Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice


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Nordic Egalitarianism….?

I’ve just been reading a paper by Agnete Wiborg (2001) about the experience of students from rural Norway in their transition to higher education. A recurrent theme in the paper is about the egalitarian nature of Norwegian society and how this is a challenge for students who progress to higher education, because they feel that they have very little in common with those they leave behind, but find it difficult to talk in terms of these social differences – becoming as a result quite ambivalent about their transition to higher education.

One of the students in this research refers to the ‘Law of Jante’, which I hadn’t heard of before but which is summarised by Wiborg like this:

“The ‘Law of Jante’ formulated in a book by the Danish author Axel Sandemose, concerns social regulations in a small town, and says that ‘You should not think you are anybody’, ‘You should not think you know more than us’, and ‘You should not think you are better than us’. In a way this can be seen as a formulation of aspects of Norwegian egalitarian ideology.”                                               (Wiborg, 2001: 29)

I thought this was really interesting because in my first piece of research in Orkney (for my masters) I found evidence of a similar cultural egalitarianism meaning that recent graduates living in Orkney tended to downplay their higher education experiences. At the time I linked this with some evidence from rural studies that smaller rural communities tend to be characterised by certain values – with egalitarianism being one (Alexander, 2013).

northlink-ronnie-robertson

One of our ferries – the Hjaltland – with its viking livery. Picture courtesy of Ronnie Robertson

However, I am increasingly wondering whether this rural tendency to egalitarianism may be accentuated in the communities of Orkney and Shetland because of a potential Norwegian cultural inheritance? After all Orkney and Shetland were actually annexed by the Norwegian Crown from the 10th century and only became part of Scotland in 1468 (as part of a dowry). Even after that date remnants of Norn language remained right into the 18th and possibly 19th centuries in the islands, and a great deal of the material culture of Orkney and Shetland dates back to viking times – such as the runic inscriptions in the tomb of Maeshowe in Orkney, the St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland (to name but a few). Even in recent times the link with Norway is strong – with the “Shetland bus” a key communication channel between the UK and Norway during the Second World War, and with industries such as oil and gas and fishing based in the North Sea attracting islanders and Norwegians alike. Indeed there are ‘friendship associations’ in both island groups with Norway, and exchange programmes have been regularly available for young people from the islands to visit communities such as Voss and Hordaland. On top of all of this the world famous “Up Helly Aa” festival in Shetland is a celebration of the islands’ viking inheritance, and even the ferries to the mainland of Scotland have a viking painted on the side of them!

The Norse cultural inheritances of the Northern Isles is something I think about relatively often – especially as I have colleagues working at the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands for whom this is a main concern (they even offer an MLitt in Viking Studies!). However, I haven’t really seen any direct links into my work (on the contemporary societies of the islands and how they influence the choices of young people in the islands) until now… Now I’m beginning to wonder if there is scope in considering not just historical links, but the contemporary social context of the Nordic countries in terms of a potentially similar social context in the islands of Orkney and Shetland. Thinking about this makes me quite excited to follow the work of colleagues researching careers guidance and career development in Norway and other Nordic countries. In particular reading a recent blog by Ingrid Bardsdatter Bakke I was struck by the potential similarities in some of her findings working with a community in a relatively remote part of Norway and some of my work…

References

Alexander, Rosie (2013) ‘Here you have to be a bit more fluid and willing to do different things’: Graduate career development in rural communities’ Journal of the National Institute of Career Education and Counselling, Issue 31, pp.36-42

Wiborg, Agnete (2001) ‘Education, mobility and ambivalence. Rural students in higher education’ YOUNG 9 (1) pp. 23-40

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RETI Conference

Cover of the RETI 2015 conference programme

Cover of the RETI 2015 conference programme

The week before last I was lucky enough to attend the latest RETI conference, being held right here in Orkney (hosted by the Centre for Nordic Studies).

RETI stands for Réseau d’Excellence des Territoires Insulaires and is a network of island based universities, of which the University of the Highlands and Islands is one. The conference itself focused on the “Impact of culture heritage on economic development in island destinations” and included delegates from across the world.

