On a morning in the autumn of 2007, I found myself sitting in the back of a crammed seminar room among the other freshmen and -women and was just about to have my very first encounter with European Ethnology. I have to confess that my knowledge about the exact content of the program of study I was just embarking upon was at this moment, euphemistically speaking, rather limited. In retrospect it actually feels much more like I had somehow stumbled into this room by accident.
Admittedly, not the best starting conditions.
Yet, today – a little bit over ten years later -I am still engaged in and am still learning new things about European Ethnology and I want to explain to you now how and why this had happened.
Thinking back to the beginnings, back in 2007, I suppose the word ‘daunting’ would be most fitting to describe my initial impression of the immensity of literature and research in the humanities. How many lives would you need to read all this? Is it even possible? Also, why on earth would someone take the time to write almost 400 pages about escalators? I had no idea where the discipline did start and where it ended. These first years felt like being adrift, rudderless, in a sea of photocopied book chapters, essays, research reports, field notes, dusty philosophy and history books, journal articles,
texts about texts, conflicting theories; with nothing in sight that would offer even the slightest sense of orientation or an explanation for how this all was supposed fit together. It took me a long time to figure out that European Ethnology might maybe be more a perspective instead of some specific canon.
From this time I also distinctly remember two remarks that were made in the introductory lectures. These remarks were: “This program will not prepare you for a job. This is not what we do. You are here to learn critical thinking.” and “Cultural Anthropology makes the strange familiar, European Ethnology makes the familiar strange.” The latter one alluded to the fact that it is everyday life that is at the core of ethnological interest and that the allegedly so mundane can sometimes be dissected
and analyzed almost up to the level of total unrecognizability. This interest was in the discipline’s history at first focused on the classic subjects of traditional costumes, customs, and celebrations; but today it does also encompass topics as different as migration and mobilities, cities and urban life, gender and sexuality, technologies and materiality, human-animal relations, bodies and identities, narratives and discourses, feelings and affects, and many other thematic contexts.
Overall, it is about the small things, about how people conduct their lives and about what role this most illusive of terms – culture – plays in all this. European Ethnology is a good vessel for tackling these issues that are important to all of us. It does provide us with a methodological and theoretical toolkit that enables us to find out more about these small things, and about how they are connected to the other, grander structures we live in.
So, regardless of all the initial confusion and the feeling of being a little bit overwhelmed, I kept at it. I found myself my corner in the midst of all this. Later, during studying for my Master’s degree, it were for instance – also due to my own migration background – questions regarding transnational mobility that did interest me. For my Master’s thesis, I was for example looking at the identity constructions of elderly Finnish emigrants, who had settled in Germany for good. I was interested in
finding out what the concepts of ‘Finnishness’ or Finnish culture still meant to them, after having spent so many decades abroad in Germany with no wish to ever return to Finland.
So, I met them at their homes and asked them for their life stories. I asked them to explain to me, how and why they did migrate to Germany in the first place and why they then had decided to stay and settle. In the initial interviews one issue quickly became apparent. The majority of informants stated that their Finnish heritage was not particularly important in their everyday life. Apparently, it was something
they did not think about much. This changed in the second phase of research.
Then, I had equipped my informants with cameras and asked them to continue to think about the question of how present Finnish culture still may or may not be in their everyday life, regardless of the initial responses. They had a week to complete the task of taking some pictures that showed ‘Finnishness’ or the lack thereof in their everyday lives. After said week, we met again and talked about the images they had taken.
To ask the question in this different, visual way proved to be very fruitful. So, even if they stated beforehand that Finnish culture was not present in their lives at all,
the pictures told another story. Especially, concerning the question of how they had decorated their living spaces. There was for instance a lot of Finnish design present in their homes. Other pictures hinted towards practices related to their Finnish heritage. They showed for instance breakfast trays with puuro, Finnish porridge, and one informant even had taken a picture of the birch trees she had planted in her garden to make it look more like Finland.
Today, in early 2018, I am halfway through my PhD-research project and still work on questions of human mobility and the experiences that go along with it.
My present research project is about rural depopulation in a remote region in the northeast of Finland. I explore how young people from this region experience out-migration. Hereby, I am including both the ones that leave and the ones that
decide to stay in the region in spite of the depopulation. I do this, because they are all in one way or another affected by it. I want to know what influences their decision-making with regards to their im/mobility and how they deal with the respective outcomes of their decisions. This subject has of course already attracted a lot of previous research interest, also from other academic disciplines.
Yet, an ethnological perspective can still be very useful and shed light on aspects of the subject that may have gone unnoticed so far. This way cultural analysis can be helpful in providing also parties from outside of the discipline, for instance rural policy makers, with new insights into a familiar topic and may subsequently inform initiatives working on this issue.
I see that there is still a lot to learn and that I will probably never achieve full oversight about everything that was, is, and will be happening in European Ethnology. Still, I don’t regret having stayed on this path. Actually, if I could go back to the year 2007, I would probably once again end up in this stuffy seminar room. But this time on purpose.
The next kuukauden kansatieteilijä will be Dorothea Breier, the newest postdoc at the Department of European Ethnology in Helsinki.