Urbanity as National Otherness

Pia Olsson

The way we understand urbanity and the urban environment as part of it is based on many factors, one of which being the way they have been presented in scientific discourses at different times. For some disciplines the way urban questions have been included into the research field seems to have been less problematic than for others. For example, within classical sociological research during the nineteenth century the urbanization processes raised new disciplinary questions that dealt with urban environments and their meanings for social life (see e.g. Kasinitz 1995, 10–11; Benjamin 1933/1986; Simmel 1902/1995). Historians started to write city histories at the end of nineteenth century and at the beginning of twentieth century as a continuation to writing local histories (Kolbe 2009, 93). For most disciplines, however, it seems urban questions have in research become something that specifically needs to be underlined with concepts such as urban history or urban ethnology. Coming myself from a discipline that has a history of being part of the nation and its tradition building – i.e. European ethnology – I find it interesting to analyse the ways urban questions were gradually included into its disciplinary sphere. Doing this, the ways in which urbanity has been understood in a wider context, as a part of national meaning making, can also be scrutinized.

For a long time, European ethnology in Finland focused on questions dealing with rural life. It was the rural people and especially the land-owning farmers who were considered focal when describing the Finnish culture. Only after the big structural changes in society during the 1960s and 1970s, did questions of urban life become more interesting in the eyes of ethnologists (Lappi 2007, 47; Snellman 2014, 246). This was understandable as rural people who used to be at the hub of research suddenly became more and more urbanized. It was only then that ethnologists gradually started to see rural environments as part of their field. The interest in the rural had been based on the interest in “traditional Finnish culture” that was understood to be represented by rural traditions. The rapid changes that were going to erase these traditions presented a situation where ethnologists had to redefine their research area. If Finnish culture was to be rescued for the archives, what was the role of the cities in this process, as cultural phenomena seemed to come and go so fast that researchers could not keep up with them? (See Olsson 1997, 221–222).

In my review article I focus on how this change from rural to urban affected the ways ethnographical sources were produced and what kinds of expectations were placed on these knowledge production projects. To do this, I introduce one traditional ethnological way of generating information: questionnaire activity. My focus is especially on questionnaires circulated by the National Museum of Finland, although different kinds of questionnaires were and are being arranged by various institutions. Here I find the status of National Museum interesting because of its role in representing and recording national history. I will not concentrate on the questionnaire responses but introduce the questionnaires that are somehow connected with urban life. With this, I aim to demonstrate the way in which urbanity was or was not compatible with the interest of ethnological research at particular times.

Typically, the questionnaire leaflets include a motivational introduction to the theme in hand and more or less structured questions about the themes considered important by archives and researchers. The number of questions can vary from a couple of questions to a couple of hundred questions. The questionnaires were open to everyone to answer but the institutions arranging the activity – including the National Museum – used to have a permanent network of informants who regularly took part in answering. The responses were handwritten or typed and as such, answering presumed the time, skill and motivation to write. Questionnaire activity in the National Museum – later in the National Board of Antiquities – was regular from 1956 to 1996 and the examples here are from these decades. Overall, 41 booklets with 314 themes were published during these four decades (Olsson 2014, 65–74).

Already the number of questionnaires dealing with urban aspects presented below show the marginal status of urban questions in this context. This is why I want to emphasize that at the same time other means of collecting information about urban culture were also applied within the ethnological field and that the questionnaire activity of the National Museum represents only one aspect of producing ethnological data. There are also other examples where questionnaires have been used at length to chart urban experiences in other contexts than the questionnaire activity in focus here (see e.g. Åström 2013). However, I think the following review will give an idea about the ethnological balancing between the meanings of rural and urban phenomena and their role in presenting the phenomena that were understood to be crucial for Finnish culture.

Urban questions from a rural viewpoint

As if easing the change from rural to urban, the questions on urban life came into the discipline through rural viewpoints. Ethnologists were interested for example in the lives of urban residents with a rural background and in the ways that rural ways of living remained or changed in the urban context (Lappi 2007, 48). This aim to connect urban with rural life is one of the most visible features of the questionnaire activity.

