Home Institution

Mount Holyoke College

Publication Date

Spring 2005

Program Name

Balkans: Gender, Transformation, and Civil Society


My research was aimed at understanding how individual identify with larger, collective identities (national, ethnic, religious, etc.). In studying the history and current social situation of the former Yugoslavia countries, I learned that often individuals identify themselves within the terms of nation, ethnicity and religion. And I learned that often in this region those terms were used exchangeably. To better understand how differences among individuals and groups were conceived, I turned to the abounding academic theories written on the topics of nation, nationhood and nationalism.

In looking though the mass of theories, I realized that each academic creates theories of a nation based on his/her own perceptions, observations and interpretations of specific case studies. Each theory is more or less tailored to define unique manifestations of the nation. Ironically each theory aims at creating a larger, universal understanding of the nation, offering definitive criteria and delimiting rules. The summation of such theories is a mere cacophonous chord of academic jargon whose goal is to reach an assumed meta-existence of the nation. Such theories seem to imply the that all the world is divided into nations, or peoples. These theories, in the worst case, can be used to uphold arguments that all nations are pure bounded, biological groups tied through blood or gens. I wondered when such studies of the idea of the nation would finally shed the lingering aftertastes of 19th century sciences, which were steeped in the idea of deterministic evolution and the craze of categorization.

After discovering the fault of theories which attempted to explain a supposed universal truth, I decided to forgo such theories. After all, nation is a culturally constructed idea which is used to differentiate oneself and one’s group from the Others. To understand nation one would have to understand how nation is culturally constructed, by specific people, in a specific time, in a specific place.

The existence of national categories, as proven by the (official) discourse within governmental institutions (constitutional quotas for representation within institutions, statistical reports of national/ethnic demographics and living conditions, etc), and the discourse of the public/masses (personal professions of belonging to a national/ethnic identity), is part of the social reality for individuals in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Though the term nation is widely used, there are no exact definitions for this idea offered within the official and common discourse in society. Thus I set out to learn how individuals define nation through their own self-identification with a nation. I wondered what criteria individuals would use to define nation: history, origin, familial gens, language, cultural traditions, political affiliations, religions, etc.

I decided to study individuals’ descriptions of their personal identity as related to larger, collective identities. I did not want to limit individuals’ discourse to the collective identity in which I was most interested – the national identity, for the following reasons: 1) I did not want to limit and label individuals’ self-identification to a national identification. Often what I termed a national identity (for example Serb or Bošnjak) was conceived by individuals as a religious, ethnic, regional or cultural identity. 2) Also I did not want to reduce an individual to a single identity. I wanted to welcome the discussion of other identities should they be more prominent than, or equal to, their national identity. And I wanted to understand if and why individuals opted not to self-identity with a nation.

To access individuals’ descriptions of a collective identity I initially planned to conduct three one-on-one interviews with six individuals. I hoped to draw out life histories and narratives, which would illustrate how individuals conceived and constructed their belonging to a larger, collective identity. I planned to allow the first interview to be unstructured, allowing the individual to offer personal background and descriptions of their society. I hoped to avoid limiting the individuals’ discourse to national identities. Then, from the first interview, I hoped to discover what issues and identities were most significant to the individuals. I hoped that this initial interview would help me place national identities in a context. For the second and third interview I planned to focus more specifically on narratives related to national identities.

When I reached the field I quickly realized my research could not be conducted as planned. Individuals were reluctant to meet more than once – due to perhaps personal time constraints, mere indifference to my project, or (possible) discomfort caused by issues raised. As a result, I had to draw out individuals’ description of a national identity immediately in the first, and only, interview. I created a short summary of my interests and intent [see Appendix B]. I used this summary to brief individuals before the interview so that we could focus our discussion on topics related to my research question.

To gain a balanced perspective of identities in Novi Pazar, I had hoped to interview a mix of individuals – ranging in age, gender, socio-economic status, and national identification. However once in the field, I discovered that my set of interviewees was more or less structured by my main point of access to the community [see Appendix C]. This access point was Urban-In, a non-governmental organization dedicated to informing youth on democracy and intercultural tolerance. My set of interviewees leans heavily towards youth and one national group. If I had more time, I would have conducted more interviews with older individuals and individuals who identity with other national groups.

I interviewed thirteen “regular” individuals. Following the advice of my mentors, I interviewed a number “official” individuals, or community leaders. I interviewed the “officials” differently than the “regular” individuals. I did not ask the “officials” to describe their own personal identity, respecting the caution they must take with their public status and acknowledging the potential sensitive-nature of the topic. Instead I asked “officials” to offer observations and perceptions of the identity-question in Novi Pazar. For the “officials”, I accessed individuals in political parties and the local museum. Unfortunately religious leaders were unable to meet with me. For the “regulars”, I mostly accessed individuals who had already attained or aimed at receiving a higher education. If I had more time, I would have conducted more interviews with individuals who had not received a higher education – typically factory-workers or construction-workers. [See Appendix A for a Schedule of Interviews]

In the field, I realized there was a major cultural disconnect when talking about personal identities. I was looking for life stories which illustrated key moments in which individuals appropriated and interpreted definitions of nation. Though I will analyze the disconnect in greater detail later in this paper, here I will state that the interviews did not produce life history monologues. Instead the interviews produced an interesting dialogue in which themes of the identity-question where discussed and debated. In this paper I have presented individuals voices – their opinions, reflections, proclamations, doubts, hopes, and frustrations. To analyze and deconstruct the meaning of a Bošnjak-Muslim identity group, I have put these voices in dialogue with other voices and my voice. The result is a destabilizing interpretation of the Bošnjak-Muslim identity group. Though there were many voices discussed many topics, there was a constant theme of hope for tolerance.


Race and Ethnicity | Sociology | Sociology of Culture


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