Between Expert and Witness: Insider Anthropology and Public Engagement

Between Expert and Witness: Insider Anthropology and Public Engagement

By Larisa Kurtović

Making anthropological expertise public—that is, releasing our insights into the world of non-academic publics—is never easy. Anthropological engagements with media are frequently awkward, fraught and unsatisfying. But what happens when an anthropologist who conducts research “at home” is summoned by the media as simultaneously an expert and a witness?

On November 22, 2017, Ratko Mladić, the former Bosnian Serb military leader, was convicted of genocide and sentenced to life in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands.  That very same morning, I was contacted by several news agencies and invited to offer my comments in response to the verdict.  As a political anthropologist and a specialist on the Balkans, I have grown to expect occasional contact with journalists, particularly during eventful times in Bosnia proper.  The long-awaited Mladić verdict was one such quintessential special occasion, the kind the brings Bosnia back onto the front pages and into the 5 o’clock news.  What’s more, I was about to start teaching a week-and-a-half-long thematic cluster on public anthropology in my “Anthropology for the 21st Century” course at University of Ottawa. Amidst our heated class discussions about challenges involved in popularization of anthropological knowledge, scientific impartiality, the problem of positionality, and engaged scholarship, I felt I ought to “talk the talk and walk the walk” and speak with the journalists who had contacted me.

Complicating my sense of responsibility to respond was my own positionality—I am not only a scholar of Bosnian postwar political life, but also a so-called insider or “native anthropologist,” in so far that I conduct research in my country of origin, where I can (most of the time) successfully pass for a local resident. My background also means that in addition to being a researcher, I am also a witness, and if you will—a victim—of Mladić’s military campaigns, particularly the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo during which I grew up.  I soon learned that it was this other dimension of my background—my origin and biography—that made me an attractive interviewee and a spokesperson in the context of The Hague decision.  Details such as how old I was and under what circumstances I survived the siege became an important aspect of my correspondence with the media. One media house appears to have eventually omitted my comments in favor of those offered by a survivor of a wartime prison camp—a decision that I, as an anthropologist who favors non-expert opinions on politics, would not necessarily disagree with. But the moment did bring to mind the anthropological critique of deservedness predicated on hierarchies of suffering.

Nonetheless, it turned out that in this moment where I thought I was being given a chance to be a publicly engaged anthropologist, I was in fact being interpellated as something else entirely.  My background was imagined as a special source of expertise, experiential authority and even authenticity—something that we know happens with particular frequency to scholars who are ethnically and racially marked, and others whose subjectivities seem infused with a kind of excess of historicity. Ironically, this other, geographically and historically anchored dimension of my person could not shake the memory of the ambiguous, and sometimes even violently problematic, effects of journalistic presence and representation of the Bosnian war.  Back home, a suspicion, even aversion towards (foreign) journalists has been an important consequence of international media coverage of the 1990s. What’s more, the Sarajevan in me had painfully little to say about Mladić’s trial and The Hague justice—a sentiment I shared, in Bosnian proper, on my Facebook page, where it met with approval by dozens of other Bosnians who recognized themselves in my words.  Concretely, I expressed my ambivalence about the slow-moving cogs of international justice, as well as my resentment over the fact Mladić’s person and figure had—once again— succeeded in poisoning my affective life and holding my time hostage, even if he were now condemned by The Hague. The verdict and subsequent inquiries by journalists catapulted me into a news reading frenzy—which now seemed necessary in order to safeguard my status as an expert—that focused less on international coverage of the verdict, and more on the nationalist responses in Republika Srpska, the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia, and in Serbia proper. By the end of it all, I felt shell-shocked and battered, as if the work of interpellation to which I had been subjected had actually brought into existence this new person—a victim.

