Postsocialist Mediterranean

Scalar gaze, moral self, and relational labor of favors in Eastern Europe

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Čarna BrkovićDepartment for Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology, University of Goettingen, Germany carna.brkovic@uni-goettingen.de

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Abstract

This article opens a conversation between anthropological studies of the Mediterranean and of postsocialism in order to propose the notion of a “scalar gaze” as an analytical approach useful for capturing veering practices in their social complexity. The article argues that favors (veze/štela, lit. relations, connections) in contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina were a practice through which people fulfilled the demands of capitalist economy to be active, rather than a pre-capitalist excess that prevented “proper” development of the country into a neoliberal democracy. Zooming in and out and looking sideways between moral reasoning, internationally supervised structural changes of the job markets, and electoral politics, this article explores how the relational labor of favors reproduced moral selves, as well as hierarchy and inequality.

One December evening in 2009, I was having coffee with Maja, a student who was worried about her job prospects in Bijeljina, a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Maja told me about Vlatko, her friend and fellow student at the local university, who had come to her place a month ago. Vlatko had coincidentally picked a day when Ana, Maja's friend infatuated with him, was there. Ana told Vlatko that there was a job opening in a company run by her cousin. Maja said to me: “If he hadn't been there the same day she slept over at my place, nothing would have happened … you never know when you may need someone.” Nothing happened with the job, since the company owner told Vlatko he could not get the job before finishing his degree. There was a chance for a position only after having the degree in hand. However, the fact was that for Maja something had happened that day: Vlatko had found Ana to be a new veza (lit. a relation, a connection), that is, a new personal connection to a potential job. This confirmed Maja's belief that “you never know when you might need someone.”

How can we understand the relationship between Ana, Maja, Vlatko, and Ana's cousin? Was Ana a potential provider of a favor for Vlatko? Were they about to become a patron and a client? Did Ana's romantic feelings shape their relationship into a form of nepotism or corruption? The question here is not just how to classify this relationship. The question is also to which body of anthropological literature should this relationship be connected? Can it tell us something about the use of favors, informality, clientelism, nepotism, or corruption? Most often, these terms are discussed separately in social sciences. My aim in this article is to briefly place anthropological works on clientelism and patronage in the Mediterranean in conversation with postsocialist works on favors in order to argue we need to develop a “scalar gaze” to understand the work of favors in the reproduction of political economy as well as of a moral self.

In postsocialist studies, favors and informality are predominantly understood as ambiguous practices with an economic rationale: they are explained as strategies people use to overcome deficiencies of developing markets and immature democratic institutions. Patronage and clientelism in Mediterranean Europe, however, were usually discussed as hierarchical practices with implications for the organization of politics and power, particularly between the “local” (peripheral, rural) and the “national” (central, urban) communities. For understanding the work of veze and štela in BiH, I found useful anthropological works that approach clientelism and patronage as a field of “class relationships” and “unequal power relations of an historical and structural nature” (Shore 2006: 43; see also Lauth Bacas 2015; Zinn 2019). “An understanding of clientelism as a field of relationships of political struggle” (Stubbs and Zrinščak 2011: 4) and as “a broad set of hegemonic political practices and strategies marked by particularistic modes of governance, exclusivist definitions of citizenship, and asymmetrical distribution and redistribution of resources” (Stubbs and Zrinščak 2015: 398) is crucial for understanding the work conducted through favors in Eastern Europe beyond modernization theory.

By “scalar gaze” I refer to an analytical approach that involves an intentional analytical move of zooming in and out and looking sideways, attempting to see what happens with the presumably same entity (practice, object, relationship) across various scales. A scalar gaze means ethnographically tracing a practice, object, or relationship across various scales, from global and transnational to interpersonal and individual ones (see Fraser 2010; Herod 2009). A good elaboration of a scalar gaze can be found in Sarah Green's (2005: 141) study of how northern Greece appears across different scales (including in sociopolitical commentaries, geomorphological reports, anthropological accounts, everyday stories of people, and so on) and where her approach was “to switch to and fro between scales, to switch the sound off and switch it back on again repeatedly, to try to understand the relations between them, rather than the fragmentations.” Present in the emergent anthropological studies of the Mediterranean (e.g. Green 2019), this approach seems particularly useful for analyzing entities that do not quite fit into the categorical apparatuses of Western liberal nation-states (which includes all those practices, objects, and relationships that spill over conventional institutionalized boundaries between politics and economy, gift and payment, clientelism and networking, and so forth). Thinking between particularities of area studies can be useful in developing and fine-tuning such a gaze. While BiH is formally a Mediterranean country (approximately 20 kilometers of BiH's territory around the coastal town of Neum is located on the Adriatic Sea), it is more firmly situated in the anthropological conversations about postsocialist and postwar transformations.1 Trying to think about BiH as “postsocialist Mediterranean” can help us to disentangle ambiguities of joint political and economic effects of veza/štela across scales.

