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Blog: Epistemic Orders and the Crisis of Epistemic Institutions in Finland

Author: Marko Ampuja

The democratic epistemic capacities of citizens depend on their right to receive trustworthy information and develop their understanding of the social world in order to take part in politics and public life. Institutions that produce knowledge, such as higher education institutions, non-formal adult education organizations, and the media offer crucial support for cultivating such epistemic resources.

However, knowledge-producing epistemic institutions and authorities across Western countries have faced a mounting attack that aims to undermine citizens’ trust in them.[i] Why is this happening now? In this blog I will reflect on the reasons why epistemic institutions have been subjected to increasing political contestation and external pressures on many fronts. To enhance our comprehension of this, I will provide historical context on the development of Finnish epistemic orders, including the current period and its crisis tendencies.

Contesting epistemic institutions and authorities

This ongoing attack against the legitimacy of established epistemic institutions has many sources, but it is commonly associated with the rise of ‘illiberal’ populist parties.[ii] This confluence is the key feature of populism. Populism relies on the dichotomy between 'corrupt' elites and 'the pure people', with the belief that the elites' scheming is the reason why the 'common people' lack political power.[iii] This vision leads to the contestation of claims made by epistemic authorities regarding issues such as the causes of climate change, social inequality, the human rights of minority groups, and the importance of upholding the constitutional state. Populists and other anti-democratic movements view epistemic institutions and authorities as part of the suspect elites.

While epistemic institutions and authorities are by no means always on the side of democratic pluralism, such contestations are harmful for several reasons. Because of the complexity of the social and natural world, individuals need epistemic institutions and authorities to understand and navigate it. Moreover, current social, geopolitical, and ecological challenges are of such magnitude that imagining and finding solutions to them without the assistance of diverse epistemic authorities seriously frustrates such efforts.

Addressing contemporary challenges with the help of long-established epistemic institutions such as universities makes more sense than relying on fringe epistemic networks or, for example, outlandish conspiracy theories that are widely disseminated in social media. Yet, many people today, even in the most highly educated countries, are willing to trust such “alternative” epistemic networks and echo their messages. Their search for epistemic autonomy leads to social epistemic harms and a general crisis of epistemic institutions. To understand this current trend, it is useful to examine the historical development of epistemic institutions. I will use Finland as an example, although the current crisis affects all Western countries.

Epistemic orders in Finland

The development of epistemic institutions can be understood with the help of the concept of “epistemic orders”. Epistemic orders refer to broad structural conditions and long-term patterns, whether ideational or material, that have shaped the production of knowledge in different periods.[iv] In Finland, four such orders can be distinguished historically.

The first order, covering the period between the mid-19th-century to mid-20th century, century can be referred to as the national-conservative epistemic order. During this time, Finnish epistemic institutions emerged as specifically national entities, despite Finland being part of the Russian empire until 1917. During this time, the Finnish state needed universities to provide administrative workforce, strengthen national development, and promote its national identity.[v] These ideals were influenced by European values centered around Christianity and classical humanism.[vi] Although the development of the first Finnish universities was based on fostering citizenship, in practice, they had an exclusive elite character until the 1950s. The Finnish media system at the time also exhibited similar characteristics. For instance, the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle), which was overseen by the Finnish state, prioritized public education and the promotion of 'high' culture among the population.

The second order emerged after the World War II, lasting from the 1950s to the 1980s. It can be defined as the epistemic order of social-democratic welfare state. During this time, Finland began to industrialize and advance its welfare state institutions, which required a large number of new workers for the public sector. At the same time, Finnish governments shifted towards center-left coalitions. In the 1960s and 1970s, the importance of providing universal basic education and free higher education grew. Universities began to expand outside metropolitan areas, and the state increased its investments in sciences, including human and social sciences. The view that science and technology were key factors for the success of national economy became widely accepted. During this period, public cultural institutions such as theaters, museums, and symphony orchestras expanded. Public service broadcasting also expanded from radio to television and emphasized diversity in its programming policies. Additionally, public subsidies to newspapers increased.[vii]

The third order, from the 1980s to the first decade of the 2000s challenged and effectively supplanted the previous epistemic order. A new neoliberal epistemic order began to take shape and consolidate itself. The relationships between businesses and higher education institutions became closer and the needs of industries became more influential in directing the latter. Educational, scientific, and cultural institutions adopted the New Public Management doctrine, which emulates private business practices and values.[viii] This has led to the introduction of new market-based principles of competition,private funding, entrepreneurialism, and excellence in their management.

Main media institutions have followed suit: the Finnish media sphere has become much more market-oriented overall. From the viewpoint of strengthening the democratic epistemic capacities of citizens, the process of neoliberalization of the epistemic order is problematic. It contradicts the assumption that knowledge and culture belong to the public domain and that democratization requires removing restrictions on the epistemic commons.[ix] Over the last 30 years, public institutions responsible for knowledge dissemination have undergone marketization and privatization processes. This has intensified the features of “academic capitalism,” where universities increasingly view themselves as market actors.[x] As a result, public institutions are no longer expanding, while market-based or market-oriented institutions have gained more influence in the current epistemic order, thereby limiting universal access. At the same time, we have witnessed the rise of new types of political contestation of epistemic institutions. These are entangled with other crisis tendencies that create unique pressures for these institutions today. This situation has given rise to the fourth order that is ongoing – a crisis-ridden epistemic order.

