Living on the edge: a research trip to Finland

By Caroline Tagg, Open University 
In early December, I spent a week in the Finnish city of Jyväskylä discussing social media, superdiversity and processes of (dis)identification with Sirpa Leppänen and her team: Samu Kytölä, Elina Westinen, Saija Peuronen and others. This involved living on the edge in three ways: firstly, my hotel sat on the edge of Lake Jyväsjärvi and the view greeted me each morning; secondly, much of the Jyväskylä team’s research looks at immigrants at the margins of society, a topic currently polarising Finnish society; and thirdly, their investigations into social media can only be described as being on the cutting edge. Their research resonates in many ways with the work being carried out by TLANG.

On the edge of the lake

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Central Jyväskylä sits between, and enclosed by, the lake to the south-east and hills to the north-west. I knew when I arrived at Hotelli Alba in the dark that the hotel sat right on the lake and I could see the lights reflected on the water from my hotel window. What I didn’t know was that the university was also right next to the hotel nor that the railway station and the city centre were just a short walk down the lakeside footpath. So my week in Jyväskylä was spent at the edge of this beautiful lake. I wasn’t seeing it at its best, everyone told me, which would come either in the summer or with the snow: as elsewhere, the combination of El Niño and global warming was heralding a mild, wet joulu (Christmas) and everyone seemed to be yearning for snow, as it lights up the dark and provides entertainments from skiing to skating on the lake. For me, jogging around the lake in the dark mornings was enough. The footpath around the lake is kept well-lit and is, everyone assured me, very safe; Finnish women, one academic told me, resent having to limit their movements abroad because they are so used to walking around Finnish cities as they wish.

On the edge of society

Meanwhile, however, my travel agency was busy updating me by text message on the unrest caused by the current influx of migrants to Finland. This is where research carried out by the English Language team at the University of Jyväskylä comes in.

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The central ‘Agora’, University of Jyväskylä

One concern with the team is to explore what ‘Finnishness’ means, not only to mainstream Finnish society but to those migrants at the edge of it. Samu Kytölä’s work into Finnish football (e.g. Kytölä and Westinen 2015) explores how Finns are making sense of diversity and the new complexity of ‘Finnishness’ through their responses (on online forums and Twitter) to celebrity immigrant footballers. Although contemporary football – marked by great cultural and ethnic diversity – is a potential domain for positive discourses about immigration and about Africa, discourses about African-born football players epitomise the ‘Other’ relationship and can have a colonial feel, with fallen football heroes described as coming from ‘backward’ societies and ‘having short attention spans’. Elina Westinen’s new research project, ‘New ethnicities, (non)belonging and Finnish hiphop culture’ sets out to explore the resources and affordances available to immigrant artists across physical and digital contexts for expressions of identity and belonging. She shared one hiphop artist’s Facebook post with us – a photo of the artist looking thoughtfully at some Finnish ‘tough attitude’ tee-shirts with a caption declaring he ‘is motivated to join Finnish society’ – an ironic comment which reflects the nuanced ways in which people moving to Finland comment on Finnish society and their relationships with it. This struck me as important in raising awareness of migrants as individuals – often clever, reflective, funny – rather than as the homogenous mass often depicted in the media. This is also an aim of the TLANG project.

This struck me as important in raising awareness of migrants as individuals – often clever, reflective, funny – rather than as the homogenous mass often depicted in the media. This is also an aim of the TLANG project.

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On the cutting edge

If the Jyväskylä team are timely in their tackling of contemporary social issues, they are also on the cutting edge when it comes to research into social media. The team’s project, Language and Superdiversity: (Dis)identification in social media (2012-2016, funded by Academy of Finland) explores the co-construction of socio-cultural niches across digital and physical spaces, highlighting the significance of the physical/digital continuum and focusing on participants’ agency as regulated by polycentricity and ‘post-Panopticon’ normativities; that is, where norms are negotiated and enforced not from above but through peer interaction, a space for voices to be heard but with a growing scope for inequality and discrimination. Research carried out by Sirpa Leppänen and Ari Häkkinen (Elo) focuses on buffalaxing and shredding (subtitling films and music videos, respectively, with translated lyrics that sound like, but rework, the original). Buffalaxed videos are sophisticated acts of parody and ethnic othering which remain somewhat ambiguous in their intent – a possible form of ‘liquid racism’ – and thus typify the discourses typical of late modern, highly mediated society (Leppänen and Elo 2016). PhD student Saija Peuronen’s research explores acts of identification and the construction of socio-ideological meanings in a Christian extreme sports community through the multimodal resources afforded by digital technology. She asks how the Christians’ online videos contribute to the construction of various identifications, and finds that they draw on resources such as the synchronising of framing and shot with soundtrack to represent individual points of view and find points of commonality (Peuronen 2013; 2014). Sari Piittinen researches the post-apocalyptic digital game Fallout, in which the discrimination of humans as ‘Ghouls’ because of what the apocalypse did to their skin links to the reception of ‘outsiders’ in Gothic horror and to issues of race and class.

In short, the research being carried out in Jyväskylä highlights the relevance to contemporary social media spaces of an approach that posits unpredictability, plurality and polycentricity as the norm in explorations of (non)belonging, (dis)identification and positioning in today’s superdiverse societies. A lot to think about on my morning runs around the edge of the lake. Kiitos!

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Kytölä, S. & E. Westinen 2015. “I be da reel gansta”. A Finnish footballer’s Twitter writing and metapragmatic evaluations of authenticity. Discourse, Context and Media 8: 6-19.

Leppänen, S. and A. Elo (2016) Buffalaxing the other: superdiversity in action on YouTube’ in Arnaut, K., J. Blommaert, B. Rampton and M. Spotti (eds) Language and Superdiversity. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 110-136.

Peuronen, S. (2013) Heteroglossia as a resource for reflective participation in a community of Christian snowboarders in Finland. Journal of Sociolinguistics 17/3: 297-323.

Peuronen, S. (2014) Identification through multimodal design: an analysis of mediated performance of Christmas lifestyle sports in online video’ in Tyrkkö and S. Leppänen (eds) VARIENG eSeries, University of Helsinki.

Westinen, E. (2014) The Discursive Construction of Authenticity: Resources, Scales and Polycentricity in Finnish Hip Hop Culture

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