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Social Research in the Alaskan Arctic


Social scientists often state that research undertaken today serves as a base line for the research of tomorrow. In reaching such a conclusion, they assume that the data on which they base their study exists independently from their training and orientation. This empirical approach provides much useful data. However, it also contains a potential pitfall in that social or ethnographic 'facts,' are always embedded in the particular perspectives of academic disciplines and the larger world view characteristic of a society at a given time. Almost a century ago, Bronislaw Malinowski, one of anthropology's historic figures, recognized part of the difficulty when he wrote:

A field ethnographer has to describe facts in their essential aspects; and that means to select. And selection implies the possession of theoretical principles of classification - defined criteria as to what is essential and what is not."

But it took Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to pinpoint the crux of the problem. In this highly respected work, Kuhn demonstrated that once scientists accept the same paradigm [a theoretical model for research], they tend to share common assumptions about the world, think in similar ways, and undertake similar kinds of research. Trained to observe selectively, they may systematically overlook other aspects of the problem that fail to conform to their expectations; and in so doing, limit the exploration of alternative interpretations leading to potential breakthroughs.

Theories are not only influenced by an investigator's approach to a given topic. Historical conditions and understandings also intervene. In the colonial era, governments sought ethnographic information from anthropologists and geographers to enhance con trol of their regions of dominance. A more recent Arctic illustration from the Cold War occurred in the 1950s when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission initiated Project Chariot, an exercise in "geographical engineering" in which a series of powerful atomic explosions would be used to blast out a harbor along the coast of Northwest Alaska near the Iņupiat Eskimo village of Point Hope. The social science phase included a human geographical analysis of the proposed impact of these explosions on the lives of the Point Hope residents - none of whom were informed about the project until it was well underway.

During the 1950s and 1960s, other sociocultural studies of Arctic Alaska were given logistic and financial assistance by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and its affiliated Arctic Research Laboratory at Barrow. The U.S. Air Force supported similar medic al studies under the egis of the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory.

To what extent did logistic and financial support offered by the military influence the selection of topic for study? In addressing that question, the anthropologist, Charles Hughes wrote in 1984:

For a variety of reasons best illustrated by a sociology of knowledge perspective on the ways World War II affected the academic community, much research by anthropologists...began to take on a form that had implications for the problems of contemporary l ife. A great deal of the research...was designed explicitly to be of use to the administrator, the policy maker, and the economic developer. [Handbook of North American Indians, vol 5: Arctic; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., p.24]
This past history raises important ethical questions. To whom is the social investigator primarily responsible when undertaking research involving other peoples and cultures? Is it those from whom data is being sought? Or is it the sponsor of t he research? What kind of relations should characterize the researcher 's ties to subjects of the investigation? When local subsistence, economy, health, and policy are active issues, is it not esential that local and regional residents become acti vely involved in the design, implementation, and evaluation of the research?

Clearly, in the Arctic as elsewhere, theoretical approaches are not simply a product of individual or collective creativity. Historical conditions and understandings also exert substantial influence on what is defined as significant to study, how to g o about it, and how to (re)present the research.

The Problem

After World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the American Arctic became increasingly militarized. In 1951, the U.S. Department of the Interior authorized the Air Force to assume control over the 4,500 acres of Barter Island, located along the coast of the Arctic Ocean sixty miles from the Canadian border. Land included the Iņupiaq Eskimo village of Kaktovik and its cemetery. This was an early step in implementing a secret North American St rategic Hemispheric Defense Plan to establish a Distance Early Warning (DEWLine) radar network throughout the North American Arctic.

Shortly thereafter, Kaktovik was selected as a location for one of the first radar stations. The plan included building an airstrip along the sand spit sheltering Kaktovik lagoon and constructing a large hanger on the very site of the village. Villagers o nly learned of this when they were informed by the Air Force that they had to relocate immediately. They were stunned. Large moving equipment brought in by barge quickly pushed the remnants of a dozen sod and driftwood houses 1,650 yards up the sand spit to the relocated village site. Loss of their homes and personal belongings, along with the destruction of valuable ice cellars used for storing food, brought an angry response. But due to limited communication with the outside world, protest was largely i neffective.

Eventually, houses were rebuilt and ice cellars dug by the people, much of the material for the former having been obtained from the military refuse dump located at the end of the sand spit. Gradually, relations between the villagers and the newcomers imp roved. By 1957, when the initial radar installation was completed, numerous Iņupiat from Kaktovik, Barrow and other North Slope villages were hired as full time construction and maintenance employees at the local radar station.

Cash income received for this work was important. Nevertheless, a few Iņupiaq men - commited to maintaining their active role in hunting, fishing, and related forms of subsistence - refused jobs that required fulltime employment. Others, sought to rotate work schedules and ongoing subsistence activities. No positions were available for Iņupiat women either in construction or at the radar station itself.

Over the next few years, the people of Kaktovik became increasingly involved in the wage economy. Initial reports suggested that they had done so without the usual conflicts that came with rapid social and cultural change. At the same time, the general as sumption held among non-Natives was that these new economic opportunites would erode Iņupiaq culture culminating in a loss in self-esteem.

The Iņupiat, however, looked at the situation quite differently. While acknowledging both the benefits brought by western technology and goods and the stresses generated by non -Natives in their midst, they strove to deal with these changes within the framework of their own culture. This was especially manifest in the oppostion expressed by Iņupiaq men and women to giving up skilled subsistence activities for the supposed security of wage employment. In so doing, they disavowed a premise commonly held among by non-Natives that wage labor was an essential step in the eventual process of becoming an assimiliated American.

The Assignment

Answers to questions posed in the assignment will be enhanced by the following reading:

1. A Place Called Kaktovik [Also available in the Anthropology section of Arctic Circle's Museum]

Rite of Passage
Settling In
A Lesson Learned
Story Hour
Differing Perspectives
A Moment of Reflection

2. Sections of Arctic Circle's presentation on The Inupiat of Arctic Alaska .

3. The Additional Resources directory.

4. Reference collections from your own local library.

5. You may also wish to read the Principles for the Conduct of Research in the Arctic offered by the U.S. National Science Foundation [Office of Polar Programs]

After completing this reading, write a brief research proposal critically addressing the following hypotheses:

1. When northern hunting and gathering peoples [such as the Iņupiat Eskimo] come in contact with complex societies, they tend to evolve slowly but inexorably toward that more complex form.

2. This process eventually leads to the abandonment of the indigenous culture.

Your proposal should include the following:

(a)Statement of the Aims of the Research.

(b) Theory and Methods to be used;

(c) An Analysis of other Research Related to your Project. Where appropriate, this should include a discussion of alternative theoretical approaches put forward under different historical conditions;

(d) Professional and Ethical Responsibility of the Investigator(s)

(e) A Bibliography. Those especially challenged by the assignment may also wish to include a Budget listing travel costs and logistic requirements and Personnel to be involved.

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