On representability and authenticity in research on ethnolinguistic minorities

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Questions of representability and authenticity were first lifted during Diana Mulinari’s visit (Jan 22, 2009) on the course this paper relates to. As far as I can remember, Mulinari presented the questions in a wider framework, that of intersectionality and intersectional research. Her point of departure was the question of how intersectionality should be used and interpreted, and further on: Who has the right to represent different groups in the society? The lecture and seminar led by Mulinari were both stimulating to me as the issues of identity, belonging and eventually that of representability have been something I have pondered upon ever since I came in contact with Sweden Finns, my “own” minority group in Sweden. Living in Finland as a part of a majority I was barely aware of the existence and the size of the Finnish minority in Sweden. Moving to Sweden meant not only questioning my own identity, but also learning plenty of new things about my countrymen and their offspring in this new homeland of ours.

As my knowledge has grown, some questions have found their answers and others have arisen. As any migrant I have wondered at times; where do I belong in this minority and what is the “criteria” for being a member of a minority? When does one cease to be a migrant (a term that, at least to me, somehow signifies temporality or transformation, not definitiveness) and becomes a person with a minority identity? And again, a very personal question: How should one relate to the general picture of Sweden Finnishness when there are so many parts in the description I do not recognize as “mine”? How can my place be described in the chain of migrants and then permanent citizens that started centuries ago and will continue even after I am gone? And moving on to the current task; How should I portray the minority as a researcher? Will I be accepted as a member as well as a scholar and a representative of the Sweden Finnish minority? How to aim towards research that has social and cultural bearing for both the minority and majority groups but that at the same time fulfils the qualification of objectivity? The questions are introspective, but I am far from being alone when posing them. The aim of this paper is, with the help of a small charting of current research and researchers on two minorities, Sweden Finns and Tornedalians, to discuss issues of representability and authenticity in research from minority point of view.

Background and purpose[edit]

Since the ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 2000 there are five recognized national minorities in Sweden. The minorities include Jews, Roma, Sami, Swedish Finns and Tornedalians and their minority languages Yiddish, Romany Chib (all varieties), Sami (all varieties), Finnish and Meänkieli (Tornedal Finnish). Common to all these minority groups is that they have been present in Sweden for centuries, and that the traditions of using their languages in Sweden are accordingly just as long. When defining these minority groups it has also been important to note that they have their own religious, linguistic and/or cultural connections and a will to preserve their specific identities. (Language Council of Sweden 2003)

The ratification of the framework and charter mentioned above led for the first time to the establishment of minority policy as a separate policy area in Sweden. The main objectives of the policy are to protect the minorities, to promote their participation in community affairs and public decision-making and to help keep long-established minority languages alive. Establishing minority policy has meant acknowledging that the languages and cultures of minorities are an important part of the Swedish cultural heritage. The recognition of national minorities can also be seen as an act of promoting human rights. (Regeringen 2009) Higher education and academic research on minorities can be seen as important parts in this development, assisting together with other functions the minorities’ active participation in the society, thus promoting their survival and development.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss issues of representation and authenticity as they are connected with themes such as minority research. The empirical part of the paper includes a small-scale charting of academic research on two ethnolinguistic minorities in Sweden, Sweden Finns and Tornedalians. The years 2000 to 2009 have been chosen as the time limit not only because the former of them marks the beginning of a new millennium, but also because the above mentioned Framework convention was ratified in Sweden on April 1, 2000. Almost ten years have passed, which also can be considered a relevant time span for a charting that focuses on recent activities. Accordingly, in this part, the following issue will be addressed:

  • Who is doing academic research on the minorities mentioned above and at which institutions and research environments is the research conducted?

With the charting as a point of departure I will then continue with a discussion that has not too often been present in the field, namely the following: Who has the right to do research and thus represent a group or a minority? Who has the right to do research on whom? These issues are then discussed from a general point of view, inspired both by the authors studied within the course Communication and identity issues in institutional arenas and others.

