War of Words: New MAPA Module Illuminates Language Practices in Ukraine

November 17, 2017
War of Words: New MAPA Module Illuminates Language Practices in Ukraine

The “language issue” has deep historical roots in Ukraine, from suppression of Ukrainian during the Russian empire to Soviet policy and beyond. That tumultuous past is explored in depth in The Battle for Ukrainian (as we celebrated during our recent book launch). However, the issue remains topical in contemporary Ukraine, with a fresh urgency imbued by the Revolution of Dignity and ongoing war.

MAPA language

“Language is a key issue in today’s politics in Ukraine and the region,” said Serhii Plokhii, HURI MAPA Project Faculty Director. “The proposed change of language legislation was used as a pretext for the Russian annexation of Crimea, and language politics were key in the Kremlin’s attempt to create Novorossiya (New Russia) in Southern Ukraine. Today, the language component of the education law is the most controversial and broadly discussed part of that legislation.”

As a component of identity, language has been instrumentalized by politicians and activists, who are well aware of its place at the center of nation- and state-building processes. The annexation of Crimea and conflict in the east have forced Ukrainians to reconsider how Russian-speaking Ukrainians fit into the equation, while Russia’s use of language as a pretext for its aggression in Ukraine has caused some Ukrainians to avoid using Russian or challenge the coexistence of the two languages.

With these shifts, the need to reevaluate Ukraine’s language practices and preferences along regional lines intensifies. As MAPA Research Fellow Viktoriya Sereda explained in her work on historical memory and identity in Ukraine, dividing Ukraine into East and West or four-to-five macro-regions (which has been necessary in academic work due to sample constraints) can lead to misunderstandings, stereotypes, and overly simplistic explanations.

To reconceptualize regions in Ukraine and to support a more nuanced analysis of Ukraine’s sociological profile, researchers at the University of St. Gallen’s “Region, Nation, and Beyond: An Interdisciplinary and Transcultural Reconsideration of Ukraine” project carried out more surveys on the oblast level. Data in hand, scholars like Sereda then had to wrangle with long tables of data to uncover patterns. To facilitate this analysis and to develop presentational aids, Sereda teamed up with HURI’s MAPA team. “We decided to look at the ways in which the Maidan and the Russo-Ukrainian War had influenced the language preferences of Ukrainians, as well as create an instrument for further research on that topic,” Plokhii said in regard to the Harvard-St. Galen cooperation. With this instrument, scholars and other users can explore the language issue and broader questions in Ukraine at a much more sophisticated level.

MAPA language map

“When one analyzes existing literature looking for criteria that explain the regional divisions in Ukraine, one is constantly confronted with arguments addressing differences in language preferences and practices, together with attitudes toward the past. As a powerful explanatory and analytical tool, MAPA allowed me to place sociological data on a digital map of Ukraine, and in this way to visualize regional divisions at the level of smaller administrative units (at the oblast level),” Sereda explained. “By drawing more nuanced maps, it helped to challenge simplifying, discursive divisions of Ukrainian society along macro-regional lines and uncover tendencies that are more complicated.”

HURI’s “Language” module is the latest component of its Contemporary Atlas within the MAPA program. The “module” is a structured set of map layers that present respondents’ self-described language practices and identities by oblast. By enabling a layer or several layers, users make the data appear in map form, which they can then use to see variances at a glance, compare with layers representing different variables, and explore more deeply with analytical tools and details in pop-up windows. Seeing the information presented visually can help users arrive at insights and may even inspire additional questions to explore.

A Closer Look at MAPA’s Language Module

Layer list languageThe MAPA program is made up of two atlases: the Historical Atlas and the Contemporary Atlas. Within the Contemporary Atlas, the Revolution of Dignity project addresses changes in Ukrainian society in the wake of the Euromaidan. Previously, HURI launched the “History and Identity” module within this project. The “Language” module is now also available in the same Revolution of Dignity web map, which also includes statistical data on demographics and more.

