Adventures into interdisciplinary research: the strategy of a respectful tourist

Interdisciplinary research saves the world

by Vera Raivola

“Scientists must work together to save the world” a Nature news feature sums up high expectations towards interdisciplinary research. The argument goes, that questions about e.g. health, food, water, climate, are so complex that we need researchers across the spectrum of scientific disciplines to join their forces. Only then can we tackle these so called grand challenges.

Such high expectations seem to be a defining feature of interdisciplinary research (IDR). According to a report from The National Academies, IDR: “…can be one of the most productive and inspiring human pursuits – one that provides a format and connections that lead to new knowledge”.

Also research funding bodies, like the EU commission, take the message about the benefits of IDR seriously. Programmes such as the Horizon2020  fund research that crosses the disciplinary boundaries.  For Academy of Finland,  advancing interdisciplinary research is a science policy objective. Academy’s Strategic funding can only be applied by projects that have three different scientific disciplines represented.

However, despite all this top-down push to deliver successful IDR, crossing disciplinary boundaries does not seem easy for researches. For example, social scientists have often been disenchanted by working in interdisciplinary projects. They felt being partners, but found to be offered a service role.

As a sociologist working in an interdisciplinary PhD project, how to deal with the challenges and promises of IDR is a very pragmatic question. I am interested to know what makes interdisciplinary collaboration something that has added value for researchers participating in it. This made me wonder, are there rules and roles for successful IDR?

Disciplines organise scientific knowledge production and create cultures

First, to find rules for collaboration that happens inter – in between- we need to ask where this place is.

Scientific research is organised by disciplines that form “bodies of specialized knowledge” as The National Academies report describes them. Disciplines are formed by researchers who work together to produce knowledge on their specific scientific object of interest e.g. psychological or biological phenomena. Each of these scientific communities also holds the traditions on how this work should be done, a stock of research methods.

Disciplines have the responsibility to educate and certificate new researchers. Students learn not only the specialized knowledge and methods of their own discipline, but also how to qualify as members of this group.

During research careers, the discipline holds the power to review the value of research, which means it controls the social and personal rewards attached to it. The ownership to the means and ends of legitimate scientific knowledge is what makes disciplines so powerful.

Exploring the interdisciplinary as a respectful tourist

So disciplines are research communities with their own historical belief systems and practises or “epistemic cultures” as Knorr Cetina described them in 1998. Thinking disciplines as cultures, we can see how they provide to people belonging to them with resources, norms, concepts, values and self-identities.

Interdisciplinary collaboration then takes place in somewhere between these familiar spaces provided by disciplinary cultures. I suggest that by entering this space of IDR where we are faced with new cultures as researchers we can apply the role of a respectful scientific tourists.

With the analogy I hope to emphasise the positive risk of adventuring into the unfamiliar and learning about new cultures. It is not that some researchers can remain fixed in their well-trodden territory, but IDR collaboration takes in turns all participants into strange fields.

Like all touristic explorations, interdisciplinary research is expected to take us out of the comfort zone without going too far away. Like tourists, researchers come with different personal limits after which interesting adventurers becomes a panic zone. What fuels the travel is curiosity, not forcing or being converted.

The place for a scientific tourists to aim is the learning zone as Rebecca Freeth argued on her fascinating Tampere STS Symposium presentation At the edge: Practices to strengthen interdisciplinary collaboration” on 15 June, 2018. This is a place to observe the new culture, adjust, compare and pass ideas without fear of losing one’s disciplinary identity.

 The benefits of anthropological mindset

Adopting the viewpoint of a respectful tourist also reminds that IDR is about interaction between different cultures aiming into an innovative dialogue. Because of differences in languages, beliefs and habits, misunderstandings are part of this interactive process.

Negotiating with differences will take energy. As a tourist one lacks relevant competencies to that cultural context. This can make one feel stupid, perhaps lonely, as anyone who has tried to manage life away from home knows. The outsider position challenges the sense of “knowing” and mastery, both likely to feel important to researchers in their normal disciplinary practises.

Intellectually, perceiving myself as a scientific tourist has made it easier to accept my own ignorance on other research disciplines. I have also found my own background in interpretative sociological tradition and in the STS to be useful.

I can assume a role of an anthropologist and focus on the social processes that construct different kinds of epistemic cultures. Being in this role provides me with an analytical distance where it is easier to compare different ways of thinking about science.

Having been educated to think about scientific knowledge as a social construct gives certain flexibility to cross the cultural boundaries. I have learned to take a deep breath before diving into the Natural Science’s jungle of terminology. Instead of trying to understand everything, I focus on following the narrative about a discovery.

Following the storyline and lead characters leads to the treasure; a new technology, a theory or a finding that makes my colleagues from biomedicine excited. This enthusiasm about creating a great story about a discovery is something all researchers share.

