Finnish Doctoral School of History Addressed the Question of National History

This article can also be found in Finnish: Historian tutkijakoulussa pohdittiin kansallista historiaa

The tenth Annual Conference of the Finnish Doctoral School of History was organised on May 21–22, 2008. Some 60 graduates students came to Tampere from around the country to discuss both their own dissertations and the conference theme, which this time was national and international history. Marjatta Hietala, the Professor of General History at the University of Tampere, addressed the international aspect of both the topics and the research. Pauli Kettunen, the Professor of Political History at the University of Helsinki, in turn spoke about the use of the national gaze in history research. In addition to the presentations, the graduate students discussed both the conference theme and their own dissertation topics in thematically organised workshops.

Even though the spring conferences have not been organised for longer than a decade, the Doctoral School itself is much older than that. The ground-work for the establishment of the Finnish Doctoral School of History, as was the case for the other Finnish doctoral or graduate schools as well, was begun in 1987, when the Academy of Finland started the national graduate school system. There have from the start been three parties in charge of the organizing of the activities, namely universities, the Ministry of Education and the Academy of Finland. The history departments of all Finnish universities are involved in the running of the school, although the responsible organ is the Department of History of the University of Tampere. The Head of the Finnish Doctoral School of History, Pertti Haapala, is happy that the Doctoral School has increased collaboration between the different history departments. He hopes that in the future the mobility of the students will increase and that the collaboration is extended into matters of funding as well. The doctoral school could coordinate the salaries and research grants the students receive from different sources, such as the Ministry of Education, the Academy of Finland, universities and different foundations. According to the coordinator of the School, Tapio Salminen, there has been collaboration between different doctoral schools as well, but this has been mostly unofficial. Since the entire doctoral school system in Finland is still relatively new, people have found it fruitful to discuss practical issues in a more informal setting.

Pertti Haapala, The Head of the Finnish Doctoral School of History.

All students of history are eligible to register to the Doctoral School. According to Salminen, a large number of active and full-time graduate students from different fields of History have already registered to the school. The interest towards the school can also be seen from the number of papers sent to the conference, the amount of which has more than doubled since 2004. At the May conference, Haapala, the Head of the School, speculated on the future of the school. At present, the school has secured funding until the end of the year 2010, which is when the school will probably apply for more paid research positions for graduates working on their doctoral dissertations. Even if the number of the paid researchers increases in the future, for the benefit of the other graduates the school activities will be developed much in accordance with the present open policy, which has been found to be satisfactory. Haapala also raised questions about the consequences of the constantly increasing number of new doctors. He was of the opinion that it would lead to a decrease in the number of new doctoral study positions, but at the same time to the professionalisation and institutionalisation of the graduate studies A decrease in the study positions will make the competition more intense, but, on the other hand, it will also provide more resources for those who have been accepted as graduate students. Haapala reminded, however, that whatever the situation in the future, the goal of the graduate studies will be the same: As always, doctors’ most important task will be to provide new information and ideas.

The Finnish Doctoral School of History was originally founded to meet several needs, the most crucial of which were to make education more effective and to improve quality. In addition to these goals, the aim of the doctoral schools has, according to Haapala, been to increase the networking of graduate students both in Finland and internationally. Coordinator Tapio Salminen sees networking as perhaps the most important function of the School, and the annual conference supports just this aim. The conferences are consciously organised in an international manner. For instance, an integral part of the conference are the workshops in which the students present their work. This way the students become used to international conference practices and will in the future find it easier to participate in them.

In addition to its own conference, the Doctoral School also funds other Finnish scientific seminars in the field of history, where the graduate students can network. Moreover, the school encourages the students to participate in international conferences by providing a travel grant to cover some of the expenses. It can be applied for twice a year, and, according to Salminen, the graduates have made very good use of it.

Thoughts on National and International Historiography

Coordinator Tapio Salminen states that when planning the conference, the goal is to select a theme that will cover all perspectives of the study of history as comprehensibly as possible. Accordingly, in recent years the themes have included for example the paradigms and methods of the study of history. This year the theme under scrutiny was national and international history, and the Head of the Doctoral School, Pertti Haapala, introduced the topic already in his opening speech. He polemized not only the national writing of history, but also an excessive and total resignation from it.

Tapio Salminen, the coordinator of the Finnish Doctoral School of History.

