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Gustav Ränk’s Path to Becoming a Professor at the University of Tartu. Estonian Ethnology in the 1930’s

Gustav Ränk (1902–1998) belonged to the first generation of Estonian ethnologists. He began work as the first ethnology professor in Estonia on 1 July 1939. Although Ränk fled to Sweden in 1944 during World War II and continued his academic career there, his position at the University of Tartu was not restored until 1994. This article examines how Ränk reached this position and why a professorship was not opened in the field until the end of the 1930’s when the respective chair of studies had actually already been established at the outset of the 1920’s. This article attempts to shed light on one period in the history of this discipline through a more thorough analysis of the activity of one scholar. The focus is on the analysis of different stages and levels in the process of knowledge production based on reflexive historiography.

The requirement for establishing the professorship at the University of Tartu at that time was the defence of a doctoral dissertation in Estonian ethnology since there were no Estonians with the corresponding degree in Estonia until 1938. This article analyses the selection of the theme for Ränk’s doctoral dissertation (farm buildings in Saaremaa) and the background for his approach, which can be characterised as the constrained nature of the fields of study within the discipline at that time and of the corresponding discourse, along with the social anticipation that Ränk perceived. Building culture and folk costumes had evolved into the most popular themes of research in Northern and Eastern Europe since they were considered the most representative aspects of material peasant culture. These themes were ordinarily approached using historical-geographical and typological methods.

As an ethnologist, Ränk considered data acquired from field work to be very important. He asserts in his dissertation the narrowness of the ethnographic descriptions concerning building culture that had been deposited in the Estonian National Museum (ERM) collection in earlier years, for which reason his own field work had to carry an even more prominent role in relation to his doctoral dissertation. Ränk saw three objectives in doing field work: description, drawing and photographing, all of which were closely interconnected and equally important in examining buildings. It nevertheless became evident primarily from the analysis of field work journals that the disciplinary framework in effect no longer satisfied him as a researcher. Ränk wanted to explore the culture that was being researched more broadly.

The complexity of his approach emerged clearly in the analysis of the text of his dissertation – while still considering the historical-geographical and typological methods to be primary, craving the creation of a complete cultural picture, and focusing on purely material subject matter, Ränk nevertheless considers the social and spiritual aspect of cultural creativity to be important as well. In many places he stresses that the diversity of folk culture and man’s role in its development must not be denied. At the same time, it must also be stated that he does not always consider the pluralism of possibilities and views in creating academic text to be a positive aspect of research work but rather a negative.

Ränk’s development to become an ethnology professor simultaneously reflects how the discipline took root in Estonia’s academic world. Ilmari Manninen, who had laid the foundation for the University of Tartu Chair of Ethnology, had left Estonia in 1928, after which the specialty was studied only with the help of teaching adjuncts (one of whom was Ränk). Based on the discussions that took place in the 1930’s (the managing director of the reformed ERM could also simultaneously be a University of Tartu professor), it can be concluded that ethnology was defined at that time in Estonia through the ERM: the museum provided the discipline with its source base and jobs for its researchers. Ränk had worked at the ERM since 1926, yet paradoxically he was no longer content with his job at that institution in the latter half of the 1930’s. He had to steer a middle course between two assignments – professional work and scientific work, yet he wished to focus exclusively on the latter. Generally speaking, he saw this situation as being dangerous for Estonian ethnography as a whole, and worried about the continued existence of the specialty and its developmental possibilities. Even though Estonian ethnologists had international scientific contacts and various kinds of research themes were being planned, the applied side of ethnology nevertheless came out on top in the 1930’s. This was mostly due to the lack of money and professional specialists. The establishment of the professorship demonstrates that this discipline was considered nationally important and that it was given the chance to develop. Ränk began giving lectures and holding seminars and he had his own students, yet he was not given time to develop the professorship. The Second World War that had begun made all manner of peaceful continuation impossible in all spheres of life.