Tackling cultural biases

The example of a touristic viewpoint also reveals the potential power conflict in cultural encounters. Tourism has its uncivilized side. Sometimes tourists go purposefully to “arse around” because they see “away” as an opportunity to evade normal moral and social repercussion.

But often we tourists just are lazy and lack reflexivity. Learning gets replaced with colonializing interests; by being/knowing better than “locals” or decidedly exploiting the context to meet our own (superficial) needs. While usually unintended, this is something that I think happens quite often with us scientific tourists, too. For example, I feel to have undermined the craftsmanship and creativity required for designing laboratory experiments.

In scientific life, like in any other section of social reality, combining cultural differences with power differences can feed into negative stereotyping on “us” and “them”. For example, the existing hierarchy between the so-called hard and soft disciplines can invite such thinking.

I often have used these stereotypes, which can seem only neutral and pragmatic. Now I have started to think it unnecessarily contradicts compatible styles of scientific knowledge production. It explicates a hierarchy that undermines the value of the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH).

I have experienced how such labelling can make us who represent SSH communities defensive and shun from otherwise beneficial dialogue with the Natural Sciences. The cost of using these musty terms seem higher than its benefits, so perhaps it would be time to move on.

Rules of respectful interdisciplinary collaboration

These examples show what I think is the most important rule for IDR: respect. As with people from different cultures we scientific tourists should respect that other researchers know their disciplines. They have lived experience and expertise in form of knowledge and skills that we tourists only wish to learn about.

Making respect as the rule of conduct for IDR does not mean taking other disciplines’ knowledge for granted or as sacred. This is against the principle of science that reminds everyone to stay humble towards the fallibility of knowing. Critical thinking and good questions are important tools for all in the learning zone.

So how to put the rule in to practise? Listening and trying to understand each other’s points might be a good start. If every IDR participant has on their turn first an opportunity to tell what they expect from the collaboration and think to bring to the common table, then others can learn to make better questions and suggestions. For me it has been very useful indeed, if sometimes difficult, to hear how these “others” view my research topics and findings.

Sometimes it has been difficult to discuss about research methods with researchers who represent quite different disciplinary traditions.  Constructive and respective criticism is still welcomed, but I feel that criticising might not always be the best starting point for a discussion about such specialized practises. It would be almost like a Swede saying to a Finn that s/he do not know how to use the sauna.

Heading towards great IDR adventures

I have suggested that those who take part in interdisciplinary research collaboration can assume the strategic role of a respectful scientific tourist. This might help to conceive what is special in adventuring into different research fields and epistemic cultures, while holding one’s disciplinary identity.

I find it useful to remember that despite the context, the experience of being a tourist is that of curiosity and clumsiness. Like a tourist in a foreign country, scientific tourists are likely to share an enduring interest in what for “the locals” seem strange relics and may be missing out important cultural nuances. Yet, the treasure hunt of new discoveries, nerdy humour and the pains of academic life can unite interdisciplinary adventurers.

Respecting and trying to understand each other because of cultural differences is the key in successful interdisciplinary collaboration. To make IDR a lucrative option to researchers requires good resources and institutional solutions. For those in their journey to the in-between, I wish compassion, patience and clear signposts.


Vera Raivola is a doctoral student and works as a junior researcher at the University of Eastern Finland. Her PhD project at the Finnish Red Cross Blood Service studies blood donors’ views on donating blood for patients and for biobank research use. You can find her on Twitter, ResearchGate and Linkedin.

New book: ‘Craft in Biomedical Research: The iPS Cell Technology and the Future of Stem Cell Science’ by Mianna Meskus

The STS Helsinki blog is happy to present and promote the recent publication of the book of one of our members, Associate Professor Mianna Meskus.

The book, titled ‘Craft in Biomedical Research: The iPS Cell Technology and the Future of Stem Cell Science’, tells us about the political and economic expectations placed upon stem cell research by exploring how iPS cell technology has made it possible to turn human skin and blood cells into pluripotent stem cells. These biotechnological advancements provide with unprecedented opportunities to study the pathophysiology of diseases, understand human developmental biology and generate new forms of therapy. Mianna Meskus approaches the topic by discussing non-human agency, the embodied and affective basis of knowledge production, and the material politics of science, developing the idea of an instrumentality-care continuum as a fundamental dynamic of biomedical craft. These three approaches serve as the main tools to discuss the form in which biology becomes technology by providing new perspectives to the commercialization and industrial-scale appropriation of human biology and, as a result, to the future of ethical biomedical research.

