The term 'secession' has a strong emotional connotation. Secessionist crises are
highly dramatic events in a state's history, entailing as they do the risk of a total
disruption of the existing political and social order. Unilateral declarations of
secession are often accompanied by the use of military force, but even a peaceful
referendum on sovereignty puts a heavy strain on social cohesion. A secessionist
process has particular consequences for the practice of history and the social sciences.
The dramatic nature of secession challenges the virtues traditionally
expected of scholars, once they are actively involved in a public debate on its
legitimacy: when they analyse the issues at stake, scientists' traditional perception
of themselves as being rational, dispassionate and unprejudiced is called
into question. This self-image of the scholar has already been challenged by the
generally accepted fact that the nation, as an imagined community, is largely a
product of the social activities of intellectuals. It has been well established that
intellectuals play a decisive role in the elaboration of national identities and the
creation of national 'myths'. Historical research on the development of national
movements has also revealed the political role of intellectuals in paving the way
for effective political mobilization. Generally speaking, historians and social scientists
seem to be more deeply involved than most other citizens in political disputes
on the future of their nation. Imagining the nation, working out its identity
and creating fertile ground for nationalist mobilization are activities that do
not conform to the traditional view of scientific rationality. Despite all the
knowledge at our disposal on the role of intellectuals in shaping the nation, however,
there is still good reason to believe that the prescription that quality
research should mean a dispassionate attitude towards the object of enquiry does
in fact also apply to the study of nations and secession.
The following volume purports to analyse, on a comparative basis, the complex
relations between scientific knowledge and political action in secessionist
processes. This analysis is not confined to the intellectual passions aroused by the
national question, nor to the specific meaning that objectivity may have in studies on the nation. It compares the multiple relations that exist between the political
discourses to be found in particular countries among movements for and
against secession with discourses in history and the social sciences. Secessionist
crises, in which opposing concepts of nation-building and divergent interpretations
of society and history clash with one another, reveal the significance of the
idea of a nation for intellectuals. In addition, they show the importance scholars
attach to ideals such as objectivity, truthfulness and moral responsibility. From
these various perspectives, the contributions to this volume analyse the intellectual
responses given to the question of secession in different national contexts.
The introduction outlines the key questions on which this volume will focus.
The first field of enquiry concerns the relation between scholars and political
practitioners. The institutional setting in which scientific research is carried out
may either force researchers to depend on the state or favour their autonomy.
Dependence may lead to an instrumental relationship between the political
objectives of the state and academic activities. Alternatively, scholars may play an
important political role through their contribution to the construction of oppositional
identities. Both of these types of involvement may be decisive for the
development of secessionist movements and for the outcome of secessionist
crises. The second field of enquiry concerns the respective contributions of various
scientific disciplines to debates on secession: scientific knowledge may highlight
identities rooted in the past, support present grievances or develop blueprints
for the future. The third question has to do with the criteria of scientific
objectivity and truthfulness as used in discourses for, against and on secession.
The way in which historians and social scientists deal with the 'myth-making'
aspect - characteristic of nation-building processes - is highly relevant in this
Half of the case-studies in this volume concern processes of secession in former
communist countries. Four of them are located in the former Soviet Union.
Ivan Myhul presents a broad historical overview of the contribution made by
Ukrainian intellectuals in producing social knowledge about their nation, and
discusses the position of the social sciences in Ukraine during the tsarist and
Soviet regimes and after independence. Moshe Gammer studies the role of
Chechen historiography in re-moulding the Chechen national identity, and
analyses how their historical narratives are related to the present struggle for
independence. Alexei Zverev gives an overview of the role of Tatar intellectuals in
the three periods of the Tatar national revival in the last century, and discusses
the shifting attitudes of Tatar intellectuals towards Tatarstan's place in Russia.
Bruno Coppieters discusses the role of intellectuals in exacerbating the conflict
between the Georgian and Abkhaz communities, which led to the 1992-93 war
and to the secession of Abkhazia from Georgia. In his analysis of the disintegration
of the Yugoslav scientific community, Robert Stallaerts connects the emergence of nationalism among intellectuals with the institutional context of scientific
research in Yugoslavia, especially its organization at the level of the
The cases from outside the former communist bloc exemplify the wide variety
of secessionist processes, and their context-bound political and intellectual
agendas. Ronald Rudin parallels the emergence of the Parti Québécois and its
struggle for the sovereignty of Quebec with the evolution of history-writing in
Quebec. Louis Vos describes how the construction of a Belgian national identity
through historiography has been challenged by the emergence of Flemish
nationalism and its alternative interpretations of the past. Michel Huysseune
describes how the creation of an 'imagined Padanian community' by the secessionist
movement Lega Nord can be related to interpretations of the Italian
North-South divide by historians and social scientists. In her analysis of the Taiwan
independence movement, Xiaokun Song discusses the place of history,
international law and the social sciences in its intellectual discourse. She retraces
the role of intellectuals in creating a new national identity for Taiwan, and analyses
the shifting meanings ascribed to that identity. Raphael Njoku describes how
public debates in Nigeria remain marked by the trauma of the Biafran civil war.
He highlights how, in the context of a central state as yet lacking full legitimacy,
Nigerian intellectuals are deeply concerned to find peaceful alternatives to secessionist
threats. Finally, the conclusion by the editors outlines, from a comparative
perspective, how the cases presented in the book offer answers to the three
research questions raised in the introduction.
The contributions to this volume were first discussed at a conference which
took place in Brussels on 27 and 28 November 1998. The conference was organized
by the Department of Political Science of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in
co-operation with the Institute for European Policy of the Katholieke Universiteit
Leuven. We would like to thank the Flemish Community, which has given
financial support for a research programme on secession, history and the social
sciences. The publication of this book is one of the results of this project. Additional
financial resources have been provided by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Our personal gratitude also goes to Frank Delmartino from the Katholieke
Universiteit Leuven, who co-organized the Brussels conference, and to Veronica
Kelly for her meticulous language correction of the texts. Finally, we would like
to thank Kris van Scharen of VUB Brussels University Press and the two anonymous
readers who looked upon our volume with favour.
Secession, History and the Social Sciences
Edited by Bruno Coppieters and Michel Huysseune
VUB Brussels University Press, 2002
Book Reference :
ISBN 90 5487 312 4
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