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Susanne Ådahl, PhD

Research interests: Social suffering, uncertainty, contingency, cancer, anthropology at home, phenomenology, narratives, idioms of distress

Susanne Ådahl

D: Good Lives, Hidden Miseries. An Ethnography of Uncertainty in a Finnish Village

Research carried out among Swedish-speakers inhabiting the coastal areas of Finland found that they lead healthier, longer and more active lives than their Finnish-speaking neighbours. Common health indicators used to explain mortality do not differ significantly between the two groups, nor does the gene pool. It is believed that strong social ties and a high degree of social capital gives them this advantage over Finnish-speakers. In a country having one of the highest incidences of depression and suicide in Europe it is especially interesting to understand what it is that makes a certain group of people fare better than the rest of the population. What makes people inhabiting Swedish-speaking areas of the country healthier and keeps them alive longer than the majority population? What perceptions do Swedish-speakers themselves have of these theories and what explanations do they present regarding this phenomenon?

The aim of my research was to understand the sources of well-being and by contrast, the sources of uncertainty and distress that are a threat to well-being among people living in farming communities in the coastal areas of Southwestern Finland. I sought to investigate how people interpret illness and how their everyday theories of illness causation can be understood as a window on culture. Within the framework of this study I understand illness as a profoundly cultural and social phenomenon and as way for distressed individuals to have a dialogue with society.

The study is based on 12 months of fieldwork conducted 2002-2003 in a coastal village. It discusses how social and cultural change affects the life of farmers, how they experience change and how they act in order to deal with changing life circumstances. Using social suffering as a methodological approach the study looked at how change is related to lived experiences, idioms of distress, and narratives. Its aim was to draw a locally specific picture of what matters are at stake in the local moral world that these farmers inhabit, and to investigate how they emerge as creative actors within this local world.

A central assumption made about change is that it is two-fold; both a constructive force which gives birth to something new, and also a process that brings about uncertainty regarding the future. Uncertainty is understood as an existential condition of human life that demands a response, both causing suffering and transforming it. The possibility for positive outcomes in the future enables one to understand this ”small suffering” of everyday life both as a consequence of social change, which fragments and destroys, and as an answer to it - as something that is positively meaningful. Suffering is seen to engage individuals to ensure continuity, in spite of the odds, and to sustain hope regarding the future.

When the fieldwork was initiated Finland had been a member of the European Union for seven years and farmers felt it had substantially impacted on their working conditions. They complained about the restrictions placed on their autonomy and that their knowledge was neither recognised, nor respected by the bureaucrats of the EU system. New regulations require them to work in a manner that is morally unacceptable to them and financial insecurity has become more prominent. All these changes indicate the potential loss of the home and of the ability to ensure continuity of the family farm.

Although the study initially focused on getting a general picture of working conditions and the nature of farming life, during the course of the fieldwork there was repeated mention of a perceived high prevalence of cancer in the area. Cancer statistics for the area do not, though, significantly differ from any other part of the country. The study asked how villagers express and interpret what cancer is and what they consider contributes to the existence or lack of cancer. I was mainly concerned with how perceptions of cancer, through talk about cancer, reflect core values tied to place, work and social relations. This ”cancer talk” is replete with metaphors that reveal cultural meanings tied to the farming life and the core values of autonomy, endurance and permanence. It also forms the basis of a shared identity and a means of delivering a moral message about the fragmentation of the good life; the loss of control; and the invasion of the foreign into the intimate sphere of the home.

The study opens up a vital perspective on the multiplicity and variety of the experience of suffering and that it is particularly through the use of the ethnographic method that these experiences can be brought to light.

Link to ethesis:

Ådahl, S. 2007: Good Lives, Hidden Miseries. An Ethnography of Uncertainty in a Finnish Village, Research Reports no. 250, Department of Sociology, University of Helsinki, Helsinki: Helsinki University Printing House.

Ådahl, S. 2004: "Enemmän kiinni maassa ei voi ollakaan" - kärsimyksiä maisemassa. In Marja-Liisa Honkasalo, Terhi Utriainen ja Anna Leppo (ed.): "Arki satuttaa. Kärsimyksiä suomalaisessa nykypäivässä", Tampere: Vastapaino.

Ådahl, S. 2000: La Vida Alegre: Intimacy and Respect in the World of Prostitution in Managua. An unpublished Masters thesis. University of Helsinki, Department of Social Anthropology.

Gorter, Anna; Segura, Zoyla; Sandiford, Peter; Zuniga, Esteban;
Torrentes, Roger; and Susanne Ådahl, 2000: “You should not tell us to
use condoms, but our clients!” An extended voucher programme in
Nicaragua. Research for Sex Work, no. 3, June 2000.

Ådahl, S. 2001: Creating Safety in an Uncertain World: Shifting Concepts of Calle and Casa in the World of Prostitution in Managua. In Maria Clara Medina (ed.) Lo público y lo privado: género en America Latina. Gothenburg: Institute for Ibero-American Studies, Gothenburg University.


- Between Difference and Similarity - the cultural construction of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, young academics seminar at the Finnish Institute in London, March 8-10, 2002.
- Feeling life: Ethnographies of emotions among villagers in Southwestern Finland, Third Nordic seminar on medical anthropology at Mekrijärvi research centre. March 20-23, 2002.
- Labour of Love, Bread of the Land: The meaning of pride and permanency on Kimito Island, Workshop on 'Feelings and Meanings: The cultural expressions and social impacts of emotions'at the 7th biennal of the European Association of Social
Anthropologists (EASA) in Copenhagen, August 14-17, 2002.
- “Dogs don’t bite the hand that feeds them: Managing distress in the changing rural landscape of Southwestern Finland”, Conference on Medical Anthropology at Home 3 in Perugia, Italy, 24-27 September, 2003.
- “The Legacy of Vieskeri – Agency and discipline in amateur trotting racing in Finland” at the 8th biennial of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) in Vienna, September 8-12, 2004.

Forthcoming publications:
- “Dogs don’t bite the hand that feeds them: Managing distress in the changing rural landscape of Southwestern Finland”, anthology to be published by MAAH (Network of Medical Anthropology at Home), 2004

- "The Legacy of Lohdutus – Performativity and Agency in Amateur Trotting Racing in Finland", anthology on "Exploring Regimes of Discipline: The Dynamics of Restraint", Noel Dyck (ed.), EASA series, Berghan publishers, 2005

- Anthropological Methods at the Open University, Åbo Akademi, 2002-2007
- Medical Anthropology at the Open University, Åbo Akademi, 2002-2007

Acting as treasurer of the Finnish Anthropological Society since 2004.

Keywords:  social suffering, cancer, uncertainty, contingency, lay theories, metaphors


2005/01/28 NEW JOURNAL: "Health, sickness and culture"

2004/12/17 PhD Course in Medical Anthropology in Tarragona, Spain

2004/12/17 2nd ANNOUNCEMENT, The 4th Biennal Conference of the ...

2004/10/28 The Fourth Biennal Conference of the European Network ...

2004/03/22 RE:The concept of suffering

2004/02/29 RE:The concept of suffering

2004/02/29 The concept of suffering

Copyright © 2002 Mika Lassander
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