My academic colleagues, experts on Bosnia who aren’t Bosnian themselves, joked that in contacting Bosnia-born academics, media houses actually get “a two for the price of one”—an expert and a witness.  Another Bosnian-American anthropologist simply refused the journalists’ inquiries, since an invitation to take part in such coverage did not seem a genuine invitation for engagement, but a wish to satisfy a convention by including a direct quote of someone with a personal connection to a place.  In this sense, the (insider) anthropologist appeared as an ideal expert, one that could, so to say, “offer a story from the people.” Paradoxically, this internalized expectation about the nature of anthropological knowledge was also what made her not want to talk to the journalists—the fact that she was not there right then made her question her capacities and her right to speak on behalf of those back home.  Another colleague lamented a journalist asked him—point blank—about his ethnic background, which he could not ascertain from his ethnically ambiguous name.  In Bosnia, this is a common form of symbolic violence, suffered with particular intensity by children of interethnic marriages—and yet, Western journalists seem somehow authorized to participate in it and be oblivious to its consequences.

As scholars, many of us are painfully aware of the difficulty involved in setting anthropological expertise on the road. Our ethnographic authority and deep familiarity with the contexts we study places us in a strong position to provide critical insight, yet our ethnographic methods remain subject to enduring accusations of being non-representative, partial and unscientific. Those of us who are deemed “native-born” or who embrace “engaged anthropology” are, of course, even more vulnerable to such forms of dismissal. Thus, the fact that journalists seek to foreground this element of our identity in our expert renders us even more vulnerable to critique.

Native-born or not, many anthropologists I know have their own battle stories about what happens when their expertise goes public. My most recent exchange with the media had some familiar dimensions—for example, the sense that a narrative had already been imposed, and that I somehow needed to position myself in response to it. But it also had another aspect. When I asked one of the journalists to see a final version of the text—citing past experience of being misquoted—the journalists made an appeal to journalistic freedom. He only shared with me a finished text.  In retrospect, I did not mind the way in which my words were included in this article.  But I could not help but feel the entire interaction ought to have been handled differently. The invitation to say something about a man responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the broken lives of many more, takes a certain kind of a toll, especially when one has a personal connection to the event—the very thing that journalists fetishize. Like many other Bosnians, I did not in fact, want to talk about Mladić—yet how could I claim that the verdict was unimportant, or leave my imagined international audience thinking this trial meant nothing? The other side of me—the specialist anthropologist—could not quite pass up the opportunity to affirm the importance of the verdict.  What’s more, as anthropologists we draw upon insights of others—it seems only fair that occasionally, we’d be interviewed too. But under said circumstances, where one walks the line between subject and object of inquiry, what exactly ought to be the terms of this kind of an engagement?

After all of this was already said and done, I needed a stiff drink and an evening with some Bosnian friends.  And then, for the first time in many years, I started to write poetry again. Perhaps it was the melancholy mood of the occasion—after all, with this last major verdict, the war in some sense, seemed to finally be over. But I suspect the poetry became a means of asserting another self, one not suspended in motion by narratives of others. It became a lifeline, an alternative genre that would permit that which ethnography allows too, which is to tell another kind of story.

Larisa Kurtović is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at University of Ottawa. She writes on political activism, cultural politics and postsocialist transformation in contemporary Balkans. She is currently writing a book entitled Future as Predicament: Political Life after Catastrophe, based on long-term research in postwar Bosnia.

One Reply to “Between Expert and Witness: Insider Anthropology and Public Engagement”

  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful essay, Larisa. But one cannot help feeling that some important things have been omitted, thoughts about what happened during this period that you would perhaps prefer not to voice in public.

    As someone who spent some months in Bosnia during the reign of Tito (in Mostar and then Sarajevo), and had friends still living there during the civil war, I was especially disturbed by both the savagery and the inordinate length of this conflict, which I would never have anticipated from my experiences earlier, in what appeared as an unusually peaceful and relatively prosperous nation — where to my surprise I never witnessed either beggars or slums, where everyone seemed free to voice whatever opinions they wished, about Tito or anyone else, and everyone, regardless of his or her ethnic background seemed to get along so well.

    During the long siege of Sarajevo one question kept going through my mind, however: why couldn’t the UN have arranged a temporary truce during which innocent civilians could have been relocated out of the besieged city under the protection of international forces? Do you know if any such attempt was ever made? This question has come up again due to the current situation in Syria, where the civilians of Eastern Ghouta are being slaughtered during a similar siege, and no one seems interested in getting them out of harm’s way, despite the fact that they are playing no role as combatants.