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Conversation with Professor Helga Ögmundardóttir on Laxness, Pivotal Early Moments, Iceland Then and Now, and Hydropower in Iceland Highland: Assistant Professor, Social and Human Sciences, University of Iceland (1)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/09/15


Professor Helga Ögmundardóttir is an Assistant Professor in Social and Human Sciences at the University of Iceland. She discusses: family background; some pivotal moments of early life; some early indications of interest in anthropology; the culture of childhood with the culture of Iceland now; Uppsala for the Ph.D. in Anthropology; Ph.D. dissertation was entitled “The Shepherds of Þjórsárver.: Traditional Use and Hydropower Development in the Commons of the Icelandic Highland” (2011); the central thesis and question about the traditional use and development of hydropower in the Iceland Highland; the main findings of the thesis; and some of the teaching content.

Keywords: Helga Ögmundardóttir, human sciences, hydropower, social sciences, University of Iceland.

Conversation with Professor Helga Ögmundardóttir on Laxness, Pivotal Early Moments, Iceland Then and Now, and Hydropower in Iceland Highland: Assistant Professor, Social and Human Sciences, University of Iceland (1)

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: For this first round of questions, naturally, I would like to start from the beginning. I should note. These interviews take place within a context of simply falling in love with Iceland. It has its issues, as with any country. But it is so lovely and functional, and democratic, and gender equal, and intelligently run, etc., compared to so many other places on Earth. Francis Fukuyama once said, “How do we get to Denmark?” I completely disagree. Well, I agree. Denmark is great. It’s a tough road to progress to there. However! I will give a modern riff on it, “How do we get to Iceland?” Part of the answer sits with the people. Another lies within the context of the development from earlier lives into the present to produce political structure, economic diversity, gender-equal policies, and the formation of a sociocultural structure dynamic to suit the needs of men and women for individual Icelandic citizens to pursue their best selves, their best lives. What was family background for you? I am aware of the culture described by Laxness and the idea of ‘Independent People.’

Helga Ögmundardóttir: I am born in 1965, my parents in 1944, my grandfathers both in 1912, my maternal grandmother in 1918 and the other one 1921, so my great-grandparents were 19th century people, and of them I remember all of them very well, except my paternal grandfather who died just before I was born. He is my namesake, I’m his oldest grandchild and he never even knew I would be born. But my grandmother, his wife, my “amma”, married again and her husband became my “afi” and I loved him much. And I remember my great-great grandfather on my father’s side, my “langafi” well, and my “langamma” – my mother’s grandmother. We always were very close as an extended family, on both my parents’ side, so the strings in my upbringing cover a very broad time-spectrum, stretching far back in Icelandic history, but I’m also a product of 20th century modernistic aspirations, nationalistic ideas of recent independence (Iceland got full independence from Denmark in 1944) and then we have post-everything being the context of my personal and professional life today. Now that my parents are both deceased and I am now a member of the “oldest” generation in my family, I see the ties of blood disappear, alas, and the feeling of belonging to a clan belongs to the past for me. But as for the Laxness-related ideas, I resent all attempts at dividing people, whether on nationalistic notes, in terms of the modernistic idea of the “developed” vs. the “underdeveloped/developing”, which is probably both the cause and effect of my anthropological identity today. I appreciate him as a writer who had enormous influence on Icelandic society in the 20th century; his respect for gone generations, as well as the way he depicts them in a funny and often sarcastic way. He – Halldór Laxness – and my grandfather were cousins, so he was also a part of the idea I was raised with, of the extended family contributing to what I am and where I come from, both genetically and socio-culturally. But what mostly formed my identity from early on is this contradictory mix of “old” and “new”, probably more than anything else because my father was a historian, philologist and folklorist and we were very close. Her was “in the past”, so to speak, telling me about our past all the time, my mother “in the present” as a political activist, both a socialist and a feminist, and even if we were somehow not very close, I always looked up to her as a role model and a brave woman who stood by her ideas about a better world.

