Between legitimation and imagination: epistemic attachment, ontological bias, and thinking about the future

Greyswans
Some swans are…grey (Cambridge, August 2017)

 

A serious line of division runs through my household. It does not concern politics, music, or even sports: it concerns the possibility of large-scale collapse of social and political order, which I consider very likely. Specific scenarios aside for the time being, let’s just say we are talking more human-made climate-change-induced breakdown involving possibly protracted and almost certainly lethal conflict over resources, than ‘giant asteroid wipes out Earth’ or ‘rogue AI takes over and destroys humanity’.

Ontological security or epistemic positioning?

It may be tempting to attribute the tendency towards catastrophic predictions to psychological factors rooted in individual histories. My childhood and adolescence took place alongside the multi-stage collapse of the country once known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. First came the economic crisis, when the failure of ‘shock therapy’ to boost stalling productivity (surprise!) resulted in massive inflation; then social and political disintegration, as the country descended into a series of violent conflicts whose consequences went far beyond the actual front lines; and then actual physical collapse, as Serbia’s long involvement in wars in the region was brought to a halt by the NATO intervention in 1999, which destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, including parts of Belgrade, where I was living at the time*. It makes sense to assume this results in quite a different sense of ontological security than one, say, the predictability of a middle-class English childhood would afford.

But does predictability actually work against the capacity to make accurate predictions? This may seem not only contradictory but also counterintuitive – any calculation of risk has to take into account not just the likelihood, but also the nature of the source of threat involved, and thus necessarily draws on the assumption of (some degree of) empirical regularity. However, what about events outside of this scope? A recent article by Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde offers a good formalization of this problem (the Black Swans and ‘unknown unknowns’) in the context of the (limited) possibility to imagine different outcomes (see table below). Of course, as Beck noted a while ago, the perception of ‘risk’ (as well as, by extension, any other kind of future-oriented thinking) is profoundly social: it depends on ‘calculative devices‘ and procedures employed by networks and institutions of knowledge production (universities, research institutes, think tanks, and the like), as well as on how they are presented in, for instance, literature and the media.

Screen shot 2017-12-18 at 3.58.23 PM
From: Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde: Unknowns, Black Swans and the risk/uncertainty distinction, Cambridge Journal of Economics 41 (5), August 2017, 1279-1302

 

Unknown unknowns

In The Great Derangement (probably the best book I’ve read in 2017), Amitav Gosh argues that this can explain, for instance, the surprising absence of literary engagement with the problem of climate change. The problem, he claims, is endemic to Western modernity: a linear vision of history cannot conceive of a problem that exceeds its own scale**. This isn’t the case only with ‘really big problems’ such as economic crises, climate change, or wars: it also applies to specific cases such as elections or referendums. Of course, social scientists – especially those qualitatively inclined – tend to emphasise that, at best, we aim to explain events retroactively. Methodological modesty is good (and advisable), but avoiding thinking about the ways in which academic knowledge production is intertwined with the possibility of prediction is useless, for at least two reasons.

One is that, as reflected in the (by now overwrought and overdetermined) crisis of expertise and ‘post-truth’, social researchers increasingly find themselves in situations where they are expected to give authoritative statements about the future direction of events (for instance, about the impact of Brexit). Even if they disavow this form of positioning, the very idea of social science rests on (no matter how implicit) assumption that at least some mechanisms or classes or objects will exhibit the same characteristics across cases; consequently, the possibility of inference is implied, if not always practised. Secondly, given the scope of challenges societies face at present, it seems ridiculous to not even attempt to engage with – and, if possibly, refine – the capacity to think how they will develop in the future. While there is quite a bit of research on individual predictive capacity and the way collective reasoning can correct for cognitive bias, most of these models – given that they are usually based on experiments, or simulations – cannot account for the way in which social structures, institutions, and cultures of knowledge production interact with the capacity to theorise, model, and think about the future.

The relationship between social, political, and economic factors, on the one hand, and knowledge (including knowledge about those factors), on the other, has been at the core of my work, including my current PhD. While it may seem minor compared to issues such as wars or revolutions, the future of universities offers a perfect case to study the relationship between epistemic positioning, positionality, and the capacity to make authoritative statements about reality: what Boltanski’s sociology of critique refers to as ‘complex externality’. One of the things it allowed me to realise is that while there is a good tradition of reflecting on positionality (or, in positivist terms, cognitive ‘bias’) in relation to categories such as gender, race, or class, we are still far from successfully theorising something we could call ‘ontological bias’: epistemic attachment to the object of research.

The postdoctoral project I am developing extends this question and aims to understand its implications in the context of generating and disseminating knowledge that can allow us to predict – make more accurate assessments of – the future of complex social phenomena such as global warming or the development of artificial intelligence. This question has, in fact, been informed by my own history, but in a slightly different manner than the one implied by the concept of ontological security.