Turning briefly to anthropology of the Mediterranean, this article suggests that veze/štela in BiH were a practice through which young people fulfilled the demands of a capitalist economy to be active (and not some “precapitalist” excess that prevented proper development of the country into a neoliberal democracy). Internationally supervised reforms of labor market and welfare in BiH created structural conditions of uncertainty and precarity in which people were expected to be active, flexibly adapt to ever-changing circumstances, and work on themselves in order to increase their life chances. This is precisely why people turned to veze/štela—pursuits of veze/štela were a way for Bosnians to be flexible and to actively work on increasing their life chances. When we take a closer look at Maja's attempts to find a job, we can see her pursuits of veza/štela as a form of relational labor that was necessary in order to secure stable employment in a capitalist labor market in a global semi-periphery.

The article also looks at how such relational labor of favors was used to reproduce hierarchy and inequality. Veze and štela contributed to a particular politics of favors in which favors reinstated a sense of self as a moral person as well as unequal power relations among differently positioned people. Veze/štela were part of people's attempts to carve themselves into moral persons—helping others to get things done was what a good person would do. Being able to help many different people increased your influence and prestige in the town—which some people could convert into official political positions and/or various sources of income. In other words, favors helped people translate moral value into other forms of value, such as social, political, and economic. In order to understand how veze/štela reinstated people's moral personhood, as well as socio-political hierarchies between them, we should zoom out our ethnographic gaze from the level of individual moral reasoning and turn our attention to several multiple social fields and scales simultaneously. That is what a scalar gaze would entail.

Hierarchy of patronage/clientelism and reciprocity of favors

Clientelism and patronage in the Mediterranean

Anthropological studies of the Mediterranean during the Cold War present a relatively well-known segment of the disciplinary history that illustrates epistemological problems inherent in the culture-area approaches. The majority of these works understood patronage and clientelism through a set of distinctions between the presumably modern, bureaucratic, developed, rational system of a nation-state at its center and the presumably pre-modern, personalized, developing, social and affective system in the rural peripheries of a country (Campbell 1964; Kenny 1960; Silverman 1975; Weingrod 1968). For instance, Sydel Silverman (1965: 173) suggests that a patron's key role was to be a mediator who established the relations between the client and the world outside the local community as well as “between a local system and a national system.” Such ideas about clientelism underwent criticism from a Marxist perspective. Luciano Li Causi suggested that the key to understanding patronage and clientelism lies in the social and class differentiations within a peasant community, rather than in distinctions between centers and peripheries: “‘Patronage’ is thus an ideology to which the landlord frequently subscribed, as did the peasants themselves, mainly by the virtue of their lack of different, class-based social and political relations” (Li Causi 1975: 99). From this perspective, a particular moral quality of the relationship between clients and patrons—a sense of gratefulness, trust, intimacy, and even friendship—presents an ideological mechanism of concealing exploitation and domination within peasant communities.2

The 1980s brought a strong internal anthropological criticism of the Mediterranean as a meaningful regional or cultural framework for anthropological studies, which led to a call to treat it as an “ethnographic datum for an analysis, rather than exclusively as an analytical category” (Herzfeld 1987: 86). The production of anthropological knowledge about the Mediterranean was criticized for imputing socio-cultural homogeneity where it could not be found and for politically “othering” people and places around the Mediterranean from the West (Herzfeld 1980; Pina-Cabral 1989). After the 1980s, “the discussion on the category ‘Mediterranean’ progressively lost its force and instead tended to follow geopolitical lines of demarcation into an ‘anthropology of Europe’ and an ‘anthropology of the Middle East’” (Cassia and Schäfer 2005: 6; see also Kavanagh and Bacas 2011). The idea of the Mediterranean as a cultural area is still alive and used for various purposes in non-academic discourses (Rogozen-Soltar 2020), but anthropologists are not approaching this region as a cultural area anymore.

Recently, there have been several calls to “return to the Mediterranean” (Albera 2006; Shryock 2020). Emerging anthropological studies of the Mediterranean take a more transnational perspective and focus on social complexity (Meneley 2020; Parla 2020; Slyomovics 2020; Viscomi 2020). Contemporary anthropologists look at how different “locating regimes” (Green 2019) produce the Mediterranean differently and make it sometimes stable and at other times dissolve into irrelevance (Douzina-Bakalaki 2017; Scalco 2019; Soto Bermant 2017). This revival of anthropological studies of the Mediterranean seems to be motivated by a desire to discover alternative and theoretically promising ways of thinking about borders, connections, and disconnections beyond the hegemonic political categories of the Global North (such as the nation-state, or the EU). A good ethnographic illustration of this approach can be found in Venetia Kantsa and Michael Dobson's (2020) exploration of whether an island should be thought of as an isolated mass with clear borders, or as a part of a larger, networked whole with blurred boundaries and unequal relations among its entities (e.g., an archipelago), and how this can help us think about certain urban spaces differently. Similar to other water-worlds, the Mediterranean has a capacity to call forth alternative imaginings of relatedness and so it offers anthropologists an opportunity to conceive of (dis)connections, relations, and separations in new ways, but without glorifying the region as an idealized space of cosmopolitan interconnection (because not every alternative is to be celebrated). As Naor Ben-Yehoyada, Heath Cabot, and Paul A. Silverstein (2020: 4) write, the Mediterranean offers anthropologists “a map of potentialities, both lethal and redemptive.”