Sweden Finns and Tornedalians[edit]

As many neighboring countries, Sweden and Finland have had a significant migration between them. Reasons for migration from Finland to Sweden have varied from governmental planning, colonization and famine to war-fare, commerce and search for work (Tarkiainen 1990). The history of Finns in Sweden has thus gone through several different phases from the 16th -century Forest Finns to the modern migration of the 20th and 21th centuries, most of which has been colored by search for work and included emigration of large groups of Finns, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, standard Finnish has been spoken in Sweden for centuries and the language can today be heard in all parts of Sweden, even though the Finnish-speaking population has been concentrated on certain geographical areas – a development that is likely to continue. The status and support for the Finnish language has varied during the centuries, as well as the official Sweden’s relation to its multilingualism.

The Swedish state has traditionally been very restrictive when it comes to collecting information and creating statistics based on its citizens’ languages. This means that migrants coming to Sweden are registered only by country of origin, not by language or ethnicity (Lundström 2005). The idea of creating language statistics in Sweden has been promoted by different actors in the society, e.g. scholars and politicians, but these attempts have insofar not been successful, which has lead to both scholars and politicians having to rely on estimates, based on the summarizing of various sources and reports. According to statistics released by Statistics Sweden in April 2009, there are approximately 675 000 people with Finnish background in Sweden (three generations backwards), a number that exceeds the previous estimates by 200 000 (Sveriges Radio 2009). In the previous estimate from 2005, based on research by RUAB, the figures concerned mainly speakers of Finnish and Meänkieli and then the estimate was that 470 000 or ca 6 % of the Swedish population speaks and/or understands Finnish or Meänkieli (RUAB 2005). There is, however, reason to believe that the actual number of Finnish-speaking people is lower than the estimates, figures between 200 000 and 250 000 are often suggested.

Meänkieli, as well as Finnish, is a Finno-Ugric language and closest related to other Baltic-Finnic languages such as Estonian, Karelian and Kven. The varieties of Meänkieli are spoken in the northernmost parts of Sweden, around the Torne River dividing Finland and Sweden, therefore the often used name Tornedalsfinska (Torne Valley Finnish). Meänkieli speakers (Tornedalians) are the second largest minority group among the national minorities, with some 50 000-70 000 speakers (Language Council of Sweden 2003). The recognition of Meänkieli as a national minority language in 2000 was a big step forward, as it also meant an upswing for the status and the usage of the language. Different attempts to enhance the status of the language have been made since then; one of the best examples of recent years’ positive development is the establishment of a special section for Meänkieli within the governmentally supported Department of Dialectolocy, Onomastics and Folklore Research in Umeå. (Kuoppa 2008)

The recognition of Meänkieli and Finnish as territorial languages of five municipalities in Northern Sweden in 2000 was a decision that also gave speakers of the two languages the right to use them before the court and in all public institutions in the region, as well as right to request services in preschools and in elderly care. Furthermore, Tornedalians can also request mother-tongue instruction in Meänkieli or Finnish (Hyltenstam 2007). Currently there is an ongoing process for expanding the administrative area in the region of Stockholm/Mälardalen. Higher education and academic research about the minorities and their languages were not directly affected by the recognition.

A few words on method and material[edit]

If the field is small as such, as academic research on Tornedalians and Sweden Finns can be considered, information of it should be easily accessible. However, this has not been always the case in the current investigation. One of the main questions is the one of limitation. Where to draw a line between research that concerns a certain group and research that does not? It is as if it was in the nature of academic research to be constantly fluid and changeable, with new connecting points emerging between different fields and areas. My attempt to grasp the current situation of research concerning Sweden Finns and Tornedalians includes a relatively instrumental method; a charting of current research units, active researchers and doctoral dissertations since 2000. Other publications have not been reviewed for this paper other than superficially, meaning that their main focus and audience (academic/other) has been briefly examined.

The charting was conducted with the help of oral information from senior colleagues in the field, e-mail enquiries, reports and internet searches. The results from this part of the charting are roughly summarized in tables 1 and 2. A search in the DiVA-and Libris-databases was conducted to find out whether the information concerning research on Sweden Finns and Tornedalians, received mainly orally or by e-mail, was accurate and to see if it could be completed with the help of information on research publications. Keywords Finnish (170 hits in DiVA), Finnish in Sweden (118 hits), Meänkieli (15 hits), Language policy (21 hits), Minority language (23 hits), Sweden Finns (0 hits), Finns in Sweden (1 hit), Tornedal Finnish (1 hit), Tornedalen (7 hits) were chosen when the tool for advanced search among research publications since 2000 was used. The publication types registered in the database include all kinds of publications from journal articles and conference papers to books and doctorate/licentiate theses. The search could also be limited to refereed, other academic and “other” (popular science, etc.) publications. My choice was not to limit the original search, but rather examine the lists of hits to see what kind of publications could be found and from there to find the ones with the status of a dissertation and/or other academic publications. Student theses were not included in the search.