What exactly is a module? Put simply, it’s a thematic grouping of map layers. Each layer presents one set of data, such as survey results for the language spoken at home.

“There are hundreds of individual layers in each module and it makes it much easier for users to have them grouped thematically. Each module is technically a large group layer, which contains smaller groups of layers,” Kostyantyn Bondarenko, MAPA Project Manager, explained.

The “Language” module includes both color layers and chart layers. The color layers represent the data by shading in the oblast on the map. The chart layers place bar graphs over the corresponding oblast.

Because the “Language” layers are available in the same web map as the “History and Identity” module and Statistics layers, users can compare and analyze endless combinations of variables.

“There are over a hundred layers in the ‘Language’ module which can be combined with over a hundred more layers from the ‘History and Identity’ module,” Bondarenko said. “In addition, there are eight more layer groups with statistical information containing between twenty and fifty layers each. All in all, a user can create hundreds of overlaid map combinations.”

Mining the Maps

Although a lot of work already went into processing the data to create the layers, the launch of the module is really just the beginning. “This project is designed to be a research tool,” Bondarenko emphasized. “We’d like people to use our maps interactively, to approach the whole project as something they can adapt to their needs. We have conducted analyses based on the maps, but we would like to see other scholars do their own analyses and research using the maps and tools we provide.”

LaunchAs far as HURI’s analyses go, Sereda has been finalizing her analysis of the language situation in Ukraine, which she presented at “Breaking the Tongue: Mapping Language in Wartime Ukraine,” and will continue to present around the world, as she has done with the “History and Identity” module. She is now using MAPA as a fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies (Wissenschatskollge zu Berlin) for a book and several shorter articles. “I intensively use MAPA project maps as important exploratory and analytical tools that allow me to visualize sociological data,” she said. “I also use those maps in all my conference or seminar presentations. I cannot imagine how I could talk about the current social processes in Ukraine without illustrating arguments with maps.”

In examining maps from the “Language” module, Plokhii noticed a “surprising decline in the self-reported use of Ukrainian in the largest Ukrainian cities from Kharkiv to Odesa, to Kyiv, after the end of the most acute stage of the war” – an observation which “poses new questions and demands further research.” Plokhii previously wrote an analysis of the “History and Identity” module, specifically the Leninfall phenomenon. These insights, while valuable in their own right, also serve as examples of what other scholars can do with MAPA.

To support ongoing research, MAPA offers more than just maps. The program includes tools (also called widgets) that provide many useful functions, such as searching, filtering, charting, analyzing, and sharing. “The widgets make working with the layers that we have created for users an interactive process. By using the widgets, users can create their own maps and charts, and perform searches, queries, and analysis on the data,” Bondarenko said.

"Researchers are interested in the explanatory potential of the visualized data,” Sereda noted after holding workshops in Europe. “I meet people who are already familiar with MAPA modules and use them in their research or teaching, but for many people it’s important to be present at a workshop where I explain the project’s internal structure and demonstrate how the interactive modules work.”

For researchers looking to get started with MAPA, watching a demonstration or tutorial video will provide an introduction to navigating and using the webmaps. Previous MAPA presentations can be found here, as well as on YouTube. The presentation, “Breaking the Tongue,” will also be available on YouTube.

What’s Next for MAPA?

religion maidanThe MAPA team is already in the process of obtaining and analyzing survey data collected in 2017, which will be added to the “Language” module. In addition, they’ll continue to expand the web map’s topics: “When it comes to the Contemporary Ukraine modules, we want to examine the ways in which the Euromaidan and the war changed the religious map of Ukraine,” Plokhii said. Sereda also identified “public activism” as a possible future module.

For now, MAPA already provides an unparalleled tool for analyzing Ukraine along the lines of some of the most pressing topics facing the country today. As Plokhii said, “You can’t understand contemporary Ukraine without looking at our maps.”

Watch a presentation of the "Language" module here.