Where are we today? The current crisis of epistemic institutions

The changes in the epistemic orders in Finland provide the background for the current epistemic crisis. It has four dimensions when assessed from the perspective of how it challenges the legitimacy of universities and public service media. These institutions share the task of supporting the universalistic ideal of education and knowledge.

Political: Epistemic institutions face increasing political pressures to come up with solutions to current ecological and social problems, at the same as they face increasing anti-science attitudes among the population and the contestation by “alternative” epistemic authorities.[xi] In Finland, as in virtually all over Europe, this anti-science suspicion is common especially among right-wing populist parties and their supporters. This is a concern for established epistemic institutions, especially since these parties have entered the government in countries such as Finland.

Economic: The financial base of Finnish public epistemic institutions is shrinking or in danger of being dramatically cut. Regarding Yle, the current main right-wing governmental parties are keen to reduce Yle’s yearly funding by about 10–15% and limit its programming mostly to news and current affairs content. This would significantly weaken its ability to offer diverse cultural programming. Universities, too, have faced significant cuts to their budgets since the late 2010s while being required to be more supportive of economic competitiveness.[xii]

Cultural: As a third challenge, we can mention the mounting cultural critique against traditional Western epistemic ideals and their universalist assumptions. This critique has positive political and epistemic aspects, as it has introduced previously marginalized perspectives into mainstream academic discussions. However, it also includes authoritarian populist strategies that focus on waging culture wars. Universities and Yle, in particular, have been subjected to political attacks and moral panics regarding their leniency toward the rights and voices of ethnic and sexual minorities.

Techno-economic: This category pertains to the growing power of privately owned digital platform companies that collect, organize, and share data in non-transparent ways. These digital platforms have become central epistemic actors. In addition to commercial uses, these sources also spread misinformation and disinformation that can undermine established institutions of knowledge and their ability to contribute to rational decision-making. This is particularly concerning in the current 'polycrisis' which encompasses various ecological,social, and political dimensions.[xiii]

These dimensions are intertwined with other present factors, especially the ongoing conflictual geopolitical situation in Europe. The current epistemic order of Finland is influenced by the prioritization of national security and the desire for national unity to reinforce it.

In combination, these trends strain established Finnish epistemic institutions, which may negatively impact democracy and citizens' epistemic capacities. The continuing viability of these institutions requires a joint endeavor and coalitions built by allsocial and cultural groups across the political spectrum that share an interesting preserving the legacy of the Enlightenment and the principle of well-informed citizenship.

About the author:

Marko Ampuja is a university lecturer and researcher in Media and communication studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. He is currently working in the Democratic EpistemicCapacities in the Age of Algorithms (DECA) -project.

[i] E.g. Gundersen, T. & Holst, C. (2022). ScienceAdvice in an Environment of Trust: Trusted, but Not Trustworthy?, Social Epistemology, 36:5,629-640.

[ii] Bronk, R. & Jacoby, W. (2020). The epistemics of populism and the politics of uncertainty. LEQS Paper No. 152/2020.

[iii] Mudde, C. & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2013). Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America. Government and Opposition 48 (2),147–174.

[iv] Bueger, C. & Littoz-Monnet, A.(2023). Epistemic Orders and Global Governance. The Global, May 23,2023.

[v] Välimaa, J. (2019). The History of A History of Finnish Higher Education from the Middle Ages to the 21st Century. Springer.

[vi] Nieminen, H. (2014). A Short History of the Epistemic Commons. Javnost - The Public, 21:3, 55-76.

[vii] Nieminen (2014). Lemola, T. (2020). Kohti uutta tutkimus- ja innovaatiopolitiikkaa – Suomen tiede-, teknologia- ja innovaatiopolitiikan kehityskaari 1960-luvulta 2020-luvulle. [Toward new research and innovation policy – The trajectory of Finnish science, technology and innovation policy from the 1960s to the 2020s.] Vastapaino.

[viii] E.g. Ylijoki, O-H. (2014). University Under Structural Reform: A Micro-Level Perspective. Minerva 52, 55–75.

[ix] Nieminen (2014). A Short History of the Epistemic Commons. Javnost - The Public, 21:3, 55-76.

[x] Kauppinen, I. & Kaidesoja, T. (2014). A shift towards academic capitalism in Finland. Higher Education Policy, 27, 23–41.

[xi] Ylä-Anttila, T. (2018). Populist knowledge: ‘Post-truth’ repertoires of contesting epistemic authorities. European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology, 5(4), 356–388.

[xii] Ampuja, M. & Horowitz, M. (2024). Doing “more with less”: The entrepreneurialization of Finnish higher education and innovation policy discourses in 2015–2019. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research.

[xiii] Lähde, V. (2023). The polycrisis – Is this the word we need to describe unprecedented convergences between ecological, political and economic strife? Aeon, 17 August, 2023.



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