In this series, we introduce the researchers of the Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narratives.

Reetta Toivanen is used to having many irons in the fire. In EuroStorie - The Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narratives she is the Vice-Director as well as the leader of the subproject 3: Migration and the narrative of Europe as an “Area of freedom, security and justice”, which focuses on the impact of exile on shaping the European legal, social and religious/cultural narratives. Furthermore, only recently she was appointed as the professor of the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability along with leading the multidisciplinary research project ALL-YOUTH funded by the Strategic Research Council as well as acting as the Vice-Chair of ECRI, The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and as the President of the Finnish League for Human Rights. When asked, how is she coping with this extreme multitasking, her answer is a New Year’s resolution not to stress too excessively about work and the realization and acceptance of the fact that the world will run without her as well.

Originally Toivanen studied religious studies, but it was rather soon that she discovered she was mainly interested in religions as social phenomena. That is how she came to find ethnography and anthropology of religion. She found herself extremely fascinated by people with their various social relations and by what it means to have to fight for the right to use one’s languages and practices one’s cultures. In her master’s thesis she examined, what is the significance of having your own language and culture to people, concentrating especially in different ethnic minorities. Throughout her academic career, her research has substantially circulated around the situation of minorities and the questions of human rights concerning them. Toivanen wrote her doctoral thesis in Humboldt University in Berlin, where she came to live altogether over ten years. Her thesis concentrated on the question of how international law shapes people’s as well as groups of people’s idea of themselves.

That is how Toivanen became increasingly interested in legal anthropology, which she has also actively brought to Finland. She states that not only do people produce laws, policy papers and concepts of justice, but these also have a habit of starting to live lives of their own, which forces people and groups of people – for example ethnic minorities and indigenous people – to use certain terms and narrations of themselves in order to become identified and thus protected.  Alongside with legal anthropology her research interests include for example ethnography, basic rights and human rights, language minorities as well as ethnical minorities, indigenous peoples, critical theory and the Arctic. 

To EuroStorie Toivanen will bring her wide knowledge on anthropology and ethnography, both of which have their own roles in shaping the idea of Europe as well as the narrations of the Europeans. She shall also stabilize the project in that sense, so that it won’t only deal with abstract ideas and concepts, but also real customs. According to Toivanen, the merit and societal significance of anthropological research is indeed the fact that is challenges existing assumptions by actually discussing and interviewing people with their own terms, instead of only functioning from ivory towers.  She finds it important that the own voice and experience of those, who are being researched, is in the centre of examination and thus heard. She finds that research at the grass roots supplements well the more abstract one.

EuroStorie’s Subproject 3 seeks to examine today’s refugees and exile as a resource for example to the sciences and arts instead of only as a precarious form of underprivilegedness. The aim is to do ethnographical research on the narrations of Europe and the Europeans in large refugee camps and to find out, how people there see Europe, what sort of stories do they associate it with and how do they find their own roles in them.  According to Toivanen, by examining the ideas and experiences of the minorities and immigrants about Europeanness, Europe and their own role, one can challenge the story that the EU is producing of itself.  The stories of the immigrants, refugees and minorities are often very different from those of the Europeans or of the EU.  As an example of this, Toivanen mentions that the idea of Europe’s comparative safety greatly emphasized by the EU, does not reflect the experience of for example the refugees, who lack social networks as well as legal protection here. In EuroStorie Toivanen seeks to examine, how exactly do the views of the refugees, immigrants and indigenous people effect different narrations of Europe. Having done a lot of research for example on the Sami people, she would also wish to rewrite the story of colonialism in the North.

Even if there wasn’t any solid, joint story of Europe shared by both the native-born Europeans as well as the newcomers, Toivanen believes that by comparing these different stories and narrations of Europe and Europeanness, we may find a whole new knowledge and understanding of where the world is today and what problems there are to face.  According to her, there are some profound risks, if we overlook trying to see the world from the perspective of also those people, who are less fortunate than we are and whose every step in the society requires a battle of its own. Disclosing these people and their stories as well as giving them a voice go hand in hand with the interest of Europe as a whole, for as long as we have major problems of racism and discrimination, we shall continue having a lot of severe instability too.