Arctic Design: Field Thoughts and Questions


Hi everybody, this is my second appearance in this blog (see the first one I have just finished my summer fieldwork in Northern Lapland; so let me share my fresh thoughts.

…In 2006, in the beginning of August, I was sitting in a big bus, drowning in a blue soft seat, traveling from the railway station of Pyt’-Yakh to the city of Khanty-Mansyisk, where my first fieldwork was supposed to start. Six years later, another bus, but with seats of exactly the same blue plush – what a coincidence! – moved me from Rovaniemi to Inari for my first fieldwork in a foreign country.

My Experience so far

Going to the field, I must admit I did not really know what to expect. I came with a vague idea of ‘indigenous patterns of movement’. I was not sure what particularly ask from people and what to tell them about practical application of my work, so all those things made me nervous. Well, I was also a bit scared of traveling alone for such a long period, i.e. approximately a month. But on the other hand, I was full of energy and, of course, longing for adventures and discoveries. Being over-enthusiastic and, at the same time, very naive, I underestimated the fact of my ‘alienness’: not only in terms of nationality, but also in terms of the very essence of the fieldwork in such an exotic context. Of course, designers also do fieldwork; it is a critical part of many projects; but design ethnographers usually work in teams, and mainly use prototypes to create dialog with the people under study. Also the main actors are users – actual or potential – but hardly ‘vernacular designers’ (let’s call so indigenous people and their material culture). And basically design fieldwork does not last so long.

Lazy morning. Lake Inari

I soon discovered that specific character of the designers’ fieldwork is to say very little about possible practical application, which in the initial stage can be difficult to formulate. While presenting something raw and yet unverified, the intention is to explain and defend what you have already done. However, it seems the first step for a design researcher is to map the ‘research surface’: to put over it a certain multidisciplinary ‘mesh’ and then specify the ‘global coordinates’ of main disciplines…

When I came to Inari, ‘the heart of Sápmi’, having just an idea of possible accommodation (at a simple tourist camping) and a couple of contacts for exact work, my ‘inner adventurer’ was strongly disappointed by the ‘level of civilization’: I noticed hotels, supermarkets, even a pizza & kebab place, instead of a tiny remote indigenous village ‘in the middle of nowhere’ (yes, I am still captivated by my romantic field experience in Russia: small Khanty villages in Western Siberia). So, I ‘landed’ at the camping, in a modest wooden cabin, though with Wi-Fi. First week was probably the hardest: I was struggling with myself, suffering from my uselessness and an unfamiliar difficulty to approach people. But what did I expect? I could almost ‘touch’ and ‘smell’ a huge amount of information around me, but I was so annoyed with inability to get it all immediately. Well, things like that never happen ‘in one go’, I tried to convince myself, and after several attacks of impatience I decided just to get to know the place. After a couple of days I find myself painting the landscape, picking up berries in the forest nearby, swimming in the Lake Inari…

But still the question is open: what do you, experienced anthropologists and fieldworkers, do in case of delay, silence and ‘nothing happens’?

Of the week two, suddenly the ice-breaking period has finished: it happened after the festival ‘Ijahis Idja’ (obviously, such events are the best for approaching people: everybody is relaxed, positive and open).

At ‘Ijahis Idja’ festival. Inari
Catching impressions. Lemmenjoki

In two last weeks, I got most of the material to work with and felt much more relaxed in talking to people. And, though most of the people I met were quite serious and not easygoing, I have had the incredible feeling of being surrounded not by individuals who are putting practical matters first but by friends. Then I discovered another problem, i.e. how to get rid of this emotional attachment (and does it ever necessary?), how to come back to ‘normal life’.

And here comes another question: how you researchers can manage the issue of ‘personal involvement’ or ‘emotional link’ with people under study? There might be plenty of books about researchers’ ethics, but I would like to hear some ‘first-hand’ examples.

I will continue writing about my experiences in the field further on

By Svetlana Usenyuk

6 thoughts on “Arctic Design: Field Thoughts and Questions

  1. Hi, I sincerely wish to say this is an excellent step you are taking in research. Courage!!! I am a master degree student in the faculty of art and design (EMACIM/Audiovisual Media Culture) at the University of Lapland. My BSc degree was in Sociology and Anthropology at the university of Buea, Cameroon West Africa. I am indeed so interested in arctic design and research and in particular its socio-cultural content. I will leave my contact information below…hopefully we get to meet some day. I will begin research next year and hope to get more deep into arctic studies…

    1. Svetlana

      Dear Ayonghe, thanks for your kind comment! That’s so nice to hear from colleagues on the field of design, and especially about your personal interest to ‘arctic design’ as a professional phenomenon.
      Are you based in Roi nowadays? I am actually coming there quite soon, in the beginning of November, so that would be great to meet. Let’s talk then by email (svetlana.usenyuk[at]

