Indigenous Studies challenges the Western perspective

Since last autumn, the University has offered teaching in Indigenous Studies. The field can benefit students from the arts to legal studies.

Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, Assistant Professor in Indigenous Studies, began her job last autumn. During the year, she has created a curriculum for the discipline.

 “In the beginning, Indigenous Studies had a multidisciplinary approach. We intend to maintain that aspect, but at the same time, it is becoming a discipline in its own right,” Virtanen explains.

For students of the Faculty of Arts or the Faculty of Social Sciences, Indigenous Studies is an easy choice, but students from other fields may also find it a useful addition to their studies: an understanding of the field can be a boon in jurisprudential studies, environmental issues, politics, finance and healthcare.

Studies shape attitudes

Johanna Hirvensalo and Jenna Sorjonen have already completed their studies in Indigenous Studies.

 “It was super interesting and eye-opening,” Hirvensalo explains.

 “I would recommend Indigenous Studies as a minor subject for absolutely everyone. It shapes your attitudes and helps you realise how narrow the Western focus may be.”

Jenna Sorjonen says that the studies brought about introspection that was downright painful. She is writing her Master’s thesis on the orthographic systems of the Sami languages spoken in Finland and has in the course of her research realised how various political issues link to such a theoretical research area in very concrete ways.

 “For example, I had to tackle issues of power – who gets to decide how a given language is written. I also questioned whether my own research was justified and what kind of impact it would have on the Sami community.”

Questions of research ethics were also on Hirvensalo’s mind. She is writing her Master’s thesis on the literature of Native North Americans.

­ “I pondered whether I had the right to study these topics and what tone I should take when writing about them.”

According to Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen, previous research on Indigenous peoples has often been oppressive. This is why research ethics is now emphasised in the studies: how to conduct research ethically and using decolonising methods.

Researchers cannot just examine indigenous people from the outside, and they must recognise that no research is ever fully objective. Research is planned together with the research subjects and the relationship between researcher and the subjects is more permanent. Research results are also discussed in the communities of the research subjects.

Many ways of knowing

Indigenous Studies helped Johanna Hirvensalo and Jenna Sorjonen discover that there are many ways of knowing and that one way cannot be superior to another.

For example, the dualities typical of Western culture, such as mind/body or nature/culture, or concepts relating to time and place, can be different in an Indigenous culture.

Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen gives an example: among the Apurinã people in the Brazilian Amazon, time is not as distinctly split into the past, present and future. The future can be present in the now, depending on how people react to it.

Johanna Hirvensalo and Jenna Sorjonen were impressed by the concept of WEIRD people research that was discussed during their studies. WEIRD people are Western, Educated and from Industrialised, Rich and Democratic countries. Even though only 12% of the world’s population are a part of this group, 96% of all psychological research is conducted among them.

 “People then draw conclusions about universal human characteristics from these studies, even though the sample is very small,” state Hirvensalo and Sorjonen.

Read about the multidisciplinary minor subjects at the Faculty of Arts

Read the news articles:

Critical field work (29 August 2016)

Alkuperäiskansojen tutkimus vauhtiin suurlahjoituksella (10 September 2015, in Finnish)