City of Mostar. Photo: Mura © iStock

Book on war traces in former Yugoslavia crosses borders between scientific disciplines

The conflict in the Balkans changed the collective identities and self-images of the population. A team from the NCCR LIVES is publishing a work whose theories and methods get off the beaten tracks. Its conclusions question existing theories in the literature. Its interdisciplinary approach goes to a level rarely achieved in this type of publication.

"In the contemporary world, there is certainly no shortage of fragile states, separatist nationalism, violent rebellion, or fierce repression. If the findings that are reported in this book inspire some observers to think differently about the underlying logic of collective action or encourage some researchers to document the collective experiences associated with the violent disruption or redefinition of the communities they are studying, then this book will have achieved its main purpose."

These are the last lines of the book War, Community, and Social Change. Collective Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia, edited by Dario SpiniGuy Elcheroth, and Dinka Corkalo Biruski, which has just been published by Springer, with contributions from some fifteen authors, half of whom are associated with the National Centre of Competence in ResearchLIVES.

"Invited voices"

Besides being a collection of contributions from psychologists, sociologists, demographers and historians, this work also contains the “invited voices” of an anthropologist, a human rights activist and a journalist. All the contributors try to show how the victims of the wars in the former Yugoslavia have confronted and overcome these long periods of violence. Their conclusions demonstrate with what intensity the events of the last decade of the 20th century affected the exposed peoples.

Dario Spini, director of the NCCR LIVES, explains the use of the invited voices as “a way to show that our research results can also be seen in the visible and concrete realities.” In a more general way, he says the work is a “beautiful example of how interdisciplinary research can be carried out, with very different and complementary approaches using the same data.”

Door-to-door survey

What data is being used? The information comes from a survey conducted in 2006 among 5,500 individuals from six countries in the former Yugoslavia - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia. It was part of the TRACES project (TRansition to Adulthood and Collective Experiences Survey), financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Part of the team collaborated with academics from Belgrade, Zagreb and Zadar, as well as Sarajevo. The data was collected over three months by local interviewers who went door-to-door to collect the trajectories of the region’s residents by using life calendars. A questionnaire on the norms and representations of people born between 1968 and 1974 also formed part of the survey. This cohort, who became adults just at the time of war, was in fact more at risk of being involved in the conflict and exposed to it, at a particularly sensitive age.

On the basis of this data, the researchers worked with several themes. The chapter from Dusko Sekulic shows why ethnic intolerance is more a result than a cause of war. In an article by Jean-Marie Le Goff and Francesco Giudici, the complexity, the occurrence, and the evolution of mixed marriages before and after the war are carefully presented. In another section, Jacques-Antoine Gauthier and Eric Widmer address the displacement of populations and allude to the considerable role of the politicization of identities. Davide Morselli and Stefano Passini then go on to demonstrate that people who have a strong ethnic identification are more likely to be subject to a feeling of anomie, whatever their actual experiences.

The invited voices bring different perspectives to those derived from the data. Anthropologist Ivana Macek looks at the contrasts of submission and resistance during the siege of Sarajevo. Svetlana Broz from the NGO Gardens of the Righteous Worldwide (GARIWO) recalls the righteous and brave people who refused to follow the path of ethnic hatred. And Florence Hartmann, journalist and former spokesperson of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, shows how this legal instrument failed to answer the needs of the victims.

Questioning key concepts

The last part of the book adopts a clearly psychosocial point of view in order to concentrate on the collective dimensions of vulnerability and resilience, including contributions from Rachel FaselGuy Elcheroth, and Sandra Penic. These authors' observations lead them to question certain key concepts in the literature on this subject. For instance, Rachel Fasel shows that the belief in a just world, described in the literature as a stable resource for any individual throughout their life, has been severely shaken in the former Yugoslavia by the experience of the war. “In the TRACES project, we were working in a totally different context than what had been observed in previous situations, that were less tormenting,” says the researcher. “Actually we noted that the combination of victimization due to the war and socio-economic fragility led to less belief in a just world, which had an impact on the wellbeing of individuals. People not only need to eat and drink, but also to maintain positive beliefs, especially to believe in justice.”

Guy Elcheroth mentions other points that call specific certainties into question: “The literature in social psychology establishes a link between docility when dealing with public authorities and hostility when dealing with foreigners or minorities. This is the syndrome of the authoritative personality, which is absolutely relevant in some contexts. We also noticed this in Slovenia or in Croatia, which were experiencing a period of relative prosperity at the time of the survey. But it is much less the case when you look at regions that have been economically devastated. There a different phenomenon can be seen: the same individuals are often doubly distrustful towards their own public authorities and towards external scapegoats.”

The researcher believes that the book as a whole shows “how the war changed the beliefs of a whole generation.” The experience of working on TRACES also left its mark on the team. Guy Elcheroth has just obtained funds for continuing this line of research, now looking at pluralistic memories and transitional justice in Burundi, in Sri Lanka and in the Palestinian Territories. As for the other members of the group, from TRACES to LIVES, the common theme is of course the study of vulnerability, “a topic that has been with us for a long time,” says Dario Spini.

Spini, Dario; Elcheroth, Guy; Corkalo Biruski, Dinka (Eds.)
War, Community, and Social Change. Collective Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia
Series: Peace Psychology Book Series, Vol. 17
2014, XII, 241 p. 24 illus., 6 illus. in color.