison, whose actions and speeches in the 1850s were widely seen by Southerners as both treasonous and anti-Southern, thus affirming the perspective that the Confederacy preserved what was “best” in the Constitution.  It may also be a more general attack at Republic politicians—starting from Lincoln himself, and including those advocates of post-war Reconstruction—whom Gilbert viewed as posing a threat to his America.

“The Lost Cause”, Henry Mosler (1868). Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lost inheritance, and Recovered Status

W.H. Gilbert’s combat experience, clearly, was formative in shaping his worldview. So too, it appears, was his family background. In post-war census records, he is identified as a druggist, so a medical professional. His father, John B. Gilbert, is identified in the 1850 and 1860 censuses as a physician. In the year before his son W.H. Gilbert enlisted, John Gilbert’s real estate was valued at $19,500, and his personal estate at $42,950 (or around $650,000 and $1.4 million respectively, for a total worth of just over $2 million, in 2021 equivalents).

The high value of his personal estate was a function not of John Gilbert’s medical practice, but a second profession also listed in the census: farmer. Like many white families in the territory referred to as the “Black Belt,” the Gilberts derived income from cotton farming. In this regard, John B. Gilbert’s prosperity was a product of rapid transformation between the 1780s and 1830s, as state leadership encouraged settlers to invest in lands expropriated from the Cherokee and Muskogee nations. John Gilbert was born in Crawfordville, Georgia in 1814, just three years after Alex Stephens, who returned to the town to live out his old age at Liberty Hall. John Gilbert achieved financial security by moving north into territory made available by the 1830 Indian Removal Act. His personal estate valuation includes enslaved men and women: the slave registers for Lee County in both 1850 and 1860 identify John B. Gilbert as the titular owner of 26 (unnamed) people—almost certainly the labor force on a medium-sized cotton plantation.

Excerpt from the 1850 slave register of the US Federal Census, Lee County, Georgia, with entries #14-26 of unnamed enslaved people, in John B. Gilbert’s legal ownership.

John B. Gilbert died in January 1864, while his sons W.H. Gilbert and Rudolph were still on active service. He therefore did not live to see the break-up of the plantation which had depended on the labor of enslaved people. Most likely, the Gilberts’ land in Lee County  followed the evolution of the estates around Albany that W.E.B.Dubois describes so vividly from a visit in at the turn of the century in the Souls of Black Folk, when he found scenes of “…phantom gates and falling homes… all dilapidated and half ruined” (Du Bois 1903/2007, 86). Mindful of historical change and conscious of the wars waged against the indigenous owners, the violence of the plantation system, and also of the asset-stripping that followed the Civil War, Dubois invokes an image of biblical retribution. “This was indeed the Egypt of the Confederacy,” he writes, as if mindful of Gilbert’s own recollections of campaigning, “the rich granary whence potatoes and corn and cotton poured out to the famished and ragged Confederate troops as they battled for a cause lost long before 1861” (ibid., 86).

W.H. Gilbert, though, parlayed this lost inheritance into a new venture, entering politics with some success.  He took a prominent role in veterans’ organizations, serving as president of survivors of the 4th Georgia Regiment. The Macon Telegraph reported from an 1893 reunion that Gilbert, now holding the rank of Captain, “carries more than one scar to attest his courage upon the field.”  He drew on his war record, and his father’s former standing, to win election as a city alderman as early as 1870, aged 26, before serving five year-long terms as Mayor of Albany, in 1885 and then from 1891-1895.

Example of Confederate Memorial day celebrations from Brunswick, Georgia, 1903. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This family letter, then, is not just the reflection of an old war veteran, sharing experience down the generations with the young soldiers whom his son-in-law will lead to war in France within two years. It also offers a glimpse of a world, which venerated Confederate bravery and gallantry in defense of true American values against all enemies. It reveals that early this century white Southern voters continued to elect officials who believed in the justice of the cause for which they had sacrificed and who read and endorsed authors who maintained and propagated white supremacist ideologies.

Historical voices, contemporary echoes

And finally, Gilbert’s letter shows how ideas about racial stereotypes get passed on without anyone really paying attention. We don’t know for sure exactly what Chloe’s postcard from her doting grandfather looked like. Most likely, it followed the genre used in advertising and other representations of the time, showing black people alongside cotton, usually smiling or at ease. The message such images intended to convey was of a world where people knew where they belonged and were happy in their work. That image of the south stuck with Chloe throughout her life.

A hundred years later, we have the freedom and the responsibility to interpret images like these, and this letter that draws our attention to them, differently. Thanks to a wealth of scholarly and creative works which document the stubbornness of racism in American institutions–including for example Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Carol Anderson’s White Rage and Ana DuVerney’s 13th, we can see more clearly the reality behind them and put them into context. Gilbert’s letter, penned by a Georgia veteran, contains virtually every element of Lost Cause ideology identified by historians writing since the 1960s. We can, for example, examine the words of the leaders of the Southern States on the eve of the Civil War, and acknowledge that they were not simply defending state rights but advocating for the further extension of slavery. In works like the 1999 book Without Sanctuary, we can readily access postcards of lynchings that circulated widely alongside the one W.H. Gilbert sent his grand-daughter Chloe. Lynchings increased in numbers in the 1890s, a horrific and direct means of enforcing what data-driven analysis of that period identifies as “an intricate and complex system of racial subordination”.

W.H. Gilbert’s postcard to Chloe was also part of that system. So too were public monuments that sprang up across the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the formation and spread of the Ku Klux Klan, and the continued display of the Confederate battle-flag, whether on display at my great grandfather’s grave in Albany, or on the shoulders of self-styled patriots inside the U.S. Capitol on January 6 2021.

W.H. Gilbert’s gravestone, Albany, Georgia. Image: Brenda Arnett Darbyshire.

When I shared with a colleague at the University of Helsinki my discovery of an enslaver in my own family tree, they responded by saying “so, I guess you’re going to cancel yourself.”  I hope that they are wrong. What I hope instead is to prompt reflection on the legacies of the past. I believe that we best honor our ancestors’ voices by allowing them, and ourselves, the space to be wrong, and to aspire to a more just, equitable future. We stand a better chance of doing so by paying close attention to what they inherited, and what they–and we–choose to pass on.


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi (2013) Americanah. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Allen, James (1999) Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Santa Fe: Twin Palms Press.

Anderson, Carol (2016) White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury Books.

Du Bois, W. B. E. (1903/2007) The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DuVerney, Ava (2016) 13th. Kandoo FIlms.

Gallagher, Gary W. and Alan T. Nolan (2000) The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Hill, Benjamin Harvey (1867/1893) Notes on the Situation. In Hill, Benjamin H (Jr.) Senator Benjamin H. Hill: His Life, Speeches and Writings. Atlanta: T.H.P. Bloodworth.

Kersh, Roger (2001) Dreams of a More Perfect Union. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stephens, Alexander (1868)  A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States. Philadelphia: National Publishing Company.