Identity politics and kin-state relations from the bottom-up in Crimea and Moldova

In 1991, Moldova declared itself an independent state as part of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 2014, the recognised Ukrainian territory of Crimea was annexed by Russia. Here, Eleanor Knott discusses identity politics and kin-state relations in Moldova and Crimea, and writes that in order to understand what ethnicity and citizenship mean in the context of people’s everyday lives, bottom–up, people-centered research is crucial, yet underutilized.

I recently contributed to a special issue, “Whither Eastern Europe? Changing Approaches and Perspectives on the Region in Political Science” which explores the disciplinary relationship between political science and Eastern Europe as an area studies region, 25 years after the collapse of Communism. In my article, I argue that political science needs to engage more with an everyday, people-centred bottom-up approach, as opposed to a top-down state-centred and institutional approach. In particular, I argue kin-state relations research, which analyses relations between states and external co-ethnic communities, has predominantly analysed these relations and tensions from the perspective of the states involved. This has overlooked the bottom-up perspective of kin-state relations, in terms of what it means to identify as a member of a kin community, i.e. a community claimed by an external (kin-)state as co-ethnic.

This article was drafted, following the fieldwork I conducted in Crimea and Moldova in 2012 and 2013, in the months preceding the height of the Euromaidan violence in Kyiv when Crimea remained an autonomous region of Ukraine. Since then, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has unalterably shape post-Soviet politics and relations between post-Soviet states and Russia, and Russia, the EU and US. In this sense, the main argument of the article became the importance of studying bottom-up politics, engaging people who live in these contexts, not just to put people back into political science but also offer a point of reflection in a period of shifting political and geopolitical contexts.

Political science and identity politics from the bottom-up

In a simplistic sense, political science typically follows a neo-positivist goal of trying to measure political phenomena and establish causal relations between these phenomena to explain political outcomes. Contrastingly, interpretivism, the approach I use, is concerned with the meanings, experiences and plurality of interpretations, built on recognising subjectivity of these experiences, meanings and interpretations. While positivists might conduct surveys to verify, deductively, their ideas about the world (e.g. ethnic group membership), interpretivists can turn these identity categories on their head, question the mutual exclusivity of these identity categories and find out how individuals identify, how they experience these forms of identification, how they explain these identifications and why they identify in different ways.

Applying this bottom-up approach to identity politics, I argue the bottom-up perspective of identity politics is vital to understand how taken-for-granted concepts, like ethnicity and citizenship, function in everyday life. In particular, I criticise censuses as dominant a way in which identity is conceived, measured and analysed, by providing overly ascriptive and mutually exclusive categories, which indicate more about the way the state and regime conducting the census conceive of ethnicity than about those answering censuses.

In particular, post-Communist regimes have politicised censuses, both in the way regimes, such as Ukraine and Moldova, conceive of identity and try to measure it, to bolster the legitimacy of the regime. It may be significant that Crimea was a region that reported a majority identifying as ethnically Russian (58%) and speaking Russian (77%) in Ukraine’s 2001 census. However this indicates little about what itmeans to be Russian in Crimea, what relations are with Russia or the dynamics of ethnic identification in the post-Soviet period (i.e. where it has been well over a decade since a previous census). In this context, these regimes have struggled to conduct regular censuses, both in terms of the cost and the politicised context in which these censuses are conducted and their results interpreted.

Crimea and Moldova from the bottom-up

To circumvent the problems of existing data, and to collect more context-rich research exploring the meanings and experiences of kin identification, I conducted fieldwork with everyday citizens, such as students, in Crimea and Moldova between 2012 and 2013. In this sense, I was interested to analyse if individuals identified as Russian (in Crimea) and Romanian (in Moldova), how they identified as Russian or Romanian, as opposed to other identifications (e.g. Ukrainian, Crimean, Moldovan) and why they identified in this way.

