ARCHIVED - Gail Fondahl

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Gail Fondahl is the president of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association and discusses the rise of social sciences in Arctic research.


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Podcast Transcript: Gail Fondahl

FRENCH VOICEOVER: Ce podcast a été enregistré à l'Année polaire internationale 2012.

ENGLISH VOICEOVER: This podcast was recorded at the International Polar Year 2012 Conference.



ENGLISH VOICEOVER: From knowledge to action.

FRENCH VOICEOVER: De la connaissance à l'action.

HOST: In the past, International Polar Year projects have focused primarily on the physical sciences. The most recent IPY though has moved towards much greater inclusion of both social sciences and of engagement with communities. Gail Fondahl is the president of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association, and at the IPY 2012 Conference she agreed to sit down with us to talk about the rise of social sciences in Arctic research.


HOST: When we're talking about Arctic social sciences, what are we talking about?

GUEST: Well social sciences is the study of both human society and behaviours, and so social sciences include things like anthropology, education, history, human geography, legal studies – the whole panoply. And we also, in terms of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association, we do include humanities even though it's not in our title – so art, religion, fields like that too.


HOST: Why is it important to have an Arctic social sciences association? How is that work different from social sciences in the southern regions?

GUEST: The reason why we formed is just the interest in interdisciplinarity across the social sciences. So many social scientists will focus on one area of the world, and what the Arctic social scientists enjoy doing is getting together and talking across the disciplinary boundaries of economics and political science. I personally find our congresses very interesting – more interesting, I'll admit, than disciplinary congresses or conferences because we are speaking about the same area, about the same situations, problems, challenges, opportunities, but from a whole bunch of different disciplinary backgrounds. And that, I think, makes a really rich exchange of ideas.


HOST: And looking back over past International Polar Years, how has the perception of the social sciences and their inclusion changed in the work that gets done during International Polar Year research?

GUEST: Well there wasn't much social sciences in the first Polar Years. It was a very obvious gap. And what we had was the real first introduction of social sciences in this last Polar Year. The social scientists did not play as large a role as the natural scientists and physical scientists, and we feel that was unfortunate, but we were very pleased that there was a much greater presence and much greater opportunities. And there were many IPY projects that either were run by social scientists or had a strong social science component in it. I think what has been really exciting about this conference is how social sciences has become even more front and centre. Peter Harrison's opening remarks talked about social science and its import. There is a real interest in more community based work, and social scientists have led that thrust and are probably the best people in terms of methodologies and ways of engaging with community members in respectful ways. And so I think they bring that to joint projects with natural scientists and help understand some of those – both the challenges and the ways that we might approach these problems together.


HOST: Do you ever look at past research from Polar Years or think about research projects that went on and think oh, I wish the social sciences had been there?

GUEST: A little. I haven't gone back to too many of those projects. But I do see projects still being developed without social sciences – and of course there will be some – but we often like to pressure both the funding agencies and scientists themselves to consider how the project might be enhanced by social science participation. And having said that, I think there are some very interesting opportunities for social scientists to include natural scientists in their projects too. So working across that, what used to be a great chasm – and the chasm is shrinking – is it goes both ways. I think there are some really neat opportunities and I'm having fun talking with terrestrial colleagues at this conference about future possibilities, and I know my other colleagues are talking with the cryosphere folks and atmospheric folks and just looking at different opportunities. Yeah.


HOST: So what does it mean for Canada to be hosting the International Arctic Social Sciences Association secretariat? I mean it's based in Prince George. What does it mean for it to be here in Canada and not in some other country?

GUEST: The organisation was founded in the early 1990s, and its first president and the first secretariat was actually here in Montreal. That was Ludger Müller-Wille. And the secretariat came back to Canada in the late 1990s to Laval. And so this is the third time that Canada has hosted it. And so it does move around the circumpolar north. What I find very exciting is that since Canada will be taking over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council during the same period that the secretariat of IASSA will be located in Canada, there are some really neat opportunities for working together there and for – maybe even not so much working together but having a greater emphasis on northern issues in Canada and having a greater profile of different kinds of sciences including social sciences.


HOST: Now many of the research projects here blend social sciences and natural sciences. What does the inclusion of social science bring to those projects?

GUEST: And I come from this also as a geographer, and I think geographers have to delve into both worlds so it maybe is more natural for us than, say, an anthropologist or a political scientist. More and more science in general is moving towards interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinary. I think you see that with the funding agencies in both North America and Europe demanding that we look at what are very complex, very nuanced problems from all different angles. And so social scientists coming together with physical and natural scientists really can grapple with the multifaceted dimensions of these problems in a way that is harder to do. And while sometimes it's easier to study a little brick of a big wall of problems, that's not getting us to the same places that we need to be now. And so when social scientists work with the natural scientists on these problems, I think we're closer to actually coming up with some of the solutions. This conference is all about "knowledge to action". I think we're closer to coming up with some of the actions there. And it's tough to do. We speak different languages sometimes and we have different agendas. But it's a learning process that I think is going on throughout the world, and I would say the Arctic is a little ahead of other places in doing this. We also are leading in terms of that cross-disciplinary research.

HOST: Thank you so much for talking to us today.

GUEST: Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity, and it's great to be here in Montreal for the IPY 2012.


HOST: Gail Fondahl is the president of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association and vice president of research at the University of Northern British Columbia. You can hear more podcasts or watch video from the International Polar Year 2012 Conference at You can also find this podcast at iTunes. Thanks for listening.

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