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Resumé af Ditte Skårhøj og Joshua Vatit Mairs speciale

Specialetitel: Road to independence - A study of the independence ideas in Greenland from 2009-2020.

Motivation for the thesis

It is like waking up to a country covered in newly fallen snow, where we are to take the first steps in which our ancestors will follow“ (The prime minister of Greenland Kuupik Kleist at the ceremony for the introduction of self-rule in 2009 [translated to English]).

The introduction of self-rule in Greenland was a remarkable and celebratory occasion. Self-rule redefined Greenland’s relationship in the Danish Realm and cemented that if Greenland one day wishes to be independent it is solely up to the Greenlandic people to decide, which has led to an increasing call for independence in recent years. This call has not gone unnoticed in academia, but the focus has rarely been on the internal processes and what is perceived to be a road to independence, which is a blind spot worth illuminating. There are two main reasons why this blind spot is worth illuminating. First it is relevant to understand how Greenland, is still influenced by postcolonial factors and tries to define itself and reach independence as a nation because this serves as an example for many places in the world where the relationship between colonized and colonizer is still strained. Secondly the internal debate about independence has great significance for Greenlandic society and the people living in Greenland today as well as in the future because independence processes naturally have a huge impact on a society and its citizens.

The purpose of this study is therefore to remedy these shortcomings and to give an initial understanding of how different ideas about independence have proliferated and gained influence in Greenlandic society.

Using the motivation above as a setting off point the thesis asked the following research question: How have ideas about independence spread and gained influence in Greenland since the introduction of self-rule in 2009?

In order to examine the internal independence process since the introduction of self-rule in 2009 we knew we needed a clear and established theoretical approach. We therefore turned to ideational theory. The reason why we chose to use ideational theory is that it can contribute with an explanation on how change occurs in societies (Marcussen 2000: 2).

The ideational framework used in the thesis was the one developed by Martin Marcussen in the book Ideas and Elites: The Social Construction of Economic and Monetary Union that describes the life cycle of ideas and the power of ideas. Using this framework combined with a mixed method approach we analyzed our case which is the independence debate in the Greenlandic political elite from 01/01/2009 - 31/12/2020. The method and theory will be elaborated in the following section. Thereafter, we will present the main findings and lastly based on these findings we will give a perspective on what this could entail for the Danish Realm between Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark.

Theoretical approach

We chose Martin Marcussen’s ideational framework because it was our goal to study both how independence ideas spread in Greenland and how they gained influence, and his framework about the lifecycle of ideas and the power of ideas is well suited for this.

The crux for understanding Marcussen’s framework is its social constructivist background. This background stipulates that ideas are socially constructed between actors and furthermore that actors due to a desire for cognitive relief will seek consensus concerning an idea.

 The figure above shows the different phases in the ideational life cycle
The figure above shows the different phases in the ideational life cycle


Consensus is the first of five phases in the ideational life cycle. The phase is both the beginning and the end of the ideational lifecycle. The phase is defined by an idea reaching consensus in a group. When an idea is in this phase the idea correlates with Marcussens definition of an idea which is:

A prevalent and relatively uncontested socially constructed understanding of a cause-and-effect relationship that creates cognitive consistency within a group (also called a causal idea).

Actors will seek to establish such an understanding because it brings cognitive relief, but this does not entail that ideas are stable indefinitely. When an idea has reached consensus, it can be challenged by a break or rather a perceived break.

A break is the second phase in the life cycle. In this phase the established causal idea is seen as being unable to solve the perceived break, forcing actors to break with the causal idea that no longer offers cognitive relief.

Following a break, a state of ideational vacuum follows. In this phase actors experience a state of cognitive disorder, due to a lack of a causal idea to solve the perceived break. The result of this phase is the creation of a window of opportunity.

The fourth phase is the new ideas phase. In this phase actors can exploit the window of opportunity and present ideational solutions that would not have gained traction in the former consensus but can now, due to the lack of ideational solutions.

In the fifth and last phase negotiation and institutionalization the group first negotiates and chooses between the available causal ideas. When an idea has been chosen, the group will seek to institutionalize the idea. When an idea is institutionalized, it will begin to gain power over actors by creating in- and out-groups, by narrowing appropriate behavior and by creating a common language between actors. As an idea is increasingly institutionalized it will eventually reach consensus.