Favors in Eastern Europe

The concepts of clientelism and patronage lost their strength in the anthropology of Europe more or less simultaneously with the fall of socialism. The concepts of clients and patrons and centers and peripheries largely disappeared in discussions of post-socialist contexts (but see Vetters 2014). Their place was taken by the analytical language of informality (Cvetičanin et al. 2019; Ledeneva 1998), favors (Henig and Makovicky 2016; Humphrey 2012), grey zones (Harboe Knudsen and Frederiksen 2015), or corruption (Zinn 2005).3 This historical link between the changes brought by 1989 and the transformation of the anthropological studies of patron-client relations in Europe may be more than coincidental.

Namely, anthropological accounts of postsocialist transformation made it clear that the “veering” ways of doing things can thrive within European states. (Post)socialist favors usually did not involve discrete “local” (peripheral) and “national” (central) communities, but seemingly reciprocal exchanges among members of the same polity—many of whom had shared economic and socio-political status. In numerous cases, there were no obvious patrons, since it seemed as if everybody was brokering something for someone else (Kononenko and Moshes 2011). People pursued favors regardless of their gender, age, class, ethno-nationality, sexuality, profession, or any other social position and identity marker. They did so in all possible arenas: within state and public bureaucracies, in private companies and generally in the markets, in civic associations as well as in the intimacy of one's home, and so on. Because favors are so common in postsocialist contexts, they were not analyzed as characteristics of a life in the rural peripheries of a nation-state—favors were crucial for a life in Moscow as much as for a life in a Siberian town. The overwhelming ubiquity of favors in state bureaucracies and economies across post-socialist Europe made it more difficult to see how they contribute to the reproduction of socio-political hierarchies, inequalities, and power.

Postsocialist favors were explained in two ways. The first dominant interpretation is systemic: it understands favors as socially meaningful attempts to mediate the pressures caused by the underdeveloped markets and immature democracies in Eastern Europe (Ledeneva 2009). Systemic perspective follows modernization theory to a large extent as its political imagination is founded upon the assumption that the West provides the model of how politics and economy should work, while the Rest ought to try to fashion themselves in the image of Western countries. Another important thing to note is the methodological nationalism of the systemic perspective, since it understands the “system” as a (nation-)state. Informal practices present a strategy for dealing with deficiencies of Russian market economy and democratic institutions full of “imperfections” (Ledeneva 2006: 27). Systemic interpretation loses sight of the political and economic forces that may shape favors from various local, regional, national, and transnational scales. In order to understand veze/štela in BiH, I argue that we need look across various scales, including at how transnational processes may affect everyday pursuits of favors (and vice versa).

The second dominant interpretation is moral and it approaches favors as informal economic practices that people turn to in order to craft themselves into locally specific modalities of moral self. Moral interpretation demonstrates that “clientelist” or “corrupt” practices actually provide the material from which people make themselves into good persons and that they do so willingly (rather than because they are pressured to do so by the failures of a system). For instance, Caroline Humphrey (2012) argues that in Russian and Mongolian education, we can see that people willingly choose to get things done through favors, because this gives them a sense of self-worth and confirms their vision of themselves as a “normal hero” (see also Henig 2016; Makovicky 2018; Pine 2015).

Finally, there has also been a set of studies that employ what I call a scalar gaze, exploring both the political economy of favors as well as their effect on personhood and interpersonal relationships (e.g., Dunn 2004: 119–125; Stan 2012). Some of these works look at how various postsocialist actors use favors to flexibly move across boundaries between public and private arenas, increasing their economic and/or political power in doing so (Pantović 2018; Wedel 2009). Let me explain what a scalar gaze entails as an analytical approach and how it can help us to understand the socio-political and economic effects of favors differently.

Conversation between Mediterranean and postsocialist studies: The scalar gaze

When we take a comparative look at the anthropological studies of the Mediterranean and of postsocialist Europe, we can see there are a number of issues that could be gained through a more sustained conversation. For instance, anthropology conducted in the Mediterranean can help us to see the importance of the scalar gaze. Anthropology has “returned” to the study of the Mediterranean by looking at how this region is constituted differently through various regulating regimes that operate simultaneously across transnational, national, local, regional, and other scales (Green 2019). This focus on social complexity and regulating regimes that cannot be contained within the borders of nation-states can be inspirational for overcoming the problems with the methodological nationalism that often pervade studies of favors in postsocialist contexts. By “methodological nationalism” I refer to the tendency to take the nation-state and its boundaries as a given in social analysis (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002). As briefly mentioned above, a wide range of postsocialist studies approached favors as a rational by-product of systemic deficiencies of national economies and/or national electoral democratic systems. There are many examples of the ways postsocialist states fail to fulfill citizens’ expectations. However, assuming that favors and clientelism are a response to deficiency within the country shrouds the effects of these practices on the production of a moral self as well as their relation to the transnational, global economic and political aspects of postsocialist transformations. Taking processes within a single state as a relevant scale of reference also suggests that, once these states are fully developed and modernized, there will be no further need for favors and clientelism. Such “dis-timing” (see Jansen 2008) of favors and clientelism as pre-democratic or pre-capitalist prevents analyzing the ways these practices are a reflection of contemporary globalized socio-political and economic processes. The most recent anthropological engagements with the Mediterranean can be useful for developing analytical frameworks to approach the work of favors from different scales, including the transnational ones.

