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CSULB Geographer's Well-being Put to the Test

Portrait of Deborah ThienGeography’s Deborah Thien traveled halfway across the world to discover how location affects a sense of well-being and nearly didn’t make it.

The Shetland Islands, on the same latitude as southern Greenland, form an archipelago off the coast of Scotland that covers 566 square miles and plays host to 22,500 residents, abundant wildlife, a spectacular coastline and dozens of major archaeological sites. But all that had to wait as Thien’s aircraft tried again and again to land before giving up and returning to Edinburgh. “Whatever the time of year in the Shetlands, the weather rolls in,” she said.

What turned her back briefly (she wound up visiting the Shetlands three times by 2005) was the reason she had left warm, cozy Scotland, where she earned her Ph.D. -- fog-wrapped, rain-swept frozen frontiers of an island culture. Her goal was to discover what really goes on in rural locales in terms of women’s emotional well-being.

“We have an idea about what rural locales are like,” said Thien, who joined CSULB in 2006. “We have a sense of how we ought to feel in those kinds of places. For instance, rural places are often perceived as happy and bucolic. But sometimes isolated places can have an adverse effect on people’s health and well-being.

“We also have particular ideas about women and emotion,” she added. “We associate women with emotion more strongly than we do men. I wanted to debunk the notion that it is only women who deal with emotions. I wasn’t interested in exploring the topic because I thought there was an intrinsic link between women and emotion but because I wanted to hear what women really had to say about their feelings in general and how those feelings were formed by a certain location.”

As a qualitative researcher who uses an ethnographic style of research, Thien’s primary tool is herself. “I need to be intrepid and willing enough to actually go out and meet people,” she said. “That wasn’t hard because I stood out from the small population. Once word got out about who I was and what I was doing, people would approach me in the dairy aisle of their one major grocery store to say they’d heard I was doing research and they would be willing to talk.”

Her research revealed the material effects of remoteness such as access to health services as well as popular perceptions of what it means to be rural. “Women sense they are expected to know how to deal with emotional issues,” she explained. “That is something women are supposed to be good at and ought to be able to manage on their own. That plays into how women manage their emotional well-being. It is assumed this skill is part of a woman’s personal store of abilities. What I found was that the conception of rural locales as happy, healthy, friendly places plays into people’s sense of personal success or failure in managing their emotional well being in such places. People would think they were in a happy, healthy and friendly place, so why couldn’t they manage their issues of depression?”

But just being in the Shetlands did not guarantee the blues. “Locales do not guarantee an emotional response,” she explained. “Just because you live in the Shetlands doesn’t automatically make you depressed. Isolation is not a straightforward predictor of unhappiness. Some people I spoke to had relocated to the Shetlands expressly to improve their sense of well-being. They wanted to get away from the madding crowd. They wanted out of the United Kingdom’s crowded city centers and to live somewhere more low-key. Ultimately, I found location matters in terms of health and well-being. There is a complex set of factors involved, so it is not a simple calculus of nice places creating good health and bad places creating poor health.”

The people of the Shetlands chase away the blues with a 24-hour festival held each January in the town of Lerwick called Up Helly Aa. On the evening of Up Helly Aa, more than 800 men form a torch-bearing human wave that flows for half a mile behind the festival leader, the “Guizer Jarl,” selected to represent a character from Norse sagas, complete with raven-winged helmet, an ax and a shield. It takes half an hour for the Jarl’s squad of Vikings to march through thousands of spectators to a life-sized recreation of a Viking dragon ship.  The ship is surrounded by a Catherine Wheel of fire before a rocket explodes overhead. A bugle sounds and torches are hurled into the galley. As the inferno destroys four months of work by the galley builders, the crowd sings “The Norseman’s Home.”

Thien earned her B.A. in English Literature from the University of Victoria, her M.A. in gender studies from the University of Northern British Columbia, where she served as a postdoctoral research fellow, and her Ph.D. in 2005 from the University of Edinburgh.

Thien has other research interests such as the representation and politicization of emotion that have taken her everywhere from California to Canada to New Zealand. She has looked at the Royal Canadian Legion and their post-WWII place in the Canadian cultural scene and the links between Shetland Islanders and their cousins in New Zealand. But there always will be something about the 100-plus chilly islands that draws her back.

“I think I’ll always have an interest in the Shetlands and a fondness for the people I met there,” she said. “It goes together with my interest in remote rural places and especially island places. I grew up on Vancouver Island, west of the Canadian mainland and if you go far enough north, you can find quite isolated communities. The Shetlands will always interest me because they represent my interests in remote places and in the people who live there.”