Nora Ahlberg

Ph.D., Professor emerita
b. 1952, public defence of the thesis 11.5.1990

Opponent: Professor Jan Bergman, Uppsala
Custodian: Professor Juha Pentikäinen
Doctoral thesis: New Challenges – Old Strategies. Themes of variations and Conflict among Pakistani Muslims in Norway. Transactions of the Finnish Anthropological Society. Finnish Anthropological Society, Helsinki, 1990.

How I became a scholar in comparative religion


It all began elsewhere. After a probationary gap year at the Free Art School in Helsinki, I found myself, to my surprise, among the few students chosen to continue their further education in painting. This was an honor I felt obliged to accept despite my firm intention to become a clinical psychologist. My childhood dreams had included earning a living as a psychiatrist-therapist while simultaneously writing fiction. I had already failed the latter test in the eyes of my language teacher, who was, however, replaced by another teacher who promoted an essay of mine for the school’s literary prize at graduation.

It wasn’t until my best friend’s brother became one of the pioneering psychology students in Helsinki that I learned about – and came to favor – the subject of clinical psychology above psychiatry. The fact that he warned me not to expect to pass the demanding entrance exams created a motivation to prove him wrong. Later I did conduct basic studies in psychiatry on a quota reserved for students of clinical psychology. My teacher, Professor Kalle Achte, collaborated on suicide studies with my PhD supervisor in comparative religion.

There was no religious inclination in my family, and to the extent that I ever touched on the subject, it was due to my overall interest in the depths of the human psyche. Little did I know at the time about the war trauma experienced by the elder generations of my family, a theme that later was to occupy me professionally. It was a different war, fought on foreign soil, which engaged my somewhat older friends of the 1968 generation with their idealistic views of individual freedom and peace protests.

So where did religion come into the picture? Quite accidentally, actually, when research assistant Pirkko Lahti, who became well-known as director of the Finnish Mental Health Organization, encouraged psychology students to visit the lectures on US slave religion by young rising star Olli Alho. He later became head of the National Audiovisual Archive, as well as Finnish radio, and was active in research policies before being awarded the title of professor. I can still remember Olli explaining how, in spite of expectations to the contrary, religion was not a very complex, nor unexplainable, phenomenon, but rather a stereotypical one, possessing similarities across geographical boundaries due to the limited ways in which the human brain functions.

Without leaving the more employable subject of psychology, I had thus found an additional subject of choice – comparative religion – and I had even found my later PhD theme, minority studies.

After some disappointment of having to approach the human mind merely at a surface level (i.e. through the lens of more or less superficial clinical testing, coupled with a fair amount of mathematics and hardcore positivist thinking), I lost much of my former esteem for psychology. What remained was mainly within the framework of psychoanalytically oriented therapeutic practice, as well as social psychology; both of these traditions were stronger at the University of Oslo, where I was later to complement my studies and commence an interdisciplinary research career.

My interest in actual research was awakened by the practice of Professor Juha Pentikäinen of involving his students from early on in independent field work, while he himself was away most of the time promoting an international career. At the relatively new department for comparative religion in Helsinki, students and staff gathered together for recurring weekend seminars that effectively promoted research group coherence. Here we wrestled with interdisciplinary issues that I had previously not even known I needed to learn about. Moreover, to my delight, we analyzed them within the wider socio-cultural context.

By contrast, psychology professor Olavi Viitamäki’s students had to apply for his attention in writing and even then seldom got through to him without visiting his appointment hours at least twice. Nevertheless, I felt that he did respect my different methodological position; in the end he allowed me to accelerate my study plan by almost a year, providing me with a good PhD recommendation. I was now ready to barter the lack of employability of my subject matter for higher academic ambitions, such as gaining a licentiate and a PhD.  Future professorships were, however, never on the agenda. I was still planning for a psycho-dynamically oriented practice inspired by radical therapeutic trends.

Scholarship periods and financing

In retrospect it is easy to romanticize the scholarship periods. There were few demands or obligatory lectures to attend (at least that I couldn’t avoid), nor pressures to write in the short-article format of today’s social sciences instead of immersing oneself in an endless monograph. I don’t know to what extent it was due to my placement abroad, but during the PhD process I cannot even remember having had a one-on-one discussion about my thesis with the supervisor. That didn’t mean that I was left without his support, but that the feedback I gained was mainly from recurring inter-Nordic PhD seminars on minority research and through expert contacts during periods abroad made possible by generous travel grants.