The paper I gave was titled: Migration, education and employment decisions of islanders – understanding the role of sociocultural factors in shaping individual decisions and economic outcomes in Orkney and Shetland

And this was the abstract:

Migration, and particularly youth migration, as many commentators have noted, is a common feature of island communities. The ‘missing generation’ of young people is a cause for concern among policy makers in the island communities of Scotland, including Orkney and Shetland. Retention and attraction of young educated professionals is seen as a vital part of increasing levels of human capital and the economic potential of island communities. Therefore understanding the motivations for migration decisions of young island leavers as well as those who stay and return is important in order to inform necessary policy interventions. Research in this area has typically focused on how young people leave island communities for economic reasons and the pursuit of better education and career opportunities; those who return (usually later in life) are shown to move for primarily lifestyle reasons. However, as this paper will demonstrate, migration pathways and decisions are complex, and as well as economic motivations, individual differences and social and cultural influences are also important. Split into two parts this paper will first of all offer some discussion of contemporary career theory and the work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to identify how wider social and cultural influences may impact on the career and migration decisions of young islanders. The second part of the paper will present some initial findings of a current research project into the decisions and pathways of higher education entrants from Orkney and Shetland. Qualitative data will be presented from interviews with recent graduates alongside analysis of statistical data from previous graduate cohorts in order to explore some of the sociocultural influences that lie beneath the migration and career decisions of higher education students from the islands.

The paper generated some really interesting discussion and gave me a whole lot of ideas to follow up, which was great!


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The role of humour in the creation of island graduate identities

What I love about research is the way that interesting ideas come at you sideways. So, a couple of weeks ago I met a friend who is based at the Centre for Nordic Studies in Orkney and has been researching the relationship between language and identity focussing on the community of Stromness from the 1960s to the present. She leant me her masters dissertation into the dialogical negotiation of cultural identity in Orkney and it was fascinating!

I particularly loved the discussion of Bakhtin’s work and the lens it can give to examining the construction of Orcadian identity. This reminded me of how much I loved studying Bakhtin in my first degree and got me thinking about how I could use my background in literature and literary theory in my current studies.

One of the statements that stood out from Becky’s research was:

“Bakhtin’s identification of carnival laughter offers a useful framework to describe how humour in Orkney acts not only against bigsy-ness [an Orcadian word that roughly translates as ‘arrogance’] and towards inclusiveness but at the same time is characterised by ambivalence, allowing things to be said publicly which can then be disclaimed by appealing to the fact that ‘everybody kens its only said in fun’” (Rebecca Ford, 2013, unpublished)

And this reminded me of how in my masters studies one of the key findings was that graduates looking for work in Orkney described avoiding talking about their degree because they didn’t want to seem ‘too big for their boots’ – that is they avoided being ‘bigsy’. And yet, at the same time they did need to show their skills / abilities in the workplace, and to be able to talk about their degree in contexts where it was relevant. I guess in this respect, there seems to be a high demand on graduates in a small community to maintain different identities, that are constructed in different ways in different settings, and yet, their identities must still remain consistent enough so that their identities don’t contradict each other. It is quite possible that carnival laughter plays a part in this, I suggested in my dissertation that in order to be successful, graduates commonly adopted a strategy that involved ‘downplaying’ their abilities directly (in speech) but making sure that they demonstrated their skills practically (through voluntary and community work particularly). Thinking about this in the light of Becky’s work, I wonder if the added advantage to this strategy is that it allows a particular form of self-deprecating humour – with graduates (humorously) downplaying their skills in a way that may actually ironically improve their reputation because the people they are talking to know that the graduate is really very capable indeed (they can see it from the work they’ve done).

One of the examples of humour in Becky's dissertation was a story about a library assistant who thought someone wanted a book about 'Thomas O'Quoyness' when actually they wanted a book about Thomas Aquinas (with 'Aquinas' and 'O'Quoyness'  being pronounced very similarly in an Orcadian accent).

Quoyness chambered tomb in Sanday. One of the examples of humour in Becky’s dissertation was a story about a library assistant who thought someone wanted a book about ‘Thomas O’Quoyness’ when actually they wanted a book about Thomas Aquinas (as ‘Aquinas’ and ‘O’Quoyness’ can sound very similar in an Orcadian accent).