Jacobsen: What were some pivotal moments of early life for you?

Ögmundardóttir: I cannot name any specific events or moments; I recall my early life rather badly as I don’t really recall the specificities of events, but more the atmosphere, smells and sounds, feelings, perceptions in general, that I now connect with moments and events, in my mind. But being sent to a farm in northern Iceland as a 10 years old for two summers, to help with the farm-work, that was a great thing for me as I was and am fascinated by animals, and as a 12 years old starting to work in a fish-factory, for many summers to come, that was a big disappointment since my farm-life was thereby over and instead of being outside, free, in the short Icelandic summer, I was confined inside a wet and noisy fish-factory from June to August. Well, we got well paid, I guess, but the money went to my parents’ account as a contribution to our common economy. This was the tradition then and I could do little to object – well, I had my little “rebellions” but they never changed anything. The deaths of dear ones, close relatives, of my pets as well, had profound impact on me as well as a child and teenager. The first time I went abroad, as a 9 years old, to Denmark with my parents, was revolutionary! I saw frogs for the first time, tall trees, huge palaces, trains, could be outside in shorts into the night as it was warm enough… and the list goes on! I was lucky to have marvelous teachers in primary and secondary school, and I read books like there was no tomorrow – I finished all the children’s books in the city library quite early and went on to the grown-ups’ department and many books had profound influence on me, whether books for children or not. We didn’t have a TV until I was several years old and watching telly in my friends’ homes or – even more importantly – the American army-base’s TV-station; now that was a life-changing thing! I could see it in my cousin’s home in Hafnarfjörður, which was close enough to the Keflavik-base to get the signal. And there are countless good and bad “things” I could name as influential, some had impact that left their mark on me early and have since lost some influence – fortunately for the negative ones – others have increasingly popped up in my memory as something that has been there all the time but are now gaining meaning and my understanding of them growing. This is how we – at least I – have been throughout life, and I see us as fairly fluid beings with a complex, changing identity, not at all clearly bound but reaching out to the world all the time; and the world “coming to” or merging with us, not least.

Jacobsen: Were there some early indications of interest in anthropology? Or was this something happening more in early university education?

Ögmundardóttir: I talked about my wonderful teachers when in primary school; I would trace my interest in the world, other people, other cultures to their methods and the material we used to learn from. I will not go into details as that would require a whole essay, but in short, we learned all the classical subjects through learning about different nations and human groups all over the world. As an example, we learned mathematics by following the news on the radio about what cargo-ships were coming and going to and from Iceland – being an island in the middle of the Atlantic, shipping was vital for us – and we made schemes about all the ships and what type they were – size, route, days at sea, types and amount of cargo, etc. and calculated all kinds of information out of that. Another project was to pretend to be farmers in Scandinavia and the northwestern British Isles in the 10th century, heading for a new land somewhere in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean, and decide what to take with us on our ships, how much, how long it would take, how much each member could eat per day and so on and so forth. We basically relived the settlement of Iceland but not on nationalistic terms but practical and creative ones – and of course we learned about any other subject you have to learn in school with these and other such projects and exercises. To make a long story short; when I discovered anthropology, its interdisciplinary character and local-global focus fascinated me and I found myself totally at home in its bosom. But I really didn’t know that something like anthropology existed as an academic subject until I sat in my first class of Introduction to anthropology, really. But there was no turning back, I was stuck and even if the way through university studies, all the way through a PhD was windy and bumpy, it was somehow meant to be because for me, anthropology is a way of life, not just “my job”.

Jacobsen: If you compared the culture of childhood with the culture of Iceland now, what are the major differences? I like to make a comparison, even with Canada. We closed the last Residential School in 1996 or the same year the Hon. Vigdis resigned after 16 years of leadership in Iceland. People love Trudeau, in general. Yet, our history is two decades behind Iceland. It is in the fine details of gender equality that Iceland excels in what I love and term “pragmatic gender egalitarianism.”

