Rethinking Ethnology and Folkloristics:
a Nordic-Baltic Network
for Research Students
On August 1-8, 1999, the organisation
of ethnology and folklore students Tartu Nefa organized the summer
seminar «Research strategies and traditions of folkloristics
and ethnology in the 1990's» for Baltic and Nordic students and
Organizing activities of the summer
seminar started already in the beginning of 1998, approximately 1.5
years ago, when Tartu Nefa group decided to discuss the essence, both
methodologies and concepts, of these disciplines. The initial aim was
to study how and why ethnologic and folkloristic studies are carried
out, that is to concentrate on the research process as such. The
ideas formulated soon after the annual conference of young
researchers held in Estonian Folklore Archives in April 1998 were,
for example: How to define the aims of folkloristics and ethnology in
contemporary society? Is there any social need dictating the themes
and methodologies of research? How does and how can society use the
results of the research? How does ethnologists and folklorists
influence informants and vice versa? What is the role of
ethnologist/folklorist in society? etc. etc.
These questions were quite simple, but
at the same time also new and unexplored for the students, as these
themes have not been thoroughly discussed in Estonian ethnology and
folkloristics. This relative «shortage of knowledge»
dictated the form of the project - summer seminar - where the aim was
not to present more or less crystallized research results but to
start the discussion. Thus, the whole future project was named
«summer seminar of research strategies».
Step by step the project grew and since
March 1999, it has been integrated to the scholarly network titled
«Facing the Third Millennium: Rethinking Ethnology and
Folkloristics» supported by the Nordic Grant Scheme for Baltic
Countries and North-West Russia (the Nordic Council of Ministers).
New network was set up between the folklore departments of Joensuu,
Bergen and Tartu universities (professors Seppo Knuuttila, Torunn
Selberg, and Ülo Valk) as well as Tartu Nefa group. The last one
has actually been the initiator of the network.
Organizers hope that the form of the
network enables the students of ethnology and folklore to lead a
critical and reflective discussion on the deeper meaning of these
fields of study and research methods.
The starting point was also realizing,
that ethnography as a method forms a common ground for both ethnology
and folkloristics. At the same time, on different historical reasons,
there has been a lack of fruitful cooperation in older generations of
researchers in Estonia. The project is an attempt to unite these
fields for a discussion again and to predict together the future
tasks of these disciplines.
Up to recent time the object of the
ethnology and folkloristics has been folk culture. In the beginning
of this century the informants and donators (who were proud to help
to create something), were involved in building the past of a nation,
as it was the case of creating the collections of Estonian National
Museum, for example. Nowadays we have no more such an heroic task, at
least from the point of view of the people studied. We can no longer
collect the cultural information from people just in order to create
the perfect system of scientific knowledge.
The relationships between researcher
and informant has moved far away from the relationship between
'subject' and 'object' and changed slowly on the level of
'subject'-subject'. Those, who have formerly been the researched
ones, have been more or less incorporated to the research process as
an equal partner. The results should mean or give something to the
studied group, as well.
On the other hand, the task of the
researcher is to translate the sign system and the message of the
culture into the language of his/her own culture. So we can talk
about the researcher as a mediator between two cultures or two levels
of one culture. The question, growing out from there, is: what
qualities should the researcher have/obtain for that? What
philosophical background gives the quality, needed?
Almost every author of a research
proposal in our fields of study, no matter what the problem or where
the field site, claims that the research project will make a
contribution to a poorly understood problem. And really, in most
cases such claims are perfectly true. Contemporary field of culture
is characterized by fast changes. When considering that, what are the
possibilites and tasks of scholars then? What is actually the object
of ethnology and folklore studies at the next decades?
We outlined just a few topics and
processes of interest, listed below:
- The influence of mass media and new
media to modern popular culture (and on the contrary - the influence
of folklore on the mass media)
- The detraditionalization and
globalization of culture
- The vanishing borders between
so-called high and folk cultures, which has been noticed during last
centuries, but is especially interesting now, in the so-called
- The fast changes in cultural fenomena
and the general fastening of cultural processes
Beside that the work with archived
material and our past in general will always be the relevant topic.
