This paper explores how tourism and transport infrastructures are entangled in the town of Churchill in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Situated at the junction of the boreal forest, the Arctic tundra, and the Hudson Bay, the community of 870 people has become known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. While early bear watching projects in Churchill already started in the 1970s, tourism really exploded when polar bears became worldwide symbols of global warming and climate change at the end of the 20th century.
This tremendous growth in tourism was mainly enabled by the transport infrastructure of a town which has no road connection. The Hudson Bay Railway, which was originally built to ship grain from Canada’s prairie provinces to the seaport of Churchill, now also brings tourists and their supplies. The same goes for Churchill’s airport, which was constructed for military purposes during the Second World War and now serves as transportation hub for tourists, tour operators, and their cargo.
By discussing ethnographic findings, this paper focuses on the role of tourism, as a key economic driver, and its connection to transport infrastructures in sustaining and transforming the town of Churchill. In doing so, it also critically reflects upon the very notion of sustainability (transformation). This study is one of several case studies in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into the affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale.
Infrastructures are at the core of many social transformations, sociopolitical developments, and creative processes of innovation. They have become key indicators and signs of economic development, technological advancement, and modernization. Particularly in small and remote communities, infrastructures are often associated with economic growth, socio-economic well-being, and therefore communal sustainability.
This paper looks into the role of digital and transport infrastructures in remote communities in Canada by discussing questions of infrastructural ownership and control. In doing so, it draws on completed ethnographic fieldwork on the development and appropriation of digital infrastructures in Northwestern Ontario as well as on ongoing fieldwork in Northern Manitoba on the affordances of transport infrastructures in relation to sustaining communities; the latter being conducted within the ERC project InfraNorth.
Both cases show that the creation of social relationships and organizational partnerships are key for the planning, developing, building, continuing, and maintaining of infrastructures. At least from an ethnographic and anthropological perspective, infrastructure is therefore much more than just an operational system of technological objects.
On invitation of Christoph Bareither, I gave a lecture on the formations, the differences and similarities of cyber anthropology and digital anthropology for the colloquium “Digital Anthropology” at the University of Tübingen, Germany (in German). The talk built on a text published in 2019 for the edited volume Ritualisierung – Mediatisierung – Performance. Find the chapter as PDF file below:
Anhand ausgewählter wissenschaftstheoretischer und -historischer Aspekte zeichnet Philipp Budka in seinem Vortrag die Entwicklung sowie die Gemeinsamkeiten und Unterschiede der Forschungsfelder der Cyber Anthropologie und der Digitalen Anthropologie nach. Beide sind bestrebt, zu einem besseren Verständnis komplexer soziotechnischer Systeme in unterschiedlichen Gesellschaften beizutragen. Während die Cyber Anthropologie – der Kybernetik folgend – sich nicht nur mit kommunikationstechnischen, sondern auch mit biologisch-technischen Grundlagen und Veränderungen von Systemen und Organisationsformen befasst, fokussiert die Digitale Anthropologie dezidiert auf digitale Technologien, Medien oder Infrastrukturen. Wie Budkas Vortrag verdeutlicht, gestaltet die Kultur- und Sozialanthropologie die interdisziplinäre Auseinandersetzung mit den komplexen Beziehungen zwischen Mensch, Technik und Technologie – sowie die damit verbundenen Phänomene, Prozesse und Praktiken – entscheidend mit.
“The digital transformation is changing the way we live, the way our societies and economies function, and is shifting global power relations. Moreover, it has brought about an unprecedented degree of global interconnectedness. In cooperation with other Academies of Sciences worldwide, Academies for Global Innovation and Digital Ethics (AGIDE) seeks to embrace the socio-cultural variety of perspectives from all over the world and to further explore differences and similarities without forcing uniformity or consensus. The first AGIDE workshop will focus on the main questions of the project, that is, how various regions and cultures experience digitalization and whether particular ethical challenges arise due to various cultural dimensions. A series of renowned international speakers were invited to investigate, beyond stereotypes, in which ways cultural dimensions influence how technologies are welcomed, perceived and dealt with. Three main questions were were identified to guide the discussions at the workshop:
1) What is your vision of a ‘good digital future’ within your cultural context or region?
2) When you step out of the ‘bubble’ of the expert community, what are the views of lay people you meet ‘outside’?
