Kulttuuriantropologian professori Hannu I. Heikkinen

The perspective of common people is important for anthropologists

Hannu I. Heikkinen finds it endlessly fascinating when research subjects’ stories draw the cultural anthropologist’s attention to a new direction.

Hannu I. Heikkinen's father always used to say that his son was sickeningly curious. “I was really interested in everything and always asking questions,” says the Professor of Cultural Anthropology and smiles.

Cows, fields and forests were a part of his childhood on the farm located in Varpaisjärvi in eastern Finland – and nature was a particularly strong part of it. Varpaisjärvi is located close to the Tahkovuori ski resort and Siilinjärvi mines, and it is now a part of Lapinlahti. “I have always been a nature lover.”

Heikkinen did not find his own focus immediately after upper secondary school, but tried out a career as a youth worker first and then trained as a carpenter. However, he lost his job during the recession, and it was time to consider a new direction.

“I applied to the Degree Programme of Cultural Research at the University of Oulu. The pieces started to fall into place. Archaeology, geography, cultural anthropology and museology were the kinds of fields that interested me. In them, I was particularly intrigued by the perspective of common people that could be studied in field research.”

The most important tools of a cultural anthropologist are a notebook, a camera and a recorder.
“In addition to interviews, participatory observation is our most important research method. It often happens that the researcher thinks he is going to investigate a certain matter, but from the research subjects’ perspective, something more important emerges.”

Sheep are grazing amongst Viking relics in the village of Qassiarsuk in Greenland. The drought caused by climate change torments sheep husbandry in Greenland. Photo: Hannu I. Heikkinen

Climate change poses challenges for peoples of the North

Heikkinen's own research focuses on people's environmental relations.

“The use of nature involves a variety of conflicts of interest. Climate change also poses numerous challenges for northern communities. For example, the drought on the coast of southern Greenland is already so strong that the important livelihood of sheep-rearing now requires hay to be imported from Denmark,” Heikkinen explains.

When studying the effects of climate change on an individual community or place, the global discussion on the topic must be forgotten. “Ready-made explanations are dangerous. For example, with its gigantic glaciers, you would not immediately believe that Greenland is tormented by drought.”

Industrial use of natural resources and the related contradictions have also been the subject of Heikkinen's research ever since his master's thesis and doctoral dissertation. “People fear that their living environment will be ruined, and their living conditions and level of comfort will suffer. They think that their bond with nature is under threat. At the same time, people know that, for example, mines bring jobs.”

They are also worried about tourism. What happens to tourism if a mine destroys the attractiveness of nature? What about the effect of climate change on tourism? As this spring has shown, a pandemic can stop people from travelling and meeting up in no time.

Tourism and mines are acute concerns also in Greenland. “This is a paradoxical situation. Our digitalisation and prevention of climate change require minerals and metals obtained from mines. The pressure for establishing new mines is increasing. These same challenges are also relevant in the Finnish Lapland. On the Swedish side, most of the mines are located in the Sámi areas, which causes more conflicts.”

Heikkinen remembers when he started talking to tourism entrepreneurs in Northern Finland about the themes of climate change over ten years ago. “Already then, people were very eager to talk and think about ways of adapting. They had realised a long time ago that climate change was happening, although a broader public debate was only just beginning.”

Interested in the anthropology of hope

Rural industries, mines, tourism and nature. Heikkinen admits that he has not come far from his own roots.

“I understand these themes through my own history. My parents’ farm introduced tourism as a secondary business already in the 1970s. Now my brother runs the farm and its main source of income is purely tourism. The gypsum mountains of the Siilinjärvi mine were visible when you climbed to the top of the ridge or fell, and many of my relatives worked on the mine. Already at a young age, I understood that the mine was an important employer in the small village and that our own farm also depended on the fertiliser produced by the Siilinjärvi mines”, Heikkinen says.

When studying people, a researcher should always keep his ears open. “I listen to the individual's viewpoint. I let people open up about their own concerns and define their own vulnerabilities. The perspective of common people is important for the researcher. Fieldwork is at the heart of everything. It's an adventure. People are always different in their own environment than in a clinical facility.”

A water-filled open quarry and maintenance building in the abandoned mining town of Ivittuut. The pressure on mines caused by digitalisation and the electrification of transport is an acute concern and, on the other hand, an opportunity in Greenland. Photo: Hannu I. Heikkinen

In the future, Heikkinen would like to focus on a research trend that sparked his interest when he was in research exchange in Cologne in autumn 2019.

“The anthropologies of hope and good turn the researcher's attention to where there is a glimpse of hope or where things are going well. The idea is to investigate which factors make good things possible. Anthropology has focused a great deal on investigating the moments when problems are encountered somewhere. This is also called dark anthropology. Science is traditionally very problem oriented. Very often, there is also a confrontation, or a conflict involved.”

In the long run, this is hard for a researcher, too. “Among other things, climate change and the loss of biodiversity are themes that are currently studied in a fairly one-sided manner. We should bear in mind that these issues and their solutions are complex, and there is often another perspective involved. On the other hand, during these times of climate angst and while we are waiting for doomsday, it should be emphasised that it is actually pretty miserable to live without hope for a better future”, Heikkinen summarises.

Text: Kati Valjus

Photos of Hannu I. Heikkinen: Mikko Törmänen


Last updated: 9.4.2020