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Reviewed by:
  • Studying Arctic Fields: Cultures, Practices, and Environmental Sciences by Richard C. Powell
  • Maura Hanrahan
Richard C. Powell, Studying Arctic Fields: Cultures, Practices, and Environmental Sciences (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2017), 264 pp. 27 photos. 4 maps. Cased. $120. ISBN 978-0-7735-5112-1. Paper. ISBN 978-0-7735-5113-8.

In many ways, this ethnography of science in Canada's High Arctic is the most fascinating Arctic book I've ever read. Richard Powell did fieldwork of the Polar Continental Shelf Project (PCSP), Resolute Bay, helping in the kitchen, accompanying scientists on the land, and celebrating Canada Day with the Inuit, support staff, and scientists. He used ethnographic methods to 'think through the spaces, networks, and practices that constitute Arctic science' (p. 7), aiming to surface the hidden social histories of pilots, logistical staff, and field staff. Arctic science is produced by a structured and hierarchical community, divided by class, gender, and 'race' (p. 8). Powell studied up and studied down through this hierarchy, concluding that 'the human dimensions of social life, such as commitment, anger, frustration … most characterize the performance of scientific practices in the Arctic' (p. 19). And that is why the book is so interesting.

Powell understands Canada to be postcolonial yet still perpetrating many characteristics of a colonial society; the north–south relationship, for instance, is based on imperialism and he deftly traces the high-level policy and cultural developments that have shaped this relationship. On Canada Day, we read of Inuit mocking and fooling scientists, who take it good-naturedly. Powell demonstrates how the activities that mark this national holiday in the High Arctic reflect Canada's long-standing sovereignty and economic goals for the Arctic, Louis-Hamelin's nordicity programme, and the fantasies of the Canadian geographical imagination. They also reflect Inuit-outsider power relations, the enduring apprehension between scientists and Inuit, and the Inuit decision to subvert these social and political distances on one day of the year through their own form of participation in symbolic acts of Canadian national identification. This discussion is a highlight of Studying Arctic Fields.

Not surprisingly, the PCSP support staff members often feel taken for granted. Meanwhile, newer less experienced scientists tend to get better treatment from these staff members than the storied scientists. Part of a mobile workforce because of the demise of the cod fishery, the Newfoundlanders at PCSP do the work no one else [End Page 236] wants to do. (Powell uses dialect to quote one of them, the only time he does so in the book, inadvertently reinforcing Newfoundlanders' place in the hierarchy.) The scientific sub-community divides according to the prestige of one's university and by gender; only scientists' wives were allowed at PCSP when one of the female scientists who features in Powell's research began her career. Gender persists as an important factor at PCSP, with, for instance, female graduate students the only people receiving calls from home. Powell says some of this is 'impossible' to make solid conclusions about but, in fact, a feminist analysis would have been useful.

There are many worthwhile reasons to read this book, including insights about the self-image of PCSP scientists. Following the explorers, some see themselves as singular, a rare breed. This extends to some support staff as well. Accordingly, I recommend this book as a valuable contribution to the social sciences and the history of science.

Maura Hanrahan
University of Lethbridge


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pp. 236-237
Launched on MUSE
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