A scalar gaze can also help us see that hierarchy and inequality are a constitutive part of various moral-ethical projects and that there are people who benefit from particular moral constellations. It is important to observe people's attempts to carve themselves into particular moral persons—what James Laidlaw (2002) calls freedom—not as standalone ethical projects, but as efforts embedded into broader social worlds saturated by power and inequality. If we understand pursuits of favors solely as individualized ethical projects of making yourself into a particular kind of a moral person, we cannot see how such projects may contribute to the reproduction of wider social relations shaped by power, inequality, and hierarchy. “Clients” in Bijeljina discussed their “patrons” as good people who helped them and others out of the goodness of their hearts. At the same time, these “patrons” benefited politically and economically in a very clear manner from providing favors for many different people. There is no contradiction in such a constellation: inequality and ethics do not exclude one another. In order to understand intersections between the ethical and the socio-political dimensions of favors, we need to adopt a scalar gaze—that is, to pay attention to how favors work in multiple contexts and across various scales simultaneously. As will be illustrated ethnographically on the last pages of this article, a scalar gaze on favors means looking simultaneously at the moral reasoning of a person who pursues or provides a favor, their social worlds with all the gossip and stories, structural conditions of politics and economy, international calls to “cut off” clientelism and eradicate corruption, and so forth.

What could anthropological research of the Mediterranean take from postsocialist studies? There is an obvious difference between these two regions that makes difficult any attempt to generalize about the Mediterranean: postsocialist countries shared a political and economic framework, while the Mediterranean did not. Anthropological studies of Eastern Europe have explored in detail how the experiences of life in actually existing socialisms have shaped the introduction of liberal democracies and capitalist economies. The Mediterranean countries lack similar shared institutional histories—despite the recent grassroots’ and activists’ calls for establishment of a Mediterranean citizenship (Solera et al. 2018), this is not a region with a shared political framework. Still, perhaps Mediterranean studies can take from postsocialism an interest in economy and a focus on capitalist exploitation, since the same economic processes seem to shape places throughout the Mediterranean and Eastern European regions (see Rommel 2018). As Ognjen Kojanić (forthcoming) suggests in his plea for a “theory from the periphery,” two potentially major contributions of the anthropology of postsocialism to the broader anthropology of Europe could be “analyses of the construction of the peripheral position (e.g., Balkanism, the invention of Eastern Europe) and analyses of political-economic changes and their social impacts (e.g., debt, the feminization of poverty, the rise of xenophobia and extreme nationalism, the lack of participation in political processes).” Thinking between peripheries and their area-studies could help to determine further points of intersection. We will now take a look at an ethnographic illustration of how a study of favors could benefit from such a conversation.

You never know when you might need someone

Maja was in her final year of undergraduate studies, and she actively worked on improving her chances to get a job. For instance, Maja took English lessons, we polished her CV together, and she browsed the employment opportunities section of the local newspapers. However, Maja was convinced these common job-seeking practices were not enough: she also needed a veza/štela to find decent employment. She complained to me several times that she “did not know anyone in Bijeljina,” which meant she did not have any kind of a veza that could secure her a job afterward. Maja was frustrated with the long-term residents of Bijeljina, because they all “had someone” and “knew people.” However, even though her job prospects did not look good, coincidences and surprises could happen. She repeatedly said, “you never know when you might need someone.” When I asked what she meant by it, she gave me an example from her own experience.

Maja grew up in Foča, another town in BiH. When she was in secondary school, she met a family in the street carrying suitcases. They asked her for help, and she took them to her cousin's place who rented them a cheap room. They were from Bijeljina, and they gave Maja their personal phone number and address before leaving. When Maja went to Bijeljina to start her studies at the university, she called this family and stayed with them for the first couple of days, before she found a room for herself. In Foča, she had helped them before she had even thought of going to Bijeljina to study. As a consequence, when she needed someone in Bijeljina, she could count on them. She said that, if she had not helped them that day, if she had chosen to walk down a different street, she would not have met them, and she would not have had anyone to help her during her first few days in Bijeljina. The fact that she was useful for them before she could possibly know they might be useful for her was a proof that, indeed, you can never know when you might need someone.