Current research on Sweden Finns, Tornedalians and their languages[edit]

Higher education and academic research are of key importance for creating sustainability for any group, minority or not, and its language. For the official Sweden the ratification of the minority framework convention and minority language charter can be seen as a first step towards a more supportive stance towards ethnolinguistic minorities, a fact that will hopefully strengthen their academic base in the long run. In the proposition that eventually led to the recognition of national minorities, it was concluded that “it is essential that higher education and research in minority languages and about the national minorities continues and can be developed” (Proposition 1998/99:143, my translation).

According to the Swedish government’s approval document, the universities of Stockholm and Umeå have national obligations for higher education in Finnish and Meänkieli, respectively. In practice, the courses in Meänkieli have been outsourced to the municipality of Pajala, which has the highest density of Meänkieli-speakers, or been taught as distance courses. Luleå University of Technology has previously arranged teacher education in Meänkieli and Finnish, but in a limited scale. Both Umeå and Luleå universities have from time to time also offered further education in Meänkieli for teachers working in the lower levels of education (Kuoppa 2008). Apart from these universities, located in the northern Sweden and close to the area where Meänkieli has its origins and most of its users, Stockholm University also offers higher education in Meänkieli. During the upcoming academic year, 2009-2010 however, courses in Meänkieli will not be arranged.

Generally speaking, research on minorities and minority languages is poorly supported and financed in Sweden – especially when related to the size of the minority population. There are currently five universities in Sweden where Finnish is taught and where research that relates to Finns/Sweden Finns and their languages is conducted, and two universities where Meänkieli and Tornedalians are present in education and research. The universities and the units are the following (in alphabetical order):

University Unit Finnish, Meänkieli Current research specializations Number of researchers
Luleå University of Technology Dept. of Languages and Culture Finnish No research currently 0 (1 lecturer, 25% in teaching)
Mälardalen University School of Education, Culture and Communication, Centre for Finnish Studies Finnish Linguistics; Finnish in Sweden, Sweden Finns; Sociolinguistics; Multilingualism; Linguistic minority research 1 professor (50%), 1 senior lecturer, 1 PhD student, 1 research assistant
Stockholm University Dept. of Baltic Languages, Finnish and German, Section of Finnish Finnish, Meänkieli Finnish language and culture; Sweden Finnish language and culture, Finnish literature; Meänkieli; Tornedalians Finnish: 1 professor (50%), 1 professor emeritus, 3 PhD students

Meänkieli: 1 professor emeritus, 1 associate professor/researcher

Umeå University Dept. of Language Studies,Section of Finnish Finnish, Meänkieli Finnish as a foreign language; Finnish as a learners’ language, Finnish slang Finnish:1 senior lecturer, 1 lecturer, Meänkieli: 1 PhD student
Uppsala University Dept. of Modern Languages, Finno-Ugric Languages Finnish Finnish syntax and semantics; language didactics; translation and interpretation; Indigenous Värmland Finnish Finnish: 1 senior lecturer

Table 1 . Universities and units with research and/or education in Finnish and Meänkieli.

Apart from the above mentioned, NAMIS (Forum for National Minorities in Sweden) within the Centre for Multiethnic research and at Uppsala University and the Centre for Research on Bilingualism at Stockholm University have also focused on research on national minorities and their linguistic conditions in Sweden. In accordance to its name, NAMIS focuses on research on national minorities in Sweden. Their research is directed towards linguistic-sociological and literature-sociological areas and cover also cultural and educational studies. The number of researchers with clear focus on Sweden Finns/Tornedalians is two, both renowned researchers with associate professor status – and Finnish backgrounds. The Centre for Research on Bilingualism conducts research on Swedish language politics (Language Council of Sweden, 2009). A third unit where national minorities have been a part of the scope of the research is the Language Research Institute in Stockholm (formerly known as Språkforskningsinstitutet i Rinkeby). In addition to the above mentioned units, there have been a number of individual researchers within different kinds of academic units at Swedish universities with research interests that have touched upon Sweden Finns and Tornedalians. Since 2000, a minimum of 15 doctoral dissertations with at least some connection to Sweden Finns, Tornedalians and their languages have been published in Sweden within several different fields of research. These include, in order of appearance:

