‘Something more is added to the story, something that previously may have been missing or overlooked’: Jonas Mikaels’ Becoming Place

Monash University

Jonas Mikaels
Becoming-place: (Re)conceptualising friluftsliv in the Swedish physical education and health curriculum
185 pages, paperback.
Stockholm: Gymnastik- och idrottshögskolan, GIH 2017 (Avhandlingsserie vid Gymnastik- och idrottshögskolan)
ISBN 978-91-983151-1-0

The statement in the title of this book review comes from the publication reviewed here – Jonas Mikaels’ doctoral thesis Becoming Place: (Re)conceptualising friluftsliv in the Swedish physical education and health curriculum. The book caught my eyes as it was published and distributed to colleagues at the end of 2017 at a time when I was visiting Sweden. Prior to arriving I had been discussing friluftsliv, outdoor education, outdoor studies and my interests in elemental interactions and sensory methodology so looked forward to an immersion with Nordic colleagues on such topics. The book was timely.

In (re)conceptualising friluftsliv, Jonas Mikaels is coming from a Physical Education and Health (PEH) context with his research aim being ‘to critically examine taken for granted assumptions underpinning friluftsliv and outdoor education as a learning area in the curriculum, and to explore the educational potential of a place-responsive pedagogy’ (p.7). Friluftsliv is regarded to be ‘the cultural phenomenon of dwelling or spending time in nature for recreational purposes’ (13). Friluftsliv is embedded in Swedish PEH where there are explicit curriculum responsibilities, and in a national curriculum space where environmental sustainability is regarded to be a primary goal, one that outdoor education (OE), an international home for friluftsliv, often adopts internationally. The context is also shaped by a Swedish curriculum that expects international, historical, environmental and ethical perspectives to be present in the learning opportunities for its students. Like many research projects driven from practitioners, this book speaks to the questions that lie in the practices and their related policies such as school curriculum. Jonas Mikaels suggests there is a large gap between implementation and the educational potential that includes criticality, ontological awareness, multidisciplinarity and cross-curriculum perspectives. He uses poststructural and posthuman theoretical perspectives that he argues are lacking in OE scholarship, with a strong nod to Michel Foucault and the partnership of Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze. He also notices ‘place-based’ work of scholars from lands beyond Sweden. Both sources fuel an intention to conceptually expand possibilities in understanding PEH friluftsliv specifically, but also OE more generally, to perhaps notice something that has been overlooked or missing from the story so far. For me, this is the crux of this work and a point I will return to below.

Before evaluating whether the author has achieved what he set out to achieve and considering where the book fits in which fields and to which audiences, a brief summary is in order as the structure is perhaps quite important to the work that the book might do beyond thesis examiners and potential readers of this journal. The book begins with similar front matter as most books (acknowledgments, contents, prologue) but also an abstract (remembering its thesis purpose). Then there is an introduction, ‘the aim and scope of the thesis’, and the first chapter as such, where the ‘Background’ of the study sets the study context over 13 pages. Friluftsliv as a concept, a cultural phenomenon and related to the field of OE is outlined through a summary of pertinent academic literature. He describes education that works with notions of being place-based, place-responsive and land oriented, unpacking ‘nature’ as one of a set of terms that matter in this project. He then returns to friluftsliv situated as a learning area in PEH and in a particular timespace (Swedish compulsory curriculum, 2011).

Jonas Mikaels is encouraging readers to move from seeing the world as a backdrop to human activity which reinforces human-nature hierarchies and binaries to an interconnected ontology drawing on place.

The next ‘chapter’ of 17 pages succinctly describes the research process. It is constituted by the theoretical framework, methods of analysis for the study, the author’s positioning in the research process and, for what is perhaps the plateau for new lines of flight in dominant contemporary education, the consideration of the role of nonhuman forces. The author’s thinking with theory is outlined firstly by describing relevant work of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and the work of those who have used this scholarship. ‘Relational materialism’ (p. 37-9) is explained and ‘put to work’ as a month-long canoeing and backpacking trip in the Canadian Rocky Mountains with 15 university students that materialised as reflective journals and an academic paper. ‘Becoming place’ (p39-40) assembles the authors work with analysis of four Swedish compulsory school curriculum documents. He suggests alternative readings of the curriculum documents including outdoor recreation and leisure, people-centred exercise, nature as location, and friluftsliv as assessment, readings that assemble as another academic paper. Another academic paper summarised as ‘rhizomatic analysis’ (p.41-3) that draws from a yearlong case study with PEH teachers in Sweden is summarized as another illustration of putting theory to work. Here teachers are described as moving away from old patterns or spaces to new possibilities. Ethical and methodological considerations are briefly described followed by a brief summary of his reflexivity and the positioning of humans within his project.

