Dorothea Breier

Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Helsinki


In spring 2006 I graduated from a High School in a small town in Northern Bavaria. If someone had told me back then that one day I would be postdoctoral researcher in European Ethnology, I would have probably answered: “A what…? In what??”

At that that point I neither knew about this field, nor did I aspire after an academic career as such. Instead, I wanted to do “something creative”, maybe something with art or design. – So, what happened?

I would say: a fortunate mixture of scattiness, coincidence and timing! After one semester of studying Architecture, I realised that this was “not my thing” and decided to switch to Interior Design. Since I had to bridge the summer semester and since there happened to be a room available in the shared apartment of my sister, I enrolled at Otto-Friedrich-University in Bamberg. I decided to study Art History as a major and Heritage Conservation as a minor as I thought they would at least give me some background knowledge in aesthetics. – I still needed a second minor, so I browsed the available subjects and there it was: European Ethnology!

I soon realised how interesting this field was (and is) and decided to stick with it! I stayed in Bamberg, and after two semesters switched my subjects so that European Ethnology became my major and Art History my minor. Studying European Ethnology in Germany can mean many different things, depending on the department. In Bamberg, the approach was a rather “traditional” one, that means it was less theoretical, but more concrete and dealt with everything related to “culture” in the past and present. I enjoyed studying there specifically because it allowed me to see certain phenomena of culture as ongoing processes. I learned about the historic backgrounds of aspects of everyday life, aspects many people do not even think about, and started to see things in a larger context.

An exchange semester at Åbo Akademi University in autumn 2010 set the course for a new stage of my life in Finland. As a result, I wrote my Magister-thesis as an empirical study on May Day in Finland and Germany, and after graduating from university in 2012, I decided to apply for Ph.D studies at University of Helsinki. With my dissertation project I took a first turn towards a field that was previously unfamiliar to me, namely that of migration studies. To be more precise, my research dealt with Germans and their descendants in contemporary Helsinki – a topic chosen since naturally I could relate to it quite a bit.

As much as I had loved studying European Ethnology in Bamberg, I had to realise during the Ph.D. that I was not prepared with the theoretical mindset necessary for an academic career. – But fortunately, it is never too late to acquire new skills, and I am happy to be able to say that my way of thinking evolved quite a bit during the doctoral studies. When I defended my thesis in November 2017, not much was left from my rather traditional approach and ideas I had when I applied. Reading about issues on migration, mobility, belonging and identifications had a huge impact on me, not just on the academic, but also a personal level. I became much more critical about ideas and concepts I had not questioned before; I learned to listen and not to judge easily. Thinking of the past years, this is what I am most grateful for and I do believe that this is what European Ethnology is or should be about.

Since March 2018 I am postdoctoral researcher, still at University of Helsinki. I will take the chance to make a turn towards a new field of research – and in this once more enjoy the diversity European Ethnology has to offer! My plan for the postdoc is to settle in Urban Studies and to do research on grassroot initiatives working on ecological and societal sustainability. I wish to go further than to produce mere academic knowledge, and to collaborate closely with actors outside of Academia – both for creating a larger outreach of my research and some actual impact on society.

I think, European Ethnology and related disciplines carry great potential for our society. Doing cultural studies helps to gain a deeper and more encompassing understanding of the world we live in. Instead of trying to categorise into black and white, it reflects on nuances in between. It connects phenomena to their contexts, puts them into a larger framework, and draws lines between similar phenomena at other places or times. It encourages to think beyond what is generally perceived to be “normal” and to question established ideas and perceptions. And last, not least, it can help to become more sensitive for other people, for their stories, experiences and perceptions.

Especially in times like ours, when we witness a growing schism between people, it becomes increasingly important to be empathetic, to think critically and not to take things for granted. Studying or doing research in European Ethnology may very well help in developing those skills and I hope, our field will become more ambitious in raising our voices louder and in actively making a change in society.


The next kuukauden kansatieteilijä will be Anna Kajander!