Author Name of dissertation Year of publication
Rabbe Sandell Finnish worship in Church of Sweden: on the encounter and transformation of tradition in the church services of Finnish immigrants 2000
Päivi Juvonen Grammaticalizing the definite article: a study of definite adnominal determiners in a genre of spoken Finnish 2000
Lars Elenius Både finsk och svensk: modernisering, nationalism och språkförändring i Tornedalen 1850-1939 2001
Jari Kuosmanen Finnkampen: en studie av finska mäns liv och sociala karriärer i Sverige 2001
Veli Tuomela Tvåspråkig utveckling i skolåldern: en jämförelse av sverigefinska elever i tre undervisningsmodeller 2001
Antti Ylikiiskilä Tvåspråkiga barns verbanvändning i svenska 2001
Marja-Terttu Tryggvason Language - mirror of culture: a case study on language socialization with Finns living in Finland and Sweden, and Swedes living in Sweden 2003
Merja-Liisa Keinänen Creating bodies: childbirth practices in pre-modern Karelia 2003
Paula Ehrnebo Heter Vägverket Tielaitos eller Tievirasto på finska?: Benämningar på svenska samhällsfenomen i sverigefinska tidningar 2006
Mirjaliisa Lukkarinen Kvist Tiden har haft sin gång – hem och tillhörighet bland sverigefinnar i Mälardalen 2006
Merlijn de Smit Language Contact and Structural Change: An Old Finnish Case Study 2006
Marja Ågren "Är du finsk, eller-?" En etnologisk studie om att växa upp och leva med finsk bakgrund i Sverige 2006
Tommaso M. Milani Debating Swedish : language politics and ideology in contemporary Sweden 2007
Riitta-Liisa Valijärvi A corpus-based study on the degrees of lexicalization and grammaticalization of Finnish converbs 2007
Maud Wedin Den skogsfinska kolonisationen i Norrland 2007

Table 2. Doctoral dissertations with connection to Sweden Finns and Tornedalians published in Sweden since 2000.

Of the above mentioned, all scholars except for de Smit, Milani, Wedin and Ågren are first or second generation Sweden Finns or Tornedalians. Apart from these dissertations, there are currently four PhD students (including myself) within the Stockholm and Mälardalen/Örebro universities working on doctoral dissertations that have some kind of connection to Sweden Finns and Finnish. As for Meänkieli, one researcher with background in Tornedalen, is currently working at Umeå University on a doctoral dissertation that will be published in the near future. The senior researchers referred to in table 1 have all either Sweden Finnish or Tornedalian backgrounds. Their recently published works have not, on the other hand, been thoroughly examined in the charting. In addition to these researchers, there are a number of researchers, mainly with focus on other minorities, who often draw parallels between “their” and the Sweden Finnish and/or Tornedalian minority. Specific facts of their number and research focus has however not been charted for this paper.

A review of doctoral dissertations concerning Tornedalians and Sweden Finns and since 2000 shows that there are several themes present in the research. The topics of dissertations range from detailed linguistic and semantic descriptions to revisions of the Swedish educational system and to identity discussions from the minority point of view. The dissertations have been written within numerous different research fields, linguistics, ethnology and social sciences being the most apparent of them. In addition to doctoral dissertations, there are at least a few hundred other scientific and popular scientific publications concerning the minorities and their languages. The minority scholars’ task seems to be much of that of informing and educating, and it appears that many of the publications have the majority population, its decision-makers and/or scholars as their main target group. There is, however, an undertone in some of the publications that underlines the sense that even the minority itself needs to be educated and informed about issues concerning it.