Reflecting the academic choice of ‘thesis by publication’ the next very short ‘chapter’ (p. 49-52) summarizes the four articles submitted to academic journals before moving to a Discussion chapter of 10 pages that is perhaps the most important section of this book (to ‘me’). From my perspective at the time of receiving the book, as outlined in the first lines of this review, this was where I started, in the middle of the book. Just as Jonas Mikaels reflected on his study, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, this was about ‘coming and going, rather than starting and finishing’ (p.59). In his ‘becoming-researcher’ he notes ‘having the opportunity to engage more deeply with theory and theoretical perspectives’ (p. 59) was something he greatly valued in this rhizomatic research process. It enabled him to recognise the naturalising processes that have led to a ‘majoritarian’ (p. 58) set of practices that embody PEH friluftsliv. Seeing ‘alternatives’ elsewhere (geographically and conceptually) provided new possibilities for Jonas Mikaels, and therefore consequences for pedagogical practice in friluftsliv, as place-responsive education rather than naturalised as recreation. Such intentions, however, often require material resources, and if not at least an awareness of positionality and privilege, an ability to listen/hear, humble reflexivity and time. The first of the four journal publications embedded in the study and this book reported on interviews with eight ‘outdoor education teachers’ in AotearoaNew Zealand – a bicultural nation with significant Māori presence in education and explicit attention in curriculum. The teachers were positioned through age, sex, profession and school context,  yet race and recognition of Māori impact to place-based education seemed absent in analysis. Given Western European patriocolonisation and its effects on academic ‘knowledge’ I would like to have read about researcher/researched positioning and ethical aspects of the research in much greater detail and depth. This would include the missing/overlooking/erasing of ‘Aotearoa’ from explicit mention when place-based education is part of a long history of Māori ontology. I do not want to assume it wasn’t part of the project even though not in print – a discussion to have with the author and the literature.

The rest of the book is made up of a summary of the project in Swedish (3 pages), a summary of the four academic journal outputs in Swedish (3 pages) references and then each of the four academic journal outputs in their entirety (15,29,26,33 pages respectively). This structure made for a very fragmented/disjointed reading-perhaps not something any ‘one’ person may want to engage with in this form. To review, I found the book challenging to read, neither a majoritarian linear academic text nor a text that clearly scaffolded a way in to deeper ‘so what’ discussions for different audiences. This is also part of the charm of the volume, though, challenging dominant models and inviting different pathways/spaces for knowing/thinking/praxis. For it to be a book that speaks to particular audiences (other than perhaps pre-doctoral students considering models of thesis-by-publication), other genres that fly from this volume and carrying the messages of the research would no doubt do more of the work and in more successful ways for what Jonas Mikaels has set out to do. I am thinking for instance a linear text that cuts out all the repetition (e.g. six sections commenting on background) and speaks to a reflective practitioner, a theoretical praxis text for emerging researchers in physical culture, and perhaps an extended set of case studies for an international thoughtful pro-environmental public.

Given Western European patriocolonisation and its effects on academic ‘knowledge’ I would like to have read about researcher/researched positioning and ethical aspects of the research in much greater detail and depth.

The place-responsive foci in educational contexts is a feature of this book as the author travels and lives in a range of places and draws his research from those places. It draws on knowledge from Swedish, Scandinavian and Nordic contexts as well as having relationships to colonized nations of Canada, AotearoaNew Zealand, and Australia. This is not to claim a comparative project but one that explores different practices to inform perspectives and practices in Swedish schools. Jonas Mikaels is encouraging readers to move from seeing the world as a backdrop to human activity which reinforces human-nature hierarchies and binaries to an interconnected ontology drawing on place. Whether a place-responsive epistemology can do better, humans need to revisit ancient cultural wisdoms, now relatively readily available, yet still largely missed or overlooked by globalised Western European (hegemonic masculinized) practices and dominating academic research. For me this is where I think this work has reinforced the ongoing (missed, overlooked, erased, previously unvalued) calls for a noticing of wisdoms alienated by the academy (ancient indigenous, arts-based, female, more-than-human), paradoxically also embodying them. The work reinforces that unless humans are critically reflexive then education acts to reproduce when it could also emancipate this (more-than-human) world, at least from the harmful effects of the most feral species – humans. From what-whom do ‘we’ learn? Jonas Mikaels’ work continues this conversation.

Portions of the book offer those entering deeper scholarship or forays into onto-epistemological challenges (e.g. postgraduate students) summaries of putting theory to work and, as previously noted, a model to critique and consider if entering into thesis-by-publication. Other portions provide stories of doing academic work and making change in the profession, often inaccessible to those outside universities who cannot subscribe to journals. For those pondering, wandering into socio-materialist work, the theoretical framework section is useful, and for those working with friluftsliv or OE, the Background and article summaries offer plateaus from which to fly (either in Swedish or English – a nice small challenge to English ontologies). Identifying appropriate audiences is crucial for the author to consider further publication of the research.

The work reported between the covers of this book reflects shifts (back) to environmental/more-than-human awareness, relationships and responsibility. This shift is not one that can simply draw from, and/or romanticise, other onto-epistemological practices but one that needs serious engagement with and mobilisation in the practices of teaching, teacher education, schooling, professional development, funding for implementation of curriculum and education of society more broadly. Surely not an impossible task for friluftsliv, Sweden, PEH, OE, education or ‘us’. Paying attention to what has been missing and overlooked, starting in the middle, and being open to changing (unhelpful) practice is what education is all about after all – isn’t it? Congratulations to all those (more-than- and humans) Jonas Mikaels assembled with whom to (re)create. May the new lines split and enfold, as D&G molecular[1] explorations focussed on the educative value of friluftsliv/OE/PEH, as deeper engagements with outdoor life that Jonas Mikaels spends such energy to foster.

Copyright © lisahunter 2018

[1] A reference to Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of molecular lines of flight, of ‘what the body can do’ (p.24) in making new possibilities. Deleuze, G., and Guattari, F. (2003) A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.
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