The book comes endorsed by Professor Charis Thompson, from the University of California at Berkeley, and Associate Professor Melinda Cooper, from the University of Sidney. About the book, Professor Thompson has highlighted the “extensive fieldwork” behind the book and that it “shows that as stem cells are becoming a highly versatile biological research tool, working with them continues to require demanding embodied skills and judgment, and dense political and affective engagement”. Associate Professor Melinda Cooper emphasises the central position of the notion of “‘craftwork’ at the heart of the laboratory” and the unpredictability of “the pathway from the lab to the clinic to the market” that only “high artisanal craftwork” can bridge.

The book is published by Palgrave Macmillan and can be bought and accessed by clicking here.

Open Position: Postdoctoral Researcher on Social Study of Microbes

University of Helsinki is looking to hire a POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCHER ON SOCIAL STUDY OF MICROBES for a three-year fixed term period from 3 September 2018 onwards (or as agreed).


The postdoctoral researcher will be positioned in Sociology at University of Helsinki in a Finnish Academy funded research group studying Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) in West Africa. The group is part of an interdisciplinary consortium of clinical researchers, microbiologists and sociologists studying the spread of AMR genes in the region that has extensive gaps in data regarding AMR. AMR has increased rapidly, especially in low income countries which lack controlled antibiotic policy, and have poor infrastructures enabling the flow of AMR genes between the environment, animals and humans. The study joins environmental, microbiological, sociological, and medical expertise to explore the evolving and transfer of AMR genes between water, soil, animals, food, and humans (“One Health approach”).

Available position

The sociological group wishes to recruit an enthusiastic postdoctoral researcher who is interested in developing social scientific research on microbes. The position will be in an exciting new group that is exploring the emerging field where microbes are given increasing attention through the study of microbiota, gut wellbeing, microbes’ role for mental health, etc. The postdoctoral position gives the right candidate an opportunity to explore microbes in the context of development: how are infrastructures, understandings of bacteria, social practices, antimicrobial resistance, and ecologies connected?

The ideal candidate will have a good understanding of medical anthropology, science and technology studies, and global health, and ideally have past experience of ethnographic work in relevant sub-fields such as, but not limited to, social study of international collaboration, emerging technologies in low income countries, pharmaceuticals, non-human subjects, or indeed, microbes.

The position entails ethnographic fieldwork in West Africa (in Burkina Faso, Mali and/or Benin) that is expected to last between six months to a year and to study people’s understandings of microbes, how antibiotics are used, and how people ‘live with microbes’ in these contexts. During the third year, the project will develop participatory videos (PV) through a participatory research process with the help of a PV team that the candidate can be part of making.


The appointee must hold a doctoral degree in a relevant field of social sciences (sociology, science and technology studies, anthropology, development studies, gender studies, geography etc). Period following the completion of doctoral degree must not exceed five years, excluding family leave and equivalent periods of absence.

Moreover, the candidate is expected to have the ability to conduct independent ethnographic research. The candidate is expected to develop her/his own research on the topic and contribute to the joint research agenda.

Please see the full job description here

If you have any questions, please contact:

Sociology Days 2018 Working Group Report

As we have previously mentioned in this blog, the STS Helsinki group organized for the second consecutive year a working group in the annual conference Sociology Days, which this year took place in the University of Eastern Finland, in the Joensuu campus. We are happy to bring you the report of our two sessions with a small summary of all of our very interesting presentations. Looking forward to organizing it again next year!

Working group: Science, technology and society

Organizers: Heta Tarkkala (University of Eastern Finland), Vera Raivola (University of Eastern Finland) and Karoliina Snell (University of Helsinki)

The working group ’Science, technology and society’ had in total ten presentations during two sessions organized on Thursday, 15th and Friday, 16th of March. The presentations discussed a variety of topics related to sociology related topics and other disciplines, mostly to medical science. First, Jose Cañada (University of Helsinki) had a presentation about his doctoral dissertation. The study focuses on how global health threats are conceptualized and how, for the sake of governance strategies, there are identification and categorization processes, which are connected to human and nonhuman actors. Salla Sariola (University of Turku) and Elina Oinas (University of Helsinki) continued the conversation about human and nonhuman actors from cooperative initiatives connected to vaccination research in Benin. Vaccines help to prevent diarrhea and antibiotic resistance. Finnish tourists experience their relation with the environment, microbes and bacteria in very concrete and different ways. Next presentation, by Venla Oikkonen (University of Helsinki), discussed the connection between Influenza vaccines and narcolepsy. What and how that connection is articulated differs in, for example, statistics, science or the media. The second half of the Thursday session was reserved to discussions related to the study of sociology as a discipline. Mikko Hyyryläinen (University of Helsinki) discussed the building of cognitive sociology as a sub-field of study inside sociology. More concretely, he discussed what the field is at the moment and what it could yet become. In the last presentation of the first day, Johanna Hokka (University of Tampere) continued the conversation about the scientific practice of sociology by discussing professor discourses on high quality research and measurements of legitimacy.