Ögmundardóttir:  The major differences – what we have now full-force, but weren’t back then or were just somehow in the background and/or emerging: The internet, globalization of everything, more or less, tourism (although we have a little breathing-hole now because of covid), and last but not least: an environmental crisis affecting all and everything. Concerning gender issues here; we are in many ways moving forward but in some other terms we’re just as much struggling as everyone else. And what’s more, steps forward are NOT here to stay – they so easily are erased by bad laws, changes in our values and thus society – how we interact and see and evaluate each other – so it’s like anything we fight for, believing it’s for improvement, it’s precarious and its existence is only real if we practice what we preach, so to speak. We have domestic violence that is more often than not directed towards women and children, we have rapes and other sexual violence that also affects women more than men, we still have a salary-gap between men and women that cannot be explained with anything but their gender, and so on. Although I want to shake the boat more and stop this duality-view of humans as either male of female – we are so much more complex and it’s very old-fashioned to focus so much on male-female equality. But I know what you mean, in many ways we are ahead and when I talk to my friends abroad, in countries where it’s basically life-threatening to be a woman, I am rather pleased with the situation here.

Jacobsen: Now, why go to Uppsala for the Ph.D. in Anthropology?

Ögmundardóttir:  I had taken my undergraduate in Gothenburg and Stockholm, my MA in Iceland, and there was no doubt in my mind I wanted to go abroad for my PhD. And I simply searched for a programme and a supervisor who fit my topic of interest and found that in the Department of cultural anthropology at Uppsala University. I couldn’t afford a university that cost much, so Scandinavia was a good choice. I took my two little girls with me to Sweden and the school-system there for young children was appealing to me. I had friends in the country already and by going there I would be closer to them. I knew the language and the system, had a social security number already and slipped into the system easily.

Jacobsen: You Ph.D. dissertation was entitled “The Shepherds of Þjórsárver.: Traditional Use and Hydropower Development in the Commons of the Icelandic Highland” (2011). What is the feeling in getting the Ph.D.?

Ögmundardóttir:  It was nice, of course, but also a little sad because it meant I would have no reason to stay there longer, really; Uppsala is close to my heart and my best friends since decades live there or close by, and I miss them every day. But it meant I had a certificate to wave, so to speak, and my words had increased weight in discussions – and we can argue if that is right and fair or not – and last but not least, I had more freedom to be mobile as an academic which is the best thing of all for a restless soul like me who needs freedom more than most other things to thrive.

Jacobsen: What was the central thesis and question about the traditional use and development of hydropower in the Iceland Highland? Also, for those who do not recognize the terminology from Anglo ancient law, what is the commons?

Ögmundardóttir:  The commons is this space – in terms of geographical space, but also social and cultural space – where we in a way become equal, in terms of access and ability to be present and heard/seen. I cannot pretend to give the one and only definition of “the commons” but for me, these traits are important. To define a certain area, resource, phenomenon of various kind, that everyone (either all humans or a certain group of humans) has equal access to, is an old way of relating to each other and to our surroundings/environment, and it has lasted and endured in most areas of the world since – most likely – the beginning of human time, in spite of all kinds of political and economic attempts at eliminating them, the commons, by those who believe in private property and want to take them as theirs to use and thereby prevent others from enjoying their treasures, of whatever kind they are. Our atmosphere is a commons, space is (still) a commons, big parts of the earth’s oceans, much of our freshwater, etc. (although the privatization of water is increasing and posing problems to many, especially the poor). My thesis was about the social, cultural and political means people have to protect a piece of land – in this case the commons of a specific rural municipality in Iceland – against state and corporate encroachment. The theme is the familiar one of a hydropower dam-building plan that would destroy a wetland ecosystem, Þjórsárver, and reduce its cultural value and thus hurt the common identity of the community that has used it for centuries, both in terms of access to grazing for their sheep, and as a mental and social refuge from the repetition of daily life. It also has a scientific and conservation value and is one of the last untouched patches of vegetation and birdlife in the highland of Iceland. It is both a strength and a weakness that the area the farmers want to keep intact is a commons; the strength is that they have a common responsibility for it, it being an area of ancient common use, and it is a part of their common identity, but also their weakness because not everyone agrees on its worth and value, as some farmers don’t have sheep and have not emotional nor social ties to the area. But the picture is more complex than that because even people in the community who don’t have sheep and even never have still would never allow its destruction, and the issue of families, family ties, party politics, economic interests within the are and so on, cross-cut the mobilization against the dam scheme.

