Call for Workshop contributions “Gender in Polar Research: Gendered field work conditions, epistemologies and legacies”

A two-day workshop in the framework of

Arctic Science Summit Week 2020, Akureyri, Iceland, 29-30(TBC) March 2020

funded by IASC – the International Arctic Science Committee

Gender in the Arctic

The IASC Social Sciences and Humanities Working Group (WG), together with IASC’s Cryosphere, Marine, and Terrestrial WGs, invites you to a unique cross-disciplinary workshop attempting to bring together the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities in order to discuss and reflect on the gendered nature of Polar research.
The workshop will combine three strands of debate that have thus far not been discussed systematically: (1) Doing science in the 21st century in a way that departs from but also pays careful attention to the history of exploration and colonial endeavours as “heroic” and masculine activities – while a masculine image still seems to dominate the methodologies and practices of Arctic and Polar research. (2) The still existing gender gap when it comes to female researchers in hard sciences, their career prospects, and their sometimes difficult working conditions as women in the field. Critiques of the gender gap and gendered research work have thus far neglected the diversity aspects of queer and gender minority (LGBTQI) researchers. They face particular challenges while working in a still largely heteronormative research environment as it is described for research stations, vessels or tundra/taiga camps. (3) The gendered composition of researchers as actors and the gendered spaces of conducting research, including the field sites, have an important impact on research interests, research design, research ethics and epistemology. The gender bias affects the research subject and methodology, and Polar research can learn from and communicate with other fields of science about how to ensure a high standard of equality, sensitivity to issues of marginalization, and ethical production of science.

We invite participants of the ASSW 2020 from natural and social sciences to pop by at the workshop and to join the discussions and break-out groups. Participants will be engaged through alternative formats to gain a maximum of knowledge exchange as well as to map out the state of the art and ideas about where to go from there.

We invite abstracts for a great variety of contributions in conversation with the three themes outlined above: besides as a set of classic academic papers (15 min) and short inputs (5 min) (e.g. sharing experiences or introducing NGOs and movements).

In particular, the workshop facilitates discussions and break-out group work for examining pressing issues in the thematic fields based on individual, group and scholarly experience and activism. Audiovisual or artistic contributions are very welcome. Also join us for volunteering as an organiser of a break-out group.

Submission of proposal and request for funding

Describe your contribution with an abstract of max 250 words and submit at the latest on the 1st of October 2019 to: and

We can fund a limited number of participants up to 800 euros each. Priority will be given to early-career researchers. Please, indicate your financial need in your message to us.

For more information see IASSA Working Group Gender in the Arctic


“If research doesn’t surprise you, it’s not worth the research” Julie Cruikshank

I would like to share with you some of the things we learned from Julie Cruikshank and other elders from the Yukon Territory to better understand oral history from the North. To search for surprising insights, to be open to challenges to our conventional perceptions, that was Julie’s most important advice to us.

Her talk centred on stories about glaciers that challenge the nature versus culture dichotomy science is so preoccupied with. Why did she invite us to dismiss this divide? Does it not serve us well at least to keep the humanities and social sciences distinct from the natural sciences?

Informal get-together with Julie Cruikshank after the meeting and ice swimming and barbecue at the Kemijoki river.
Informal get-together with Julie Cruikshank after the meeting and ice swimming and barbecue at the Kemijoki river.

We know from our own fieldwork experiences that people who live in close connection with the local environment don’t draw a clear line between nature and culture. They interact with natural phenomena in a very social way and they know very well that the beings we call nature display the ability to communicate and to interact with humans and human society.

Julie said she expected that the elders she wanted to record life stories with would talk about historical events like the gold rush and the construction of the Alaska Highway that had such a huge impact on the life of their communities. Surprisingly they insisted on telling different stories about encounters with phenomena we consider to be part of nature like glaciers and animals. The stories were about establishing relationships with different beings and about knowledge transfer and Julie could understand them as related to her own work that is based exactly on these things – the relationship with her partners in the field and the knowledge shared across social and cultural differences. These stories provided the basis for interpretation and as Claude Lévi-Strauss would say are “good to think with”.

If we skip our objectifying perception of nature we become able to listen to the message contained in stories about glaciers that hear and smell and take revenge. It will be easy then to link these stories of the risk of inappropriate behaviour in the face of powerful beings to stories about colonial encounters in life histories but a purely metaphorical interpretation of these encounters with speaking animals and listening glaciers would get the elders that tell these stories wrong.

The idea of Amerindian perspectivism developed by the anthropologist Eduardo Vivieros de Castro invites us to take the perception of non-human actors seriously. It suggests that different beings perceive the world in similar ways but from different angles and that indigenous stories reveal a sensibility to see and acknowledge these different perspectives. The idea that parts of what we call nature like animals and plants, mountains, rivers and glaciers but also invisible beings like spirits, gods and the deceased and non-animated objects like cars or oil companies have the same abilities as humans to comprehend the world but have their own perspectives, sometimes diametrically opposed to ours, is something we all experience in ethnographic fieldwork in the Arctic.

There are some important consequences of this idea we can learn from the stories that tell about the interaction of different categories of beings in a social way.

First: Humans are able to imagine the different perspectives. We can interact with different beings and visit their worlds. We are not fixed to a standpoint in accordance to our place in the world. Interaction and mobility allow for epistemological moves that enable us to understand others. That is an idea developed in an article by Terhi Vuojala-Magga in “Knowing, training, learning: the importance of reindeer character and temperament for individuals and communities of humans and animals.” It is a question of respectful behaviour to be able to avoid conflict, violence and failure in the process of interaction. We have to develop ways to deal respectfully with different perspectives, appropriate ways to keep distance and to transgress boundaries.

Second: Important are the differences in agency allocated to different beings but agency is not a property to possess. Different places and contexts reveal different power relationships. There are situations when the powerless can become powerful and vice versa. Stories tell about these encounters, failures in the perception of power, and the inversions of power relations. They tell about the possibility of respectful acknowledgement of difference and about the possibilities and inabilities to learn from each other without erasing these differences.

Third: The knowledge that beings develop out of their diverse perspectives possess different power. People we collaborate with in the Arctic experience the hegemony of certain forms of knowledge brought in by colonial institutions like science, religions and the state. Hegemonic knowledge is opposed to the ideas of perspectivism and claims it would be normal to have only one moral, one god, one identity, one truth, and one language for every human and only for humans. Forms of interaction like languages and value systems informed by traditional religion and ethics are delegitimised and sometimes even lost in the process of loss of access to land and social capital and the enforcement of capitalist economy, scientific positivism and the implementation of Christian universalism.

The difference between knowledge production in the academic world and in local communities can give us a first hint on the power differences and the process of hegemony of one and deligitimization of the other knowledge but if we get stuck in the dichotomy between scientific and indigenous knowledge we will end up in a vicious circle. With careful ethnographic work we reveal that there is more than one form of indigenous knowledge and digging in our own scientific traditions will reveal that there are strands in European scientific thought that differ from the hegemonic naturalist or objectifying perspective.

If we’ll link local and scientific traditions of perspectivism, we will become able to see how stories – oral as well as written – can contain a polyphony of voices that have agency in our society and in our interactions with different beings as well. They have the power to transform the listener, to make him/her wonder, to call the authoritative discourse into question and to facilitate understanding.