David is a second year student in our Global Studies MA program.
During the summer of 2021, I engaged in ethnographic research for my Capstone project preemptively titled “Formation of a Nation: Ramifications of Political and National Identity Formation in Abkhazia”. The purpose of this research was to gauge public opinion among a small sample size of the Georgian and Abkhaz populations respectively regarding the issue of national and political identity in the region of Abkhazia. The research consisted of ethnographic interviews with twelve individuals, varying widely in age and background, some of whom I have worked professionally with, others of whom I got in contact with via my networks within Georgia. All the interviews were conducted via Zoom, most of them in the Georgian language, and some in English (for Abkhazian participants who were not conversant in Georgian), and all recorded for future reference. While the original intent of the project was to conduct the research within the Republic of Georgia and border regions with Abkhazia, the COVID pandemic interfered with and made field research impractical for the duration of the summer of 2021. Thus, this was a fully virtual research process, which inevitably created constraints on who could be interviewed contingent on internet connection and accessibility to technology among the populations in question, which would not have been a factor had I been able to conduct interviews in the field.
The interview process itself was overwhelmingly a positive experience. I have conducted ethnographic interviews before the summer of 2021, so this was by no means a new experience for me; however, the online component was a novel part of the process. The results of the interviews were in some respects expected, but in other respects were surprising relative to what I was expecting from my interviewees. For
example, Georgian political discourse in the 30 years has consistently framed the Abkhazian issue as one of ‘Separatism’ and ‘Occupation’ on the part of Russia and has remained steadfast in use of such dialogue, as well as persistent in ensuring the international community also adopt the same position. Therefore, it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of my participants echoed this rhetoric in conversations regarding the status of Abkhazian de-facto independence regardless of age or other demographic factors. Some even went so far as to say such a notion was ‘absurd’ and even ‘comical’.
However, perhaps most surprising for me was the nuance with which the question of political and national identity was approached. Georgian political discourse regarding the issue of Abkhazia has what one of my participants dubbed an ‘ethnocentric reductionist’ approach by which the issue is oversimplified and reduced to a conflict between two ethnic categories – Georgians and Abkhazians- whereas in reality, the issue is much more complex and encompasses subgroups within overarching ethnic, political, and linguistic communities. As I learned, even the term Abkhaz or Abkhazian represents varying connotations depending on who uses the term. Moreover, the majority of my Georgian participants were aware that linguistic and ethnic differences (regardless of the processes that brought them to fruition) existed among Georgians and Abkhazians. However, most stated that such differences alone were not enough to constitute independence or ‘nationhood’ for the Abkhaz. This was because the Georgian participants acknowledged that multinational states can and do exist, and that national or ethnic homogeneity was not a priority for them personally, nor for Georgia as a political entity in their opinions. This observance is notable because it
displayed to me a more nuanced and sensitive approach to the issue than political discourse from either Georgia, Russia, or Abkhazia otherwise conveys.
Therefore, while not a comprehensive study of opinions on the topic, ethnographic summer research into Abkhazia provided me the opportunity to delve deeper into an understudied area within academia, as well as the chance to combine research approaches. For my Capstone project, I intend to combine the ethnographic data acquired in this summer’s research with secondary political, economic, and historical texts, as well as actual opinion surveys conducted on the topic of national and political identity. Thus, this summer allowed me to add an additional layer of depth to my research topic, which I believe to be germane to this frozen conflict