Methodological approach

Although the framework and the ideational field is able to give a precise theoretical understanding of ideas the field has yet to establish the best methodological approach to studying ideas. Within the field a deep qualitative approach has often been applied. The advantage of this is that it enables a deep analysis of an idea(s) in a short time period. The disadvantage of this is that it does not allow for the effective study of ideas over time. We believed that the study of ideas over time was central for understanding the life cycle of ideas and to answering our research question. To remedy this, we therefore choose a mixed- methods approach combining quantitative and qualitative methods in order to gain both breadth and depth in the study of the independence ideas.

The quantitative analysis was designed to give breadth. Concretely this was done by coding all articles from the Greenlandic media KNR that dealt with independence in the time period, amassing to 552 articles. The thought was that by coding these articles we could both track the ideas as they developed and discover which events were necessary to study more in depth qualitatively.

The qualitative analysis was designed to give depth and served as the main analysis of the ideas. Concretely this was done by analyzing debates from Inatsisartut, political coalition agreements, official speeches and relevant articles uncovered via. the quantitative approach.

Analysis,results and the main findings

The results from our analysis show that the ideas about the road to independence spread in accordance with the presented theoretical phases. We found that the 2009 introduction of self-rule was perceived as a break with the former consensus that independence relied on Danish acceptance. This break with the existing causal idea led to a ideational vacuum from 2010-2013 with an increasing demand for ideas that could lead to independence. Due to this there was a proliferation of ideas about how independence could be reached from 2013-2016. The ideas about how independence could be reached travelled especially through three main ideas: 1) economic independence as the road to independence, 2) state building as the road to independence, 3) nation building as the road to independence. The figure below is based on the quantitative coding of articles and visualizes the development of the three main ideas throughout the period.


Figur 2 -  Ditte Skårhøj og Joshua Vatit Mairs speciale

Common for the three main ideas is that they all have underlying ideas that specify how each of the main ideas could offer a road to independence. To fulfill the idea of economic independence three underlying ideas emerged: 1) economic independence through the extraction of natural resources and reforms, 2) economic cooperation with Denmark, 3) counter pressure against Denmark. The main idea about state building was specified through two underlying ideas: 1) free association and 2) repatriation of responsibilities. The main idea about nation building also had two underlying ideas: 1) identity as a counterpart to Danish influence and 2) the creation of an entrepreneurial identity.

The negotiation and institutionalization of the different ideas especially took place between 2016- 2018. The reason for this is the political climate that the formation of the political coalition between Siumut, IA and Partii Naleraq created. Their highest political objective at the time was a rapid independence process. Despite the political wish to find a common road towards independence the political elite did not succeed in balancing the different preferences inherent in the three main ideas and thereby reaching an ideational consensus. Due to this dissonance and lack of consensus an incremental shift towards a more pragmatic approach to independence began to emerge in 2019. The figure below is based on the quantitative coding of articles and shows that the independence debate was dynamic and intensified dramatically in certain periods. In addition, we have added the qualitatively discovered ideational phases that we have identified.
Figur 3 -  Ditte Skårhøj og Joshua Vatit Mairs speciale


We can therefore conclude that ideas about independence spread in the researched period and despite the fact that the ideas did not reach consensus, the ideas had great influence on Greenlandic society because components of the ideas were institutionalized. It is worth underlining that it was during the 2016-2018 period that the ideas had the strongest impact, creating in- and out-groups, by defining the appropriate political behavior and by creating a common language. The fact that the ideas to a large degree moved in accordance with the phases described in the framework for the life cycle of ideas shows that it was relevant to access the independence debate in Greenland as the spread of ideas. The analysis has thereby contributed with a greater understanding of the independence process in the medium time frame.

Perspectives for the Danish Realm

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come” - Victor Hugo.

It is undeniable that one of the main political goals for the Greenlandic political elite is independence, even though they have not yet reached consensus on the process and content of the independence idea. A linked consequence of this independence goal is the parallel questioning and redefining of the relationship in the Danish Realm as the independence idea evolves. In the end of the examined time period, we concluded that the rapid independence ideas have given way to the more pragmatic independence ideas. But this is a cautious conclusion because our study, of the public debate in Greenland over the eleven-year period, showed that the idea was very susceptible to changing political climates. A clear example of this is the election of Aleqa Hammond as prime minister in 2013. In her short reign Hammond transformed the language of independence and she might have brought Greenland much closer to actual independence if it had not been for a personal political scandal. The lack of a consensus leaves us and academia in a place where it is still highly relevant to study the development of the ideas about the road to independence and it underlines the importance of understanding the ongoing internal political mechanisms in Greenland. Furthermore, it illustrates for the actors involved in the Danish Realm the necessity to seek out common ground, in this dynamic and changing environment, if the relationship between the three member states is to develop in a productive way in the future.

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Senest opdateret 29. november 2021