Karlo Basta is associate professor of comparative politics. He works on minority and majority nationalism in multinational states, symbolic aspects of political institutions, and the politics of events and time. In addition to his appointment at Memorial, he was a visiting scholar at the Centre for Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh, and at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, as well as Federal Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Comparative Federalism at the European Academy in Bolzano, Italy. He is currently completing a book manuscript on decentralization, recognition, and secessionist crises in multinational states.
What first sparked your interest in political science?
I had an interest in politics since I was a kid – I remember arguing with a classmate over the US-USSR arms race, absurd as this sounds, in elementary school. I think we were inspired by a political cartoon we saw in the papers. Political science was not my first choice. I wanted to be a journalist, but couldn’t get into Ryerson’s program, so I ended up in political science at York. After my first year, I was hooked, not so much by the discipline as by the subject matter. Virtually everything is political. But because I’ve always been more motivated by thematic than disciplinary concerns, I make a pretty poor fit for political science. I wander too much.
How has your own experience influenced your academic career?
It was decisive. I was born in what was Yugoslavia, left home at 17 – two years after the start of the war – and arrived to Canada in 1993, two years prior to the Quebec referendum. If that doesn’t predispose you to study nationalism, it’s hard to imagine anything that would. All of this also influenced my approach to the work that I do. You see the society around you completely fall apart, with all these people becoming stubbornly certain of their own version of what happened. If you yourself can’t buy into any of those versions, as I was unable to, you first despair, and then try to understand. In the process, you build up a really strong empathy muscle. That has a pretty significant effect on my research.
What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever found yourself in the course of your research?
Places were never weird, but I’ve experienced plenty of odd situations. A year and a half ago, while in Scotland, I wanted to interview a person I met a few years earlier. I couldn’t find them - nobody in Edinburgh knew where they were. It was as if they vanished. In the end, somebody told me the person left politics and opted for a life of spiritual enlightenment in an unknown location. About a year later, during a brief visit to family in Toronto, I ended up googling the person and realized they were pursuing their life’s goal in, you guessed it, Toronto. After a day or two of sleuthing, I managed to track them down and get in touch with them. Academia works in mysterious ways.
What are you currently working on?
I’m spending most of my time on a project on how private business shapes – or tries to – the outcomes of independence referenda. I first thought I’d only look at the usual suspects – Quebec, Scotland, and Catalonia – but I ended up expanding the study to Slovenia’s 1990 referendum, and the one held in Western Australia in 1933, with Brexit in the wings. Each of these places turned up something surprising. The Western cases showed me that despite their power, large corporations can be remarkably fearful of wading into public debates on emotionally charged issues like independence. In Slovenia, I found that (self-managed) socialism was a far cry from the stereotype. One of the largest Slovenian socialist-era companies owned a West German TV manufacturer. I knew Yugoslav socialism was different, but that one really took me by surprise.
What has been the biggest success to date for you personally?
Emancipating myself from the discomfort of not doing standard political science.
What is your philosophy in regards to research?
‘Philosophy’ suggests a rationally developed system of thought, which is not how things happened in my case. I’d say I rely on a few impulses that guide my research. I work only on issues I am truly interested in, whether or not the resulting work speaks to disciplinary trends or current affairs. The upside of this is that it provides me with the staying power needed to polish an idea, to think about it obsessively for long periods of time, until I finally produce something that I think is worthwhile, that is to say, new, and insightful. On a related note, I would rather be spectacularly wrong trying to come up with a truly novel insight, than unremarkably right by pursuing standard lines of inquiry in established ways. This is risky and time-consuming, but it’s worth it. For now.
What sort of impact do you hope your research will have?
At its most basic, my work is about how people build different political stories about the same reality – the same events, the same institutions, the same symbols. I’m also interested in how these stories shape conflict (especially ethnic and nationalist conflict) and the possibility of its transformation. As far as I’m concerned, the first casualty of any major clash is not the truth, but empathy. So the hope is that this work will eventually make those who read it better able to see others’ perspectives. I’m not particularly optimistic, but I think it’s important to give it a shot.
How do you feel your work is helping to boost Memorial’s national and international reputation?
I normally look to publish my work in prominent outlets – one example is an article that came out in Comparative Political Studies, the world’s foremost journal in my subfield. I also share the findings of my research at conferences and talks in Canada and abroad. I have just completed a mini-tour in Southern Ontario and will be presenting on my business and secession project in Germany in May. None of this is any different from my colleagues in the Department – we are all very productive and have high profiles, both nationally and internationally.
How is this research helping address the needs and opportunities for our province?
The nature of my work is such that it does not directly speak to, for example, the policy challenges faced by the province. Still, my research informs my teaching, so it has an indirect effect on how and what our students learn. The other week I was in Ottawa where I met one of our former students who works with a Canadian NGO running projects in Iraq. As part of his degree, he completed an Honours Thesis on federal institutions in Iraq under my supervision. We can reasonably expect that most university-educated adults will need to know about politics of other countries at some point, be they businesspeople, soldiers, public servants, or cultural workers.
How are you supporting the next generation of researchers and HQP (highly qualified personnel)?
I frequently take on research assistants for my projects. Most are undergraduate students, some graduates. In all cases, I provide research-related guidance and mentoring. But I also talk to students – where I see they are open to such conversations – about options and possibilities beyond university and how they can make the most of their education in light of those possibilities. I think this is as important as technical aspects of guidance.
What is the one thing you would like the general public to know about your research?
The same thing I’d like them to know about scholarship in general. There is more to research (in social sciences and humanities in particular) than its instrumental value. I don’t mean that social sciences and humanities may help produce better informed and more engaged citizens, though that too is true. The pursuit of knowledge, all knowledge, is an inherent part of what makes us human. Even those studies that appear useless and absurd to some people, or even most people, are part of that larger enterprise. You don’t disown your kid because they aren’t inventing useful stuff or because they frustrate you. Knowledge is our collective kid. And even if you have an instrumental view of knowledge, you never ever know how a particular bit of it might end up being important in the future.