This is apparent, for example, in the questionnaire circulated in 1965. This is the first time the concept of “city” is used in the heading of a questionnaire arranged by the National Museum. The questions dealt with sales and shopping trips to the cities and the first sub heading is named “trip to the city”. Following the genre of the time the archive was interested in the phenomena and memories which were the oldest possible – in this case dating back to the first years of the twentieth century, which were still assumed to be in reach of the elderly informants. The individual themes dealt with questions like how long time did the trip take; where did people use to stay the night during their visit to the city; what kind of reciprocity did they use to have with their hosts and what sorts of amusements did the city offer. The last theme dealt with the ways urban inhabitants treated rural people and vice versa, implying that there might have been some preconceptions in both groups (Seurasaari 1965, 6–9). The viewpoint on urban life in this questionnaire is that of a rural visitor to the city. Urban life is represented as something exceptional and it is asked to be pictured through the respondent’s livelihood: something that had to be done in order to be able to sell rural products. The emphasis is also on the journey – not so much in the time spent in the city.

Rural ways of life were a constant theme in questionnaire activity. Having domestic animals in cities was one of the themes in the 1987 questionnaire. The theme was delimited to cities founded before 1960 and to animals that were kept in order to gain extra income i.e. cows, horses, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys and geese. In the introduction, special attention was given to the depression and war periods (Museoviraston kyselylehti 1987, 18).

The ethnological interest in livelihood was also visible in 1972 when special interest was paid to ice cream sellers, a phenomenon that was especially connected with cities. In a way, this questionnaire theme represents an ethnological viewpoint that became the guiding principle in the discipline only a couple of decades later in the form of cultural analyses, namely focusing on small everyday details in order to reveal the more fundamental cultural structures behind them. The ice cream sellers represented international urbanity as they were expected to represent different nationalities. They were also a sign of the beginning of springtime and in this way one example of the urban annual rhythm (the annual rhythm being one of the focal points in the rural context as well). The period of interest in this questionnaire also focused on the past, i.e. the years before and after Finland became independent in 1917. This was also marked with a photograph in the questionnaire leaflet picturing Russian ice cream sellers in the Market Square in 1907 (Seurasaari 1972, 28–29).

A year later the viewpoint was still very historical when questions were made about the influence of Saint Petersburg. The introduction to the theme motivated the narrators to tell about the possible effects that could be observed around the country; the influences in the Karelian Isthmus were already known through research. The seven sets of questions dealt with themes such as working and studying for a vocation in Saint Petersburg and the work of certain professionals like carriers, seamen, railwaymen and traders. The influences from the city were expected to be visible both in the material culture, foodstuff and vocabulary, and they were presumed to be introduced not only by Finns visiting the city but also especially before 1918 by Russian public officials and travelling salesmen (Seurasaari 1973, 28).

The concept of a home place (“kotiseutu”) was long connected within the Finnish context with the rural environment with its reference to national awakening and romanticism with their rural emphasis (Anttila 1964, 27–32, 203). However, in the questionnaire leaflet from 1981, the urban environment was included in the set of questions titled “home place” when the extent of the home place was asked. First, naturally, the examples were picked from the rural context, as the choices given were house, neighbourhood, village, rural municipality, county or country. These were followed by choices like city block, city, part of town and suburb (Museoviraston kyselylehti 1981, 20.). In these given choices, the city was understood as a compilation of smaller areas in which a sense of home could be paralleled with the rural units.

Urban history in itself seems to have been of interest only in 1987 when a questionnaire about cafés and baked goods was circulated. These were considered to be aspects of the history of cities in Finland – i.e. something that was not familiar in the rural way of life. The difference between rural and urban was made visible, but this time it was the urban environment that was of special interest. Café life and its meanings for city dwellers and rural people were still an unknown factor for researchers although the history of some individual bakeries and cafés had been written (Museoviraston kyselylehti 1989, 18). The questionnaire about summer cottages arranged a couple of years later was also connected with urban history and especially with the urban gentry, which had begun to frequent summer cottages from the end of the 18th century (Museoviraston kyselylehti 1991, 5). The starting point of the questionnaire was urban city life but the focus was placed on life in the countryside.

One of the main interests of traditional ethnological research has been physical living conditions and this was already visible in the very first questionnaire circulated by the National Museum entitled “Do you remember the old farmhouse living room?” The urban living conditions, however, became a questionnaire theme through an interest in exceptional times and almost 30 years after the farmhouse living room had been analysed by almost 500 people. The housing problem during and after the Second World War that was examined in the 1994 questionnaire concentrated especially on inhabitants’ experiences of cities and population centres (Museoviraston kyselylehti 1994, 5). Otherwise, it is harder to specify whether the themes dealt with in the last questionnaires belong to urban or rural culture. These kinds of themes are, for example, shopping habits (1995) or motion pictures (1996). Although there are only a few examples, one possible interpretation could be that the urban/rural dichotomy was becoming outdated and cultural phenomena were coming to be understood as free from these kinds of categorization.

Is urban life contrary to tradition?

From the more than 300 questionnaire themes circulated by the National Museum less than ten can be seen as dealing with aspects of urban living. This low interest in urban questions is partly understandable knowing the starting points of the activity. Rural traditions were understood to be a more important part of Finnish culture and cultural identity and as such were given more symbolical value than those traditions connected with urban life. Furthermore, in this context, urban life with its rapid changes could even be seen as a threat to “traditional” rural life (Korkiakangas 2010, 75–78, 83).This was by no means a feature of Finland alone. Collecting “tradition” into the archives is not a neutral activity. Its national emphasis and its political goals have been found in other countries as well (see e.g. Skott 2008, 95–96). Modernity – which has often been connected with cities and city life – was something that was considered to be an enemy of traditional ways of life in other archives of cultural history. However, in the Swedish context, for example, city dwellers were recognized as objects of recording tradition – albeit not as important a group as the rural population – earlier than was the case with the questionnaire activity in the Finnish National Museum (Lilja 1996, 76–86).

Rural traditions represented to the ethnologist something that was more permanent or static than life in the cities. This means that the change from rural to urban meant not only a change in the research topic but also a fundamental theoretical and methodological reassessment within the discipline including a redefining of social, temporal and spatial categories (Lappi 2007, 67–68). It seems that this reassessment was not fully adapted in the questionnaire activity before it ended in 1996. In addition, when different phenomena of urban culture were dealt with, they emphasized, similarly to the mention of rural culture, the disappearing past. Change was considered both interesting and frightening (Lappi 2007, 67; Olsson 2014). The “urban traditions” became more and more interesting for ethnologists at the same time as the questions of workers’ culture and contemporary culture became focal in Nordic ethnological research from the 1960s onwards (Ehn & Löfgren 1996, 46–47). The way this change was reflected in questionnaire activity was slow, however.

The way the Finnish National Museum has emphasized certain areas of interest in its questionnaire activity is one example of the power archives have and how the Museum uses this power either knowingly or subconsciously in its work. Defining themes worth recording the Museum also defines aspects that are considered culturally valuable (Bendix 2009, 255). In the context of recording the traditional Finnish culture the urban way of living was for a long time secondary to the rural. In a way, this was only a part of a bigger Nordic emphasis prevalent in post-WW2 society with its tensions between urban and rural identities. Despite industrialization and urbanization, values considered rural were still politically significant. For ethnologists, restricting the urban phenomena to the minimum made it easier to create a homogenized and distinctive picture of Finnish culture. Doing this they also took part in defining the national self-understanding (see Kolbe 2009, 90–91). In this, the modern i.e. the urban, was included only gradually and often in relation to the rural in knowledge production.



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Pia Olsson

PhD, Professor in European Ethnology, Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies, University of Helsinki.