3) What is the most annoying cultural stereotype with regard to approaches to digitization? Why do you find it annoying and what would you change about that stereotype?”
I commented on these questions by providing an anthropological perspective.
This paper explores how transport infrastructures are interconnected and entangled in the Subarctic town of Churchill, Canada. In doing so, it looks into the creation and maintenance of these infrastructures as well as into the role that social, political, and economic relations play here. It furthermore examines how such infrastructural entanglements contribute to the sustainability of the town. Churchill is one of several field sites in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into the affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale through an anthropological lens.
Churchill, a town of 870 people, is unique in terms of transport infrastructure. The town, which is not accessible via roads, is home to Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean. This is the only harbor in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway system. In addition, Churchill has a relatively big airport, which was originally built by the military and is now supporting in particular the growing tourism industry. The community of Churchill only exists because of these infrastructures and it has been changing together with them.
By discussing ethnographic and historical findings, this paper focuses on how this infrastructural entanglement becomes particularly visible in times of infrastructural breakdown and failure. When in 2017 a flooding washed-out the railway tracks and Churchill was without train connection for 18 months, the town and its inhabitants had to rely on air transportation and on a network of winter trails to transport goods and supplies. This has had severe consequences for this remote Subarctic town.
The seminar “Digital Visuality and Popular Culture” for the MA program CREOLE at the University of Vienna provides an overview about digital visuality as a key phenomenon of contemporary visual culture and its connection to popular culture. By working on ethnographic research projects, students explore the diversity of digital practices, their visual dimension and their meaning for popular cultural processes and phenomena.
With the advent of digital media and technologies, internet-based devices and services, mobile computing as well as software applications and social media platforms new opportunities and challenges have come to the forefront in the anthropological research of visual culture. Digital media technologies have become ubiquitous means of visual communication, interaction and representation. For anthropology it is of particular interest how people engage with digital media technologies and content, how “the digital” is embedded in everyday life and how it relates to different sociocultural phenomena.
One of these phenomena is popular culture: processes and practices related to the production, circulation and consumption of, for example, music, film, fashion and advertisements as well as the construction and mediation of celebrities. Moreover, popular culture is closely connected to other cultural phenomena such as fan culture, public culture and participatory culture. Fans, for instance, engage in various forms of visual productivity and play a crucial role in the creation and circulation of cultural artifacts related to their fandom such as memes.
By working on different case studies, students get a comparative overview about digital visuality and visual aspects of popular culture. Students conduct ethnographic projects and engage with key questions. What theoretical concepts and analytical categories of sociality can be used to study visual and popular culture? How does digital visuality constitute and mediate cultural performances and rituals? How do social media platforms enable and change visual culture and communication?
Tourism is big in Churchill, a town of 870 people situated at the junction of the boreal forest, the Subarctic tundra, and the Hudson Bay in Northern Manitoba, Canada. And tourism is closely entangled with transport infrastructures, such as roads, trails, railway, and airport. Through these infrastructures, tourists are able to reach the town and move around in the community and the nearby area. Tourism operators use these infrastructures to move not only people, but also supplies, equipment, and fuel.
Budka, P. (2023). Sustainability transformation and transport infrastructures in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Paper at Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW2023), Vienna, Austria: University of Vienna, 17-24 February.
This paper explores from an anthropological perspective how infrastructural entanglements relate to sustainability transformation of/in the town of Churchill in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Situated at the junction of the boreal forest, the Arctic tundra, and the Hudson Bay, the community of 870 people has become well-known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. But Churchill is also unique in terms of transport infrastructures. Whereas the town is not accessible via roads, it is home of Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean. This port is the only harbor in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway system. And due to former military presence, the town also has a relatively big airport, which has become key for the growing tourism industry.
Churchill only exists because of these transport infrastructures and it has been changing together with this built environment. Only recently and in the light of geopolitical developments, the federal and the provincial governments agreed to invest up to CA$ 147 million to upgrade the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill. By discussing ethnographic findings, this paper focuses on the role of transport infrastructures in sustaining and transforming the community. At the same time, it critically reflects upon the very notion of sustainability (transformation) from an anthropological and cross-cultural angle. This study is one of several case studies in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into the affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale.
The book brings together anthropologists as well as media and communication scholars to collectively address the elusive and complex relationship between media and conflict. Through epistemological and methodological reflections and the analyses of various case studies from around the globe, this volume provides evidence for the co-constitutiveness of media and conflict and contributes to their consolidation as a distinct area of scholarship.
Indigenous people have been appropriating media technologies for decades to communicate within and outside their communities, to resist outside domination and for self-determination. This chapter traces developments in the anthropological study of Indigenous media, particularly since the 1990s when research in this field co-contributed to the widening area of media anthropology.
After reviewing conceptualisations of cultural activism and social change in the context of Indigenous media engagements, it analyses the Indigenization of media by considering locally specific practices of media appropriation, global processes of identity-making and the technological and infrastructural dimension of media projects.
By drawing on ethnographic examples from the anthropological literature and from the author’s fieldwork in Canada, the chapter argues that there is a strong sense of sociopolitical activism and agency in Indigenous people’s collective engagements with media. At the same time, Indigenous people’s media practices are related to mundane necessities of everyday communication, social networking, family bonding or individual self-expression.
This chapter concludes that media technologies have become an important part of Indigeneity, as a global idea and as a relational practice of collective identity formation, which coexists with the sense of belonging to a distinct local Indigenous community.
This winter term, I have the pleasure to give this lecture one last time – again with contributions by Wolfgang Kraus – before a new curriculum and introduction lecture will be implemented.
The lecture has been using Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s seminal book Small Places, Large Issues as main teaching and learning resource. I find it therefore fitting to end this journey with a quote from his volume:
“Anthropology tries to account for the social and cultural variation in the world, but a crucial part of the anthropological project also consists in conceptualising and understanding similarities between social systems and human relationships.” (Eriksen, 2015: 2)
Budka, P. (2022). Infrastructural sustainability? The case of a town in northern Manitoba, Canada [Unpublished manuscript]. Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna.
This paper explores how the built environment and in particular infrastructural entanglements contribute to the sustainability of the town of Churchill in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Situated at the junction of the boreal forest, the Arctic tundra, and the Hudson Bay, the town of 870 residents has become well-known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”.
But Churchill is also unique in terms of transport infrastructures. Whereas the town is not accessible via roads, it is home of Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean. This port is the only seaport in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway network. And due to former military presence, the town also has a relatively big airport, which now supports the growing tourism industry.
The community of Churchill only exists because of these transport infrastructures and it has been changing together with this built environment. By discussing ethnographic findings, the paper focuses on the failures, such as an 18-month train outage after the flooding of railway tracks in 2017, and the promises, such as the renovation of port and railway between 2021 and 2023 under new ownership, of transport infrastructures in sustaining the community.
Churchill is one of several field sites in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into the affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale through an anthropological lens.
This paper explores changes in the transport infrastructure of the remote town of Churchill in northern Manitoba, Canada. The town of about 900 residents is located on the 58th parallel north at the Hudson Bay and has become known as the “polar bear capital of the world”.
Churchill is unique in terms of transportation. Canada’s only deep-water port on the Arctic Ocean is located there. And this port is the only port in the American (Sub)Arctic with a direct link to the North American railway network. The town, which is inaccessible via roads, only exists because of these transport infrastructures.
In 2017, when a flood washed out railway tracks, this infrastructural entanglement once again became apparent. Suddenly, Churchill was without overland access and life changed drastically. Food and other items had to be flown in at high costs and residents utilized snowmobile trails to reduce transportation costs.
The port had to close, people lost their jobs and families left. The town negotiated with the province, the state and the company which owned the railway to get the tracks fixed. After 18 months, they were finally repaired. In 2021, however, the port again was closed for grain shipping due to renovations.
By discussing results of a first ethnographic field trip to Churchill, this paper focuses on the failures and promises of transport infrastructures. Churchill is one of several field sites in the ERC project InfraNorth, which looks into affordances of transport infrastructures on a pan-Arctic scale through an anthropological lens.
I wake up because a bright light is shining directly in my face. For a second, I am not sure where I am. Then I remember: I am in Canada, in the province of Manitoba, on the train from the capital Winnipeg to the small northern town of Churchill at the Hudson Bay. I am in my cabin, in the sleeping car with the window blinds open so I can see the subarctic night sky. The train must have stopped at one of the small places along its way. I look at the clock, it’s 2:30 a.m. I am 40 hours on the train and there are only about eight hours to go.