The idea that “you never know when you might need someone” made a link between knowing and needing people: to meet your needs in an uncertain future, it was sensible to meet many different people. The sentence “she knows people” (ona zna ljude) was used to express that a person had plenty of potential veze, that is, a large network of relations who could be useful and productive or who could provide a favor. Knowing (the right) people was extremely helpful in resolving all sorts of practical issues—from accessing public healthcare, social support, or ID cards and passports to getting a job in both private and public sectors, to being able to find affordable and quality goods and services. Once these connections and relations resulted in a favor, they were described as a veza (singular) or veze (plural). Veze can be translated as “relations,” or “connections.” The word comes from the verb vezati, which can be translated as “to relate to,” but also as “to link,” “to tie into a knot,” or “to put together.” Sometimes, these connections and relations were also described as a štela. The word probably comes from the verb štelovati, which means “fixing,” or “setting up something or someone.”

There were different ways to increase the likelihood that veza/štela would result in something useful and productive. First, you could cast your network as widely as possible: the better connected you were (e.g., the more coffees you had with different people), the better chances you would have to get what you need. Second, you could join a political party. For instance, Maja joined not one, but two political parties in the course of my fieldwork. She had a very pragmatic and self-interested understanding of party politics. Maja left the first political party because they gave her only “pens and pretty notebooks, nothing more substantial,” as she said. Describing political party meetings, Maja recounted how she was expected to collect signatures for a party event for no compensation. Another problem in her view was the competition—there were 30 other younger people in Maja's division, most of whom were better connected in the town than Maja, through their long-existing family networks.4 After a few months and repeated efforts to establish a more personal connection to the higher positioned people in the party, she decided to quit.

This was not the end of Maja's political career: she then joined another, smaller political party. Maja was more satisfied with the second political party, since the competition was not so large and the outlook for getting a job looked promising. The programs of the two parties had little to no relevance for her decision-making process. The primary reason for Maja's involvement in party politics was to establish a wider social network to find a job after graduation. Anthropological research already noted that many young people in BiH vote with a particular temporal frame in mind—they focus on immediate benefits one could obtain through voting, such as small payments (Čelebičić 2016; Kurtović 2016). An interesting thing in Maja's case was that sociality (a developed social network) and a pragmatic goal (a personal benefit) could not be clearly distinguished. Following Jeremy Boissevain (1974), we could say that knowing and needing people were practically one and the same for Maja. She valued membership in a political party not just because it promised an immediate benefit (financial compensation for collecting signatures, for instance), but also because it offered her an opportunity to connect to the “important” people in Bijeljina. Political membership enabled Maja to work on expanding her network of social relations—this in itself increased the chances of getting things done in the future. How can we understand Maja's relentless pursuit of promising social connections and relations?

Relational labor in a precarious job market

Favors and clientelism in BiH are dominantly framed as obstacles to “proper” capitalist development. Yet, I would suggest favors and clientelism are practices through which capitalism operates in the Southeast European periphery. These “noncapitalist excesses are at the same time vital to capitalism. They are a source of its energies, the condition of its success, the possibility of its power to reproduce. They are a heterogeneity that makes possible the logic of capital, and thus ensures both its powers and its failures” (Mitchell 2002: 303).

This point can be well illustrated by the fact that it was the internationally supervised reform of the job market in BiH that created the conditions in which you never knew when you might need someone. The Bosnian job market has been extremely severe for young people at least since 2008 (Mastilo 2015). Youth unemployment is a major problem in the European Union as well, but its numbers in BiH at the time of my research were four times higher than in the EU: in 2010, almost 60 percent of Bosnians between 18 and 35 years were unemployed.5 The dominant explanation of this infamous European record was that young Bosnians were inactive. For instance, the director of an agency for youth employment in Mostar suggested that the passivity of the youth was the key problem: “It is devastating when you ask a young person if they have any plans and what they would like to do and they respond ‘I don't know!’”6 A lecturer at the Faculty of Economics in Tuzla, BiH, suggests that one of the major problems in this field is “distinct inactivity (over 50 percent of young people are economically inactive—they do not have a job, nor do they look for one)” (Čavalić 2016: 5). A BiH think tank published a policy brief on youth unemployment that suggested that “the attitude of the young and highly educated people in BiH who are entering the job market is not best suited for today's capitalist market” (Cvikl 2013: 2). The author of the brief (a graduate of the University of Manchester who comes from the former Yugoslavia) argues that to be employed in the twenty-first century “asks for a little bit more. And that little bit more is: the right attitude” (Cvikl 2013: 9). According to the same policy brief, the “right attitude” among the BiH youth presumably includes decreased expectations of the working conditions and salary; readiness to do anything, even unpaid work, in order to gain experience; preparedness to “stand on your own feet even if the floor is shaky and insecure” (Cvikl 2013: 7), and so on.

