A journey for scoping out research: Reflections on ethics, dialogue and process

Mika Schroder is in the second year of her PhD at the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance. Her research explores the meaning and practice of ‘participation’ of ‘local stakeholders’ within international biodiversity law. The project is interdisciplinary, drawing on methods and theories from anthropology, law and geography. Her methodology is grounded in spatial justice: a concept that brings together physical and conceptual space in assessing the justness of legal and spatial processes from an also temporal perspective. This is the first of two posts related to her AHRC SDF-funded travels which took place over October and November this year.

Introduction

I was incredibly fortunate in securing SGSAH Student Development Funding to travel to Sweden for a two-week scoping study during October. This trip proved invaluable in giving me a chance to think more about my research and its relevance beyond academia. It also gave me an opportunity to develop strong and meaningful dialogues about my research with colleagues within and outside of university faculties. Finally, it also taught me about the importance of remaining open to change, and accepting when matters are beyond my control.

The Journey

My trip – first to Jokkmokk, within the Swedish part of Sápmi (Sámi territories pre-colonisation), and then Umeå – was done with the hope of opening up dialogues with relevant actors at a field site in hopes of establishing the foundations for a collaborative partnership in moving forward and planning for the future of my research and its associated fieldwork elements. Central to my ethical framework (drawing on literature exploring ways to decolonise research, and the work of decolonisation more broadly) is ensuring that research aims and questions resonate with, and respond to the perspectives and challenges faced by actors to whom the research is relevant (the principle to proactively “do good/give back” as opposed to passively “do no harm”). So effectively, my trip was a first attempt at making my research relevant and desirable to actors involved in the relevant processes.

For this I’d arrange ahead of time to meet relevant people involved in the management of the site in question, and also people at the University of Umeå.  The site was Laponia, a World Heritage Site within Sápmi, and one of the few in the world designated as both a cultural and natural site of international importance. The board, Laponiatjuottjudus (lulésami for “to take care of something, administrate”) is comprised of representatives from the nine Sámi communities whose lands are within Laponia, and representatives from the two local municipalities, the County administration, and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. Its governance structure is unique and the decision-making processes and working methods (founded upon the inclusion and participation of local stakeholders) adopted under its guidance are based upon Sámi customs and culture.

My meetings in Jokkmokk proved incredibly insightful. Hearing first-hand accounts of issues related to land, cultural expression and language, followed by discussions on how my research may address these (and how it may not) was not only motivational but also felt incredibly meaningful and in some ways humbling. Far too often is it the perceived sole role of the researcher to identify the questions and needs of certain groups and actors, not only removing their agency but also ignoring local knowledge and perspectives. These dialogues, reflections and insights helped me think deeply about my research, its aims and forms, and the way that I should position myself as a researcher within a given setting. The ideas that emerged from these discussions, were well-received, and a plan for a mutually beneficial partnership began taking form, with details being discussed towards the end of my first week. However, hanging over these discussions were ongoing negotiations concerning the future of Laponia, which were proving extremely difficult and testing (due to matters well beyond what I can possibly cover in a short blog post), with the staff and those involved facing serious uncertainties as to where these may lead. I was therefore from the beginning made prepared that carrying out this type of project was perhaps not feasible at this time.

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Some views along my daily walks and runs

While in Jokkmokk I also made sure to explore the area. During the week I enjoyed long walks and runs in the forest, along the river and up the nearest hills, and on the weekend I went on a three-day solo hiking and camping trip in Muddus/Muottos National park within Laponia. It was Tjaktjadálvve (autumn-winter, one of Laponia’s eight seasons), snow had begun to fall and at night I was facing several degrees below zero. This too proved wonderful – finding myself completely alone except for some fox tracks occasionally leading the way provided much space for reflection. For those interested in hiking, the occasional solo jaunt can be a humbling and empowering experience. One day I also visited Áttje: the Swedish Mountain and Sámi Museum, whose exhibits gives insight into Sámi life, culture and history, as well as that of the surrounding mountain areas.

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Tjakjadálvve (autumn-winter) in Laponia

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L: Stonesculpture “Guossi Gäst” by Hilde Skancke Pedersen, reminding us that we’re all visitors/guests, and inviting for reflection on what this means for self and space. R: News article (at the Áttje Museum) on a contentious case of Sámi art being used on a hydroelectric dam, which have historically restricted access to Sámi lands and traditional reindeer migratory routes.

When returning to Umeå I met with researchers at the University’s Vaartoe Centre for Saami Research. I was warmly received, with several people lending me their time to discuss my research and providing comments and feedback on potential gaps and challenges. Discussions of a potential partnership was also in the works. These meetings also proved incredibly useful, and had the project gone ahead these relations would’ve also proven invaluable as I would’ve then surrounded myself with people far more knowledgeable than myself in matters concerning this area of research.

Looking back and moving forwards

Unfortunately this project will not materialise as part of my PhD research, due to reasons beyond my control: it simply wasn’t the right time. That is not to say that the trip wasn’t a success – I partook in a process with people that helped me think of how to make my research more meaningful, I made important and valuable connections with people with whom I may come to work with in the future, and I certainly feel that I have grown as a researcher. I could not of experienced this without support by SGSAH, my supervisors, and the people with whom I met during my trip, who gave up their valuable time to sit and speak with me. For that I am deeply grateful. Thank you. Gijtto!

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Brittnee via email atb.leysen.1@research.gla.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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