Friday opened with Vera Raivola (University of Eastern Finland), who pondered how participation in the new biobank of the Finnish blood services (Veripalvelu) is understood as part of the wider practice of blood donation and the role of blood donors. Annerose Böhrer (Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen Nürnberg) continued by presenting how she utilized metaphor analysis in her research on organ donation in Germany. One of the most important points was the role of the organ donor card, which worked as a material and discursive object. Mikko Jauho (University of Helsinki) discussed in his presentation how fat and cholesterol figured as a double risk object in the cardiovascular arena. The presentation of Riikka Homanen (University of Helsinki) discussed heteronormativity in relation to understandings of family. The presentation discussed this in the context of reproductive care sought by lesbian couples and single women. Karoliina Snell (University of Helsinki) and Heta Tarkkala (University of Eastern Finland) gave the last presentation of the working group. It discussed Nordic and national collaboration strategies for the exploitation and development of health data. Nordic populations are identified as a ‘gold mine’ and the presentation wondered what this gold actually is and what we can get from digging it.

A locksmith and a supernova: unlocking the secrets of the ‘universe’

The discovery of a supernova

“What’s that?” the locksmith wondered, peeping through the telescope. He was in his observatory checking his new camera that was attached to the telescope. Somewhere far away some strange activities were occurring in the night skies. He carefully started observing again through his high-powered telescope. The distant star was acting very strange as if in some sort of celestial dance. Then a weird sort of energy emitted from it like a hiccup, and the star exploded like a firecracker. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” The locksmith muttered under his breath. It was just unbelievable; he had a feeling of euphoria. It slowly sunk in him he was the witness of a cosmic dance, the one that the global scientific community craved to witness. Victor Buso from Argentina had just watched an astonishing phenomenon: the birth of a supernova.

The birth of a supernova is, in fact, the violent death of a supergiant star. Supergiants are massive stars, thousands of times bigger than the Sun. A supergiant dies when it runs out of fuel, and the star starts collapsing in its inward centre. Positive protons and negative electrons start compressing each other due to high gravity, forcing electrons to penetrate the nucleus and converting the protons and electrons to neutrons. Within a day’s period, the created shockwave spreads outwards in a violent explosion, spreading stardust and matter in its wake. The intensity of a supernova’s explosion is equivalent to 1028-megaton bomb. The explosion jettisons matter and dust at 15,000 to 40,000 km per sec.

Buso’s discovery stepped beyond the explosion of a supernova. In the past, famous astronomers like John Flamsteed, Tycho Brahe or Johannes Kepler have discovered and catalogued supernova in different locations of our galaxy, but Buso is the first person who actually saw live the spectacle of the birthing of the supernova and captured it on his camera. After careful scrutiny, the scientific community reported this event in Nature. It occurred 65 million light-years away in a galaxy called NGC-613. Catalogued on 20th September 2016, Buso, the amateur astronomer, had slipped in the pages of history by presenting the scientific community with some missing pieces to supernovae and the puzzle of the Universe.

The science of a supernova

Humanity has always watched the skies with awe. The night skies are a canvas for myths, divination, fantasies, narratives, arts – and also a canvas for science. This is the final frontier where the mysteries of the origin of life, earth, humans, galaxies and practically everything in the Universe lie. Gaining access to these mysteries and deciphering them is perhaps humanity’s biggest quest for knowledge.

Supernovae explosions are rare. Only three have occurred in our galaxy, the Milky Way. In the 17th century, Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed catalogued a supernova explosion in Cassiopeia A or Cas A in the constellation Cassiopeia. The death of this star occurred 340 years ago, ten thousand light years from Earth. The intensity of the explosion leads to stardust and gas spreading in a circular ring at the speed of 50 million km per hour. Tycho Brahe discovered B Cas supernova in 1572. While Johannes Kepler discovered a supernova in the constellation Ophiuchus in 1604.
In addition to history, Buso’s discovery garnered him a place in Nature in collaboration with professional scientists. This collaboration and the associated data-sharing are examples of “citizen science” encouraged by NASA, as proclaimed in the organization’s webpage:

“You do not have to be a scientist, or even have a telescope, to hunt for supernovas. For example, in 2008 a teenager discovered a supernova. Then in January 2011, a 10-year-old girl from Canada discovered a supernova while looking at night sky images on her computer. The images, taken by an amateur astronomer, just happened to include a supernova. With some practice and the right equipment, you could find the next supernova!”

What better example could be that represents the relation between science, technology and society than this? Every data, every calculation, every observation matters. For the Universe is profound. In the ‘known Universe /Observable Universe’ itself there are at least two trillion galaxies. This is a great incentive for future Busos out there! May their tribe increase!

