How does a small discipline survive and prosper in times of flux? (5 Dec. 2016)  

Amoebic training

Regional studies is like an amoeba. Sometimes it may be hard to see the originality or the solid scientific core; but more often than not, we come to realize that once again the regional studies community have produced high quality research as well as timely and highly policy relevant observations, insights and recommendations. We love our theories and short traditions, but we are not so deeply in love that we would not be able to change them as we go, learn more, and as the world changes around us.

I am not a biologist and thus my metaphor may be far-fetched but I like the idea of an organism that does not have a rigid and established shape but that changes its shape as it goes. And, of course, in spite of constantly changing shape it does not lose its amoeba nature – an amoeba is an amoeba. I like to think that we are not as simple as a single-celled animal, but still I would like to see regional studies develop as a form of scientific enquiry that matches the complexity of the world with simple, clear and understandable research.

When conducting a quick background study for this paper on amoebas I learnt that amoebas are either free-living in damp environments or parasitic. This rings a bell, does it not? In regional studies, we like to learn from other disciplines such as, economics, sociology, political studies as well as management and organizational studies. Sometimes we may fall into a trap of parasitic behaviour and use such concepts and theories from other disciplines we do not fully understand - usually this is not the case. We learn from others and strengthen our knowledge base by synthesising new concepts, theories and methodologies into our discipline. My friends at the University of Lund might agree with me if I said that regional studies has a strong and dynamic systemic knowledge base complemented by analytical and symbolic knowledge bases (see Asheim et al 2007). But, regional studies in itself provides individual amoebas and amoeba communities with a ‘damp’, a highly nourishing environment that enables free-living and free-thinking activity, and this prevents us from actually falling into the trap of parasitic behaviour.

In the following section, I use my home base in Finland as an example of how regional studies, utilizing the amoeba metaphor, evolve with its environment.

The birth of administrative sciences in Finland

Since its birth regional studies in Tampere has coevolved with its environment. Because they are not the strongest animals on the block, both amoebas and regional studies have learnt to be masters of adaptation.

After rebuilding the country after the World War II Finland moved to strengthen its public sector with the aim of building a comprehensive social welfare system according to the Nordic ideal. Simultaneously, the Finnish higher education system was expanding rapidly; new universities were established all over the country.

For the explicit purpose of educating civil servants for the continuously expanding public system a new faculty was established in 1965 at the University of Tampere (UTA). The Faculty of Economics and Administration was founded on the belief that there is a need to integrate business, public administration as well as statistics and mathematics in one entity, and thus provide young people with an opportunity to study not only theories relevant for the rapidly developing country but also policy and relevant business practices. This was novel thinking at that time, and the University of Tampere became the birthplace of Finnish administrative sciences and the centre of public sector-oriented education and research for decades to come. In the early days, administrative sciences included public administration, public law and regional studies as well as local government studies (municipal policy, municipal economics and municipal law that had existed since the 1920’s).

For the new type of faculty the University of Tampere was a fairly natural home base as it had started its operation in 1925 in Helsinki as an institution that was generally referred to as the Civic College. The College aimed at providing education also to those sectors of the population, and especially young people in the rural areas that were in need of enhanced higher education but that were easily left out. As the former Chancellor of UTA, Jorma Sipilä, has stated: “The history of the University of Tampere strongly reflects the faith of Nordic society in the equality of people.” Here we need to remember that Finland gained her independence in 1917, which was followed by a civil war that divided the country in two. One might even say that UTA was established to build bridges across the divide.

Indeed, the origins of the University have endowed it with a singularly clear and extensive mission to serve society. Today, the University of Tampere is Finland's biggest provider of higher education in the field of social sciences and the accompanying administrative sciences. It is the only university in Finland that has placed social sciences in the core of its profile.

The birth and the first two decades of regional studies in Tampere

Since its birth the Faculty of Economics and Administration was a slightly different constellation from the more traditional faculties of the Finnish universities. It aimed at looking at decision-making and policy processes from the points of view of administration, law, business and various research and policy-making methodologies. In this kind of environment, it was only natural to also have a Chair that focused, as officially defined, on ‘social scientific ecology and all those issues of public policy that are related to the national development or the development and planning of its parts’. No other university in Finland had a Chair defined like this, and behind the definition was a conscious decision to differentiate the new discipline from geography and emphasize its roots in social science and public administration side-by-side with geography. The main aim was to have a strong local and regional development-oriented discipline. At first, in 1965, the discipline was named ‘social and economic ecology’, and, in 1972, the name of the discipline was changed to ‘regional studies’ without changing its purpose or content. 