The Norwegian professor of criminology Nils Christie claimed that the best move for a PhD student was actually to take her or his ideas and hide in the library. But if being left in peace was a straightforward thing also from my point of view, research ethics were not. I wrestled with a range of sensitive issues touching upon migrant-minority policies and fieldwork – such as blood-feuds among the Finnish Roma population, refugee trauma and medical ethics – not only  from the point of view of the victims but also unacknowledged war criminals.

In a short note in To be led astray, Trine Anker (2012) likens the arduous PhD process to an unmapped journey that just might end in success. From the initial joy of getting a grant to encountering the dangers of knowledge while gaining awareness of one’s lack of it, candidates are thrown into years of hard work and more or less voluntary exile. Alarming reports emerge of one nuisance replacing another, postponed deadlines or harsh feedback, computer viruses, mouse hand and, worst of all, the exhausting feeling of total writer’s block. If all goes well, unfruitful periods alternate with sudden writing seizures and unexpected findings.

When it came to financing, mine was no less than twelve years of living on grants provided alternately by the Academy of Finland and the Norwegian Research Council. This covered successive PhD as well as post doctoral or senior scholarship periods, which assured the professorial competence in two separate subjects. But I did have to fight rather hard for my funding, especially as an outsider, who could be labeled a minority within a minority (i.e. Swedish-speaking Finn and migrant in Norway) at a time when a mere 14% of university professors were female. Moreover, I did pursue my research along interdisciplinary lines, which made me vulnerable to subject boundary conflicts.

On the other hand, I was lucky to benefit from the new emerging interdisciplinary research council policies. Also, the opportunities given by my migrant status doubled the years spent in preparation for a permanent position (in a way unthinkable for students of today) by way of successive funding from two countries. Upon their completion, I took up a professorship as head of the newly established department of comparative religion in Tromsø, followed by similar leadership positions in departments and interdisciplinary research centers (one of which I also had the opportunity to establish myself) in Trondheim and Oslo, in addition to the position as Docent at my Alma Mater in Helsinki.

The PhD defense and later research themes

Many years have passed since the defense, but what I remember best is how nervous I was when asked to collect the foreign opponent, Professor Jan Bergman, at his hotel immediately prior to the actual event. He had previously demanded all my fieldwork notes brought to his office at the University of Uppsala, presumably in order to inspire respect in me. But it turned out that there was no reason for concern. The part of the defense most well remembered by my husband was that I shook my index finger in disagreement with something the opponent had claimed. Prior to the defense, my prudent husband had warned me against precisely this.

I used to tell my students that I actually worked with no more than two topics during my whole career: migrant minority issues and qualitative methods, including research vs. medical ethics. It is thought-provoking that today such a restricted focus might be reason for accusing me of scientific fraud, since the findings are published as a series of overlapping texts. This is a reminder of how badly adapted the present conventions for publishing are in relation to the humanities. Irrespective of background, researchers seem to be expected to slice ever “new” findings into short slots of text modeled on the presentation of hard data research in scientific journals. By dwelling on and developing the same themes within various interdisciplinary settings, as I did, one can easily be accused of mere parallel publication.

If my topics were few and open-ended, the research milieus to which I became attached were many and diverse. They covered subjects and research methodologies across three faculties at three out of four Norwegian universities, plus Oslo University College, in addition to the University of Helsinki. If that sounds fragmented, the fact that my positions alternated between full and part-time obligations at those institutions was very suitable for creating long-term interdisciplinary bonds. Also, my professorships covered two partly overlapping subjects of comparative religion and transcultural psychology.

A few personal memories and considerations

In addition to those already mentioned, I have chosen four memories that are particularly poignant.

The first one relates to the present-day pressures of academic life to conform, which would probably have ruled out a few colorful and highly appreciated students. A Finnish example is the psychology-educated globetrotter, collector and PhD candidate in comparative religion Helinä Rautavaara, who might turn up for seminars with her pet iguana. Her PhD was never completed, but many incredible stories – and rumors – emerged after her travels and personal meetings with the leaders of the Colombian guerillas (Chispas), Jamaican Rastafarians (Bob Marley, whose burial she attended), exiled Tibetans (the Dalai Lama) or Ugandan people (the despot Idi Amin). Today a private museum in Helsinki is devoted to her heritage and non-European collections.

