Defence of Marleen Metslaid's PhD dissertation "Between the folk and scholarship: ethnological practice in Estonia in the 1920s and 1930s" on December 20, 2016

On December 20, 2016, at 14.15 Marleen Metslaid will defend her PhD dissertation in ethnology titled "Between the folk and scholarship: ethnological practice in Estonia in the 1920s and 1930s".

Supervisors: associate professor Ene Kõresaar and professor Kristin Kuutma

Oponents: professor Pertti Anttonen, University of Eastern Finland, and professor Art Leete,  University of Tartu

Summary of the dissertation:

The dissertation discussed the history of Estonian ethnology in the 1920s and 1930s through the analysis of individual researchers’ knowledge production. In problem setting, the author proceeded from interpretative historiography or reflexive historiographical approach, and focused on the analysis of the textual practices of the then ethnologists as well as the political, social and academic context surrounding them. The author asked questions about the relations between the state, the institution and the individual researcher, and their mutual impacts within the knowledge creation process. The decades under study belong to the period of the development and social establishment of the young Republic of Estonia as a nation state. It was also the era when the University of Tartu as a national university became established, and when ethnology became an academic discipline. Yet, the Estonian National Museum evolved into the centre of the discipline – the central national institution where ethnologists of the period worked.

In her history writing, the author focused on the analysis of ethnological practice. Considering scholarship as practice, it is possible to focus on the individual researcher and his or her role in the development and shaping of the discipline. In her analysis of ethnological practice the author was interested in the foundations of Estonian ethnology and the relations of the discipline with the discourses of nationalism, museology and cultural heritage in the period under study. Factography that so far had predominantly been standing in the foreground in historiography served as a supportive framework for the author, proceeding from which she gave a deeper insight into the then ethnological practice. The analysis of sources and engaging them and the former historiographical articles in dialogue revealed the Estonian ethnology of the 1920s and 1930s as being considerably more versatile than formerly presumed. It became more evident that the fieldwork of the then ethnologists was very closely connected with their knowledge production process: their fieldwork was not primarily meant to supplement museum collections. In her analysis, the author focused on construing the then central research object – folk culture – and discovered ambiguity and variability, which had so far been ignored. The author also dwelt upon the academicism, applicability and internationality of the ethnology of the period.

Estonian ethnology emerged from the 19th-century romantic nationalism, which also served as a basis for folkloristic and ethnographical research in Europe. The Herderian mythologising of the nation gave an impetus to folklore collection as well as observation and recording of the aspects of folk life; gradually more and more interest was taken in local peasant culture. At the end of the century and the beginning of the next one, folkloric archives and ethnography museums started to be established, in order to store, archive and catalogue the collected “treasures”. The main incentive for these activities was the strengthening of the nation’s identity and national unity.

The ENM, established in 1909, was one of those national ethnography museums founded within this discourse. During its first decade, the museum actively collected ethnographic artefacts, yet quite soon realised the necessity to arrange and present the collections. This coincided with the establishment of independent statehood in Estonia in 1918, which in turn gave an impetus to converting the museum into a scientific institution.

In this context, Estonian ethnology became institutionalised as a speciality between two establishments – the ENM and the UT – in the early 1920s. In the beginning, it was realised through the person of Ilmari Manninen, who was the director of the museum and assistant professor of ethnology at the university; yet, soon enough also through the fields of activity of his disciples. The source basis for speciality education and research was at the museum and the future ethnologists were employed there already in their student years. After Manninen had left at the end of 1928, all the ethnological research concentrated in the ENM, and the researchers worked as part-time lecturers of the discipline at the university. In 1939, the professorship of ethnology was established at the UT, which was filled by Gustav Ränk, a former long-time researcher at the ENM.

