Accounting for Culture, Language and Identity in Educational Discourses : The Case of Indigenous Sámi in Finland, Sweden and Norway

University dissertation from Griffith University

Author: Meeri Hellstén; [1999]

Keywords: Social Sciences; Samhällsvetenskap;

Abstract: This research project examines the enactment of various versions of the concept of ‘culture’ in education policy and practice. Its interest lies in how indigenous Sámi culture is manifest in three different national, linguistic and education administration sites: Finland, Sweden and Norway. The constitution of ‘culture’ in these contexts is contingent upon its relativity to definitions of ‘culture’ defined by the national majority in power. The study adopts a definition of ‘culture’ as an accomplished rather than theoretically or socially predetermined phenomenon. Therefore, the study draws from the theory and application of Ethnomethodology (eg., Garfinkel, 1967; Heritage, 1984; Sacks, 1996a; 1996b).Contemporary theorisations about culture in education have been considered with regards to describing educational policy and practice around the world. Theorisations reflecting on the relationship between culture, power, language and education (e.g. Bourdieu, 1992; Foucault, 1980; Bernstein, 1996) have yielded bases on which to contrast and establish the current investigation of culture as an interactionally enacted phenomenon.This study consist of interview data, collected in 1993, during a lengthy field research visit to Sámi country in northern Scandinavia. A total of 83 individuals from a total of 37 educational institutions in Finland, Sweden and Norway participated in the study. The participants came from different educational professional categories such as: Sámi teachers; administrators at school, municipal, regional and national levels, teacher education, and other Sámi academic institutions (such as adult and vocational education).The interviews consisted of approximately 15 semi-structured questions concerning knowledge and beliefs about the education policy and practice in use at the time. The interview also explored participants’ views on Sáminess in the nation-state and descriptions of the role of culture afforded the indigenous group within the national domain. Further questions inquired about the implications of such descriptions, perceptions and cultural interpretations of the implementation of the Sámi school curriculum.The interviews were conducted in three languages (Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian) of which the researcher made use of two, namely, Finnish and Swedish. In Norway, the participants responded to questions in Norwegian, which is mutually intelligible with Swedish. Some culture-specific Sámi vocabulary was also used. All data for the research analysis were translated into English by the researcher and verified as true translations by independent bi- and/or multi-lingual associates.The interview tapes were transcribed using conventions adapted from Heritage (1984) and Hutchby & Wooffitt (1998). The analyses were based on the sub-field of Ethnomethodology called Membership Categorisation Analysis (MCA) formulated according to frameworks developed by Sacks (e.g., 1996a) and later by Hester & Eglin (1997). The analyses explored descriptions about the membership category ‘Sámi’ and its attribute Sáminess as constructed by the members of the Sámi education system.The analyses found that both the category ‘Sámi’ and its attribute ‘Sáminess’ were situatedly produced to warrant distinctive cultural, social and educational interpretations for the indigenous groups in the three countries. In Finland, the category ‘Sámi’ was described as lacking in strong identity but as capable of looking after their own rights. In Sweden the category ‘Sámi’ is described in the publicly available feature of ‘naturalness’ and is contrasted with descriptions about the ‘non-Sámi’ who in turn are described as generating ‘struggle’, ‘resistance’ and ‘racism’ against the ‘Sámi’. In Norway, the category ‘Sámi’ is afforded the description of ‘standing alone’ as a group in the nation.The attribute ‘Sáminess’ is described differently in the three contrastive interview sites. In Finland and Sweden, ‘Sáminess’ and ‘all things Sámi’ are constructed as ‘hidden’ category attributes which are made publicly desirable. For example, the need for the indigenous group to publicly display their ethnicity (e.g., wearing the Sámi costume) is expressed by interviewees. In Norway the attribute ‘Sáminess’ is described as a device from which flow other local practices of Sámi education. In all three interview sites language is generated as the main tool through which both the category ‘Sámi’ and its categorial attributes are realised and implemented.The study concludes that, according to the situatedness of the different descriptions of indigenous culture, identity and language, a uniform description of these phenomena cannot be applied. That is, one singular definition of ‘culture’ or ‘cultural hegemony’, for example, does not apply to all Sámi situations across the Sámi geographic area. In each situatedly diverging discursive occasion, members drew on different theorisations to account for the notion of ‘culture’. Such different constructions in turn have vastly different implications for the ways in which the educational package is consequently interpreted, developed and implemented. The concluding statement of this study is thus, that the world-wide agenda on cultural pluralism for the worlds’ classrooms benefits from a view of culture as a situatedly generated product, rather than a pre-theorised model of social order.

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