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Durham University

Durham Arctic Research Centre for Training and Interdisciplinary Collaboration (DurhamARCTIC)

Arctic Interdisciplinarity

Scholars from the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities have long struggled to make sense of the Arctic as a space of complexity and uncertainty. Natural scientists seek to understand fragile interdependencies between climate, snow-ice processes, and the unique ecological communities of the world's northernmost region. Social scientists struggle to understand the Arctic as a space characterised by implacable (post-)Cold War tensions but also robust intergovernmental and civil society institutions that impart a high degree of stability. Scholars based in the humanities have likewise debated cultural, historical, and literary traditions that alternately reduce the Arctic to a harsh wilderness, a zone of exceptional indigenous adaptation, or a supernatural paradise. Such attempts to understand, interpret, and narrate Arctic systems and sensibilities reveal how environmental, social, and cultural knowledge systems based on categories inherited from the temperate world are often of limited applicability in the Arctic. Cycles of freezing and thawing, retreat of glaciers and sea ice, vulnerable food chains and ecologies, and limited opportunities for permanent settlement and urbanisation challenge accepted understandings of geophysical, biological, and social systems, whilst harsh conditions and vast distances have long limited non-Arctic peoples' knowledge of the region.

Today, unprecedented rapid climate change, which is more intense in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet, brings a further level of uncertainty to our understanding of the Arctic's present condition and hinders our ability to predict its future. Although species and social systems will, to some extent, adapt to changed environments, there is considerable uncertainty about the speed and degree with which this will occur. Notwithstanding this uncertainty, policy makers in the region are particularly dependent on fact-based and predictive decision-making. Capital-intensive extractive industries, the high costs of urbanisation, the logistical complications of infrastructure development and shipping, and the persistence of local livelihoods and institutions all mandate extensive understanding of costs, environmental impacts, and social consequences. All too often, however, these calculations are embedded in simplified assumptions about Arctic communities and cultures as isolated and unchanging.

The Arctic is thus a crucial space for scholarship that builds bridges between the sciences and the humanities. Efforts by natural scientists to understand Arctic processes and attempts by social scientists to intervene in Arctic institutions are dependent on understanding the cultural contexts within which Arctic peoples understand and adapt to their environments. Conversely, engagements with the specific natures, social practices, and cultural expressions of the Arctic can spur new thinking about some of the questions that underpin contemporary research in the arts and humanities, including the relationship between nature and society, the autonomy of human subjects, and the possibility for representation in a world that is fundamentally dynamic.

Interdisciplinary knowledge is therefore both urgently needed and frustratingly elusive in the Arctic. DurhamARCTIC seeks to foster an interdisciplinary approach by enhancing department-based doctoral studies with a series of interdisciplinary education opportunities. DurhamARCTIC is thus dedicated to supporting students who combine a unique expertise in interdisciplinary problem solving and collaboration with the mastery of focused, disciplinary approaches to key research questions relevant to the Arctic region.