Anuradha Nayak

Doctoral Researcher at the Faculty of Law, University of Lapland. Teaches Space Law. Interested in narratives of posthuman philosophy and law, technology, outer space and the  human genome.


AC Fabian, ‘A blast from the past’ (2008) 320 Science 1167.

D Castelvecchi, ‘Amateur astronomer catches first glimpses of the birth of a supernova: Images taken in Argentina track earliest stages in stellar explosion.’ Nature (21 February 2018).
<> accessed 7 April 2018.

‘Explore the remains of a massive supernova’ National Geographic (11 January 2018) <> accessed 7 April 2018.

G Brumfiel, ‘Supernova mystery solved? : Sooty neutron star could lie at the heart of Cassiopeia A’ Nature (4 November 2009) <> accessed 7 April 2018.

H Fountain, ‘Two Trillion Galaxies, at the very least’ The New York Times (17 October 2016)
<> accessed 7 April 2018.

‘Supernovae: Learn more about what happens when stars explode.’ National Geographic (21 February 2018).
< > accessed 7 April 2018.

‘Supernovae’, NASA (6 March 2018) <> accessed 7 April 2018.

V Parry, ‘Eileen Collins: Space, the final frontier’ The Guardian (1 July 2005)
<> accessed 7 April 2018.

‘What is a supernova?’ NASA (4 September 2013) <> accessed 7 April 2018.

Do not miss our Workshop ‘Science, Technology and Society’ at the upcoming Sociology Days!

Time has arrived for Sosiologipäivät 2018, the annual conference of The Westermarck Society. This year, the conference is organized at the University of Eastern Finland, in the Joensuu campus, on the 15th and the 16th of March. As last year, members of the STS Helsinki network organize a workshop that has as an objective to bring together researchers across Finland who have an interest in science and technology, as well as from other countries. This year we have a very exciting list of presentations, so consider coming even if you do not have one. As last year, we are hoping for very exciting conversations to take place.


Thursday 15.3; 15.45-18.15; room Natura N101

  1. Jose Cañada: More-than-human intersectionality: understanding categorization, indentification and boundary-making during pandemic processes
  2. Salla Sariola & Elina Oinas: Living-with microbes in the era of antimicrobial resistance
  3. Venla Oikkonen: Pandemic vaccination, vaccine harm and the politics of futurity
  4. Mikko Hyyryläinen: Kulttuurin ja kognition sosiologia – mielen sosiologiaa vai kognitiivista sosiologiaa?
  5. Johanna Hokka: Sociology, Science Policy Ideals on ’Excellence’ and the symbolic struggles over legitimate science – Finnish and Swedish Sociology as a case in point

Friday 16.3; 9.00-11.30; room Natura N104

  1. Vera Raivola: Making sense of a blood bank biobank
  2. Annerose Böhrer: Metaphors in organ transplantation and the role of donor cards
  3. Mikko Jauho: Structuring the Cardiovascular Health Arena – the Double Risk Object of Dietary Fat and Cholesterol
  4. Riikka Homanen: Hetero- ja parinormitonta sukulaisuutta tekemässä? Itselliset naiset ja naisparit yksityisissä hedelmöityshoidoissa
  5. Karolina Snell & Heta Tarkkala: Goldmining Nordic population(s) – data, health and policy

The workshop has been organized and will be chaired by Heta Tarkkala, University of Eastern Finland/University of Helsinki (, Karoliina Snell, University of Helsinki (, and Vera Raivola University of Eastern Finland ( Please get in touch with them if you have any questions about the session.

Annual STS symposium, University of Tampere, 14-15 June – propose a session!

The annual STS symposium of the The Finnish Society for Science and Technology Studies will be held first time at the University of Tampere, 14-15 June, under the topic: Ideals and practice of interdisciplinary research.

We welcome presentations and sessions that explore different areas of interdisciplinary research from everyday academic challenges to philosophical considerations of conducting interdisciplinary research.

Keynote speakers:

Jane Calvert, University of Edinburgh,

Caterina Marchionni, University of Helsinki,

Jaana Parviainen, University of Tampere,

Juha Tuunainen, University of Oulu,

We would like to invite you to propose a session. CfP will be published in early February. If you want to include your session in CfP, please send your abstract (max. 300 word ) to by 31 January. Sessions in English and Finnish are accepted.

Please feel free to forward this invitation to any people you think may be interested in attending this event.


