How I got to study some of things I study, and personal reasons that partly explain why I studied them the way I did

My PhD thesis – What is the effect of non-recognition? The external relations of de facto states in the post-Soviet space – is freely available for download on Dublin City University’s institutional website.

This is a brief excerpt from the thesis. For more details about my research, see also the post “ Non-recognition is the symptom, not the cause".

The object of research, as well as the methodological approach used to study it, are often determined by personal experience. Indeed, this study is the result of long-held interest towards these territories, that at least in part may stem from my own origins in Trentino-Alto Adige/South Tyrol, a pacific and relatively wealthy border region with a contested past that is now part of Italy. Dominant local narratives depict Trentino-Alto Adige/South Tyrol as a clear success story: extensive autonomy agreements are credited with having prevented conflict and limited tensions among various ethno-linguistic groups of residents. A treaty-based autonomy agreement that gives highly formalised rights and guarantees to different ethno-linguistic groups has been the received wisdom and commonsensical solution to potential ethno-territorial conflicts I inherited from my early education. As a young student, the fact that autonomy did not always work and in some instances may have even been a factor leading to conflict was in itself puzzling. Even the view I had from my childhood’s home in the southern Alps mattered: as I started reading about war and ethnic cleansing in post-Soviet mountain territories, accustomed to see a valley scattered with villages from a privileged mountainside position, I could visually picture too well the human suffering related to these conflicts and the pain of being forced to leave one’s family’s ancestral home.

I started studying Russian by chance in high school in the late 1990s, and since year 2000 I regularly visited for lengthy periods Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. As a graduate student based at RGGU in Moscow in 2005, I wrote (in Russian) for a course on conflict studies my first paper on the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict: while not technically “pre-internet”, that paper was largely based on materials I found in the local library. It was not until 2009 that I first visited Transnistria, and until 2010 when I first visited Abkhazia. As a researcher and editor at Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, when visiting the region, I was combining research with journalism. For example, while working on a book chapter eventually published in 2013 under the title “ Sovereignty Conflicts and Minority Protection: the Case of Abkhazia", I also produced lengthy feature stories and published edited interviews with key respondents. At the time, my approach to research was largely based on fieldwork and left little room for theorising: a research project on youth policies in Russia and the northern Caucasus I was conducting at the time resulted in an article published by Anthropology of East Europe Review that was based almost exclusively on ethnographic observations and featured pictures from my visits to pro-government youth camps in Russia’s northern Caucasus. Another journal rejected a previous version of the same article exactly because it was too much focused on direct observation, and did not include a substantive theoretical section.

Work on the present study, which I started in 2013, has been heavily influenced by previous experience. On the one hand, I wished to continue and expand my research on post-Soviet de facto states. On the other, I desired to take it as a chance for marking a change with the way I previously did research: a four-year research project would have given me the chance to spend more time reading, theorising, and reflecting more on methodological aspects. As I moved to Ireland to start my studies at Dublin City University, I became increasingly aware of different epistemological and methodological debates, as well as the high importance given to issues such as replicability in important parts of the scholarly community that surrounded me.

This experience strengthened my desire to develop this research in a way that would be a clear break from my previous research, and would make it acceptable, or at least defensible, in front of scholars coming from different academic traditions. As a consequence, I aimed at developing a research with a substantive and ambitious theoretical component, and where fieldwork and evidence gathered through unstructured interviews would be complemented by other fully formalised and replicable data collection methods. Last but not least, my becoming a parent in the early stages of this research endeavour pushed me to reduce the time I initially envisioned for lengthy periods of fieldwork, further reinforcing the feeling that I should give more prominence to theory and fully formalised and replicable data collection methods.

The information I gathered during fieldwork for this project, as well as during my previous visits to these territories, has been fundamental in developing my overall thinking on these places, in shaping the research design, as well as in providing insights on specific aspects to an extent that likely does not fully emerge from the following chapters. This is partly because whenever an information I obtained through interviews was equally available in an online source, I consciously chose to refer to the online source rather than my personal interview, in line with the principle of replicability as well as out of ethical considerations (as will be discussed, even representatives of major international organisations find themselves in a relatively fragile situation in the context of post-Soviet de facto states).

My PhD thesis – What is the effect of non-recognition? The external relations of de facto states in the post-Soviet space – is freely available for download on Dublin City University’s institutional website.

Giorgio Comai
Researcher, data analyst