In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Secession and Secessionist Movements

  • Introduction
  • Normative Theories of Secession
  • Legal Approaches to Secession
  • Datasets on Secession and Secessionist Movements

Political Science Secession and Secessionist Movements
David Siroky, Namig Abbasov
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0336


Secession and secessionists movements have proliferated since the end of the Second World War. The academic literature has extensively explored these movements from different aspects. To begin, scholars have developed several legal approaches to explain when and if so how secession should take place, resulting in debates about the normative basis and legality of self-determination. Normative and philosophical approaches have sought to establish a number of necessary preconditions for secession. States, according to some of these authors, should allow secession to happen when they believe that it is morally and practically acceptable. The political economy of secession and secessionist movements has been another key area of research. Debates among scholars in this area have focused on whether wealthy or poor regions are more or less likely to pursue secession, how the presence of oil resources may establish more opportunities for the groups to secede along with incentives for the state to hold onto the territory, and what role state capacity and movement capabilities play in secessionist dynamics. Scholars have also emphasized economic approaches to the study of secession that highlight the costs and benefits of staying in the union compared to seceding. Others have studied secessionism from an international perspective and have particularly focused on exploring the impact of external kin on secessionist movements and on why and how self-determination movements obtain international recognition. International approaches have also explored the roles of ethnic ties and vulnerability in stimulating and curbing secessionist movements. Other scholars have focused on institutional approaches by exploring how different domestic and international institutions have shaped secessionist conflicts. In particular, research in this area has explored the relationship between democracy and secession, institutional legacies, and the role of autonomy and lost autonomy on separatism. Scholars have also examined the strategic choices and behaviors used by both secessionist groups (violence vs. nonviolence) and by states (concession and repression), and relatedly how reputational concerns for resolve and setting precedents shape state behavior toward secessionists. Some research shows that most states are more likely to fight against secessionist movements than to grant them concessions, particularly states facing multiple (potential) separatists. However, other scholars have challenged these claims, and shown that states can use organizational lines to grant some concessions to secessionist groups without damaging their reputations. Looking toward solutions, some scholars have emphasized institutional solutions, such as consociationalism, and still others have looked to international organizations to resolve secessionist conflicts, while skeptics have suggested that approaches like partition are often the only way forward. Finally, there are several new datasets for studying secession and secessionist movements, including All Minorities at Risk (AMAR), Family EPR, SDM, and others.

Normative Theories of Secession

Beran 1984 presents his liberal normative theory of secession, which Birch 1984 criticizes. Beran 1988 responds that Birch 1984 is not sufficiently liberal or theoretical. Buchanan 1991 provides a complete normative theory of secession. Buchanan 1997 identifies the deficiencies in existing theories of secession and offers some remedies for them.

  • Beran, Harry. “A Liberal Theory of Secession.” Political Studies 32.1 (1984): 21–31.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.1984.tb00163.x

    Beran introduces a liberal normative theory of secession, in which he asserts that secession should be allowed if it is effectively desired by a territorially concentrated group and is morally and practically possible.

  • Beran, Harry. “More Theory of Secession: A Response to Birch.” Political Studies 36.2 (1988): 316–323.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.1988.tb00232.x

    In this article, Beran responds and claims that Birch’s theory of secession is neither sufficiently liberal nor theoretical.

  • Birch, Anthony H. “Another Liberal Theory of Secession.” Political Studies 32.4 (1984): 596–602.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.1984.tb01548.x

    Birch criticizes Beran’s normative theory of secession as incomplete and indefinite. He proposes an alternative theory of secession in which he asserts that secession from a liberal democratic state can be justified when four specific conditions exist.

  • Buchanan, Allen. Secession. The Morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec. Boulder, San Francisco. Oxford: Westview Press, 1991.

    Buchanan outlines a comprehensive theory of secession with historical examples. He stresses that groups with restricted rights tend to secede, particularly when they are oppressed by other racial or ethnic groups or faced with external occupation.

  • Buchanan, Allen. “Theories of Secession.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 26.1 (1997): 31–61.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1088-4963.1997.tb00049.x

    Buchanan articulates the deficiencies in theories of secession and suggests some remedies for them.

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