What happened – and how was it experienced?

“We want to introduce a new, previously undervalued element to the process of explaining history. By employing the concept and analysis of experience, we are able to combine everyday experiences with major structural changes,” says Professor Pertti Haapala, Director of the Centre of Excellence in the History of Experiences (HEX) (left). The three research themes of the Centre of Excellence – Lived Nation, Lived Religion and Lived Welfare State – are directed by Postdoctoral Researcher Ville Kivimäki (bottom middle), Academy Research Fellow Raisa Toivo (right) and Professor Pirjo Markkola (top middle), respectively.

“We want to introduce a new, previously undervalued element to the process of explaining history. By employing the concept and analysis of experience, we are able to combine everyday experiences with major structural changes,” says Professor Pertti Haapala, Director of the Centre of Excellence in the History of Experiences (HEX) (left). The three research themes of the Centre of Excellence – Lived Nation, Lived Religion and Lived Welfare State – are directed by Postdoctoral Researcher Ville Kivimäki (bottom middle), Academy Research Fellow Raisa Toivo (right) and Professor Pirjo Markkola (top middle), respectively.

As a Finnish parent, having one’s child taken into protective custody, on the one hand, and receiving a maternity package from Kela (the Finnish Social Insurance Institution), on the other, illustrate just how different encounters with society can be.

The new Centre of Excellence (CoE) in the History of Experiences (HEX) at the University of Tampere focuses on the history of human experiences. The research consortium explores the place and role of experiences in understanding and explaining society, both in the past and in the present day.

For example, the CoE’s study on the welfare state includes interview data collected from 300 people who were taken into custody by public child welfare services: the interviews reveal the experiences of these individuals. In addition, the data will be extended to include more successful child custody cases.

“Support for the welfare state is based on people’s experiences of daily encounters with the institutions of society,” says Professor Pirjo Markkola.

“Having a child taken into custody creates a completely different kind of relationship with society than, for example, the maternity package received by new parents or taxi services for the elderly provided by Kela,” Markkola explains.

The Centre of Excellence in the History of Experiences is divided into three research teams: Lived Nation, Lived Religion and Lived Welfare State. These themes were selected because they are so called eternal issues present both in the past and in current society, and they will also certainly matter in the future.

“Religion, the nation and the welfare state do not function if they do not resonate with people’s experiences. People must trust these systems, and their trust is created through experiences,” says Professor Pertti Haapala, the director of HEX.

Previous historical research can be criticised for concentrating on events and politics. According to Haapala, experiences are much talked about in the context of historical events, but only in relation to individual events or specific areas, such as the history of emotions or trauma.

“Similar systematic research on the history of experiences has not been done before,” Haapala explains.

Studying experiences provides a new perspective to approaching a wide range of topics. An essential part of the analysis involves combining experiences with agency.

“By looking at people’s actions and perhaps based on material evidence, we can see their experiences. They in turn show what people in the past thought was important but did not speak or write about,” says Academy Research Fellow Raisa Toivo.

Nations gain strength and continuity from experiences that are passed on from one generation to the next. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, it was predicted that nationalism and nations would wane, but the opposite has happened.

“In 2018, nationalism is stronger than it has been in a long time,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Ville Kivimäki.

However, the factors that gave rise to nationalism at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are not the same as those of today. The researchers are interested in what makes nations so strong at present, and why people identify with them so much.

According to Kivimäki, the awareness of nationality is transferred in particular via education. By talking about “us”, experiences of the past are delegated to new generations in schools, homes, parishes and associations. This is, for example, how Finns learn to “own” historical events that they have not personally experienced, such as the Winter War (1939–1940) and the Continuation War (1941–1944) Finland fought against the Soviet Union. One of the CoE’s research topics is exploring how children and young people react to the talk about “us”.

“We are investigating why people start living their lives through the nation, and why they are simultaneously building it,” Kivimäki says.

The Academy of Finland’s Centres of Excellence at the University of Tampere:

• The Academy of Finland appointed two new Centres of Excellence at the University of Tampere as of 1 January 2018: the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies and the Centre of Excellence in the History of Experiences. In addition, researchers at the University of Tampere are involved in three other Centres of Excellence (tumour genetics, body-on-chip research and research on ageing and care).
• The Centres of Excellence will receive funding for a period of eight years.
• Twelve new Centres of Excellence were selected in a call for applications that concerned all fields of science. Only seven per cent of the applications were successful.

Text: Tiina Lankinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall