An award-winning professor strives to understand big trends

Professor Anu Kantola, recipient of the J. V. Snellman Public Information Award, has always been interested in new things happening around the world. Her aim is to understand their dynamics.

Professor Anu Kantola believes the coronavirus pandemic is also a massive science communication drill, which is also making it apparent how science is a part of life.

“Epidemiology and public health science are in the forefront, but right behind them are, for example, communication studies, political studies, sociology and economics. How can you make people act rationally and how can you prevent panic from taking over? How are different political systems and societies equipped to tackle the pandemic? How can the economy be revived?”

Another thing that Kantola thinks the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting is the fact that science is not merely a machine churning out facts. In addition, it is a constantly self-correcting system, an unending live stream where new observations are made and utilised to increase our understanding of what is going on.

Indeed, science is ultimately founded on uncertainty, alongside facts. According to Kantola, researchers continuously live outside their comfort zone.

“In science, everything is always possible and nothing is ruled out for good. Science doesn’t produce ultimate truths, it generates hypotheses.”

And yet, Kantola thinks science is the best we have: a guide to what action to take. 

“Even though we don't know everything, science has helped us fly to the Moon, cure diseases and establish thriving societies.” 

Facts are not always enough, but we have to act and push forward on the basis of the conclusions available to us.

“This also applies to the social sciences, which study complex societies and their functioning. We are doing our best to understand what is going on and why, while doing our bit to make the world a better place,” Kantola says.

Big change at the heart of science

In recent decades, Finland has undergone substantial change as globalisation has, from the 1980s, challenged the country and transformed the world in surprising ways.

“My career in research has largely focused on these changes that we have all experienced, even if we don't always take notice of them in our busy lives,” Kantola says.

At times, the problems faced by humanity appear insurmountable, but she claims the social sciences are still keeping hope alive.

“Human beings are surprising and unpredictable creatures capable of shocking destruction, but also wondrous achievement.”

Commendable activity as a distributor of research-based knowledge

During her career, Anu Kantola, professor of media and communication studies, has investigated political elites, journalism, scandals, lobbying, strategic communication and business management. Often, historical change has been at the core of her research: how economic crises or the deregulation of markets has influenced people's identities and life in society.

Another core focus of Kantola's research has been the relationship between communication and power: how, for example, narratives and emotions are utilised in communications to serve particular purposes.

For several years, Kantola has been writing columns for the Helsingin Sanomat daily and the Suomen Kuvalehti magazine, in addition to which she has appeared on television and radio. In the media, she has been adept at linking the manifold changes taking place and the new phenomena emerging in Finland and abroad to the concepts of her field of science.

Indeed, the justification for the decision to award the J. V. Snellman Public Information Award to Kantola states that she employs a modern, open-minded and fun approach to expressing her views in a way that inspires readers and listeners.

“She has helped a public confused by change to put names to baffling phenomena, providing them with tools for thinking. She has been able to illuminate the intricacies of politics for the public,”  rector Jari Niemelä states.

Focus on citizens

Kantola heads a research project called BIBU – Tackling Biases and Bubbles in Participation that explores how economic restructuring is changing people’s ability to act, political feelings and interests. In addition, the project investigates how political decision-making is responding to the change experienced by citizens.

“We are interviewing a range of groups, trying to determine who is angry and who has faith in the future.”

BIBU is a multidisciplinary project funded by the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland, with a number of scientific fields and research institutes participating. The project is attempting to also burst the bubbles of the academic world.

“It's great to have scholars of various fields come together and look for answers to questions affecting society as a whole. What happens to identities and shared life when globalisation is concentrating wealth in large cities and among top experts, while even in Finland half of the country is being vacated and the middle class is confronted with unemployment?”

Publicly defending the study of the richest Finns

The initial findings of the project were published last autumn when Kantola, together with Hanna Kuusela, released their book on the richest 0.1% of the Finnish population, looking into their views on themselves and society.

The book, called Huipputuloiset (‘Top earners’), raised important discussion. According to the Snellman jury, the book demonstrates that it is possible to write about significant social issues accurately and entertainingly at the same time.

The book brought the methods of qualitative research into mainstream news. Kantola was keen to contribute to the debate and defend science in both conventional media outlets and on social media.

“In a way, I was proud of being Finnish and having that conversation. Twitter is lambasted a lot, and often for good reason, but it does feel great to have everyone in Finland have the opportunity to join the debate about questions of methodology that lie at the core of academic research.”

The need for Kantola’s research and communicating the findings is continuously growing.

“The social sciences must be part of shared life in societies, and related research must be conducted in society, together with people. And in one way or another, the results must have some bearing on society.”

Kantola’s goal of understanding big trends has received even wider attention. For example, Professor Kantola was the only woman in addition to President Tarja Halonen included among the ten most significant Finnish intellectuals when the A-studio programme of the Finnish public service broadcasting company Yle listed top intellectuals in the autumn of 2018.

In Snellman's footsteps

J. V. Snellman was a social scientist, as well as a journalist, founder of a newspaper and a productive contributor to the development of society.

“We who follow in his footsteps are trying to take the pulse of society, interpreting what is changing and what is staying the same.”

The award carrying Snellman’s name is one reflection of this way of perceiving science as something that belongs to everyone.

“That’s a great tradition in our society, partly responsible for putting Finland among the best societies in the world. Indeed, I see myself as a torchbearer for this tradition, which makes me extremely proud of this award,” says Kantola.