The top-down expectation that, in order to find a job, the Bosnian youth had to get moving, to be active, to “take life into one's own hands” got translated into relational labor invested into veze/štela. In my view, various actors within the BiH and beyond who criticized the youth for “sitting in a cafe in the middle of the day and doing nothing” (see Čelebičić 2013) were wrong: going out for a coffee was a form of relational labor that Maja had to invest to find a job—and later on, to keep it. If it was up to Maja to be active to get employment—and she could never know when she might need someone—going for a coffee with many different people was a sensible way to work toward securing a better future. It was not necessarily the attitudes of the young people that needed changing: Maja worked hard to meet both the conventional job-seeking requirements (by improving her English-language skills, polishing her CV, etc.) and to establish social connections and relations with multiple potentially useful people.

Here I use the notion of relational labor that was developed by Nancy Baym (2015) to analyze the US music industry. Baym suggests musicians in the United States are increasingly expected to engage in the necessary, but unpaid, labor of fostering and sustaining communal ties with their audience. They do this not for direct compensation, but as an investment in a career. In order to become successful in a precarious and overcrowded market, there is an imperative to connect with their audiences: “this connecting exemplifies contemporary demands to engage in unpaid social labor to have any hope at professional success” (Baym 2015: 14).

In the BiH job market, the imperative to get active in order to find employment was similarly translated into an imperative to connect, although the connections took place in person, rather than online. If we understand the pursuit of potential veze/štela as a form of relational labor, we can see young people in BiH as assertive subjects who actively worked toward finding a job and securing a better future. Relational labor conducted through favors and clientelism is not a postsocialist or Mediterranean cultural specificity whose function was to overcome the anomalies of BiH institutional development. Nor was this a case of resistance to the “neoliberal politics as failed sociality” (Giroux 2011). Favors provided a meaningful way to engage with official demands of contemporary, neoliberal, overcrowded markets in a global periphery.

Yet, the structural conditions of the job market that caused the need for the relational labor do not explain why Maja pursued veza/štela also through political parties. She did this to get personal links to the people positioned higher up in the social hierarchy of the town. As I illustrated in this section, having a wide social circle was important. It was equally, if not more important, to have powerful people in your social network. Political activism—and religious charitable work—presented good ways to meet powerful people in Bijeljina.

Ethics and hierarchy in patron–client relations

In order to understand how seemingly reciprocal exchanges of favors reproduce hierarchy and inequality, we need to zoom out from interpersonal relations and to take a look across various social domains and scales—to employ a scalar gaze, in other words. In Bijeljina, practically everybody was a “broker” (Alexander 2002) who pursued favors through the ever-changing networks of social relations in the town and beyond. Everybody seemed to pursue relations because, as Maja said, “you never know when you might need someone.” People tried to personalize their relations with public institutions. Occasionally, at some institutions, some people were successful. At other times, in different institutions, those same people were unsuccessful. Since there was no single broker, the right sort of relation—the one that got things done—depended on the context. This dependence on context—a contingent, and yet socially embedded (in)ability to get things done—created a peculiar sense that everything was potentially possible, while at the same time remaining potentially impossible (“sve može i ništa ne može,” as my interlocutors would say). Yet some people were much better than others at navigating across social contexts, and they usually became patrons able to provide favors to many others.

Ratka was one such person who operated as a small-scale broker not just for herself, but for a large number of other people as well. I stumbled upon stories about Ratka's help and influence almost everywhere I looked. One evening, as a researcher of local forms of humanitarianism, I was invited for a dinner at the local Orthodox Christian charity The Holy Mother. Maja wanted to join me. The charity's offices were located at the large Orthodox Christian monastery that was built in the center of Bijeljina after the 1992–1995 war in BiH. Maja and I went there together and met with Ratka in the green and nicely cultivated garden of the monastery. Maja was very excited to meet Ratka—she was well-known in the town both for “being powerful” and for “doing good.” My interlocutors often described Ratka as a “goddess” (boginja) who could do what no one else could. Throughout the evening, Ratka talked about her multiple roles and responsibilities in various private and public institutions. She was not just the president of the charity, but also the municipal politician and a close associate of Bijeljina's mayor, director of several boards on social protection, language teacher in a public school—all at the same time. Maja was clearly in awe of her, and she expressed several times her admiration for Ratka's goodness, kindness, and seemingly unlimited energy. As far as I know, Maja did not ask Ratka for a favor to obtain a job. She seemed satisfied just to have Ratka as a personal contact and a part of her social world. This was something Ratka was very good at—being available to others as a potential future favor provider was her specialty.

Ratka also actually helped many people in the course of my fieldwork in Bijeljina. For instance, Ratka secured 200KM (100EUR) for a mother of a child with developmental difficulties to send the child's medical test results to Norway for special analyses. This particular need of the mother and her child was created by the slashing of healthcare budgets that left more than 20 percent of BiH citizens without public healthcare insurance (Salihbašić 2011). Furthermore, social protection reforms explicitly placed responsibility for many different services onto a “local community.”7 For a mother in need, asking a respectable and powerful member of a local community, such as Ratka, for a favor presented a direct and logical outcome of new visions of how healthcare and social protection ought to be organized.

