Cleansing ethnicity from the conflict

June 25, 1999

Concentrating on ethnicity as the driving force in recent Balkan history distorts the picture, says Nergis Canefe

History is not a science. According to the etymological roots of the word, it is the inquiry for the attainment of the knowledge of the past. Since we came to know it as an academic discipline in the 19th century, history has been regarded less and less as an inquiry about the past, and more as a professionally recorded account of it, a narrative of a series of events, or sometimes even an explanation of what happened and why. Today, historical research and scholarship have to live with all of these meanings. For historians, there is no easy way out, especially when scholarship may have larger repercussions for events in the present.

This is particularly hard for students of Balkan history. As recent scholarship on the "making" of the Balkans as a separate and unified region, such as Maria Todorova's Imagining the Balkans (1997), illustrates, what is attributed to Balkan history has as much of a mythical, culturally constructed foundation as a factual one.

The status attributed to "ethnic phenomena" in Balkan societies is a major element in the confusion and conflict surrounding studies of modern Balkan history. For example, recent histories about Balkan Muslims carry a constant theme, suggesting that histories of ethnic groups and ethno-religious conflict are exactly where historians should turn to understand the truth about the way modern Balkan history has unfolded.

But why should ethnicity matter so much in the study of Balkan history as opposed to historical analysis of other societies? Perhaps historical studies of all non-western societies tend to concentrate on the "primordialities" and therefore overlook the way socio-cultural and political constructions of identities explain differences in the pace and shape of historical change. Yet, developments in sister disciplines such as anthropology make it difficult for today's historians to treat ethnicity as an objective or pre-determined characteristic of societies.

Supposed cultural traits such as language, religion and customs, as well as biological characteristics such as pigmentation or assumed racial background, are now best regarded as fluid, contextual, relational and subjective.

It would be absurd for a modern English historian to study the history of the Anglo-Irish conflict from the perspective of clashing ethnic identities and ancient hatreds. Instead, more tangible factors such as imperialism, colonialism, economics, social and political relations would be brought into the picture.

People would also concentrate on particular periods - and rightly so. Attempts to carry generalisations across centuries lead to myth-making. Even the canonised histories of civilisations accept that societies and relations between them change over time.

To use ancient or medieval history as a pretext for the study of modern history is not an approved disciplinary practice.

In this context, the current plethora of historical or history-based works on the Balkan conflict, the Balkan crises, the Balkan imbroglio, the Balkan ghosts, etc, is hard to reconcile. It is true that common ancestry, historical memories, collective identity and the symbolic cultural capital of select groups of people do matter in the formation of social, economical and political relations and therefore in the making of history.

But there is no given repertoire of ethnicity that every historian can use to describe or explain historical events in a given society, let alone in a whole region and across time. Indeed, the desire to locate natural, spontaneous and organic/biological causes for change and conflict forms the biggest obstacle to historical study on the Balkans today. The tendency to overlook major breaking points in the region's current history leads historians to dangerous assumptions of an immune, self-protective ethno-religious fabric penetrating the whole of Balkan history. Such myths should form no basis for a modern historian's work.

Nergis Canefe is a Past and Present Society fellow, Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

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