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An academic journey through solidarity and separatism

Doctoral student Elissa Berwick listens closely to the calls for independence rising from regions around the world.
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Elissa Berwick, PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science
Elissa Berwick, PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science
Photo courtesy of the Department of Political Science.

Political science doctoral candidate Elissa Berwick started her academic journey aiming for the stars.

During her undergraduate years at Yale University, she majored in physics, spending summers working the telescope at observatories like Chile's Cerro Tololo. But while she appreciated "the challenge and the beauty of physics," she says, "ultimately the research didn't click." In senior year, after taking courses in history and political science which she found to be "a pure joy," she added a political science major.

Today Berwick is fully focused on earthbound concerns, with a dissertation subject so topical that it is unfolding in real-time. She is investigating European pro-independence movements, and specifically the formation of subnational identities — the ways people within states coalesce around a common language, culture, and shared beliefs. 

"I'm trying to understand why people in places like Scotland and the Catalan, Galician, and Basque regions of Spain sometimes feel stronger connections to each other than to fellow citizens in the larger state," Berwick says. "I want to determine the costs and consequences of having a stronger subnational identity, and then to compare the different regional narratives of independence to each other," she says.

It is a hefty research agenda that entails mining historical records, performing surveys and field interviews, and employing state-of-the-art quantitative methods. Berwick would like eventually to expand her focus to northern Italy, and Flanders — regions in which identity politics is currently roiling the civic scene.

As part of her dissertation research, Berwick analyzed responses to a 2,300-person survey conducted throughout Spain. The questionnaire queried citizens on their mother tongue, religion, political party, and political leanings, such as support for the budgetary austerity imposed by Spain after the financial crisis of 2008, whether the central government should do a better job of redistributing wealth, and if the country should permit autonomous regions greater independence.

Using a software program she helped write with MIT Associate Professor Teppei Yamamoto, director of MIT's Political Methodology Lab, Berwick revealed a cluster of provocative findings. "Identity boundaries matter when it comes to people's beliefs in income redistribution," she says. "Catalans and to some extent Basques like the idea of more redistribution within their regions, applied just to their own people, but are very opposed to policies that would share resources, including those of their own region, more equitably throughout Spain.

Berwick's surveys and interviews suggest the reason for this paradoxical perspective on achieving economic equity: "After the financial crisis, there was a collapse of confidence in political and economic institutions in Spain," she says. "There was a shift in discourse, a corresponding crash in trust, which was felt most sharply among Catalans and to a smaller extent among Basques."

The sense that a central government was failing them fueled activists in regions seeking independence. "For nationalists building coalitions, the cultural dimension of shared language and history was not enough," says Berwick. "They needed to build an economic message."

The financial crisis helped to market the subnationalist movements, suggests Berwick.

"When speaking with prominent activists, I realized that for them identity and even independence were secondary to the central goal, which is taking care of their own people — an ethos of obligation to fellow Catalans or Basques," Berwick says. "I had not expected that."

This surprise, which challenged Berwick's thinking, is "typical of the pleasures and frustrations of my research," she says. "People don't fit into the narrative and you have to think on your feet and come up with a new one."

It is the kind of improvisation she has come to expect throughout her academic journey. After Yale and a year working in the U.S. House of Representatives, she pursued a master's degree at Oxford University. Berwick did not have to seek far for a research topic: At Yale, she had been engaged by the violent conflict in Sudan around Darfur's drive for independence.

"I was already thinking about why and where nationalist discourses come from and how they change over time," she says. With Oxford's wealth of archival resources at hand, Berwick began exploring episodes of early 20th century nationalism: Ireland, India, and Egypt, all revolting against British control. "I sorted through historical material and managed to find hidden connections among these disparate cases," she says.

She came to MIT in search of a doctoral education where she could continue this kind of research while receiving rigorous training in quantitative methods. "Taking the quant sequence here, I remembered I really liked math," she says. Berwick enjoyed these classes so much that she served in one she had just completed as a teaching assistant. "Teaching is a great antidote to my research routine," she notes, "along with yoga classes and reading science fiction."

With the help of advisors Fotini Christia and Kathleen Thelen, Berwick shaped her final dissertation project. "Their mentorship has been so important to me, and without them I would never have been able to frame my research agenda," she says.

Before earning her degree in June 2019, Berwick must return to Europe several more times for interviews, archival research and surveying. It has not become easier for her. "No one tells you how lonely field work is, if you're doing it on your own for a year," she says. But solitude can lead to unexpected rewards.

"I didn't know anyone in Barcelona, so I googled a synagogue for high holy days," Berwick recalls. The service was presented in five languages at once — Catalan, Hebrew, Castilian Spanish, English, and French. "I introduced myself to the woman next to me, and I discovered she had started a chapter of Jews for Catalan Independence," Berwick says. "It was a weird but funny intersection of my seeking community and finding something really useful for my research."

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