Combining anthropology and ecology

Profiles of Norwegian science

Anthropology and ecology: a reindeer in Tromsø

Photo: Ilan Kelman
A reindeer in Tromsø: Marius Warg Næss studies the intersection of traditional and modern reindeer husbandry practices.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

People, communities, and governments continually navigate the political minefield of managing land use and natural resources. As today’s population shifts into cities, the knowledge and traditions of nomads are increasingly becoming undermined.

Inspired by the Sámi, scientists in Norway have long pursued research on these topics. This cutting-edge work combines disciplines, methods, and locations.

Marius Warg Næss leads this innovation. Based in Tromsø, above the Arctic Circle, he is a Senior Research Scientist in social anthropology at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU).

Næss describes how “Disciplinary boundaries don’t matter. I go where the idea takes me. That’s why I, for the moment, use evolutionary theory to understand cooperative herding among Sámi reindeer herders.”

“The same goes for methods,” he notes. “Anthropology has a long tradition of being defined by its method of participant-observation. For me, this puts the cart before the horse. The research question or idea must guide the methodological approach and not the other way around. Consequently, my research uses everything from in-depth qualitative interviews to experimental economic games.”

For Næss, the key is to avoid being pigeon-holed by disciplines. Instead, he crosses boundaries, recognizing how he can bring his skills to new research collaborators while learning from them. He has forged creative, dynamic projects analyzing how environmental change and governmental policies affect pastoralists, the bad and the good.

After detailed work with Tibetan nomadic pastoralists, followed by investigations into Sámi reindeer husbandry, Næss observed the parallels between the Arctic and mountain peoples. Deftly examining legislation, culture, and environmental change, he recognized how numerous influences combine to provide threats and opportunities for nomads using livestock for income and food.

This does not mean that the peoples are mired in the past, unable to deal with anything new. Conversely, they join the best of modern technology and ancient techniques to adapt to and thrive within changes forced upon them.

Climate-change researchers see climate change as the main mechanism affecting nomads in high latitudes and high altitudes. Ecologists focus on ecosystem changes. Marius brings everything together, “so that I combine quantitative and qualitative methods to give a full picture of people-centered problems and responses.”

This impressive approach was rewarded by the Research Council of Norway in 2014. Næss received a prestigious four-year Young Research Talents Award to follow his interests.

He explains that his project starts with “the somewhat perplexing paradox that Norway and China, despite different political systems, have almost the same policy towards their nomadic populations, namely privatization of previously common grazing areas and the subsequent elimination of a mobile way of life.” His overall question is, “What happens to these cooperative herding groups when land changes from commons to private?”

His answers, ranging from overgrazing to a worsening ability to deal with a changing climate, have led to a long list of publications, including several papers in the top anthropology journal Human Ecology. He has also published in scientific journals focusing on land use, ecology, and sustainable development, as well as producing several book chapters.

“This diversity brings exciting opportunities for completing world-class science while seeing the science help people to improve their livelihoods and to maintain cultural traditions,” according to Næss. NIKU provides “A vibrant workplace, with the freedom to pursue my own research, but always with the goal of affirming the importance of cultural heritage within modern contexts.”

All of which leads to widespread influence. Recently, Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food used several of his studies as a basis for advice about reindeer husbandry presented to Norway’s Parliament.

“My particular interest lies at the intersection of anthropology and ecology,” describes Næss. “I often publish by myself, but I also work in teams. Writing with others ensures that we do not miss perspectives. We link ideas and learn from each other.”

This balance of solo and ensemble work produces top research. But it does not stop with internationally renowned scientific publications. Næss’s public engagement and outreach fulfills NIKU’s mandate of communicating research to the government of Norway and the Norwegian public.

Norway sees itself as a small country, but it can have a big influence on the scientific stage. Researchers in Norway inform government policy, from local to international groups, synthesizing a wide and deep stream of information from Norwegian and other countries’ perspectives.

This work remains on top of evolving developments, such as the latest climate-change projections and new Norwegian and European legislation. It must meld all this disparate material to understand and articulate top-down and bottom-up viewpoints, needs, and actions. By doing so, Næss serves science in tandem with the people.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 12, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.