Minority research – a right and an obligation[edit]

The above mentioned charting established what I had assumed: Researchers active in minority research concerning Sweden Finns and Tornedalians are to a high extent minority people themselves – at least in the light of recently published doctoral dissertations. The situation is not by any terms unique for Sweden Finns and Tornedalians, as similar descriptions can be made of many minority groups, be they linguistic, ethnic, or other. Why is it then that different groups are in this way represented by their “own” researchers? Is it a necessity for a researcher to belong to a minority group in order to gain acceptance and fulfill the demands of representability and authenticity in his/her work on the group in question? What needs to be considered is that the idea of a minority being represented and researched by a researcher with minority background has not always been the norm. In fact, I would like to claim that it is rather quite new and associated with postmodernism. Within several research fields, including sociology and anthropology, it has been a long-lived tradition that Western researchers conducted their fieldwork at and interpreted the reality of indigenous peoples. Thus, the interpretations were often characterized by an outsider’s perspective to the examined phenomena. The outsider’s, as well as insider’s (or emic and etic, if you like) perspectives are something I will return to.

Another intriguing question is also whether a researcher’s position should always be seen as that of power. Connections between knowledge and power have been highlighted, perhaps curiously, by scholars themselves since the 17th century. The 17th century scientist Francis Bacon has been cited saying “knowledge is power”, which, according to Nilsson (2008) can also be interpreted as knowledge giving power. Perhaps the most well-known scholar within the framework of knowledge and power is Michel Foucault. For Foucault power and knowledge are inseparable; it is not possible to exercise power without knowledge because it is impossible for knowledge not to evoke power and it is discourse that joins power and knowledge together (ibid). The academic society, being traditionally thought of as fortress of knowledge, can thus be seen as exercising power. And with power come rights and responsibilities, which both can be used and misused.

The concept of academic power has been discussed by other scholars, among them the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Apart from the concepts of class, culture, habitus and symbolic power, which he is generally known for, education, intellectuals and intellectual fields occupy a central place in his work. In his book of 1997, Culture and Power – The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu David Swartz sets an outline of Bourdieu’s most important works. In one of his works, Homo Academicus, the concepts of academic power, scientific power and intellectual renown are discussed. Of these, I find especially scientific power, (degree of control over research resources and prestige within the scientific community) and intellectual renown (recognition by the broader educated public for published work) interesting from the minority researchers’ point of view.

In Hyltenstam and Stroud (1991) the internal organization of a minority is being discussed. According to them, minority literature often speaks about leaders and spokesmen for the group. These people are often those who have an academic education and who also have “succeeded” in the majority society, largely because of their ability to think and act according to norms and codes relevant for both cultures. A strong internal organization within the minority also enables the development of own institutions, whether they are cultural, educational or other. Internal organization within a minority and academic representation lead me to yet another question: Do researchers with minority background then have a special position, considering the aspects of knowledge and power? My answer is yes and no.

Returning to Bourdieu’s scientific power and intellectual renown, it is interesting to reflect upon the concepts in relation to minority researchers. When it comes to research resources, the support for research on minorities and minority languages is inadequately financed in Sweden, as concluded earlier. Within the universities and units where minority research and higher education are present, researchers are forced to compete over resources and as it seems, often have to depend on their own ability to find external financing. As for prestige and recognition within the scientific community, it is difficult to draw any conclusions based on the material examined for this paper, but it is likely that minority researchers are somewhat marginalized within the scientific community. If the concept of marginalization is seen as its postmodern usage of individuals being excluded from power, status and discourse, being marginalized in one context does not, however, mean that one automatically is marginalized in others. Minority researchers’ voice may not always be heard in the academia or in the society at large, but it can at the same time play a significant role in the discourse within the minority.

As noted earlier, questions of whose right it is to do research on a group or a minority can also be seen as connected with the emic (insider) and etic (outsider) approaches. The two approaches were originally developed within cultural anthropology during the 1950s by the anthropological linguist Kenneth Pike. These approaches, though not mentioned by name specifically, are discussed in a symposium volume with the title “Att forska om språkliga minoriteter” . Erling Wande, a Tornedalian and former professor in Finnish at Stockholm University problematizes the insider’s right to do research on his/her minority group. With personal reflections on being a member of a minority as a point of departure, Wande discusses problems of subjectivity vs. objectivity and perspectives of out-group and in-group membership (Wande 1990). Striving for neutrality has long been perceived as the ideal way of doing research and any suspected in-group membership partiality seemed for long to function as a both a concrete and a mental barrier – not the least for researchers with minority background. “Singling out” oneself as an unprofessional, biased researcher has seldom seemed like the most attractive option for a thriving young scholar, as Wande himself was in the 1960s.