As was the case with the entire Faculty, the educational goals of a newly established discipline were directly derived from the development needs of society and its regions. The research activity focused on local and regional development issues with a strong emphasis on bottom-up activities that greatly differed from the policy and much of the academic thinking at that time. More specifically, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, research focused on grassroots village activity, migration, regional disparities of welfare, and regional policy and multi-level planning systems.

Establishment of the Department and the national crisis

The Department of Regional Studies was established in 1985. In spite of its fairly small core faculty, two professors, one associate professor, two academic assistants and an office secretary, the department was able to grow by successfully attracting outside funding mainly from the Academy of Finland (the research councils) but also from other sources, and hence the actual size of the department varied between 12 and 18.

In the early 1990’s, Finland was hit by deep economic crisis: real GDP dropped by over 10% in just three years and unemployment rose to nearly 20% by 1994 having been below 4% a few years earlier. Fortunately, almost at the same time innovation frenzy hit Finland, and the recession of the early 1990s became a watershed moment between investment- and innovation-driven phases of national development. Finland joined the European Union in 1995 that fuelled the shift in policy thinking too and consequently there was a growing interest in local and regional development policies and related issues. All this played into the hands of a small but proactive regional studies community in Tampere. The Department of Regional Studies started to grow as the funding base broadened. It offered a whole series of different kinds of applied research projects and training programs for local and regional development officers in different parts of Finland.

Luckily, the new network, strategic planning and self-reliance-oriented development philosophy that gained ground in Finland in the 1990’s had been taught, studied and consciously developed in the Department of Regional Studies since its birth and especially in the 1980’s, and thus the amoebic community of Tampere was quick to grasp the new opportunities. Research activity continued to grow towards the end of the 1990’s and new research themes such as leadership, strategic thinking and management, local and regional technology policy (later local and regional innovation systems), regionalization and identity, territoriality and political/policy agency became part of the research programme. Additionally, there was a growing societal demand for environmental policy in the early 1990’s, and as the Department had offered it as a minor subject since 1975, a window of opportunity opened and the Department was able to establish environmental policy as a major subject along with regional studies.

In the early 2000’s, in the first wave of organizational reforms of the Faculty, the discipline of local government studies was integrated into the Department of Regional Studies, and the department came to include 4 professors and approximately 40 members of research and teaching community; almost 30 of them working on external competitive funding. The discipline of regional studies was still one of the core programmes of the department but financially hard times a decade earlier had carved flesh from regional studies and, in its disciplinary core, it had only two professors (Jouni Häkli and Markku Sotarauta) and 1,5 university lecturers but close to 20 researchers working on external funding. The department had grown but the institutional core of the individual disciplines was as small and vulnerable as ever.

The search for a new place for regional studies in the School of Management

The first years of the 2000’s found University of Tampere as one of the leading multi-disciplinary universities in Finland, and the most specialized in social sciences. UTA had grown continuously and become the most selective of all the Finnish universities (in 2013 the acceptance rate is below 8 per cent). In the 1990’s, UTA had started to transform itself from a teaching oriented university to a proper research university. However, because of growth accompanied with economic recession, UTA had become internally fragmented with its 6 faculties, 38 departments and dozens of small disciplines mostly struggling with limited human and financial resources. Somebody might argue that the external funding had guided growth instead of the university’s own strategy.

In 2010, the board of UTA decided to close all the faculties and departments, reorganize the university and move from discipline-based teaching to programme-based learning environments, and after a short but impassioned discussion and planning period, Regional Studies found itself with other administrative sciences in the School of Management that is a home base for administrative sciences, business studies and political studies. The core beliefs of the new school are more or less the same as they were decades earlier in the Faculty but now also political studies communicates directly with public administration and business studies. All this meant that regional studies is no longer an independent discipline but one of the disciplines contributing to the Degree Programme in Administrative Studies at the School of Management.

As an independent discipline regional studies was not only one of the smallest at UTA but also among Finnish geographies, and, in spite of its very strong track record in research, education and attracting research funds, it had become an endangered species. The Finnish universities have been under heavy pressure to specialize and direct resources to ‘profile areas of research and education’. All this, of course, raised once again a lot of questions concerning the future of regional studies in Tampere.

In an amoebic way, prior to the launch of structural reforms of the University, the three small disciplines of the Department of Regional Studies - regional studies, environmental policy and local government studies - decided to join forces and construct two new study programmes: (a) Local and Regional Governance (local and regional economic development, municipal management and leadership, local service systems, and regional innovation systems) and (b) Politics of the Environment and Regions (environmental policy and governance, politics of nature, state and the spaces of political agency, political agency and politics of knowledge).