The data I gathered showed identification in both cases to be highly diverse, according to different individual explanations of identification in terms of language, culture, history, territory and political affiliation. This data, conducted from a people-centred perspective, allowed me to challenge existing framings of both cases, whether Crimea as a homogenous region of pro-Russian nationalist and separatist sentiment before annexation in 2014, and a challenge to kin-state narratives, that want to frame Crimea as homogenously Russian, Russian speaking, and hence supportive of Russian nationalism, and eventually annexation.

In Moldova too, I was able to explore the relationship between being Romanian and being Moldovan, identities that are variously conceived (by Romania) as co-terminous or oppositional (by the Soviet Union). Rather I demonstrated a diversity of opinions between those who conceived of themselves as naturally Romanian, because of their language and “blood”, to those who negotiated these identities, pitching being Romanian as different because it meant more European.

The Benefits of a Bottom-up Approach for Post-Soviet Political Research

In political science, context-rich and specific, bottom-up interpretive approaches have been (unfairly) labelled as soft, unscientific, nonempirical and not really political science. However, empirically, I argue the approach I used in this research offers an important perspective for challenging the dominant framings of these cases. More theoretically, I argue it is important to challenge how identification is conceived within political science, not as something mutually exclusive that can be measured by separate census categories, but as something worth exploring from the perspective not only of how but also why, by gathering data about experiences, personal, familial, political and educational, that individuals used to construct identity narratives. The challenge is to frame and design interpretive research to ensure standards of rigour and transparency, for example by making interview questions available, while not reproaching interpretivism for not generating generalizable or representative findings, when the intention is to derive context-specific research, whether in a single case or a comparative context.

Beyond identity politics and kin-state relations, I argue the bottom-up everyday approach is an overlooked and under-utilised approach in political science. This approach has the potential to enrich understandings of other processes and phenomena too, such as democratization and Europeanization, by encouraging researchers to go further in to the “gray zone” of politics, away from state-centred formal institutional approaches, towards studying the informal practices and everyday experiences of politics. This may also be the pursuit of anthropologists but political scientists too should be concerned with collecting data that probes, and challenges, informal and everyday experiences of politics, whether in post-Communist states and societies and beyond.

This blog summarises the main conclusions from a recent article I published in East European Politics and Societies: Eleanor Knott (2015) Generating data: studying identity politics from a bottom-up perspective in Ukraine and Moldova, East European Politics and Societies, 29: 467-486, doi:10.1177/0888325415584047 [ungated pdf].

This article was originally posted on LSE Government Department’s blog.

“You should write an empirical paper” – an interpretive reposte


I don’t regret the methodology of my research – agency-centred, bottom-up – because it can engage with the very actors who are often left out of political science. It can also engage with actors on their own terms, in their own words, whereas surveys (I argue) largely verify researchers’ deductive ideas. However this does not mean I’m immune to concern about how I’m positioned within the political science, the dominant thrust of which remains positivist, if not highly quantitative. When it comes to the big conferences of the discipline (e.g. APSA, MPSA) in my unrepresentative experience, 90-95% of papers given feature quantitative analysis. So, where are all the people doing qualitative research?

Perhaps they’re being convinced not to do it. I was recently advised to write or co-author an “empirical paper”. I retorted that I do write empirical papers, I have data, it’s qualitative data, it’s ethnographic data, and it’s certainly data! It was gathered through blood, sweat and tears. It was transcribed, translated and coded. It was then whipped together into chapters, which I’m iteratively revising.

What they meant was, I should write a quantitative paper, replete with regressions to show I’m not anti-quantitative (which, inherently, I’m not). My argument is different: I can’t trust existing sources of quantitative data in my cases. I don’t trust existing sources of quantitative data, whether censuses or citizenship statistics. They’re gathered both in highly politicised contexts (in both my cases, Moldova and Crimea) and by politicised, interest-driven kin-states (Russia and Romania) where the regime has an interest to collect a certain kind of data to fulfil a certain kind of state-building and/or nation-building project. If the gold standard of positivist data is objectivity, then using these sources of data falls extremely short of objectivity. Rather it tells us far more about regimes than it does about social actors within these regimes .