A scalar gaze can help us see that favors are often implicated in reproducing particular moral projects as well as hierarchy, inequality, and power. By providing favors, Ratka carved herself into a particular moral person. Yet, if we focus just on Ratka's own moral reasoning and/or people's descriptions of Ratka as a goddess and a good person, we will miss something important. If we look at Ratka's practices with a scalar gaze and keep in mind interpretations of clientelism in the Mediterranean, we can see that Ratka also had a clear political incentive to help. Since women who want to do political work in BiH “must continue to be perceived as women, and moral women at that” (Helms 2007: 237), Ratka also strived to be seen as a caring, moral person, so as to engage in the world of official politics.

She did this by becoming able to solve very different issues for many people—from getting a job or paying electricity bills to setting up an appointment at the municipality or obtaining various documents. Over time, she has become a patron, hierarchically positioned over other small-scale brokers, able to get things done that others could not. The key to transforming oneself from a small-scale broker to a hierarchically positioned patron was to transform moral value (being seen as a good person who provides favors) into social influence (occupying multiple public and private roles from which you could provide various favors to many people) and then into an official political position (e.g., of a municipal parliamentarian). To be able to transform different forms of value into one another, it helped to have many roles in various private and public institutions that enabled you to get things done for others. This is precisely what Ratka worked hard to obtain for years: in the first postwar years, she helped people as a teacher in a local school and a volunteer in grassroots networks of support; then she helped as a Red Cross member who also joined a right-wing nationalist political party, which had been (and stayed) in power in the town; next she founded a religious charity; from there she became a part of different municipal bodies for welfare and humanitarian aid and the “left hand” of the town's mayor; finally, she has become one of the most prominent members of the municipal government. Over the years, Ratka became a patron because she could make things happen for others in multiple public and private venues all at the same time. She generated official political power by doing personal favors for others. Her charitable work was inseparable from her political work—they were mutually interdependent. By providing ever more varied favors to an ever-larger number of people, Ratka became a very influential woman politically. Providing favors to others—and occupying multiple public and private roles at the same time—produced Ratka's flexible political power.8

This did not make her ethical project less genuine—here, hierarchy and ethics go hand in hand. It would be wrong to see Ratka as a cynical person who helped others solely for personal gain. To me, Ratka seemed like a capable person who genuinely enjoyed helping people for various reasons. However, we should not focus just on her individual moral reasoning and how the granting of favors allowed her to pursue the project of crafting herself into a moral person. Such a focus would mean losing sight of wider political effects of her work—how she contributed to the reproduction of power and inequality in the town. There was a major difference between small-scale brokers and patrons; their moral projects were similar, but the political effects of their exchanges of favors were quite different.

Conclusion

Emic terms for the veering ways of getting things done (e.g., veze/štela, znajomości, blat, etc.) cannot be straightforwardly translated as favors, clientelism, or informality. The choice of a particular English term and the related theoretical framework carries analytical and political consequences. Something is both gained and lost when we translate veze/štela as favors, informality, or clientelism. Informality stresses the distinction with the official sphere of institutional transformations, but it loses sight of the roles of the transnational (large scale processes that shape such institutional transformations) and of the individual (how people pursue particular moral projects through informal practices). The language of favors emphasizes individual moral reasoning and their small-scale economic effects, but it loses sight of the wider systemic processes, both on national and transnational scales. A scalar gaze opens up the possibility of illuminating how ethics and politics are inseparable in such veering practices, in different constellations across scales. Taking into account that these veering practices blur various boundaries (e.g., between charity and politics; pragmatics and sociality; reciprocity and hierarchy), this article suggests the most productive approach is to keep all these different languages in mind in order to develop diverse theoretical explanations that will reflect the various meanings and practices of the veering ways of getting things done across scales.

Various veering practices follow different logics of relating and redistributing resources. This means that it is practically impossible to make the same interpretative claims about all such practices in Eastern Europe, or elsewhere. It may even be wrong to make the same interpretative claim about all veze/štela in one country, such as BiH. Instead of a generalizable theory of favors/informality/clientelism, I think there should be many different theoretical explanations on why and how people get things done by veering off the expected course. This article argues that, in order to theorize such indirect ways of getting things done, it helps to employ a scalar gaze and to think between area-studies that look at various global peripheries.

A conversation between the anthropological studies of the Mediterranean and (South)East Europe teaches us that theories of the veering practices may benefit from the following two insights. First, the need to get things done in a non-straightforward way can be a legitimate outcome of transnational processes—rather than an “ill” of an underdeveloped national economy or politics. Profound economic, political, and social changes that have been going on in BiH since the end of the 1992–1995 war created widespread uncertainty and precarity. Simultaneous postsocialist and postwar transformation(s) made people largely unable to imagine their future. Veze/štela helped people to navigate their chances in such an environment—as Maja said, you could never know when you might need someone. Employing a scalar gaze and ethnographically exploring different fields of everyday life enables us to see the veze/štela as a form of relational labor that was necessary in order to find a job in the capitalist labor market in a global periphery. Second, women who wanted to engage in the world of official politics needed to invest this relational labor in a way that made others increasingly dependent on them. Becoming a patron involved the pursuit of a moral project alongside the reproduction of existing relations of power and inequality. Thinking between area-studies and across multiple scales can help us to illuminate such important distinctions that are present in contemporary veering ways of getting things done.

