Divided by sovereignty claims – territorial identity and societal polarisation

Laia Balcells, Lesley-Ann Daniels, and Alexander Kuo highlight the role of contentious territorial issues in shaping societal divisions. They study three European regions — Scotland, Catalonia, and Northern Ireland — that have salient territorial claims but very different histories. All three, however, exhibit striking similarities in levels of social polarisation

Polarisation everywhere all at once

Polarisation affects the functioning of democracy because it makes it harder for political parties work together. It also spills over into the social realm, as individuals take an increasing dislike to others based on their political views and loyalties. A similar phenomenon can take place when a territory faces disputing sovereignty claims, and people adopt a social identity around these claims.

Lands where territory is a hot-button issue

Our research examines three European regions currently grappling with complex and salient territorial claims: Scotland, Catalonia, and Northern Ireland. These cases all have long-standing and evolving territorial disputes and conflicts, with varying outcomes.

Scotland is a case that shows a consensual process. For many years, a minority had been demanding independence. Finally, the UK government agreed to a referendum, held in 2014. The result was close, but the people of Scotland rejected independence.

In the 2000s, a substantial share of Catalonia's adult population were calling for secession. In this case, however, Spain was opposed to constitutional reform or a referendum, so Catalonia is a non-consensual case. The Catalan authorities went ahead with a unilateral independence referendum in 2017, with harsh repercussions from the state, which declared the referendum illegal. Some of those who protested against the government crackdown were jailed, while others fled the country.

Northern Ireland has a history of deadly clashes over its status as part of either the United Kingdom or Ireland. Unlike the other two in our study, it is a violent case. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement brought the conflict to an end. This peace agreement itself includes a future option for a change-of-status referendum.

Territorial views as an identity

Territorial preferences can give rise to a group identity akin to that of other commonly-theorised ethnic or nationalist identities. Citizens form strong emotional attachments to specific policy preferences related to territorial integrity. They consider that these attachments contribute to their definition of who they are. These identities, which shape how people see the world and others, can create rifts between those who support certain territorial claims and those who do not. All this contributes to increased societal polarisation.

Territorial views shape how people see the world and others. Thus, they can create rifts between those who support certain territorial claims and those who do not

From territorial identity to polarisation

Contentious issues related to territorial integrity can divide societies. With evidence from concurrent surveys in our three cases, we show that they all exhibit social polarisation based on territorial identities.

In particular, people form stereotypes about others based on their territorial preferences. They are more likely to hold positive stereotypes about individuals who share their territorial beliefs and negative stereotypes about those who hold opposing views. However, individuals with moderate or neutral territorial views tend to stereotype others less.

Interestingly, the most robust responses stem from assessments of pro-independence individuals, irrespective of whether the feedback comes from supporters or opponents of independence. Advocates for independence tend to receive more positive evaluations from fellow supporters. They also attract more negative assessments from those who oppose independence.

Advocating for significant territorial changes tends to elicit stronger emotional responses from both supporters and opponents of such changes

We attribute this heightened intensity of reactions to their challenge to the existing territorial status quo. Essentially, advocating for significant territorial changes tends to elicit stronger emotional responses from both supporters and opponents of such changes. This pattern holds true across all three cases; Catalan and Scottish pro-independence proponents evoke particularly strong reactions, as do advocates of unification in Northern Ireland. In contrast, those in favour of maintaining the status quo do not elicit comparable responses or, if they do, to a lesser extent.

Understanding the dynamics of these heightened reactions is crucial for policymakers and analysts seeking to navigate the complexities of territorial disputes, and to manage the social and political implications that arise from movements advocating significant changes in territorial arrangements.

Violence is not the explanation

What is more, the levels of polarisation in our three cases are strikingly similar, despite the very different conflict trajectories. It might seem intuitive that violence is more likely to crystallise polarised identities. Yet our findings indicate that non-violent mobilisation (for changes in status quo) and counter-mobilisation (by supporters of the status quo) can also contribute to the formation or endurance of social identities, and to polarising dynamics. In all cases, these trajectories can make a compromise solution harder to find.

Polarisation beyond partisanship

We are living through times in which divisive issues are on the rise. In such an era, our research offers valuable insights into the complex dynamics of political division. In particular, we reveal the depth of affective polarisation around issues of self-determination and sovereignty. However the territorial situation is channelled, people are likely to align their identity with one side or the other, which might make it difficult for groups with different territorial preferences to coexist peacefully.

Polarisation over territorial differences can result in deep societal divisions

In territories grappling with contentious sovereignty claims, understanding the emotional implications of territorial disputes is crucial for fostering constructive dialogue and working towards harmonious coexistence.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Laia Balcells Laia Balcells Professor, Department of Government, Georgetown University More by this author
photograph of Lesley-Ann Daniels Lesley-Ann Daniels Marie Skłodowska Curie Fellow, University of Oslo More by this author
photograph of Alexander Kuo Alexander Kuo Associate Professor, Department of Politics and International Relations / Tutorial Fellow, Christ Church, University of Oxford More by this author

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