I’m also critical of surveys. Not least because I’ve done them and found them wanting but because they work, I argue, primarily to verify and test academic assumptions about the world. They’re not good at exploring the grey zone, or informal practices, or how things actually work. Which is why, I argue, the bottom-up, agency-centred perspective helps to get at aspects of politics that usually are difficult to capture.

So I don’t regret the methods I used. I think they generated interesting data but I wish I didn’t have to explain that it was data, meaning-rich, context-rich data, that can’t be reduced to numbers and regressed.

From Researching to Teaching Qualitative Methods: what I’ve learnt from the bottom-up

I’ve just finished a 10 week qualitative methods course, a basic how and what introduction to the basics of doing qualitative research in political science for a generic MA-level audience. It was challenging, not least because it followed a quantitative methods course – in the ongoing battle between quant and qual, which may be imagined and farcical but certainly is a battle that feels real – it’s harder when you have to pick up off where quant left off, beginning from the basics for an audience that already thinks cross-national regressions is what’s expected of them in political science.

However, it was also very rewarding. I’ve taught comparative politics, nationalism and other things related and not to my research. But I’ve never taught anything where my personal, direct field experiences have been so useful. I suddenly had an audience for all my mess ups, and an audience to tell – don’t do it this way! (I had an audience too for my successes, but this was less funny) I had an audience that enjoyed my silly anecdotes about designing a survey where I asked people to “describe their ethnicity”. The point was to encourage people to identify how they wanted to rather from my subscribed categories. This plan backfired wholly when I got the response “pleasant” and “fine”, when what I was looking for was, you know, “Russian” or “Romanian”. I promptly gave up surveys after this, wanting a format to be able to interact with my respondents (and challenge them about the how and why of their responses) and haven’t looked back since…

I have another audience: an audience to make heart-felt recommendations about the books that helped me feel a sense of belonging to a discipline that, when I started, felt wholly foreign. For me, that book is Political Ethnography by Schatz et al.. Looking back to first PhD year, it was this book 100% that made me want to continue. Political ethnography jelled with how I saw the world; it made sense, in a way that variable-centred-ways of thinking (a la KKV, Designing Social Inquiry) did not, and probably never will. I was interested in meanings and experiences and it was Schatz and his co-authors that made me feel I could try to do the same. And now I have an audience to explain the battle I’ve encountered in realising I have to pre-empt the question of whether my research is “representative”. Of course it isn’t and that’s not how a 50 interview based study should be judged.

But as much as books helped me belong, it was by doing that I really learnt what was interesting, what was research and what I would do differently. This was then another rewarding aspect: an opportunity to invest in the lives of others by facilitating them to learn qualitative methods by doing. Whether it was an ethnographic experiment, encouraging them to do participant-observation and field-note taking in class, or an interview experiment, my fellow teachers and I were committed to showing students how to do it, and how to question the methods, not just discuss the vast literature. I learnt stuff too – I learnt that blogging might be a really good way to take field-notes in the future, I learnt that you can’t please or convince everyone about interpretivism or post-structuralism, because that’s not how everyone sees the world. But, when students say events happen, you can retort “well, Baudrillard said the first gulf war didn’t happen” in a ridiculous call to arms of – how do you know anything happens? My job, then, is not to convince but to encourage reflexivity (i.e. challenging their own assumptions, position and influence/impact on what they’re researching).

There’s still a question that perplexes me, and I hope by the time I next teach qualitative methods that I’ll have a better response. It’s the issue that comes up time and again about whether ethnography is just “journalism” or “storytelling” (honestly, this comes up a lot). How do you convince people that ethnography is not just description but hard-core analysis? I’m working on developing a response. I know it’s about systematisation and being rigorous, but I still don’t think “they” are convinced, and that’s my job.