In which ways can we use the materials in order to obtain a new level
of knowledge concerning archive data?
The summer seminar offered nine plenary
lectures, which gave also the key concepts for the work carried out
In a lecture about methods and
strategies of mentalities, professor Seppo Knuuttila from Joensuu,
Finland, offered a key or methodology for approaching mentalities.
The concept has been treated as unscientific, but it has worked well
as a nominalistic one. The study of mentalities needs
interdisciplinary approach. Seppo Knuuttila showed, how to follow
different paradigms, cultural models, mental equipments, collective
conciousness, modal categories etc. in different types of material,
collected from the field.
Folklorist David Elton Gay from
Bloomington, USA gave the insights to scholarly editing processes in
his lecture «Inventing the Folklore Text: Scholarly Editing as
a Creative Act». He raised the question, how much can we trust
former authors. A famous example is Franz Boas, who collected
impressive amount of materials and notes without knowing the local
language. We can't forget, that, while trusting previous texts, the
main task of a scholar is to make difference between facts and
The importance of the summer seminar
topics turned out to be also in the fact, that they stressed, how
important it is to the scholar to create different relationships with
the research topics. We have to be able to acquire different roles
and to choose between materials. Norwegian folklorist Torunn Selberg,
who studies contemporary folk religion and New Age, choosed to be a
neutral outsider, who gives no evaluations to her research object.
The person, who is doing «anthropology at home», has to
act differently (as it was the case with Finnish ethnologist Helena
Ruotsala, who gave the lecture «Fieldwork at Home -
Possibilities and Limitations of Native Research»), reflecting
the current trends in Sami studies.
Ülo Valk from Tartu, Estonia, gave
a lecture «Understanding Folk Religion», where he
stressed the importance of using inductive methods by following more
closely two cases: a) the historical example, religious movement
initiated by the «folk prophet» Tallima Paap in 18.
century Estonia, and b) contemporary example of folk religion in
Ethnologist Art Leete from Tartu,
Estonia, described in his paper «Do the Field Work Methods
Exist in Practice?», how the researcher is always in
difficulties, when he trys to escape from his own cultural categories
and culture-specific ways of interpretation.
Anthropologist Kjell Olsen from Alta,
Norway, gave valuable insights to the case when a researcher is
dealing with a culture close to his own in a lecture «Neighbours,
Students, Informants: Fieldwork As an Attitude or a Lifestyle?».
The important topic, raised in his presentation, was the importance
of the way, in which researcher enters the culture. He claimed, that
the narratives, he is being told by the informants, depend on that.
Folklorist Ulf Palmenfelt (Bergen,
Norway) asked in the paper «Constructing Cyberia - Popular
Beliefs and the Internet», wether the old culture is still
represented in this new medium, or are there going to be significant
changes in cultural concepts and different representations of
culture. It seems, that until now the basic level of popular culture
has not changed, but new technical abilities are incorporated to
previous genres and views.
Folklorist Fionnuala Williams from
Belfast, Ireland gave a lecture with a heading «Folklore of the
Northern Ireland Conflict - Some Forms and Functions». The
methods and ground of Fionnuala Williams represent a classical way of
doing folklore research, but one of the most important ideas of her
lecture was the ability to feel empathy/sympathy towards her or his
informants. She stressed, that no matter, how painful the topic was,
we cannot use informants as anonymous, neutral sources of
In four workshops students discussed
their own research projects and research experiences and compared
different attitudes. The research process based on qualitative
methodology is a very personal process for every scholar and at the
same time, the scholars do not write very often about their own
experiences and the mistakes, they have made. Reflexivity in general
hasn't belonged to our scholarly tradition until recent years. The
possibility of discussing the questions in the more free atmosphere
of the summer seminar, encouraged the beginners of the field and gave
them useful hints for future work.
In the following period the network
will be held together by modern communicational devises - the
Internet. A web-page (URL:
has been created for
that purpose, hopefully also the mailing-list will follow it soon.
The computer network could help the participants to carry out also
some common minor seminars during the project. The organizers
decided, that the next bigger gathering and a summer school of the
network will take place in the summer of the year 2001 in Joensuu.
Photo by Merili Metsvahi 1999.