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Circumpolar Science: Scandinavian Approaches to the Arctic and the North Atlantic, ca. 1920 to 1960

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2014

Sverker Sörlin*
KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, and School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton New Jersey E-mail:


The Scandinavian countries share a solid reputation as longstanding contributors to top level Arctic research. This received view, however, veils some deep-seated contrasts in the ways that Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have conducted research in the Arctic and the North Atlantic. In this paper it is argued that instead of focusing on the geographical determinism of science – the fact that the Arctic is close to, indeed part of, Scandinavian territories – we should look more closely at the geopolitics of science to understand the differences and similarities between these three Nordic countries. Through case studies of, mainly, Swedish Arctic and North Atlantic glaciology in the 1920s through to the 1940s, and of Norwegian preparations in the 1950s for the International Geophysical Year 1957/58, the paper demonstrates how different styles of research – research agendas, methodological choices, collaborative patterns, international networks, availability of infrastructure, relations to politics and power – are conditioned on economic interests and strategic and geopolitical trajectories, either these are explicitly put in the forefront of scientific priorities as in the case of Norway in the 1950s, or when they are manifestly disregarded in the name of scientific internationalism, as in the case of Swedish glaciology. The case of Danish colonial science in Greenland is only cursorily drawn into this analysis but corroborates the overall thesis. The analysis of this wider science politics of Scandinavian circumpolar science is exercised against a brief introductory backdrop of Arctic science historiography. Its chief message is that the analysis of polar science applying modern theory and method of the social studies of science is comparatively recent and that the full potential of merging the literature of Arctic science and exploration with those of security, geopolitics, indigenous voices, and the politics of nationalism is yet to be realized.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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