A wall (© Artikom jumpamoon/Shutterstock)

Artikom jumpamoon/Shutterstock)

Why have social scientists failed to understand in advance the violent end of Yugoslavia? And what can all this teach us to interpret our present?

19/08/2020 -  Jana Baćević

(Originally published by thedisorderofthings.com )

“You don’t know how a war begins! Particularly a civil war…until it begins”.

This sentence , uttered by Srbijanka Turajlic, the main protagonist of Mila Turajlic’s documentary The Other Side of Everything, sums up my thoughts on the relationship between the breakdown of the social order and the (in)ability of social science to predict it. It is a question that has continued to haunt me, in different forms, from the time I was old enough to formulate questions. How did you not see it coming? How does one not see it coming? What are we not seeing, now, at this very moment?

The relationship between social science and prediction is, of course, a complicated one. Many social scientists would probably disavow the possibility of predicting events and argue that we can, at best, aim to retroactively explain how they came about. Yet the possibility of prediction continues to haunt social theory, regardless of whether it’s the failure of Marx to predict a global communist revolution or the failure of economists to predict the 2008 economic crisis. Closer to the present, the surprise with which events such as the Brexit vote or Trump’s election victory were met by some social scientists suggests that we regularly think about the future, even if our predictions turn out to be wrong.

What is it that we fail to predict can vary. In Srbijanka’s narrative, ‘it’ refers to the war that took place during and after the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Billed as Europe’s deadliest conflict following World War II, the war lasted over 10 years, and comprised a series of conflicts around sovereignty, insurgencies, wars of independence, and systematic bombing campaigns of both civilian and military targets. It claimed up to 140,000 lives, created a total of 4.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as immeasurable material, economic, and environmental damage. It was the first conflict in which rape was recognized as a crime against humanity, and the first, after World War Two, to have the term ‘genocide’ applied to it.

From our current perspective, ‘it’ may refer to any combination of elements that have been associated with the crisis of capitalism, are exacerbated by climate change, and, most recently, have become increasingly visible in the Covid-19 pandemic: police violence against Black and ethnic minorities exercised at Black Lives Matter rallies in the US; UK Government’s willingness to sacrifice doctors, nurses, agricultural, and other ‘essential’ workers (many of them migrants) by sending them to work without protective equipment; or the unflinching exercise of authoritarianism, from Kashmir to Poland, and from Hungary to Brazil. The list goes on. The rolling back of reproductive rights; the swastikas and Nazi salutes; the erasure of freedom of press. But whatever it is, this is ‘it’. This is, literally, it.

Of course, to some degree, we have seen ‘it’ all before. We have seen it in interwar Germany; we have seen it in pre-dictatorship Portugal. We, who have lived – or written about – the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, have both seen and experienced it. When we use the autoironic concept, ‘Yugosplaining’, this is what we mean: our in-depth knowledge of the Yugoslav crisis helps us understand the unfolding crisis of the present – and what may be lurking on the horizon. Yet what I want to do in this post is something related, but at the same time different. I want to ask what the experience of former Yugoslavia tells us about what we cannot predict about the current crisis. In other words: how does social scientific knowledge interfere with the possibility of ‘knowing’ the future?


This question is far from facetious. Former Yugoslavia had an elaborate and well-resourced network of social scientists, many of whom maintained links with colleagues from both the ‘East’ and the ‘West’. While the ideological purges of the Praxis Marxists and the strategic separation of higher education and research between universities and research institutes certainly harmed Yugoslav scholarship, the country was far from an intellectual backwater. Scholarly debates in the 1960s and 1970s included lively discussions about the nature of labour, women’s and minority rights, cultural production, workers’ self-management, and, not least of all, the future of the Yugoslav Federation – especially in view of the changes introduced through the 1974 Constitution. Yet, with very few exceptions, almost no-one was able to predict the scale and scope of violence that accompanied the Yugoslav dissolution. How did this happen?