  2. Wow, is this true that these are your art works? STUNNINGLY wonderful paintings! With those you probably convey way more of your perception of your field site in the North of Finland than words can ever tell. Thank you for sharing those.
    You touch two very fundamental questions in anthropological fieldwork that are rather little discussed in academic writing
    1) the notion of loneliness and experience of helplessness in the field
    2) the question of emotional attachment to people with whom you live and work in the field.
    I think most of us have experienced both of these in the field, and the first one is a thoroughly worrying state of existence over the first field period in the field. Luckily for all of us in the Arctic, I think we can say that people are so welcoming that the warmness and help that we get after some time more than compensate the first experience – that was at least my case for sure, as a foreigner coming first to West Siberia with some vague idea of research, but without contacts, background info and knowledge of languages.
    One thing to remember is that among many of the peoples in the Arctic, communication through words is actually less important than communication through joint experience – of whatever it may be. So once you expose yourself to that joint experience of some practice with somebody, you get in touch much faster and much more thoroughly – have you noticed? Obviously, it takes time, and it’s just natural that we don’t get along with everybody in our host field sites. So it may be that we have to try doing stuff together with various people before we actually find a good match of fieldwork partner. I think many of us get at some point some main partner, who also becomes a friend, with whom we share more experiences in the field, and who also introduces us to other people. So let’s give it enough time, be patient and strong enough to survive loneliness.
    But then, the closer we get to our main fieldwork partners, the more point 2) applies: emotional attachment to people and place in the field. I think there is nothing wrong with that whatsoever.
    Fortunately, anthropology has freed itself from the doubtful assumption of some fiction of objectivity and impartiality that is impossible to accomplish and does not exist anyway when we do fieldwork alone. So let’s just face it: we are subjective in the field, our views are shaped by the people we work with together – and yet, I am convinced we get to know through these people quite well some of the deepest possible understandings of human social and cultural similarity and diversity, and relations to the environment. Because we know them so well, we can get to the deeper layer of their ways of thinking, perceiving, knowing and acting.
    Not sure if that helps, but the questions you raise are very personal ones, so I guess what you can get is personal replies.
    On a less personal side, of course there are three major codes of ethics in our discipline, all of which are definitely worth reading if you have not done so:
    American Anthropological Association Code of Ethics (
    Association of Social Anthropologists (
    IASSA code of ethics. (
    All of these I like because they do not give simple prescriptions of how to behave in the field, but give food for thought to make our own informed decisions to act culturally and socially appropriately. Good luck everybody in achieving that.

  3. Stephan Dudeck

    Great to hear about your fieldwork, Sveta. What you tell about the initial period of fieldwork sounds very familiar. Patience is something very important if you want to do good ethnography. Unfortunately it becomes more and more luxury in times, when the pressure to produce results in shorter periods of fieldworks is growing. I remember the story of one German ethnologist of his fieldwork in a village in south Italy, where he spend plenty of time hanging around in the village pub until he got involved in the social world of the village. I found the book: Peter Berger et al. (Eds.) “Fieldwork – Social Realities in Anthropological Perspectives” (Berlin 2009 ISBN 978-3-89998-114-8) very important to understand the different fieldwork situations. Going through different stages of involvement and integration in the local social world is very important to understand the embedding of knowledge in that very social universe. You advance in that process and develop different social ties, become part of a social network, start to play different social roles. All that is not possible without being emotionally involved. Jeanne Favret-Saada gives a great analysis of the role of affection in ethnographic fieldwork and how important it is for a deeper understanding of our epistemological position in her article “Being affected” ( To get rid of the emotional involvement is in my opinion a senseless endeavour.
    Ethnographic fieldwork requires to give up the idea that scientific research requires a subject-object relationship between researcher and research “object”. There are no people “under study”, but different forms of learning-relationships between people, social interaction and exchange of information following certain “rules” that are specific for the “culture”. If you had the chance to get a little bit more involved in the social life in Khanty villages that you visited, you must got a feeling for the complicated rules of secrecy and respect between men and women and between living humans and different forms of other beings.
    My methodological recommendation therefore would be to revise the concept of scientific research as an enterprise of a scientist with a firm theoretical standpoint aimed at an unknown object to be explored from that point. I had to learn that ethnographic fieldwork is an epistemological movement. Without leaving my standpoint there is no way to understand the realities of other people. I have the plan to develop the idea of epistemological mobility further together with my colleague Terhi Vuojala-Magga in a joint article in the near future. I will let you know, when the draft is ready. Until then: Good luck! with fieldwork and keep an open eye on yourself, that helps to understand the others around you!

  4. fstammle

    I hadn’t read your comment to Sveta previously, but wanted to give you a delayed thank you for these insights, which I think go very much along the same line as my previous comments to Sveta, just deeper and better formulated. The direction you push on to is EXTREMELY important. It just became clear during the recent visit by Sandra Harding here in Rovaniemi, where we talked a lot about scientific impartiality and objectiveness. Apparently the myth of impartiality is still very powerful around. You and Terhi’s idea about epistemological mobility sounds great! For that future article I could imagine that Laura Nader’s edited volume “naked science” (1996, Routledge, London), and Harding’s “The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader” (2011, Duke University Press) will be inspiring readings.

  5. Svetlana

    Dear Florian and Stephan,
    Thank you very much for profoundly commenting my post!
    I apologize for such a long ‘no reaction’ period: it actually means invisible reflective work is still going on in my brain 🙂
    Thanks a lot for many valuable links on research ethics, and mainly for sharing personal thoughts on the matter of objectivity and emotional attachment: very valuable and probably most useful in my case (since we all are talking about almost the same kind of field experiences).
    It is now time to start planning my next trip to Lapland, for the ‘snow period’. It menas, in turn, I will come back quite sonn with new thoughts as well as reflections and ‘practical implications’ of the above.
    And Stephan, please keep me posted about your upcoming article, even about the draft, I am very much looking forward to that.

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