Yesterday, Saturday the 14th May, I was at St Mary’s College at Durham University to participate in a workshop for postgraduate students and early-career scholars researching the Arctic. Our purpose was to reflect on the challenges, ethics and responsibilities involved in conducting Arctic fieldwork. Organised by two doctoral students in Durham’s Department of Geography, Johanne Bruun and Ingrid Medby, the workshop programme featured fascinating ‘snapshots’ of Arctic fieldwork from a diverse array of researchers spanning both the natural and social sciences, as well as much discussion.
My own ‘snapshot’ focused on the politics of Arctic research, based on past experiences interacting with scientists as a policy official with the Government of Nunavut. My contention was that all Arctic science not only involves implicit biases — for instance, in the use of ‘southern’ conceptual categories — but also implicit politics in the way these biases can sometimes cut across the positions and priorities of Arctic communities on contentious issues such as governance or land management. In my view, it is critical for researchers to communicate closely with Arctic communities — not only to report back results after research is completed, but also to frame questions before research begins.
In all fairness, doing so would require a tricky balancing act. Academic research means maintaining a critical distance in the field, and an academic career means degree requirements or promotion criteria that often reward interacting with other academics more than with local communities. However, I hope workshop participants found it interesting and helpful to hear a former Arctic civil servant’s take on these issues.
Many thanks to Ingrid and Johanne for organising a stimulating workshop.