Concluding session of a seminar

baltazar1I made up some notes for what to tell students at the last meeting of my MA seminar, “Politics of Southeast Europe Since 1990.” And I thought you might indulge me sharing them.



In this final session I am supposed to go over some of the things we have tried to do in here. So what did we try to do in this seminar?

Formally, we said we would do this (from the syllabus):

Course objectives:
By the end of the course, students will have gained knowledge and understanding allowing them to:

  1.        Evaluate policies both in the region and directed toward the region of Southeast Europe
  2.        Analyse contemporary issues and controversies involving Southeast Europe
  3.        Apply theoretical models from social science to understanding developments in Southeast Europe
  4.        Address scholarly controversies involving the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s, the regimes that participated in them, their causes and consequences

Along the way, it is also expected that students will develop their skills in working with academic literature, in developing critical assessments of research, and in organising and presenting their work in an engaging manner.

This is perhaps a bit overly narrow. I think we did all of these things. We explored policies and we evaluated them, we tried to look at facts and issues using a variety of perspectives and methodologies, we got into some of the academic debates.

But maybe I can say a bit more. The selection of readings (especially for those of you who went beyond the required ones and into the recommended list) was meant to open horizons. In particular it was meant to shift away from a conventionally political approach to political issues. I have tried to develop and include background from most of the social sciences.

The purpose of this is not merely formalistic. There are plenty of formalistic observers of different types of contemporary politics in the world. We could probably say that the whole field of political analysis is becoming more formalistic and less engaged, because of a whole variety of different interests and pressures. Think about most of the media commentary you hear about ongoing events, if you are a close follower of media. You are likely to have recognised some of the following habits:

  • A tendency to take some contested categories (“democracy” or “Europe”) as given and not in need of analysis or discussion
  • A tendency to assume benign intentions and to overlook unintended effects
  • A tendency to concentrate attention on a small number of people occupying the top ranks of political institutions
  • A tendency to accept the “The” unquestioningly (“the” Serbs, Croats, etc)
  • Surreptitious Fukuyamaism in the unconscious promotion of a deeply ideologised master narrative of history

So why is this a problem? Consider this: one of the things that as specialists we are often asked to do (though probably we should not be asked) is to make predictions. And most of the predictions that the specialists make in response to this type of request turn out to be wrong. Why  are we wrong so often? Part of it may simply have to do with the nature of the question – nobody can predict the future. But part of it may have to do with the way that answers are assembled. Too narrow (and narrowly concentrated) a range of sources means answers that tend toward an assumption that conditions will remain the same.

Wars aren’t the only things the experts didn’t predict. They are pretty bad at predicting democracy as well (see 2014 Bosnian protests and plenums).

The anthropologist Ivan Colovic liked to quote a line from the science fiction writer Philip K Dick: “The sane man does not know that everything is possible.” He was using it to try to explain the behaviour of sociopaths during the period of violence in the 1990s in ex-Yugoslavia. Only they knew what could happen to what looked like peaceful and relatively prosperous communities (partly because they made it happen). To the degree that they were insane, this gave them insight and an advantage over other people. The sentence from Philip Dick comes, by the way, from an essay about psychedelic drugs written in 1964. Short of becoming criminals ourselves, how do we get access to this kind of advantage? The goal is not some kind of power, but insight above and beyond what is available to your standard media/party/thinktank “specialist.”

Basically it is by having good depth vision and peripheral vision, This takes engagement and it takes time. It means having enough familiarity with the environment you are in to be able to sense possible resonances, have an idea what is likely to take root or not. And it means looking broadly enough so that you have an idea about this political top layer that everyone else concentrates on: if it is representative, what is it representing? Where does this thing it is representing originate from, and what is it competing with? What is changing, and how quickly, and what is changing more quickly or slowly than it is? What do the anthropologists (or anyone else engaged with a different part of public life) know that the politicians don’t know? Have a sense of these things and you have insight that is better than your favourite paper’s editorial page.

So at this point I am supposed to offer conclusions, something that we have demonstrated during this term or some kind of parting advice. I didn’t have a big polemical point to prove so I am reasonably sure that I did not prove one. I hope I might have demonstrated some patterns that could be useful  to you as you continue to develop your thinking. What I hope some of these would be:


  • Look below the surface. The important stuff is almost never happening among the people at the top layer of politics. If it is happening in the state it is happening at the third or fourth level of official life. Most of the public and most of the experts will not have much sense of it.
  • Look for diversity. If you think that “the” Freedonians or Ruritanians are like this or that, you will be proved wrong by every social or political change.  Have a sense of the kind of competitions going on in the social environment (of which whoever is exercising power at the moment represents a fraction, temporarily).
  • Look into the past. Not to see how some ancient factor fixed everything into a particular place forever, but to see how some recent and ongoing changes have created new arrangements, new insecurities, new tensions, new fears, new conflicts. The answer to the question of why things are the way they are today is probably not in what some press spokesperson said yesterday or some half-fictional emperor did a thousand years ago, but in things that actually affect the way people live.
  • Look at how people live. It might not look the same as the way people are represented.
  • Look at the research, the closer the site of production of the research to the place being described the better. It can provide ways of answering questions that a lot of outside observers will not even think to ask (i.e., rather than declaring “the x’s are all nationalist” ask “what are the forces contributing to support for nationalist movements”).


Having completed a course in this field and probably the degree here, there is a good likelihood that many or most of you will before too long find yourselves in the position of the people whose answers to the questions people ask about the region you have been reading as study material. With any luck you know which have been the good ones and which ones less good. Try to be more like the good ones.