Can One See the Arctic from Vienna?

From the Series: Arctic Abstractive Industry

Photo by Christopher Michel, licensed under CC BY.

The colonial history of the Arctic has resulted in a series of reframings and relocations of the people and places that constitute the circumpolar North. Even in the last quarter-century, significant changes in how and by whom the Arctic is perceived have become noticeable. My research interests focus on the changing landscape of Arctic (social) science geopolitics over the last twenty-five years, during which new digital technologies—from online news reports to social media—contributed to realignments in the relationships between Arctic and non-Arctic places and people. I base my remarks upon shifting vantage points in my professional life, from Vienna to Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1991, and back to Vienna in 2013.

When I first became interested in northern affairs in graduate school in the 1980s, the Arctic appeared remote and distant—not just because of physical distance, but also because of a near total lack of interest among the population centers of the temperate climate zones, for whom the sparsely populated North held few attractions. The Arctic as a social science notion—different from the natural science concept characterized by environmental zones along circumpolar lines marking the extent of permafrost, tree growth, polar days and nights, etc.—was still in the making. Its realization required the end of the Cold War. Thus, coming to Alaska in the early 1990s enabled me to engage in the transnational project of exploring the social and cultural similarities of a now unified Arctic. Being an Arctic social scientist was something appropriate for an Alaskan resident at the time, and something that few people outside the Arctic aspired to.

My second transition back to Vienna in 2013 happened at a time when the Arctic had become an area of global concern for humanity as well as anthropology. The effects of climate change and the resulting discovery of the Arctic as a resource frontier contributed significantly to its growing prominence. At the same time, as the deterioration of Russian/Western relations has provoked fears of a new Cold War, even geopolitical optimists have come to realize that the unified Arctic of the 1990s contained a lot of wishful thinking. Whatever indicators we take—from subsistence harvests to GDP, from indigenous language retention to formal schooling, from demography to issues of land ownership—the Arctic is a mosaic of social, cultural, economic, and political differences set against a background of limited environmental and culture-historical similarities (Nymand Larsen, Schweitzer, and Fondahl 2010).

While the Arctic seems to be clearly visible from Vienna (and other non-Arctic vantage points) today, the question remains one of what Arctic we see. It makes a huge difference whether we are talking about Alaska, Nunavut, or the Russian Far North. Apart from the internal differences, there is a pronounced unevenness in which Arctic matters and which Arctic regions we notice in the south. What often captures our attention are the battles among non-Arctic players in an Arctic setting (oil companies versus environmentalists, for example), while more nuanced local debates over industrial development versus subsistence and other nonextractive activities get lost along the way. Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a perfect example here: as Sandhya Ganapathy (2013) has argued, local Gwich’in Athanbascan activists opposing the opening of ANWR for resource extraction must phrase their arguments in translocal frames to garner support by external actors. Some Arctic residents are active participants in constructing these translocal framings because they expect outside support for their local causes as a result. For instance, the Alaskan community of Shishmaref proactively invited media outlets to witness their plight in the face of coastal erosion. Media attention turned them into the first victims of climate change, which was expected to serve a purpose even if it did not reflect local discourses (Marino and Schweitzer 2009). That these two examples stem from Alaska is not just a reflection of my own familiarity with the state, but also of political and other conditions that enable visibility. Communities in Arctic Russia and elsewhere, meanwhile, have language and access barriers to overcome.

In this way, we might characterize relations of Arctic/non-Arctic visibility as a varifocal lens, a dialogic relationship between changing Arctic signals and external boom-and-bust cycles of attention. We can see the Arctic clearly from Vienna today not just because southern economic and geopolitical interests are being directed north, but also because the Arctic and the entities that constitute it—from indigenous peoples to sea ice and oil deposits—are presenting themselves in formats visible and decipherable to faraway places. Without ignoring the colonial strategies that still characterize many dimensions of Arctic/non-Arctic relations, the visibility of the Arctic is no longer a matter of unidirectional interest. One can see the Arctic from Vienna because many Arctic players have clearly formulated intentions of being noticed elsewhere.

It would be an illusion, however, to assume that knowledge interests on both sides of that communication channel are identical. A variety of distinct Arctic interests collide with no fewer non-Arctic interests; the resulting dominance of non-Arctic views of the Arctic is as much a result of power relations as of demographic relations, given that only a small fraction of the global population resides in the Arctic. Not surprisingly, the Arctic looks different from different vantage points, but the view has become much clearer over the last twenty-five years. This is partially due to technological developments enhancing our vision, but primarily due to self-confident Arctic players who want to be noticed. As the importance of physical distance is shrinking, positionality and agency are increasingly taking center stage.


Ganapathy, Sandhya. 2013. “Imagining Alaska: Local and Translocal Engagements with Place.” American Anthropologist 115, no. 1: 96–111.

Marino, Elizabeth, and Peter Schweitzer. 2009. “Talking and Not Talking about Climate Change in Northwestern Alaska.” In Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions, edited by Susan A. Crate and Mark Nuttall, 209–17. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press.

Nymand Larsen, Joan, Peter Schweitzer, and Gail Fondahl, eds. 2010. “Arctic Social Indicators: Follow-Up to the Arctic Human Development Report.” Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers.