Arctic identity – what does it mean?


“Arctic identity” is an often-heard concept in contemporary discussions throughout the Arctic region. But what do people mean by it, and is there one single Arctic identity?  BarentSaga interviewed Ingrid Medby, a Norwegian researcher who is writing her PhD dissertation about the topic in the Department of Geography at Durham University.

What is the topic of your dissertation and where did you get the idea for it?

The main theme of my research project is the meaning of being an “Arctic state” and the identities tied to this. I focus particularly on three Arctic states: Norway, Iceland, and Canada. All of them are countries where identity and national pride have been prominent themes in the discussions of their Arctic involvement. However, the three countries have very different relationships to the region, and therefore it is interesting to contrast and compare the ways their Arctic identities are articulated.

Through the study, I hope to gain a better understanding of identity, its relation to politics – in particular Arctic politics – and how state officials view their own role as representatives of peoples and territories. Moreover, I hope to show that international politics is deeply influenced by our understandings of who we are – as individuals, groups, and nations – and of our role in the world. Identity is a powerful influence on the way we choose to act, and often overlooked in discussions of formal state-level politics.

The idea for the thesis stemmed from my previous research on Arctic identity among young Norwegians. It found that identifying as “Arctic” is contextual and relational – depending on against whom you define yourself. This was a topic I had become interested in on a personal level after living abroad for many years, and gradually realising that others referred to my home as “the Arctic”. Based on this, I wanted to see how those representing and enacting the state – politicians and bureaucrats – viewed themselves and their country: what it means to be and perform as an “Arctic state”. National identity often features in political rhetoric about the Arctic, and yet it is not always obvious that an official in Ottawa, Oslo, or Reykjavik will call themselves an Arctic person.

Is there “one Arctic identity” or several different Arctic identities?

I think there are many shared concerns and interests among the eight Arctic states, and that they therefore identify as all belonging to the Arctic region. Historically, culturally, economically etc., northern identities are and have been important. For example shaping lives and livelihoods by harsh climates, dark winters and light summers, and remote or sparse settlements are things that bring the national communities together.

However, I also think that the eight Arctic states are very different, and the way a specifically Arctic identity will be understood is inevitably unique to each. In fact, identity is, on the one hand, relational and social, but on the other, also highly subjective and personal. The way we see ourselves as “Arctic” (or not) is therefore also intimately intertwined with all the others facets of our identities, for example being European, Scandinavian, female, young, and so on. So I would say that on one level there is a shared feeling of belonging to the Arctic together, but that there are several ways that this is interpreted and imagined – down to the very individual level, where millions of Arctic residents define who they are and want to be.

How is the Arctic identification visible in the policies and politics of the Arctic countries, for example in the Arctic Council or the Barents Euro-Arctic Council?

State-level identity and perceptions of the state’s unique role in the world influence the way its officials represent it in international fora. It is a question of what matters most to the respective countries: What are the main interests and priorities, and how does the country project and promote these?

For example, Iceland has a long history of fishery and close connections to the ocean. This has defined lives and realities there, and therefore it is important for the Icelandic identity. This also filters into their Arctic identity: it is tied to oceanic currents, marine life and livelihoods, and connections across the seas both east, west, and now also north, across the Pole. It is not surprising, then, that the Icelandic government disapproved of their recent exclusion from discussions of Arctic fishery, even if they do not have continental shelves extending all the way to the Arctic Ocean proper.

What differences of identity are there between the northernmost regions of the Arctic countries and the other parts of those countries? Do the northernmost regions have a specific regional Arctic identity or the same kind of Arctic identity than the rest of the country, though maybe a stronger one?

There is certainly a different identity and a different sense of belonging to the Arctic among those living in the north than among those viewing it from afar. Some of the Arctic countries have stronger north/south divides than others; in Canada, for example, the huge distances and lack of cheap/easy transport make it very difficult for the large majority of southern Canadians to get a first-hand experience of the Arctic. However, even in countries such as Norway, where many southerners will have some level of familiarity with the north, identity is always relational: while an Oslo-based politician might strongly feel that Norway is an Arctic state when negotiating with China, they might not feel as personally “Arctic” when meeting colleagues from Northern Norway. An additional factor is indigeneity, which of course can be an identity both within and, importantly, across state borders. In fact, trans-national Arctic and northern identities may also be shared among sub-national regions, as they have similar concerns and challenges.

As the Arctic issues are high on international agenda, the concept of “Arctic state” is emphasized. What does this mean for the Arctic regions of these countries, such as the constituent regions of Barents Region?

The new political emphasis on the Arctic means increased attention to the northernmost regions of these states. Hopefully this attention will lead to political action that benefits the residents too; that is certainly what it should mean. In Norway, for example, the northern optimism is obvious, and in my research I kept hearing Northern Norway being referred to as “the region of opportunities” [mulighetenes landsdel]. Furthermore, I think it strengthens the impetus for cross-border cooperation. These are not just sub-state Arctic regions, but also part of a wider, inter-state region.

Interview by Ilkka Tiensuu


Barents Euro-Arctic Council official website 2016