It would be easy to write off social science in Socialist Yugoslavia as an exercise in ideological virtue-signalling, conducted under the watchful eye of the Communist Party. Yet, even a cursory overview of scientific production in the decades leading up to its dissolution shows this interpretation would not bear scrutiny. While social sciences and humanities were certainly not exempt from ideological control, many social scientists at the time openly discussed the issues at the heart of the Yugoslav model. Issues such as external debt, the reproduction of social inequalities – including, for instance, in education and housing – and rising unemployment feature prominently in Yugoslav scholarship . Why, then, did social scientists remain blind to the possibility that these internal contradictions would eventually lead to war?

One prominent narrative attributes the Yugoslav conflict to ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ brewing under the precarious structure of communist modernization, only to return – with a vengeance – with the economic crisis in the 1970s and 1980s. From this perspective, it would be possible to argue that social scientists were too enamoured with the Weberian view of society as thoroughly modern and rationalized (or, at least, rapidly becoming disenchanted) to pay attention to the continued nationalist resentment below the surface. This explanation has a lot in common with the explanations that attributed the rise of Trump or the Brexit vote to the ‘left behind’ sentiments combined with unemployment and social inequality. Yet, much like the latter narrative minimizes the role of middle-class and affluent voters in the solidification of authoritarian populism, the idea of ethnic nationalism as the ‘Great Unknown’ that prevented social scientists from predicting the nature of Yugoslav dissolution equally fails closer inspection.

To begin, nationalism in former Yugoslavia was never ‘buried’: it was repeatedly singled out as the key destructive force to the Yugoslav project. While many social scientists were fervently anti-nationalist, nationalism common among dissident intellectuals. In addition, a milder, ‘civic’ form of nationalist sentiment was frequent among the intelligentsia in general, especially among those who came from middle- or upper-middle-class (i.e. ‘the bourgeoisie’), and thus always had problems embracing ‘workers’ as their social identity. If we want to look into how forms of identity shaped knowledge production, we need to look beyond individual preferences and trajectories, and ask: what kind of social arrangements make it more (or less) likely scientists would make certain sorts of predictions?

Positionality, reflexivity, and epistemic attachment

Feminist epistemology and philosophy of science, from Haraway to Harding, have emphasized the ways in which social positions frame the knowledge one is able to have. Standpoint epistemology, for instance, challenged the possibility of a ‘view from nowhere’: knowledge production is always situated, both in space and in time, but also through the scientist’s social position. Pierre Bourdieu developed the concept of sociological reflexivity to stress the need for social scientists to actively reflect on how their work is shaped by the social conditions of its production. This means that, in addition to gender, ethnicity, or class, we also need to think how our knowledge of the social world is shaped by institutional and disciplinary positions, as well as constrained by repertoires of legitimation that are both politically and historically constituted.

In this sense, knowledge production is governed by both implicit and explicit criteria concerning who is seen as possessing (authoritative) knowledge about what, and from what perspective. Postcolonial and decolonial scholars, for instance, have recognized the unequal distribution of epistemic authority between ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’ as a key component in the reproduction of Occidental power. However, the relationship between knowers (epistemic subjects) and knowledge (epistemic objects) is a dynamic one. In this sense, we need to ask not only how who we are (or are seen as) shapes how we go about producing knowledge, but also how what we know – that is, what we produce knowledge about – can shape the kind of knowledge we are able to produce.

This relationship between the subject and the object of research is something I have referred to as ‘epistemic attachment’ . Of course, it is not particularly surprising that scholars feel a degree of emotional attachment to their objects of research. Knowledge production is a competitive endeavour, where both stakes and egos can run high. We depend on our work for funds, recognition, but also a sense of purpose. It is not difficult to imagine the disappointment of a physicist when their experiments fail, or of a historian when rare archival documents are destroyed. Yet, we have a harder time thinking about what this means when the object of research is coextensive with one’s social world. What happens if our knowledge of the world is dependent on there being a world to know (about)?

In this sense, we need to look at how the international context of knowledge production shaped the kind of scholarship Yugoslav scientists could produce – and the kind of futures they could imagine.

The future of the world?

Jenny Andersson’s ‘Future of the World: Futurology, Futurists, and the Struggle for the Post-Cold War Imagination ’ discusses the emergence of the future as an object of both research and planning. Two world powers’ dominant research orientations towards the future – the rational, speculative one, reflected in the approach of predominantly US based and funded scholars and organizations such as the RAND corporation; and the teleological, Marxist-oriented one reflected in Soviet prognostika – may have diverged in ontological foundations or political ideologies, but they shared the epistemological orientation towards the future as ultimately knowable.

