Critical Arctic Studies  –  A short introduction to the idea and its background

Text: Monica Tennberg, Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen

Photo: Arctic Centre/Risto Viitanen

In the discussions in the early 2010s in the Northern political economy research group at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland, we identified with our colleagues a need for critical analysis in Arctic research. We found problematic the ways in which questions, such as, gender, indigeneity and development were conceptualised and constructed in contemporary Arctic political and scientific discourses. For us, critical research on the Arctic means looking at issues that have been disregarded to date, studying intersecting developments and analysing afresh the ways in the Arctic, its peoples and development are perceived.

These discussions materialized in the first session ever about Critical Arctic Studies, known also as CAS, which was held in connection to the VIII International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), Prince George, Canada, in 2014. The session welcomed presenters that identified with a critical approach to topical research, concepts and phenomena in the Arctic. The aim of the session was to foster a dialogue between research disciplines, researchers and approaches in order to grasp the current Arctic developments more fully, and to see beyond the short-term political needs and desires. The session was chaired by Marjo Lindroth and Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen from University of Lapland, Finland.

In the Northern political economy research group, annual Northern political economy symposiums provided a forum to develop our critical approaches to Arctic research with an increasing participation by junior and senior scholars from the region and beyond. In the symposiums, we have recently discussed, for example, the nature of development, governance and power relations in the Arctic. Also, these discussions led to a joint book by the research group members to discuss Arctic resources in the context of social and cultural sustainabilities (Tennberg, Lempinen & Pirnes 2020).

In this book, on the one hand (natural) resources, their value and importance are understood as socially and culturally constructed and on the other hand, there is a conscious effort in the book chapters to shift the focus from the natural resource-focused perspective to address issues of social, human and cultural resources and capabilities in shaping Arctic sustainability. The book advances the understandings of complex entanglements between resources, peoples and development in the Arctic and also contributes to debates about sustainable development in an increasingly globalized world.

The year 2021 was an important year for promoting the CAS idea within the larger Arctic research community. A UArctic thematic network Critical Arctic Studies was established then with partners from University of Copenhagen, University of Cambridge, St. Petersburg state university, Ural Federal University and University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and new members, University of Umeå, University of Iceland and Kola Science Centre, joined the thematic network in early 2022. The thematic network aims at strengthening critical approaches in Arctic research, advance critical research and education and facilitate discussion on ways of doing critical research in/about the Arctic. During the first year, for example, a roundtable was organized to discuss language hegemony in Arctic research in collaboration with the Association for polar early career scientists, APECS.

More activities are planned, and updates will be posted in the CAS websites and facebook. You are most welcome to join our activities. 

What is your view about critical approaches in Arctic research?

Monica Tennberg, research professor, Arctic Centre, University of Lapland
Marjo Lindroth, university researcher, Arctic Centre, University of Lapland
Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen, university researcher, Faculty of education, University of Lapland


Tennberg, M., Lempinen, H. & Pirnes, S., eds. (2020). Resources, social and cultural sustainabilities in the Arctic. Routledge.

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