Valuing Diversity in the Study of Arctic Change

From the Series: Arctic Abstractive Industry

Photo by Christopher Michel, licensed under CC BY.

Oil extraction and climate change are the most prominent themes in impact studies of Arctic Alaska. The former has been written about for almost five decades (Braund and Moorehead 2009), and it increasingly connects and overlaps with the latter. Regarded as a single corpus, this body of research manages to both emphasize and obscure three key areas of diversity: the diversity of Arctic communities, the diversity of knowledge and expertise held and being practiced by residents of these communities, and the diversity of social science research in the Arctic.1

Indigenous coastal Alaskans do not only have a large number of words for ice, wind, and snow, but also use elaborate vocabularies to describe a multitude of environmental and meteorological elements. Igor Krupnik (2002), for example, demonstrates that each of the numerous Yupik terms describing wind is an information package, communicating not only the direction and intensity of the wind but also its impact on the weather, snow, ice movement, and hunting opportunities. Inupiaq knowledge of sea ice appears to be localized to such an extent that “extrapolation of indigenous knowledge from Wainwright, Alaska, cannot be done even to a community like Barrow, Alaska, a mere 136 kilometers to the northeast on the same coast and in the same state” (Kassam 2009, 189). Concerns regarding sea ice arose in the assessment studies conducted in the 1970s and continue to be voiced just as strongly in present-day discussions. We see a great degree of continuity in concerns focusing on the interactions of sea ice and oil, how sea ice functions in case of a spill, and how sea ice is impacted by exploration activities or infrastructure. However, the ways in which people talk about the ice within this category of analysis have changed. In the 1970s and 1980s, Arctic residents talking about sea ice tended to accentuate its might. More recent testimonies emphasize the fragility of ice and carry a sentiment of nostalgia for the thicker and stronger ice of past years.

It was the study of local environmental knowledge that allowed anthropologists to join natural scientists in the study of Arctic change. While oil development impact studies highlighted gender, for instance, as a parameter in understanding social change, attention to the human dimensions of climate change—peaking around the 2007–2008 International Polar Year—has given rise to two new types of expertise: the social- scientific and the Indigenous. The first is stripped of a specific disciplinary identity and is tasked with incorporating traditional or local ecological knowledge—the social or human component of an ecosystem study. The second emerges at the confluence of human dimensions research, which engages community-based observers, and the long-established biases found in most fields of science. Overwhelmingly, the Indigenous collaborators engaged in this strand of research are Indigenous men, elders and active hunters, who are thought to be situated advantageously for making environmental observations.

Processing bearded seal in Shismaref, Alaska. Photo by Sveta Yamin-Pasternak.

Any ethnographer with experience in the realm of women’s work would be quick to point out that while hunters are studying weather, ice, and animal movements for the purposes of their work, those who are butchering, tanning, sewing, cooking, and otherwise processing and preserving products of animals and fish do so by drawing on their own kinds of mastery. The mastery of processing walrus or bearded seal in a way that will provide for the caloric, sensory, and aesthetic needs of one’s family relies on an understanding of how a specific combination of the local terrain, temperature, moisture, sun, and wind will cure a particular part of an animal hung on a drying rack or set to age in a subterranean pit (Yamin-Pasternak et al. 2014), having been skillfully dissected based on knowledge of animal physiology (Lincoln 2010). Yet these forms of expertise are, too often, disregarded.

Of course the idea of recognizing and valuing disciplinary and local diversities applies broadly beyond the Arctic. We are now beginning to see examples of interdisciplinary research that moves beyond the human dimensions framework to debunk the homogenized view of social science that turned out to be one of its side effects. In these maturing collaborative conversations, researchers must take the time to articulate the benefits of their unique disciplinary perspectives even as they identify and engage with diverse kinds of local experts.


1. I realized the importance of recognizing these diversities, in great part, while working on the Pacific Marine Arctic Regional Synthesis project, which was administered by the North Pacific Research Board and funded by Shell Exploration and Production Company and ConocoPhillips Company.


Braund, Stephen R., and Elisabeth L. Moorhead. 2009. “Sociocultural Research.” In Synthesis: Three Decades of Research on Socioeconomic Effects Related to Offshore Petroleum Development in Coastal Alaska, edited by Stephen R. Braund and Jack Kruse, 111–62. Anchorage, Alaska: Stephen Braund and Associates.

Kassam, Karim-Aly. 2009. Biocultural Diversity and Indigenous Ways of Knowing; Human Ecology in the Arctic. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press.

Krupnik, Igor. 2002. “Watching Ice and Weather Our Way: Some Lessons from Yupik Observations of Sea Ice and Weather on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.” In The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change, edited by Igor Krupnik and Dyanna Jolly, 156–97. Fairbanks, Alaska: Arctic Research Consortium of the United States.

Lincoln, Amber. 2010. “Body Techniques of Health: Making Products and Shaping Selves in Northwest Alaska.” Etudes/Inuit/Studies 34, no. 2: 39–59.

Yamin-Pasternak, Sveta, Andrew Kliskey, Lillian Alessa, Igor Pasternak, and Peter Schweitzer. 2014. “The Rotten Renaissance in the Bering Strait: Loving, Loathing, and Washing the Smell of Foods with a (Re)Acquired Taste.” Current Anthropology 55, no. 5: 619–46.