Kind regards,

Reetta Muhonen (also on behalf of the organising committee)

Chair of the Finnish Society for Science and Technology Studies

Research Center for Knowledge, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, TaSTI

University of Tampere, Finland


Call for papers: “Science, technology and society” – working group at the Annual conference of the Westermarck Society

The Annual conference of the Westermarck Society  will be held under the theme “Circulations” at the University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu campus, on 15-16.3.2018. The keynote speakers are: Amade M’charek (University of Amsterdam), Ruben Andersson (University of Oxford), Mianna Meskus (University of Helsinki) and Maria Åkerman (VTT). STS Helsinki is hosting its own working group and announces call for papers:


18. Science, technology and society

Science and Technology Studies (STS) is an interdisciplinary field of study that examines the interaction between society, science, and technology. STS pays attention to how different fields, such as law, politics, and everyday life, become intertwined with science and technology. This is relevant when thinking about heatedly debated topics as diverse as climate change, the role of experts, medicine, genetics, gender, robotics or organic food. The field calls for a deeper understanding of the development, processes, practices and outcomes of such social phenomena. STS explores the mechanisms behind knowledge claims and ontological assumptions that guide our everyday. Or, how a prominent STS scholar, Steve Woolgar, has said: look at how the world defined by science and technology “could be otherwise”.

STS-Helsinki calls for theoretical, methodological and empirical papers on current research in social studies of science. Papers both in Finnish and English are welcome. The aim of this working group is to offer a forum to discuss the practices that contribute to the shaping of technoscientific objects and subjects. How is scientific knowledge established and negotiated, and how historical processes contribute to the development of certain technologies? We also welcome papers discussing the specific topic of circulations. This working group is defined as a meeting point for both Finnish and international scholars to share and discuss their work with others studying science, technology and society.


Submit your abstract directly to the working group coordinator. The descriptions of the working groups and contact information of the coordinators can be found at

The final deadline for the abstracts is Monday 22.1.2018. The length of the abstract is max. 300 words and it should be in .doc, .dox or in .rtf-format.


!!! UPDATE: CALL EXTENDED TO 2.2.2018 !!!


On behalf of STS Helsinki the coordinator is: Heta Tarkkala  (

Population genetics and the making of genetic belonging

Genetic roots are not discovered, they are made. This is the central argument of my book Population Genetics and Belonging, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan. The book is the final outcome of my postdoc project (2011-2016), funded by the Academy of Finland and Kone Foundation, which set out to explore how population genetics has changed ideas of nation, national origins and destinies, and structures of belonging. I had the privilege to finish the book in the interdisciplinary research community of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

Population geneticists study genetic differences within and between populations. Such differences are often invisible, that is, they are molecular variation that doesn’t direct visible physiological characteristics. My project started with a simple observation: population genetics has refashioned the relations between populations in ways that don’t match the idea of nations as clearly defined entities – patterns of genetic variation don’t follow national borders. Yet the ways in which population genetics reached into the past beyond the historical roots of nation-states clearly appealed to those wishing to imagine nations as foundational units of social existence. Understanding this contradiction was the initial motivation for my project: How do national narratives establish nations as rooted in foundational moments of human evolutionary history without ending up dismissing the nation as a recent historical development?

In the course of the project, and through various intellectual detours and dead ends, this question began to take a new shape. While population genetics indeed provided a narrative resource for national imaginaries (which structure enterprises such as national genomic initiatives), it also acted as an important narrative resource for other forms of belonging, such as regional, continental, ethnic and personal belonging.

My book explores tensions and resonances between these alternative forms of belonging. It argues that what makes population genetics appealing is precisely the ambiguity of genetic belonging. This ambiguity arises from the relationality of population genetic knowledge. In population genetics, sameness and difference are not fixed. Sameness and difference are produced through technological choices (such as the use of mitochondrial, Y-chromosome or genome-wide techniques), methodological decisions (such as genetic markers chosen for analysis), and points of comparison (such as genetic databases or cell lines available for analysis).

Population Genetics and Belonging traces how this relationality enables population genetics to become entangled with discourses and practices of national, regional, ethnic and personal belonging from the late 1980s until today. The book focuses on selected case studies, including the theory of Mitochondrial Eve (the most recent common maternal ancestor) in the late 1980s and Y-Chromosome Adam (the most recent common paternal ancestor) in the mid-1990s; the use of DNA analysis in the study of two ancient human remains known as Kennewick Man and Cheddar Man; the ontological multiplicity of roots in commercial genetic ancestry tests; tensions between national and continental genetic belonging in the case of “Finnish genes”; and the uses of genetic ancestry in debates about immigration in contemporary societies. Throughout the book, I argue that the alternative forms of belonging that population genetics has engendered are entangled with ideas of gender, sexuality, race and class, and that the affective structures of genetic belonging reflect those intersecting differences.

I hope that the book helps us make some sense of the complex political, social and cultural implications of population genetic knowledges in contemporary societies.

Link to the book:


Venla Oikkonen


Venla Oikkonen (PhD in Gender Studies, 2010) is Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Her research interests include evolution, genetics, vaccine debates, epidemics, affect and intersectionality. Her first book Gender, Sexuality and Reproduction in Evolutionary Narratives was published by Routledge in 2013.