Acknowledgments

This article was initially written for a panel “Patronage-Clientelism 2.0” organized by Dorothy L. Zinn and Jutta Lauth Bacas during the 2016 EASA meeting in Milan. I am grateful to both of them for pushing me to turn it into a published article; it would not have existed without their help. I am indebted to Paul Stubbs and John Clarke for continuously demonstrating to me that a focus on inequality and power can go hand in hand with an eye for social complexity and ambiguity. I also want to thank Taras Fedirko and the three peer reviewers for their feedback on earlier versions of this article.

Notes

1

For a comprehensive overview of ethnographic studies on BiH in the last twenty years, see Bougarel et al. (2007); Jansen et al. (2016).

2

Interestingly, studies of other parts of the world demonstrated that patronage and clientelism could exist not only separately and parallel to the state apparatus, but within it, as its constitutive part (for instance, Scott 1972). However, this did not shake the assumption that clientelism is antithetical to the modern state apparatuses in Europe.

3

There are works in political science and sociology that discuss clientelism and corruption in postsocialism (e.g., Kotkin and Sajo 2002; Rose 1999). However, they usually reiterate the foundational assumption of the systemic perspective by understanding clientelism and corruption as ills of premodern, predemocratic societies that should go away through development of a postsocialist country into a “proper” neoliberal democracy.

4

For an analysis of strong discursive distinctions between the “newcomers” and those who had lived in Bijeljina before the 1992–1995 war, see Maksimović Pupovac (2019).

5

“Nezaposlenost mladih u BiH četiri puta veća nego u EU.” DW.com, 23 August. https://www.dw.com/bs/nezaposlenost-mladih-u-bih-%C4%8Detiri-puta-ve%C4%87a-nego-u-eu/a-5934205.

6

Ibid.

7

I discuss this in detail elsewhere (Brković 2017).

8

I discuss this in detail elsewhere (Brković 2015).

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Contributor Notes

Čarna Brković is Lecturer at the Department for Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology, University of Goettingen. She holds PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Manchester and has published in journals such as Anthropological Theory, Ethnos, and Social Anthropology. She authored the ethnographic monograph Managing Ambiguity (Berghahn 2017) and co-edited the volume Negotiating Social Relations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Routledge 2016). ORCID: 0000-0002-4569-6342 Email: carna.brkovic@uni-goettingen.de

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Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Albera, Dionigi. 2006. “Anthropology of the Mediterranean: Between crisis and renewal.” History and Anthropology 17 (2): 109133.

  • Alexander, Catherine. 2002. Personal states: Making connections between people and bureaucracy in Turkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Baym, K. Nancy. 2015. “Connect with your audience! The relational labor of connection.” The Communication Review 18 (1): 1422.

  • Ben-Yehoyada, Naor, Heath Cabot, and Paul A. Silverstein. 2020. “Introduction: Remapping Mediterranean anthropology.” History and Anthropology 31 (1): 121.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boissevain, Jeremy. 1974. Friends of friends: Networks, manipulators and coalitions. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

  • Bougarel, Xavier, Elissa Helms, and Ger Duijzings, eds. 2007. The new Bosnian mosaic: Memories, identities and moral claims in a post-war society. Aldershot: Ashgate.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brković, Čarna. 2015. “Management of ambiguity: Favours and flexibility in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Social Anthropology 23 (3): 268282.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brković, Čarna. 2017. Managing ambiguity. How clientelism, citizenship, and power shape personhood in Bosnia and Herzegovina. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Campbell, John Kennedy. 1964. Honour, family and patronage: A study of institutions and moral values in a Greek mountain community. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cassia, Paul Sant, and Isabel Schäfer. 2005. “‘Mediterranean conundrums’: Pluridisciplinary perspectives for research in the social sciences.” History and Anthropology 16 (1): 123.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Čelebičić, Vanja. 2016. “Beyond to vote or not to vote: How youth engage with politics.” In Negotiating Social Relations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ed. Stef Jansen, Čarna Brković, and Vanja Čelebičić. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cvetičanin, Predrag, Misha Popovikj, and Miloš Jovanović. 2019. “Informality in the Western Balkans: A culture, a contextual rational choice, or both?Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 19 (4): 585604.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cvikl, Katarina. 2013. “Nezaposlenost mladih: Je li problem u stavu?” [Youth unemployment: Does the problem lie in the attitude?]. Policy brief, Think Tank Populari, 112.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Douzina-Bakalaki, Phaedra. 2017. “Volunteering mothers: Engaging the crisis in a soup kitchen of Northern Greece.” Anthropology Matters 17: 124.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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