In the bipolar world of the second half of the 20th century, Yugoslavia stood as something of an exception. Its attempt to merge market economy with socialist reform and redistribution was carefully watched on both the West and the East. After the Tito-Stalin split in 1948, Yugoslavia managed to retain relative independence, solidified in its position in the non-aligned movement. In practice, this meant that Yugoslav firms had access to markets on both ‘sides’ of the Curtain, and that Yugoslav passport-holders could travel with relatively few restrictions. Social science in Socialist Federal Republic was very much product of this position in-between.

For Yugoslav scholars, the ‘exceptionality’ of the Yugoslav model was the source of epistemic legitimacy, particularly in the context of international collaboration. Many of them were educated abroad; they had access to networks and funds from both the West and the East. Their authority was, at least in part, constructed on their positioning as possessors of ‘local’ knowledge: while this kind of epistemic relationship could certainly be exploitative, it also provided Yugoslav scientists with exposure to current theories and scholars, thus solidifying their status both at home and abroad. For scholars from the West, on the other hand, Yugoslavia served as a perfect experiment in mixing capitalism and socialism. For both epistemic communities, then, Yugoslavia represented provided more than a natural ‘laboratory ’: it also represented an anchoring device for legitimating their own positions as scholars, and as scholars of former Yugoslavia, at that. In this sense, the identity of both groups depended on the existence of Yugoslavia as an object.

But with this kind of epistemic in-betweenness comes with its own limitations. The anchoring function of Yugoslavia made scholars who specialised in the area unlikely to imagine a world in which their epistemic object could simply cease to exist. They certainly imagined, thought, and debated different ways in which it could be transformed: but not really that it could be obliterated. At one point in the film, Mila, the director of The Other Side of Everything, asks her mother, Srbijanka, the main protagonist: “You never thought communism would end one day?”. Srbijanka replies: “No”. Srbijanka herself is certainly no Communist sympathizer: as we learn from the film, her own family were seen as enemies of the regime. Yet, historical processes are always easiest to understand from the ‘other side’, as it were, of everything. Until then, we are stuck with the wisdom reflected in the title of Alexei Yurchak’s book on the last Soviet generation: Everything was forever, until it was no more .

The world we inhabit right now is both similar to and different from the one that preceded the Yugoslav as well as the Soviet collapse. Instead of the ‘East’ and the ‘Western’ bloc, we can now trace lines of division between China and the United States, or between those countries that still remain committed to a modicum of a semblance of liberal democracy vs. those where authoritarianism openly reigns. When it comes to knowledge production, however, a deeper, more interesting polarisation is emerging between forms of thinking that are fundamentally oriented towards the preservation of the current capitalist order (even if through modification), and those that are oriented towards replacing it. At this point, it is far from certain what kind of political order will replace it. At any rate, we need to take very seriously the possibility that the ‘three C’ crisis – capitalism, climate, Coronavirus – will not necessarily be conducive to forms of life that would seek to replace the first, repair the second, and eradicate the third.

In this sense, non-prediction of the ‘death’ of Yugoslavia teaches us that if we cannot perceive the future until after it has happened, it is because we are always already part of it. Just like we do not know how a war begins until it already has begun, we cannot know how – and, indeed, if – the end of capitalism begins, nor, for that matter, how it will unravel. In this sense, perhaps the one good thing we can take from the legacy of the Yugoslav dissolution is precisely the remarkable resilience of epistemic communities, including this one. While Yugoslavia as the shared ‘objet petit a’ has long ceased to exist, it provides a common perspective from which to think the present moment.


Jana Bacevic is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at Durham University (starting July 2020). Previously, she was research associate at the University of Cambridge, Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Aarhus, and Lecturer at the Central European University in Budapest. Her work is in social theory, sociology of knowledge, and politics of knowledge production; she has published extensively on the relationship between knowledge, education and processes of social and political transformation. Her book, ‘From Class to Identity: Politics of Education Reforms in Former Yugoslavia ’ was published by Central European University Press in 2014. Currently, she is writing a book on epistemic attachment and politics of prediction.

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