When the dust that was raised by major structural reform settled the two new study programmes found themselves, as planned, as specialization options of the Degree Programme in Administrative Sciences. Today, instead of being the smallest branch of geography/regional studies in Finland the UTA regional studies is an integral element of by far the strongest concentration of administrative sciences in Finland (more than 50 per cent of all the national resources in administrative sciences). Of course, not being one of the core areas of administrative sciences but drawing on different theoretical and conceptual worlds than the rest of the School, regional studies is once again in a new kind of competition. If regional studies was earlier able to function independently under a loose umbrella of administrative sciences, now it needs to define itself as part of it.

However, there are few things at play for regional studies: (a) as the Ministry of Education has nominated the former Department of Regional Studies three times as a national centre for educational excellence (1999-2000, 2001-2003 and 2007-2009) the regional studies community has a lot to contribute to the new degree programme, and its reputation as a high quality education provider within the school is well established; (b) most importantly, the entire regional studies cluster has for a long time been among the strongest research concentrations at the University of Tampere. The latest evaluation of the quality of academic research in the University of Tampere, carried out by international evaluation panels, concluded that the research conducted by regional studies and environmental policy related groups is at a high international level, some parts of it at excellent level (see Hakala & Roihuvuo, 2014). For a long time regional studies in Tampere had a strong national mission and demand, and these facts, complemented with rapidly internationalizing research activity since the late 1990’s with a new generation of professors, provide a good platform to adapt to the forthcoming changes; whatever they are.

Amoebas survive strategically as long as they are on the move

This story is highly personal and as such a subjective account of my own local working environment. All in all, I think that the past 50 years of regional studies in Tampere demonstrates that a small discipline can survive and prosper in changing institutional, policy and funding settings as long as it is constantly on the move. This calls for self-reflexivity, dynamic networks and hunger for research. Funding and new generations of amoebas will follow.

UTA regional studies has always struggled with its multidisciplinary identity at the crossroads of geography, sociology, political studies, administrative sciences as well as organization and management studies. The most common questions posed in the regional studies community are: ‘What is regional studies?’ and ‘Who are we actually?’. The professors of regional studies have always been reluctant to design a policy or answer to these questions explicitly. The belief has been that every generation need to ask these questions by themselves, think them over collectively as well as individually, and the professors are, of course, an elemental part of the never-ending discussion but not the ones who provide all the answers. We have renewed and we will continue doing so as long as the discussion is alive. We know that we do not have the biggest muscles but we feel resilient. Consequently, the reputation and actual resources of regional studies in Tampere have been and still are much larger than the basic resources from the University might dictate.

A discipline like regional studies cannot be self-reflexive and thus resilient and dynamic without close connections to national, regional and local policy makers in Finland and beyond. Even more importantly, co-authored international books and articles as well as international collaborative research projects are the single cell - the heart of it all - of a community of regional studies amoebas. We exist in relation to our international colleagues and those people who both use our research in practice and feed us insights on what might be needed in the future.

I do not want to sound like a cheap ‘work and prosper’ manual, but still I stress the importance of hunger for new knowledge and research, or whatever it should be called, but it is obvious that without hunger even amoebas might stop moving and lose their capacity to adapt strategically.


Aluetiedettä viisitoista vuotta Tampereen yliopistossa (15 years of regional studies at the University of Tampere). 1981. University of Tampere, Regional studies reports. Tampere. 

Approaches to regional development: Two decades of research. 1985. University of Tampere, Department of Regional Studies Series B Research Reports B 37/1985. Tampere.

Asheim, B. & Coenen, L. & Vang, J. 2007. Face-to-face, buzz, and knowledge bases: sociospatial implications for learning, innovation, and innovation policy. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, Vol 25, pp. 655-670.

Hakala J, Roihuvuo (toim.) (2014) Research Assessment Exercise at the University of Tampere 2014 –Final Report (UtaRae2014). University of Tampere; Kopioniini Oy, Tampere.

Näkökulmia yhteiskuntaan: Aluetiede Tampereen yliopistossa (Notions on the society: Regional Studies at the University of Tampere). 1988. University of Tampere University of Tampere, Department of Regional Studies, Series B Research Reports B 50/1988. Tampere.

Sotarauta, M. 2013. Constant Flux Makes Regional Studies ‘Amoeba’ Strong: Evolution of Regional Studies In Tampere, Finland. 3-4. Regions No 291.

Sotarauta, M. 2016. Leading a Fundamentally Detuned Choir: University of Tampere, Finland – A Civic University?. Teoksessa Goddard John, Hazelkorn Ellen, Kempton Louise, Vallance Paul (toim.) The Civic University: The Policy and Leadership Challenges: Edwar Elgar Publishing.

© Markku Sotarauta - est. 1998