(column in Helsinki University Bulletin 4/2009)
So, Dr Torsti has not yet arrived,” the minister says to his secretary as he walks into the waiting room of his office and scans the people in the room. “Yes she has, she is waiting for you there in the corner,” the secretary
whispers, blushing, and nods towards me as I sit on the couch and pretend to be reading.
“Oh, I am very sorry, Dr Torsti, I expected you to look different,” says the minister apologetically and leads me with smooth Balkan style into his office in central Sarajevo. We are to negotiate about his support for an educational project I am in charge of. When a Bosnian minister says “different” he actually means “male” and “older”.
Therefore, working in the masculine Balkan culture has taught me to appreciate my doctoral degree. It is a useful contrast to being blond, female, small and looking girlish. So while I rarely use the doctor title in Finland, whenever I operate in the Balkan region I have visiting cards with the title “Dr” printed in big bold letters.
I have been involved with the region of the former Yugoslavia since the early 1990s, during my high school years.
That region became my academic interest about ten years ago and has remained part of my specialisation since.
I wrote my Master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki based on the European research project Youth and History, which I coordinated in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition to that youth survey, I also studied the history textbooks and divided history teaching in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina.
My conclusion was that the (still!) continuing segregation in education has been a key obstacle to a lasting peace and stable multicultural society in Bosnia.
My academic interest in the former Yugoslavia has been directly related to questions relevant to the post-war reconstruction process. In fact, the idea of my research originally grew out of my frustration as a young journalist in Bosnia and Herzegovina in late 1990s.
I felt that it was impossible to do justice to the complex situation of the country and its people in short newspaper pieces. It was equally impossible to find research that would have addressed post-war Bosnian society and its people with all their complex realities.
When pursuing academic work in such a devastated and destroyed post-war reality as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sarajevo are, a researcher needs to have a sense of purpose in his/her work.
For me this sense of purpose has been brought about through concrete involvement and participation in the post-war reconstruction as part of my academic work.
During the PhD work I was part of the group that started to tentatively analyse the possibilities of using the experience of multiculturally structured international education to overcome the segregated situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina which I had outlined in my research.
My doctoral research continuously served as a good piece of evidence and argumentation for our ideas as we presented them to potential donors and supporters.
Finally, after defending my doctoral dissertation, I also worked full-time as a project director of the pilot educational initiative that grew out of our tentative attempts.
So, whenever I encounter a question about the usefulness of the social sciences, I argue that my PhD research resulted in a practical innovation: the United World College and International Baccalaureate Initiative in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
During these years as a scholar and as a project director I have met dozens of ministers, headmasters, mayors
and the like in Bosnia, most of them middle-aged males.
In most cases I have needed their support and approval in order to pursue my goals, which have often run counter to their own typically nationalistically orientated politics.
When winning local allies, three things have been invaluable: my doctoral title, knowledge of the local language and circumstances as a result of study and research work, and being from Finland.
Why is being Finnish also relevant when working in the Balkans? It has partly to do with the work of such people as Martti Ahtisaari and Elisabeth Rehn, both of whom are widely respected. It has also to do with the image of the Nordic countries. The Nordic countries are considered to be neutral when it comes to the great power interests and, we also have the reputation of being straightforward, honest and reasonable people.
In the special case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has also been important that the scholar is not local. Sad as it is, most of the research or project work I have done in Bosnia and Herzegovina could not have been done by a Bosnian scholar simply because the scholar would have always represented one or the other of the local national groups and therefore others would have suspected the individual’s impartiality.
For many years I thought one would eventually need to decide whether to work at a university, in international organisations, in a think tank or as a journalist. I no longer think that way. The University of Helsinki has become the home base for the various activities which I see as belonging to the work of an intellectual. I appreciate the encouraging and permissive atmosphere of the university, which has allowed this small blond doctor to carry on her activities also with Bosnian ministers.