Jacobsen: What were the main findings of the thesis?

Ögmundardóttir:  Well, some of it I talked about in the former answer, but basically these several dozens of farming families have managed to prevent the National power company, owned by the Icelandic state, from building the reservoir Norðlingaölduveita, for decades now (the original plan even dates back to the beginning of the 20th century). Against all odds, against nationalistic ideas of progress of a newly free nation, against the dominant party politics ideology, against very strong industrial and corporate economic interests, they have succeeded with an amazing “toolkit” to stop the plan, sometimes so close to defeat that I sweat when I think about it! Their knowledge and resourcefulness has enabled them to play the multiple strings of resistance, and it has not least been their ties to foreign aid from natural scientists and activists that has made the difference between defeat and victory. Iceland is not an island in all meanings of the term – we are a part of the world and what we do here with “our” nature is not our private business, and when the eyes of the world are on us doing “the wrong thing”, our vain politicians (well, some of them!) often understand that it matters how you talk and behave; it’s not just your fellow country-people who hear you! And “my” farmers have also played their political party-cards well, pulling strings that have strategically helped them bringing forward their cause. And the fact that all Icelanders belong to families and clans (I sometimes call them tribes – Iceland is really an industrialized tribal society, you know!) has enabled my farmers to pull the strings of family- and blood ties which are of great importance here if you want to get anywhere with your ideas and life in general.

Jacobsen: To some of the teaching content for you, what is the state of globalization now? What is the state of ethnography?

Ögmundardóttir:  Ethnography has become a fashionable way to do anything between interviewing people about their driving behavior, through cities and institutions being inclusive in planning and constructing, to saving the world from the ills of climate change. Now, my engineering colleagues are incorporating ethnographic methods into their university programs, wanting to learn about qualitative methods, participant observation, action research and I don’t know what! As an example. I remember being a part of groups of interdisciplinary researchers dealing with, let’s say emissions or sustainable fisheries, 20 years ago as the only qualitative, female researcher (two boxes ticked by hiring me!) to now being one of several social and humanities researchers and the qualitative methods being an integrative part of the premise of the project (in order to get funding – again; boxes ticked!) and not just an add-on towards the end, when the modelers and oceanographers and biologists and engineers had done their part – the bulk of the project, in terms of manpower, time and money. Well, I might be a bit unfair here, but overall the scientific landscape has changed and I find myself in the situation of being THE ethnographer, wanted (alive, not dead!) in research because environmental issues cannot be dealt with but by many disciplines in cooperation and communication. Alas, less and less time is allocated to do the research, which is against anything ethnographic – and my task is to somehow fix that. For me, ethnography is a way of life, again, it is how I cope with reality, both for good and bad – I find it hard to put my ethnographic self aside when I’m not at work, sometimes I succeed, sometimes it just happens automatically, but above all it has become my coping method to deal with the globalized world with all its horrors and heavens. And to teach this approach to the human condition is such a privilege – I would have given up and turned to something else if I didn’t have to opportunity to explore ethnography with my students. That is the essence of anthropology to me.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Assistant Professor, Social and Human Sciences, University of Iceland.

[2]Individual Publication Date: September 15, 2020:Ögmundardóttir-1; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2021:


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