Stereotypes die hard!

Last week, an advertising campaign by Visit Finland and Finnair produced images of Sàmi in traditional clothes dancing around the fire during a shamanic ritual in the tent. In discussions following the publication, many rejected the representation of Sàmi in that video, not least because Sàmi were depicted rather dirty-looking (“Likaiset lappalaiset”, YLE 17-09-2015,

The article published in the YLE Sámi website
The article published in the YLE Sámi website

Supposedly, the actors in the film were not Sàmi themselves, and the setting as well as the stage props were invented. At the time of writing, the Finnish as well as the English version of the debated video are offline and replaced with an apology, but the German and Japanese versions are still accessible.
Two years ago at the International Conference of Arctic Social Sciences in Prince George, BC, I gave a paper about the persistence of stereotypes about the Sàmi as being drunk and dirty, and how these images are being reproduced in tourism and society at large (e.g. as postcoards of Uuttu-Kalle, or in the past in popular comedies, for instance pulttibois, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbUFhKuMfCg). At first, the international audience at the conference could not believe that the images I was showing were actually available, such as the post card of Uuttu-Kalle, on sale in local supermarkets in north Finland. Instead, the audience seemed to think that I was talking about representations of the Sami in the past. The video now broadcast by Visit Finland – the national tourism enterprise – and Finnair – the national airline – is yet another reproduction of that popular, persisting image and, as the president of the Sámi Parliament Tiina Saanila-Aikio mentions in the YLE interview (“Likaiset lappalaiset”,YLE 17-09-2015), all attempts that have been made in the past two decades to raise awareness of its problematic implications seem to have been in vain. Agreeably, a step forward in getting rid of the stereotypes would be to follow Tiina Sanila-Aikio’s advice and film real Sàmi in their daily activities (“Likaiset lappalaiset”, YLE 17-09-2015). However, a wider societal effort is required to change this understandings and attitudes and that should span across all national public institutions, starting from schools.
In addition, it is interesting to notice that among the foci of the discussion, dirtiness figures as a main point of criticism. From a theoretical perspective, but also on a more pragmatic level, such debate conveys a very urban understanding of cleanness/dirtiness, a division that bring us to the structuralist analysis as with Mary Douglas where she remarks that “Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements”(Douglas, 2003:36) and hence refers to other symbolic taxonomies . On the contrary, in a real Sàmi lávu, or any other teepee/chum condition, face and hands marked by the ashes would not be regarded as dirty, but as Ingold would have it, ” inheres in the pattern of dwelling activities that I call the taskscape” (Ingold, 1993:153), in other words, it would be understood as a sign that one has been taking care of the fire within a daily nomad taskscape and we all know that the fire has a central “focus” for the survival in the tundra.

Nuccio Mazzullo

Douglas Mary, 2003 (1966), Purity and Danger. An analysis of concept of pollution and taboo. Routledge, London

Ingold Tim 1993, The Temporality of the Landscape, in Conceptions of Time and Ancient Society, World Archaeology, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 152-174

Anthropology beyond dichotomies? Thoughts after “Beyond Perception 2015”

WP_20150901_006[1]The Symposium “Beyond perception 15” was organised in Aberdeen by the department postgraduate researchers and postgraduate students to celebrate the work of Tim Ingold. The aim was to explore the ways in which anthropologists can find new avenues of approaching the most fundamental questions that our discipline deals with: our relations to the environment and – hence, our ways of being-in-the-world, and ultimately addressing our being alive – i.e. what it means to be alive in general. understanding of life in general

The symposium started, on 1st September, with a general introductive session touching upon some this general questions at the heart of the anthropological discipline and were discussed by Tim Ingold, David G. Anderson, Gisli Palsson and Amiria Salmond. It was followed for the next three days by distinguished keynote speakers and panelists like Christina Toren, Stephanie Bunn, Colin Scott, and participants like Myrdene Anderson to name a few! It has been a four days marathon, for about 10 hours a day, of thinking and discussing about these theoretical questions that totally filled our minds with deep thoughts. We can’t remember many of so deeply inspiring scholarly exchanges in our academic life as this one. Many of the participants felt that we were all part of a gathering that might become important for the history of our entire discipline.

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In the picture, Tim Ingold and his wive Anna discussing with Colin Scott.

As the symposium was unfolding it became clear to many of us that Tim Ingold’s work had really reached out far beyond the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology, as the conference had brought together some of the world’s finest scholars also from many other disciplines such as arts, art history, architecture, archaeology, literature studies, psychology – to name but a few. But as important as that, it became also clear that anthropology as we know it got broadened into new directions through Ingold’s work.

In his talk Ingold emphasised how he would like to see our discipline really as an open discipline, and one that is not afraid to ask brave, grand and fundamental questions about life on this planet. In his final words he made it very clear that our enquiry is about life in the ONE WORLD we all jointly inhabit. Focusing too much on different ontologies, he argued, would favour the creation of different worlds – which in the end do not talk to each other anymore. Rather than ontology, instead, we should focus on ontogeny, which allows us to analyse processes of becoming, of coming-into-being, of growing in the one but heterogeneous world we live in. These enquiries should continue to be comparative, because rather than one final solution there is always a multiplicity of paths we can follow. If we want to find out why somebody follows one path rather than another, we should know something about all those possible paths.

As important as these discussions are, we also felt at some point that the fundamental questions of course are not really new. They have been asked by many of our academic ancestors before, especially the one about the dichotomy between nature and nurture, biology and culture, as the recent discussion of Ruth Benedict’s work shows

However, we enjoyed how in this symposium many of the discussions pushed anthropology really to the edge of what many of us thought our field is about. Almost after each substantial paper the questions reached a maximum depth, and reminded us of a quite principal dilemma: we know that many of the dichotomies with which we work do not really hold when we go out and experience real life. The borders between the human and the animal, the human and the non-human, the alive and the dead, the animate and the inanimate, and really any dichotomy we work with – do not really hold when we expose them to radical empirical enquiry. On the other hand – however – as much as we attempt to overcome these dichotomies, we always rebuild them again in the next available context. This led Martin Mills in the final discussion to ask that why is it that our brain always longs for solidity, finite objects, and certainty, if we have come to understand – not least through Tim Ingold’s work and the discussions that followed – that actually everything around us and we ourselves are involved in processes of becoming.

Maybe it is that if we abandon the idea of dichotomy altogether, we cannot deal with causation anymore. You need to have a dichotomy in order to say that something causes something else. Once you arrive at that point there is not much else you can say, can you?

Maybe this is actually what is important to remind ourselves, as Ingold has reminded us in the end, “anthropology is an open discipline”. We have found out the hard way that final solutions can have the most disastrous effects our planet has ever seen. So let us continue looking at life and experiencing it as openly as possible, at the same time acknowledging our own limitations: our brain works with concepts that are maybe simpler than what we see in the world surrounding us.