The Politics of Exile by Elizabeth Dauphinee

Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik on a study of the process of researching the Bosnian wars

May 9, 2013

The Politics of Exile reads like a novel, but it is an academic work that asks important questions about the research process and, specifically, researching wars such as the one that took place in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, where crimes and atrocities were committed. The book does so by taking an unusual approach for a scholarly work: storytelling. It interweaves the narrative of an unnamed protagonist - a professor of international politics in Canada - with stories of a handful of men and women caught up in the Bosnian war and, later, their exile in Toronto.

Part of the publisher’s Interventions series - dedicated to critical exploration of international relations - this book speaks to major themes in international relations and ethics, and yet does so without footnotes, convoluted theories or references to scholarly work. Indeed, just about the only time any scholarly names appear are in a scene in which the narrator shreds their books in her office.

The story begins one summer when the narrator, on the verge of sending her manuscript to press, meets a Bosnian Serb refugee who provides assistance with some proofreading, and what starts out as an inconsequential encounter propels the narrator, and us - unsuspecting - into the lives and wartime experiences of a group of men and women. We learn of the tragedies, cruelties and resistance through the stories of a young man refusing to go to war, a grieving father, a priest who hears confessions of men committing war crimes, a young woman who tries to commit suicide after her partner is killed and a man who witnesses her partner’s death at the hands of a ruthless soldier. Elizabeth Dauphinee illuminates wartime Bosnia, a place that often exists merely as a concept or metaphor in much scholarly literature but here appears vivid and alive, as we are taken through its villages and houses, and as we observe family feuds, dinners and funerals.

The most thought-provoking and refreshing work on Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia in a long time

But the work is about much more than just storytelling. The narratives and the genre challenge the reader, and Dauphinee explores immensely complicated themes: research ethics, life as an academic, fieldwork, the possibility of ever knowing one’s subject, the relationship between respondent and researcher, teaching, war crimes, death, foreign policy, exile and refugees, to name just a few.

The Politics of Exile does not generalise. It focuses only on its key protagonists, and, in a departure from traditional scholarly work, we learn what they look like and what kind of coffee they drink - Dauphinee humanises her respondents. The book can thus be read as a critique of the depersonalised nature of much scholarly work, which relies on stories of individuals whose voices rarely take centre stage in the finished product. For instance, the narrator’s first manuscript on Bosnia is a constant theme, and we get the sense that it was predominantly an ethical and philosophical exploration of the war. At one point, a respondent accuses her of something no academic wants to hear: “You’re building your whole career on what I lost, and you never came to ask me what it was like.”

Running through this work is the theme of exploitation and unequal power relationships, and it constantly calls into question how and why academics produce knowledge. Dauphinee explores the ways in which this production is caught up in the administrative and bureaucratic targets. The narrator’s sporadic encounters with academic management - the performance review, the grant application - are juxtaposed uncomfortably with the stories of war- torn lives, some of which form the basis for those target-mandated publications and “outputs”.

This is perhaps the most thought-provoking and refreshing work to be published on Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia in a long time. It is certainly an immense contribution to the broadening schools within international relations, even though it is unlikely to appeal to the disciplines’ traditionalists, who in the past have dismissed works far less radical than Dauphinee’s. But The Politics of Exile speaks to so many themes that it will be of great appeal to a large number of social science scholars and general readers. For its meditation on research ethics alone, it should be required reading for all social science PhD students, and for its ability to illustrate the war in Bosnia in vivid detail, a must-read for all students of the region.

The Politics of Exile

By Elizabeth Dauphinee
Routledge, 214pp, £90.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9780415640855 and 9780415640848
Published 23 January 2013

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