Even though the absolute demand for entirely objective research has been abandoned during the latter half of the 21st century – at least within social sciences, I would like to argue for the fact that there still is – and to some extent should be – a certain pressure and need of doing “objective” science among researchers. The questions of objectivity/subjectivity are still present e.g. in debates on theory of science and sociology of knowledge. However, the paradigm of outgroup researchers being regarded as the “objective” ones has shifted and evolved since the 1960s.

Questions of representation and authenticity have not always been directly in focus during the course this paper relates to. They can, however, be discussed in relation to some of the literature studied and the researchers behind them. In Who Does This Language Belong To? Avital Feuer (2008) discusses what she calls personal narratives of language claim and identity. The book begins with Feuer establishing her status as someone with “a feeling of displacement and difference” within her own ethnic speech community and continues with analyses of language claim and ownership in identity formation, as well as in-group community rifts, hierarchies and Othering as a result. Through opening her unusually and explicitly personal point of view, Feuer presents herself as a person with a dual identity, that of both Hebrew and English. By doing so she not only adds an extra dimension to the reader’s experience, but also establishes her own role as representative for the ethnolinguistic minority her research is concerns. As for authenticity, through the analyses of her informants’ identities, social groupings, Othering and other phenomena, Feuer succeeds in connecting her own split identity to her research. Feuer’s question is “who does this language belong to? but she might just as well ask: “who does this group belong to?”, or “whose right is it to represent these people?”.

Another author and scholar who can be regarded as not only seeing the tasks of research and education, but also representation as hers, is Beverly Daniel Tatum (1997), who from the first page on in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? establishes her status as a representative of the Black community, but even more as a bridge builder between the Black and White communities. Through personal examples from her teaching, Tatum for instance explains the development of racial identity. She defines racism “as a system of advantage based on race”, rather than a personal ideology based on racial prejudice. Associations to both Foucault and Bourdieu can be found in Tatum’s conclusions of racism’s connection to social power (1997).

As well as Wande, another minority researcher, a Finland Swede named Marika Tandefelt reveals her thoughts on doing research as a part of the minority in “Att forska om språkliga minoriteter”. In her article, with the title “To be a scholar in a small world”, she discusses the double roles of a minority researcher – those of a neutral scholar and a spokesman for the minority. She also discusses more specifically the minority researcher’s role as an illustrator of the minority’s reality – not only directly for the majority but even more so for the minority leaders, people representing the minority in majority contexts, a task that often includes educating people about minority issues and – in her case –bilingualism (Tandefelt 1990). In her article, Tandefelt raises the legacy of the sociologist Norbert Elias as another approach to the “meaningless” discussion of the im/possibility of objective research. Instead of speaking of objectivity, Elias presents the perspective of distancing oneself from the focus of the research (ibid). It is also a duty for the scholar to continue producing data and publishing research results despite the fact that other members of the minority might find them inconvenient. Minority scholars often live with pressure both from within their “own” minority groups and from the majority groups, who can be either negligent or even hostile. (Ibid)


The introduction of this paper included plenty of questions, both personal and general, about a researcher’s identity and roles in the representation of a minority as a scholar, as a member of the academic community and the society in a wider perspective. A minor charting of doctoral dissertations written on Sweden Finns/Tornedalians showed that it is commonplace that the researchers who have defended their theses in the recent years are minority people themselves.

One of the questions I posed during this journey was if it was necessary for a researcher to belong to a minority group in order to gain acceptance/authenticity and to be able to act as an representative, if that is what one wants. The answer seems to be that it hardly is a necessity, but that the advantages of being a minority member might outwin the disadvantages when doing research on them, even though at times this might mean ending up in a marginalized position within the academia. The winds have changed since the 1960s when it comes to representability, authenticity and objectivity in research (which for instance Wande refers to), but they still are relevant and interesting questions to discuss. In order to extend the scope of this study, interviews with scholars, both seniors and those who have recently joined the field, concerning their motivation for doing research within the minority and as well as a deeper study of the texts could be done.


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