No Punishment, Fairness, and Autonomy: Key Values for a Good Life in Finland

PhD candidate Mãdãlina Alamã considers the findings and implications of a recently published article that she first encountered at an ENPA Works in Progress Seminar.

At some point during one of those not face-to-face, in-person, and personable times we have been facing up to in the recent past I saw this email about an upcoming presentation on how Finnish children choose play partners. I thought it sounded interesting despite it being miles away, literally, and metaphorically, from my own anthropological endeavours. Thanks to the conveniency brought into our lives by technological developments, I zoomed in, expecting, I don’t know why, a prohibitively formal presentation. To my pleasant surprise, while having very clear structures, the presentation and ensuing discussion were very interesting and carried out in a convivial manner. Thus, when the presentation material became fully developed and turned into an article, I was excited to read it.

Reading this recently published article, Fairness, partner choice and punishment. An ethnographic study of cooperative behavior among children in Helsinki, Finland [1], made me think about anthropology’s longstanding engagement with the importance of values in societies around the globe.

Relatively recently, in anthropological terms, there has been a keener, and more specific focus on the connection between values and life building, as outlined explicitly by the proponent of an anthropology of the good/the good life [2] and contested equally explicitly [3], with the latter maintaining that given the field’s outstanding and ongoing engagement with people, there was always an implicit and explicit engagement with values people had. Thus, the critic suggests, there would be little to gain by adding yet another sub-category of study to what has always been a central anthropological line of inquiry. Yes, this discussion is more complex than I outline here, but I am uninterested in discussing taxonomies of categories and sub-categories of anthropological work. Instead, I am interested in underscoring the connection between this article’s findings and the theme of emplacement, discussed and defined as a position of positive social embeddedness [4].

Due to the author’s vivid description of her ethnographic fieldwork among children in Helsinki, the reader finds out how specific values such as fairness, lack of punishment, and autonomy are enacted by children in their everyday lives. Quick relevant fact: the article reminds the reader that Finland is one of the WEIRD countries, namely it is considered Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic, and that as such, in line with parenting and educational styles in many other WEIRD countries, in Finland punishment should be at the core of child raising. Yet, the article’s findings present us with a surprise. Of course, if you have read the title of this piece and/or have already read the article I refer to, these findings are no longer a surprise.

Equality, Equity, Fairness: Prerequisites for an Authentic Self in Finland

Specifically, the article deals extensively with the construct of fairness, underscores its complexity by exemplifying and discussing its dimensions of equality and equity, and explains the dynamic between fairness and lack of punishment, a dynamic that encourages autonomy in children from an early age. Fairness is documented as a core value for children who are actively encouraged to understand it both in terms of equality and equity:

Equality is exemplified below:

In Helsinki, young children were constantly reminded to use equality-based norms such as taking turns (vuorotellen) or going one-by-one (yksi kerrallaan) in homes and at daycare, and adults actively encouraged children to practice engaging in such behavior during their daily activities. By the time they started school at six to seven years old, “fair” strategies were used spontaneously among friends, siblings, and classmates to make decisions, alongside games that relied on random luck: games like rock, paper, scissors (k-s-p, from kivi, sakset, paperi) or “hands in” (kädet sisään) were very popular. [1]

Equity is exemplified in the following context:

Toni appears to be trying to draw upon equity-based fairness concepts by bringing in contextual factors to justify having more time on the trampoline. The leader and Jami, however, consider that since it was his own personal responsibility to bring money and his phone to camp, there is no need to make an exception for him. This focus on taking personal responsibility for one’s actions and decisions is consistent with the socialization goals of independence and autonomy found in this context. It is also plausible that Toni was “trying his luck” and pushing the boundaries of acceptable social behavior to get his own way, perhaps knowing that the older child and adult leader were likely to eventually leave him alone rather than “force” him off the trampoline. [1]

By encouraging turn-taking and discussing in detail who gets to enjoy access to a desirable spot on the playground, and based on what considerations, the adults seem to constantly, and from an early age, encourage children to develop and increase a keen awareness of their social surroundings. Both forms of fairness, equality and equity, emphasise ways of being in the world by sharing it, finding a place for the self without pushing others out of the way, as it were and without pushing against or punishing transgressors of this moral code that relies on sharing and waiting one’s turn.

I find this dynamic not only fascinating but instrumental for the development of what several anthropologists have called emplacement, the state of being in a positive engagement with the social world around, of feeling that one has a good place in the social fabric they feel part of, a good place to create a world that is finely tuned to their needs. Equality, equity, and lack of punishment might seem a somewhat paradoxical way to go about creating a social space where each can develop their own sense of self and connection with the world. To western minds, who have transgenerationally absorbed a hierarchical view of the world and lived accordingly, lack of punishment might prompt fears of chaos by lack of any coherent social order, yet what better way to construct one’s self and find one’s place in the world than through absorbing and performing fairness without the fear of retaliation of grownups and higherups?

There is more to this article’s ilk,

If you want to, read it, and tell me what you think.

About the author

Mãdãlina Alamã is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Nevada Reno (UNR). She conducted fieldwork in northern Nevada, focusing on the intersection between women’s happiness/well-being and addiction to opiates in the American West.

She explores Northern Nevadan women’s efforts to create good lives, their relationships with their addiction, and the process of receiving care for opioid addiction from a non-governmental organization in the region. You can read her latest published work here.





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