Now *Open Access*: What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority?

My recent article for Social Science Quarterly, What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below, is now open access. You can read and download the article freely on SSQ’s website.

Abstract:

This article investigates what kin identification means from a bottom-up perspective in two kin majority cases: Moldova and Crimea. The article is based on ∼50 fieldwork interviews conducted in both Moldova and Crimea with everyday social actors (2012–2013). Ethnic homogeneity for kin majorities is more fractured than previously considered. Respondents identified more in terms of assemblages of ethnic, cultural, political, linguistic, and territorial identities than in mutually exclusive census categories. To understand fully the relations between kin majorities, their kin-state and home-state and the impact of growing kin engagement policies, like dual citizenship, it is necessary to analyze the complexities of the lived experience of kin identification for members of kin majorities and how this relates to kin-state identification and affiliation. Understanding these complexities helps to have a more nuanced understanding of the role of ethnicity in post-Communist societies, in terms of kin-state and intrastate relations.

View on Wiley Online Library

Citation: Knott, E. (2015). What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below. Social Science Quarterly, 96(3), 830-859.

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.

New Publication – Generating Data: Studying Identity Politics from a Bottom–Up Approach in Crimea and Moldova

A bit excitedly, my first publication was just published in the May 2015 issue of East European Politics & Societies. The article is part of a special issue, following a workshop on “Whither Eastern Europe?” at the University of Florida at the beginning of 2014. My article, Generating Data Studying Identity Politics from a Bottom–Up Approach in Crimea and Moldova, argues for a bottom-up approach to political science, in particularly to political studies of ethnicity and citizenship, by trying to understand what these concepts mean in the context of people’s everyday lives.

The article first introduces the methods of political ethnography and bottom–up interviews by discussing how they can be applied and their value within political science. The paper uses data gathered from interviews in Moldova and Crimea (when it was still a de jure and de facto part of Ukraine) to demonstrate the value of this approach. It shows how interview data can add significantly to the understanding of kin-state relations within political science by adding a richness of context and a bottom–up perspective that quantitative and elite-level interviews fail to provide. Lastly, the paper draws on experiences gained from research design to discuss how bottom–up research in political science can be conducted rigorously.

The article argues that this bottom-up approach can deepen the understanding of identity politics and kin-state relations or, more broadly, important post-communist questions such as democratization and Europeanization. In particular, in the article, I reflect on the context when this article was originally drafted, when violence on the Euromaidan was in its infancy, and re-drafted, following Crimea’s annexation. In this way, we have to keep studying everyday politics, to challenge and, as Michael Bernhard and Krzysztof Jasiewicz describe, “to confront conventional wisdom on the Ukrainian crisis with the reality on the ground” and realities elsewhere that can, and may shift, dramatically.


You can read the article on the article on EEPS page or read an ungated pdf here.

Citation: Knott, E. (2015) Generating Data: Studying Identity Politics from a Bottom–Up Approach in Crimea and Moldova, East European Politics & Societies, May 2015 29: 467-486, doi:10.1177/0888325415584047.

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.