Thus, in the period under discussion Estonian ethnology was very closely connected to the museum and inevitably influenced by the latter. The starting point of ethnologists’ knowledge production was often museological, and especially students’ seminar works and master’s theses focused on objects and their typologies. The first fieldwork trips of the young researchers often proceeded from the museum’s requirements: the establishment dictated how and what to collect, how to write down notes, and what to observe, guiding the evolving researcher’s self-definition and the way they interpreted the research object. The museum’s impact on ethnological practice was expressed also in the fact that in ethnologists’ everyday work the proportion of professional work was significant, impeding their dedication to research. The inventorying, systematising and supplementing of museum collections, which was supposed to form a basis for generalisations about folk culture, had only been started in the 1920s, and it continued parallel to research. Ethnologists acted in a positivist and modernist paradigm, which valued natural science’s objectivity – in order to ascertain types and spread of cultural phenomena, basic knowledge and complete collections were needed for the whole territory under study (Estonia).

Texts of different levels, created by ethnologists, such as fieldwork diaries, ethnographic descriptions, and researches, as well as the texts related to the then permanent exhibition at the museum, served as a basis for the representation critique in the dissertation. In these texts, ethnologists have described their research object – Estonian folk culture. As a modern critical historiographer, the author saw the then researchers’ text creation not as object-centred grantedness but as representation production, and asked questions about whom and how earlier researchers had represented and what had been the impact of this heritage on modern research. The research analysis manifested that the long-term interpretation of folk culture by means of the categories of timelessness, stability and unity is a simplification: the then ethnologists varied the construction of their research object according to institutional and personal interests and the concrete phenomenon of folk culture under study. The approach to folk culture also depended on the level of the text.

In the catalogue of the permanent exhibition of Estonian folk culture, Manninen described the theme of the exhibition as detached and static; this way his construction corresponds to the popular image described above. The ambiguous reception of folk culture became obvious, above all, in the analysis of the fieldwork materials provided by the then researchers, which as first-level sources of the knowledge production process characterise the contextuality of defining the research object. The interwar ethnologists also emphasised in their doctoral dissertations and in writings on academically higher levels the diversity and changeability of folk culture. The ethnology programme outlined in the 1920s defined the field of study narrowly as a description of material peasant culture, yet in actual ethnological practice researchers viewed folk culture as a more extensive phenomenon, both thematically and temporally.

In her research, the author appraised the analysis of fieldwork materials of the then ethnologists, as it is namely in fieldwork diaries and ethnographic descriptions that the first level of ethnological knowledge production is manifested. Students’ first fieldworks were carried out according to the museum’s prescriptions; yet, when they created sources for their master’s and doctoral theses, the young ethnologists put their fieldwork directly at the service of their own research. They could not imagine research without repeated fieldwork trips – this was an essential part of their academic habitus. “Being in the field” rendered credibility and authoritativeness to their research. Fieldwork experience enabled the ethnologists to better understand the phenomena under study, influencing their ideas of folk culture and making them aware of its historical, economic, and socio-communal context. Involving the importance of contextuality in different texts discussing folk culture was not very problematic for researchers, yet its proportion depended on a concrete text and the specificity of a research theme.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Estonian ethnology developed into a national and regional discipline, which, due to social and political conditions, remained practical by nature. The small number of professionals and the discipline’s connection to the museum also played a certain role in it. The practical aspect of scholarship became most pronounced when ethnologists and the museum participated in the state’s cultural propaganda in the second half of the 1930s, when ethnological knowledge was directly placed in the service of the state’s cultural policy.

The problems of applicability and academicism were also expressed in the high ambitions of Estonian ethnology as a young discipline, and the way they contradicted reality, which deepened year by year. According to the then positivist and modernist approach, the discipline was aimed at compiling an overview involving all the phenomena of material culture, and mapping the whole country. In reality, however, the few acting ethnologists were busy with administrative and professional tasks at the museum and were able to dedicate less time to academic knowledge production than expected. But the potential for academic knowledge production was considerable, especially if we take into account the several master’s theses defended during the Second World War, the emergence of a new generation thereupon, and the outlines of manuscripts in the reports and annual plans of established ethnologists – Linnus, Ränk and Kurrik.

In terms of academicism, however, the discipline’s national nature and regionality did not mean seclusion in its own cultural space. The then ethnologists simultaneously acted in a wider international knowledge circulation. They were in dialogue with colleagues from closer and more distant countries, who practised research on similar bases. This helped to find common topics at international conferences and in mutual correspondence, to be further developed in the future. As their research was published in German, they were also a part of the international scientific community.

PDF-version of the dissertation can be downloaded at