On Winning the Hearts and Minds of Shamans and Leprechauns

How science and scientists engage with the public is a matter of growing importance in the so-called post-truth era. I contend that instead of defending science and its epistemic authority at any cost and by any manner, public science education should engage science sceptics on even terms and with respect.

Saturday April 22nd 2017 marked the first March for Science in Finland, held as part of a worldwide movement for science and higher education ( Whatever its impact was, the march definitely is an interesting sign of the times. In at least some sections of western societies, there is concern for the epistemic authority of science and scientific expertise. Denigration of scientific expertise, however science might be perceived, is evident in the populist political rhetoric in both old and new continent. The same goes for Finland: the conservative, centre-right populist coalition government has been very unrelenting in its cuts to educational funding, seems to freewheel on facts, and has instigated a “restructuring” of university funding. In 2016-2017 this resulted in a rather gloomy mood in the Finnish academia.

In the March for Science, students and faculty members rallied around the flags of universities, along with some interested politicians, in a show of unity and power directed towards the national government.

It surely is important for universities to secure funding and respect from the government. However, the war for science will be won in the hearts and minds of lay people – people (understood here in a very monolithic sense) who are rarely in a position to contribute to scientific change and its progress, people who are outsiders to the scientific establishment. As every vote in election counts, the lay perception of science does matter a great deal to scientists and universities.

Therefore, it is important to take some time to think about other, maybe more mundane and less spectacular engagements with the powerful public opinion than science marches.

Enter the Finnish cosmologist Kari Enqvist, author of numerous books in popular science and a regular contributor to national broadcasting corporation YLE. Enqvist recently published a short column titled “Goodbye Leprechauns, Welcome Science” (, YLE 4.4.2017).

Enqvist’s polemical text addresses the challenge of the post-truth era and what he sees as contemporary denigration of science. Enqvist urges all sensible citizens to step up and say: “truth matters”. Truth, he says, is not merchandise.

The less sensible citizens, forming a considerable portion of Finnish population according to Enqvist, are sceptical of science in general. They think that science is but one of many ways to understand the surrounding world, and a limited way at that. Enqvist lumps the science sceptics together with shamans who see and believe in leprechauns and explain the world in terms of mystical energies and vibrations. In fact, leprechauns seem to run the world now, as is evident to Enqvist from what is happening in Turkey and the US.

I also have, much like Enqvist, a troubled relationship with shamans who see and believe in leprechauns. I almost refuse to believe that the mad king of leprechauns, Donald Trump, exists. I am also very, very worried about Finnish leprechauns with revisionist ideas of history and human rights, and the manifest normalization of racism in Finnish politics and society. And, I am generally troubled when people in position of power talk over people, talk beside the point (and past facts) and denigrate science for whatever ends; ends usually other than the common good or inclusive society.

Thus, I wholeheartedly agree with Enqvist on most accounts. However, I find it difficult to accept his divisive manner to argue for his point: either you are smart and side with me and science, or you are completely silly. The manner in which Enqvist discredits science sceptics implicitly places scientific truth beyond public criticism. This is hardly an attempt at creating dialogue or constructive engagement in public science education.

I will get back to public science education and dialogue in the end. Enqvist’s account of science lacks so much nuance, that I first feel compelled to analyse his position.

The science monolith

Enqvist’s position implies the 1950s imaginary of science for progress and social justice, an attempt to redeem the science that won the war, or an attempt to make a case for the republic of science – however you want to express that normative ideal of science. Science equals truth with regard to the external objective reality, and policies should abide.

Not included in Enqvist’s implicit narrative, I suspect, are the trials and tribulations of (e.g.) the 1960s and 1970s, when science and its harbinger industries got associated with environmental degradation and other related disasters. Science wasn’t always (and still isn’t) all about fighting the climate change, you know – it was also about creating the petrochemical and nuclear industries and waste, the nuclear threat, misuse of pesticides and all that. Somehow pristine science, in its attempt to harness and control nature, succeeded in coupling progress with very ugly consequences, both in popular imagination and in the real. (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and its impact serves as a fine global example of this, see also Harry Collins’ 2014 book Are We All Scientific Expert Now? for its nice introduction.)

The criticism from sixties to eighties was spearheaded by social movements, which championed for values that science and the industries had perhaps forgotten about in their hunger for progress and prosperity. This was manifest in demands for (e.g.) environmental protection, alongside with the associated regulatory ideals, democratic governance and rights-based thinking.

I am fairly sure that Enqvist’s sensible citizens hold these values and ideals as central to their cultural form of life, yet in the past the values and ideals were side-lined by the careless progress driven by the science that Enqvist so reveres.

