Dr Barbara Bodenhorn

At first glance, reasons for researching locations as different as the Arctic and Mexico are not self-evident. But comparison is at the core of Social Anthropology and, for Dr Barbara Bodenhorn, a dual focus on these remarkably different environments is shaping a cross-cultural exchange programme between young members of three indigenous communities.

Through hands-on work with scientists and community elders, these young people gain new understanding of global processes, enrich their appreciation of their own local communities, and establish enduring bonds with young people whose worlds are very different from their own.

Barbara Bodenhorn

Dr Barbara Bodenhorn, Newton Trust Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, has an association with the Inupiat (Inuit) communities of the Alaskan Arctic that stretches back almost 30 years. Having lived and worked there, she returns often to learn how the Inupiat engage successfully with their environment – social, political and physical. Her current interests lie in how these communities perceive and adapt to environmental changes as they continue to work towards shaping their own futures.

Exploring these ‘roots of success’ extended to Mexico in 2004. A six-year interdisciplinary project was launched to explore environmental knowledge in forest communities with Dr Laura Barraza, a specialist in environmental education from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, which funded the project. The researchers particularly focused on adolescents: their knowledge of the environment, their appreciation of community membership, and their sense of the future.

Since 2006 this project has expanded to include an innovative exchange programme, funded by the US National Science Foundation, between students from the North Slope of Alaska and two forest communities of Mexico. Recently back from taking the Alaskan students to Mexico for a month, Dr Bodenhorn is delighted with the foundational and transformative potential of the interchange: ‘Through hands-on work with scientists and community elders, these young people gain new understanding of global processes, enrich their appreciation of their own local communities, and establish enduring bonds with young people whose worlds are very different from their own.’ As well as providing students with unique learning opportunities, these ‘temporary communities of knowledge’ underpin an anthropological examination of how scientific research is simultaneously understood by scientists, local experts, teachers and students.

Have you ever had a Eureka moment?

Occasionally people make throwaway comments that stop you dead in your tracks (in fact these frequently become titles of my papers!). My first ‘Aha!’ moment happened in 1979 when an Inupiat whaler said that the whale ‘gives itself up to the whaling Captain’s wife’. The major stereotype of Eskimos is that they are the most male-dominated of hunter-gatherer groups and, yet, Inupiat whalers regard the whale as giving itself as a gift to the community via the Captain’s wife. With this one comment, everything fell out of place and I realised my assumptions about hunting as well as gender had been wrong. As an anthropologist this is what I look for – what surprises me, what doesn’t fit, what challenges received wisdom.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

That you have to be realistic about what it is you can know based on what you’ve learned. This was advice I was given by an Inupiat woman when I was writing a report and feeling the pressure to generalise. She brought me down to Earth by telling me not to get fussed about discovering the nature of the world, but instead to stay focused on being true to the information I had gathered.

If you could wake up tomorrow with a new skill, what would it be?

Recently I’ve thought that perhaps I’d like to be a volcanologist. All the regions I study are profoundly affected by seismic activity and I’m fascinated by volcanoes, in terms of what they can do and how people think about them.

What motivates you to go to work each day?

It’s the thought that I am doing something in which it makes a difference that I’m the one who’s doing it. I don’t mean that to sound megalomaniac but to emphasise that I want my work to require something of who I am. You spend most of your life working, so it’s vital that there’s a real ‘so what?’ element to what you do. It’s important to me that my relationships make a difference to what I’m doing. People in the Arctic communities know me as Barbara, who happens to be an anthropologist, and I think this must help my credibility when I talk to them. My research has always included local collaboration, with a specific goal that there is a local end benefit – whether it’s facilitating environmental education classes taught by local folks, or promoting recognition of local expertise. The ‘so what?’ of it all is as much about what happens locally as whether I’ll get a publication out of it.

What is your favourite research tool?

Mainly, it’s being able to talk to people. But I think any kind of social science depends on the dedication to use as many tools as possible – combining personal in-depth interviews with listening to people, taking part in what they do, analysing census data and going into the archives to find letters written 100 years ago. What anthropology has to offer is the possibility of working in the same communities for years – as well as having the chance to work in a different part of the world altogether. With any luck, that means your initial impressions and assumptions will get dashed to bits!

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.