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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - May 2005   

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Title  The human dimension: coming out of the shadows

Although Arctic social science research has flourished for many decades, it has also often struggled to make its voice heard in the wider, natural science-inclined, polar research community. However, with the advent of the 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY) and the dramatic effect which global climate change is starting to have on the Arctic and its people, this field of research is coming out of the shadows with important contributions to our understanding of the far north and its rapidly changing face.

Fishing, the main food source for the Inuit, is being affected by climate change with species observed that have not previously been seen at high latitudes.
Fishing, the main food source for the Inuit, is being affected by climate change with species observed that have not previously been seen at high latitudes.
© Rémy Marion/Pôles d’images
Spearheaded by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA) and supported by a host of European organisations such as the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge and the University of Tromsø in Norway, the Arctic social sciences encompass disciplines ranging from psychology to anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, history, health and education.

Early Warning System
Through this panoply of interconnected subjects, the Arctic social sciences have much to tell us about a region which encompasses a large proportion of Europe, Asia and North America and which contains many indigenous peoples such as the Saami and the Inuit, as well as settlers of European origin. According to Piers Vitebsky, Head of Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the SPRI, the Arctic is indeed a region “in which some widespread phenomena and universal challenges can be studied more clearly than anywhere else; a social, cultural and environmental early warning system for changing relations between society and the environment on a global scale”.

International Polar Year
As a strong indicator of the rising profile of Arctic social sciences, the 2007-2008 International Polar Year Planning Group recently endorsed ‘The Human Dimension’ as one of six themes to be prioritised as part of the IPY, with the specific aim to “investigate the cultural, historical and social processes that shape the sustainability of circumpolar human societies, and to identify their unique contributions to global cultural diversity and citizenship”. As well as introducing a new dimension to the IPY, the incorporation of this sixth theme is intended to encourage a greater level of cooperation between social and natural scientists.

Another initiative currently being launched, this time by the European Science Foundation EUROCORES programme for international collaborative research, is entitled ‘Histories from the North – environments, movements and narratives’, or BOREAS for short. Spearheaded by Piers Vitebsky and supported by 170 scholars and institutions, this initiative is intended to coincide with the 2007-2008 IPY and to be both complementary and distinct from the natural sciences. Led by anthropology, it aims to promote the value of indigenous knowledge in the context of environmental change, to explore the philosophical and spiritual foundations of this knowledge, and to study the mechanics of ecological adaptation to a changing climate as already initiated by the ACIA (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment) group.

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