This one, is also a truth that matters to sensible citizens.

My argument here is that science cannot be understood or presented as a monolithic institution, impervious to public criticism, as Enqvist’s column seems to indicate. By insisting on this kind of idealized image of science, coupled with the explicitly stated idea of science as producing truth that corresponds to external reality, he actually does a disservice to popular image of science. For science is very much embedded in its economic, social and political dimensions.

Cosmology is a case in point. To a casual observer, cosmology mostly serves the general public as an inspirational medium. Cosmological research must be funded somehow, though, and therefore the revered science of heavenly bodies becomes a subject of social, economic and political considerations: the discipline has a history also on a smaller than cosmological scale. (Not familiar with the field I probably miss important social, political and economic applications of cosmology, for which I have to apologize.)

Science for public and policy

Science and its harbinger industries, when not subject to regulation, are just as prone to screw up as they are prone to create prosperity and progress. Too big promises from scientists lead to big disappointments when scientists (eventually, some would say) fail to deliver the goods. Claiming that science is infallible and should not be openly questioned will lead to a popular sense of treachery. (Again, Collins 2014 is the go-to reference.)

Thus, science should be open to public discussion and criticism, if not for the esoteric knowledge it produces, then for the kind of impact the use of that knowledge has in our lives. Science, truth and progress should not trump everything else by default, and there must be room for criticism – even for scepticism towards science.

The notion of scepticism presents another spectre that Enqvist is eager to point out: relativism. Echoing the 1990s “science wars” (mostly fought in the US between cultural studies scholars and natural scientists), Enqvist has a word to say about postmodern thought:

“Up to now, all kinds of imaginaries have been met with kindness. Each one of us have their own story to tell, the post-modern philosophers preached, while teaching us to be tolerant. Everyone’s story is equally valuable, they explained, and the media has really embraced this by publishing any mumbo-jumbo without criticism, only to increase sales.”(translation by the author)

This, Enqvist states, must end now.

His text is, of course, a very truncated presentation of postmodern thought and relativism in general, and seems to place too much of weight on social influence of philosophical thought. In science studies relativism has some purchase methodologically (check out the principle of symmetry in “Edinburgh strong programme”), and the extreme forms of relativistic postmodern thinking are, well, extreme.

In any case, I have no trouble in agreeing with Enqvist that not all stories are of equal worth. It is partly a question of context and purpose – what works for a tabloid should not automatically work for purposes of policy making. The worrying thing (I am channelling Enqvist again) is that the tabloid-reading public, the lay people who also vote, are the ones most apt to get corrupted by visions of truth that Enqvist associates with shamans and leprechauns.

Strategies of public science education

The problem with Enqvist’s text is that he himself seems insensitive to the context and position he writes from. He is oblivious to the fact that he also has to earn respect and following, and that his status as a scientist alone might not be enough to sway people. That is why his writing strategy and his divisive argumentation are problematic from the point of view of public science education – in winning the hearts and minds of the lay people.

In an example of this, Enqvist states that science is characterised by humility, as scientific progress (apparently) is a story of successive falsifications of assumed truths. Therefore, not one scientist would ever present himself as someone in possession of certain knowledge, if not for nothing else, then for the fear of getting ridiculed by his peers.

Enqvist finishes his text with the following message to science sceptics:

“Stick your subjective sensation, for a while, where the sun does not shine. Try to learn some humility. Ask yourselves for once: could I be wrong?”

Engaging adversaries in a dialogue across the science-public divide requires true cross-disciplinary competence from a scientist. The same humility that Enqvist values within scientific community and in relation to knowledge is completely lacking in his relation to the public.

Thus, Enqvist truly lives up to his vocation that truth is not merchandise. Talking over (using power over) people requires very little transaction between discussants. However, a persuasive science educator needs something to win people over, to make them want to buy the idea that science is our best way of coming to grips with the surrounding world. In pluralist liberal democracies a citizen, arguing his case in the public sphere, has to engage others with some respect in order for his ideas to gain currency.

The western world in general does not embrace the priestly class of scientists quite like they used to, and this is especially true of the science sceptics. Instead of enlisting new allies for his cause or creating dialogue, Enqvist presents himself as an arrogant scientist, making the gap between science and its sceptics grow even larger. What science sceptics might infer from Enqvist’s text, is that they should not trust a scientist who does not respect them, especially since he is telling people what to think, and how to think.

With no special authority among the science sceptics, to them Enqvist comes across as someone who is dangerously close to what the cosmologist himself would call a shaman. Sadly, the special science vibrations that Enqvist could bring to the table for the sceptics are now lost in mutual disrespect. Could scientists in their zeal foster something else as well, such as constructive dialogue, between scientists and science sceptics?


Jaakko Taipale

STS Helsinki | University of Helsinki