The topic of the first keynote lecture, presented by Marjatta Hietala, was the international aspect of the study of history. She talked about how nationalism created a need for a national history. This is something a researcher must not forget. Hietala reminded the audience, however, of the importance of the international aspect for all writing of history. It is hardly ever fruitful to study a phenomenon in isolation from the outside world or even in the context of just one country. Moreover, the importance of reference groups should not be downplayed. Models were and still are sought from the idolised members of one’s own reference group, who might or might have even lived very far away.

The opposite to the national writing of history in its most extreme sense is the kind of research that strives to encompass very broad spatial or temporal wholes. Hietala stated that this kind of research often involves the natural sciences and their methods as well. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is Jared Diamond’s study Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies from 1997 (Finnish translation in 1998). Hietala also reminded that not only the topics, but the actual history research in Finland has become increasingly international as well. There are many reasons for this, one of them being that from the 1960s onwards, there have been more and more grants available for studying abroad. Thanks to these funds, it is now easy for a researcher to go abroad. In addition to this, the new technologies, especially the Internet, have brought the international forums closer to even Finnish researchers and graduate students.

Pauli Kettunen, Professor of Political History at the University of Helsinki, spoke in turn about the use of the national gaze in research. He criticised for example the illusion that international research always supercedes the national point of view. He reminded that in those cases the topic of the study is often an inter-national issue that involves several nations instead of just one, i.e., instead of focusing the recearch to a wider area one contents with comparing nations with each other. Research that truly supercedes the national gaze is not, however, entirely new or rare.

The research problem allowing, Kettunen recommended the conscious use of the national gaze, because it could make the national point of view a worthwhile method for the researcher. If the researcher consciously internalises the nation-state frame of reference and uses it as a way to structure the world, one can talk about a methodological nationalism. Such a point of view helps to open up many questions relating to recent history as well, since nationalism is also a part of the globalisation process, and for example international politics is often seen as relationships between nation-states. However, the use of the national gaze also presents its problems. The researcher must avoid creating a new national story, both in addition to and in place of previous ones. This, however, is not simple, as Kimmo Katajala, the Professor of Finnish History at the University of Joensuu pointed out. When studying societal conflicts and social protests in different European countries he was surprised to find that the phenomena were not explained from the point of view of the phenomena themselves, but, rather, through the national scientific traditions of each respective country. This observation made Katajala contemplate his own position as a researcher and raise the question of how much the Finnish researcher is bound by the Finnish historiographical traditions. Haapala was much in agreement with Katajala and Kettunen, stating that it is hard for researchers to separate themselves from their respective frames of reference and avoid strengthening the national idea. It requires conscious effort to write the history of the Finland region without once mentioning Finland.

How to Bring Finnish Research to International Attention?

Hietala also addressed the issue of why Finnish history research, especially the study of local history, has not received much international attention. She was of the opinion that wider scientific publicity is best gained by using broad and measurable corpus material and drawing upon the methods of the so-called hard sciences. According to her, Finnish history researchers often seem to forget this point. Hietala said that when she herself was a student of history, she felt that she had not gained adequate theoretical resources, and later sought theoretical background from the field of the social sciences. She in fact wondered why historians do not cooperate with social scientists any longer, and why measuring and other similar methods have been abandoned in the name of microhistory, for instance. Timo Myllyntaus, Professor of the Finnish History at the University of Turku, pointed out that, nowadays, measuring is a common method mostly among amateur historians. He recalled that in the 1950s, the history sciences began favouring quantitative and comparative research methods, but from the 1970s onwards they lost popularity. Myllyntaus stated that in order to attract international attention, the research must produce something new in a theoretical sense. Even local history can be interesting if it includes the development of a noteworthy theory.

National history raises many questions. As Haapala pointed out in his opening speech, national history gives the people an ontological meaning which it in fact does not truly have. Accordingly, scholars have for the past decades seen the peoples as imaginary groups. In the most relativistic sense, a people has been seen as a group of humans somebody perceives as a people. Haapala points out, however, that with the rise of nationalism, national history has, at least for the Western people, been as real as it gets. Political history and the history of the nation-states in particular have been a focal part of national history. This being the case, even if national history can be seen as a part of a myth-making process, it cannot be overlooked, because it has been and still is a part of reality as perceived by many human beings.

The web site of the Finnish Doctoral School of History can be found at the following URL:

The papers from the Doctoral School workgroups can be found at the following site:

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