The second memory concerns the intricacies of methodological differences. Dr. Liisa Keltikangas-Järvinen, who later became professor and head of the Psychology department, admirably taught us to prepare for the possibility of failure in research without that necessarily representing a defeat. But the arguments she used to support her view were, in my view, based on a naive positivist stance that research was about excluding a myriad of possible slices of reality, one by one. Also, there was no compromise in the requirement of a sample consisting of at least 60 informants, even if I personally got exempted. In contrast, Juha Pentikäinen’s internationally acclaimed work was based on one case-study, which had been rejected as a PhD. His second PhD manuscript, based on traditional archival research, was to be completely left in the shadow of Oral Repertoire and Worldview (1978). The latter workwas influential in determining my post-doctoral topic based on six case-studies, since it had been written about an older refugee woman from a traditional setting long before such studies became fashionable.

A third memory involves professor of anthropology and gender studies Martti Grönfors’s study of blood-feuding among Finnish Romani, which was conducted during his time at the London School of Economics. I was engaged in this study to interview Finnish police leaders about their views on Gypsy crime, a work to some extent inspired by the undercover method of Günter Walraff for critically examining people in power on topics of discrimination. This fieldwork did not result in reprisal of any kind on the part of the authorities, but rather unfortunately in threats following rumors about Martti’s PhD circulating among the study group itself, which was strongly discriminated against, internally split and mostly illiterate. The threats I received came either from white male anti-immigration activists or people accused of having connections with embassies of refugee-producing countries, who also tried to influence me on a friendly basis.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the strong impressions made on me from trying to understand Kurdish refugee women’s interpretations of war crimes and unnatural violent death, which set me on a track that eventually ended up in war stories from my own country of origin. It took a long time to obtain more tangible knowledge about my grandmothers’ roles during the wars in Finland. While my father’s mother was detained in an internment camp during the civil war with her father, a local communist leader, my mother’s mother, upon losing her husband on the battlefield against the Russians, took on dangerous assignments as a war correspondent on the frontlines. She also worked at military headquarters before becoming private secretary to Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim, accompanying him to Switzerland in order to write his memoirs.

Only recently did I get to know about my mother’s war letters written during early puberty to her best friend Maj Kuhlefeldt (i.e. from Stina Katchadourian’s The Lapp King’s Daughter: A Family’s Journey through Finland’s Wars, 2010). I had known that she was briefly evacuated to stay with relatives in Sweden like so many Finnish children; however, this frequently involved quite unknown families without a common language.

In retrospect, it seems that the most obvious connection between my personal life and the researcher I became may have been in the topics I chose. I didn’t often ponder the fact that I myself had been raised as a Swedish-speaking minority in a country burdened by a most tragic war background. Neither did I connect my first name to its Norwegian link in Ibsen’s emancipatory play “A Doll’s House”, despite the fact that it was a rare name in Finland at the time. Gender issues were not particularly important for me until I was put in charge of a bunch of stubborn male professors of theology, after my predecessor had a heart attack in the middle of their departmental feuds.

Nevertheless, I did get to enjoy the fruits of feminist struggles, such as a one-year maternity leave from Finland at a time when Norwegian maternity leave lasted a mere three months, as well as an extra year of scholarship according to the current gender policies of the Norwegian Research Council. But I also felt the weight of being asked to be part of too many committees because there were not enough female professors to fill the quota, as well as the drain of commuting to the northernmost university in the world, with the distance from Oslo being equivalent to the distance to Rome, while still being a young parent.

Research influenced our family life mainly in the sense that we parents were almost always in work mode. It was not merely an issue of commuting, but paradoxically about lots of time spent together and being able to combine work and family interests. My husband, professor in the anthropology of religion Svein Bjerke, and I were lucky to have opportunities to travel together and to include the children from an early age, by way of coordinating our research leave periods and curriculums. During the fieldwork period in Pakistan, our son was one year old and unaware that he was socializing with what might today pass as staunch fundamentalists (with possible terrorist leanings) or attending Sufi zikhr practice on the lap of a local pir (guru) in his own home, events that I would have found impossible had he been older.

The fact that both our children have themselves decided to study for a PhD is a sign that this path was not discouraging. Our son Ernst Bjerke recently completed his PhD In Search of Unity: Ideals and Practices of Natural Science In Early Nineteenth-Century Christiania (2012) in the History of Science at the same university where his parents were professors. Our daughter Mildrid Bjerke, like her mother, went abroad for her PhD studies (English Literature at the University of York), where she found her life partner in another PhD scholar (Philosophy).


While my husband and I have become emeriti, comparative religion has become an increasingly popular subject and ever more relevant to society at large. I feel immensely grateful for my choice of subject, and I think that it gave me a key to understanding the varieties of societal practices across socio-cultural boundaries, including the forces behind power politics and the construction of gender.