Reflections on Fieldwork in Catalonia

Joe Horsnell
Thursday 22 August 2019

Girona town square offers a flavour of the atmosphere within the pro-independence camp in Catalonia – defiance and protest. Sun-faded images of Catalan politicians who are imprisoned or on trial adorned apartment balconies and placards reading ‘Llibertat Presos Politicos’ (liberate the political prisoners) were everywhere. The small square in front of the city hall was awash with Catalan flags, protest placards and yellow ribbons, tied to every balcony, printed on every bollard and graffitied onto the sides of buildings. The town hall itself had a huge sign which read, in English, ‘Self-determination is a right, not a crime’. This is indeed how many pro-independence Catalans feel about their sorry political situation – they believe they have not been allowed to decide their own futures.

Spanish flag, attacked (Barcelona)

After landing in Barcelona, I hopped on the metro and immediately noticed a key difference to a trip last summer to Spain – Spanish was not the primary language. All of the warning signs, directions and public information came first in Catalan, second in Spanish and lastly in English. Of course, English is spoken as the global language of commerce, diplomacy and tourism, and Spanish is the official language of twenty countries across the world; but Catalan belongs to the Catalan people. A pro-independence activist and supporter of the revolutionary-socialist CUP party remarked to me that ‘our language, it is a weapon’. The sense of ownership in suggesting a language to be ‘ours’ is striking and is central to the concept of Catalan-ness. Even more striking is the way this language is often framed by Catalans – it is a symbol of their historic resistance to General Franco, the Spanish dictator from 1939 until 1975. It helps to bind Catalans together as a nation and plays a huge role in their modern-day politics.

Official symbols such as street signs are defaced (Barcelona)

My research trip to Catalonia took place over the first two weeks of June this summer and involved making stops in the four major Catalan cities and every province. Starting off in a less-touristic neighbourhood in Barcelona, I travelled north to the heavily pro-independence province of Girona. Next, I visited the more industrial region of Lleida in the west and a city less in favour of independence in the south called Tarragona, before returning to Barcelona. I spoke with pro-independence activists and local politicians, some neutral local people who tended to support the right to a referendum but were unsure which way they might vote, and journalists who have covered the Catalan political rollercoaster over the last few years.

Yellow ribbons, Catalan flags and images of jailed leaders (Girona)

My visit to Catalonia has completely changed my conception their political situation. From a neutral researcher’s point of view, it is a beautifully complicated situation which mixes history, identity, emotion, economics, infrastructure, language and political science. Many Catalans believe the situation to be very simple – it is Catalonia’s destiny to be an independent country. A significant proportion of the population are ‘reluctant remainers’ who see the impracticalities of independence but seem like they could be convinced. A smaller, but still important, group are fundamentally opposed to breaking away from Spain and see the separatist movement as a political manoeuvre by Catalan political parties. The complexifying factor is that within each of these three groups are a multiplicity of factions, viewpoints and priorities.

My research will attempt to draw together these varying discourses, using a poststructuralist approach, to help better explain, understand and resolve the deadlock and polarisation in Catalan political discourse. This will not be particularly easy for a variety of reasons, but my research trip to Catalonia has challenged my preconceptions of independence movements, activists and the importance of finding answers to the questions posed by separatism. Whether that answer is ‘independence’ will vary from situation to situation. My experience in Catalonia was invaluable and I hope to produce interesting and useful research as a result.

I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr Jeffrey Murer, for his support and advice throughout my project so far and the Laidlaw Scholarship team in St Andrews for this fantastic opportunity.

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