Legitimation and prediction: the case of former Yugoslavia

Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a relatively sophisticated and well developed networks of social scientists, which both of my parents were involved in***. Yet, of all the philosophers, sociologists, political scientists etc. writing about the future of the Yugoslav federation, only one – to the best of my knowledge – predicted, in eerie detail, the political crisis that would lead to its collapse: Bogdan Denitch, whose Legitimation of a revolution: the Yugoslav case (1976) is, in my opinion, one of the best books about former Yugoslavia ever written.

A Yugoslav-American, Denitch was a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He was also a family friend, a fact I considered of little significance (having only met him once, when I was four, and my mother and I were spending a part of our summer holiday at his house in Croatia; my only memory of it is being terrified of tortoises roaming freely in the garden), until I began researching the material for my book on education policies and the Yugoslav crisis. In the years that followed (I managed to talk to him again in 2012; he passed away in 2016), I kept coming back to the question: what made Denitch more successful in ‘predicting’ the crisis that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia than virtually anyone writing on Yugoslavia at the time?

Denitch had a pretty interesting trajectory. Born in 1929 to Croat Serb parents, he spent his childhood in a series of countries (including Greece and Egypt), following his diplomat father; in 1946, the family emigrated to the United States (the fact his father was a civil servant in the previous government would have made it impossible for them to continue living in Yugoslavia after the Communist regime, led by Josip Broz Tito, formally took over). There, Denitch (in evident defiance of his upper-middle-class legacy) trained as a factory worker, while studying for a degree in sociology at CUNY. He also joined the Democratic Socialist Alliance – one of American socialist parties – whose member (and later functionary) he would remain for the rest of his life.

In 1968, Denitch was awarded a major research grant to study Yugoslav elites. The project was not without risks: while Yugoslavia was more open to ‘the West’ than other countries in Eastern Europe, visits by international scholars were strictly monitored. My mother recalls receiving a house visit from an agent of the UDBA, the Yugoslav secret police – not quite the KGB but you get the drift – who tried to elicit the confession that Denitch was indeed a CIA agent, and, in the absence of that, the promise that she would occasionally report on him****.

Despite these minor throwbacks, the research continued: Legitimation of a revolution is one of its outcomes. In 1973, Denitch was awarded a PhD by the Columbia University and started teaching at CUNY, eventually retiring in 1994. His last book, Ethnic nationalism: the tragic death of Yugoslavia came out in the same year, a reflection on the conflict that was still going on at the time, and whose architecture he had foreseen with such clarity eighteen years earlier (the book is remarkably bereft of “told-you-so”-isms, so warmly recommended for those wishing to learn more about Yugoslavia’s dissolution).

Did personal history, in this sense, have a bearing on one’s epistemic position, and by extension, on the capacity to predict events? One explanation (prevalent in certain versions of popular intellectual history) would be that Denitch’s position as both a Yugoslav and an American would have allowed him to escape the ideological traps other scholars were more likely to fall into. Yugoslavs, presumably,  would be at pains to prove socialism was functioning; Americans, on the other hand, perhaps egalitarian in theory but certainly suspicious of Communist revolutions in practice, would be looking to prove it wasn’t, at least not as an economic model. Yet this assumption hardly stands even the lightest empirical interrogation. At least up until the show trials of Praxis philosophers, there was a lively critique of Yugoslav socialism within Yugoslavia itself; despite the mandatory coating of jargon, Yugoslav scholars were quite far from being uniformly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about socialism. Similarly, quite a few American scholars were very much in favour of the Yugoslav model, eager, if anything, to show that market socialism was possible – that is, that it’s possible to have a relatively progressive social policy and still be able to afford nice things. Herein, I believe, lies the beginning of the answer as to why neither of these groups was able to predict the type or the scale of the crisis that will eventually lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.

Simply put, both groups of scholars depended on Yugoslavia as a source of legitimation of their work, though for different reasons. For Yugoslav scholars, the ‘exceptionality’ of the Yugoslav model was the source of epistemic legitimacy, particularly in the context of international scientific collaboration: their authority was, in part at least, constructed on their identity and positioning as possessors of ‘local’ knowledge (Bockman and Eyal’s excellent analysis of the transnational roots of neoliberalism makes an analogous point in terms of positioning in the context of the collaboration between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ economists). In addition to this, many of Yugoslav scholars were born and raised in socialism: while, some of them did travel to the West, the opportunities were still scarce and many were subject to ideological pre-screening. In this sense, both their professional and their personal identity depended on the continued existence of Yugoslavia as an object; they could imagine different ways in which it could be transformed, but not really that it could be obliterated.

For scholars from the West, on the other hand, Yugoslavia served as a perfect experiment in mixing capitalism and socialism. Those more on the left saw it as a beacon of hope that socialism need not go hand-in-hand with Stalinist-style repression. Those who were more on the right saw it as proof that limited market exchange can function even in command economies, and deduced (correctly) that the promise of supporting failing economies in exchange for access to future consumer markets could be used as a lever to bring the Eastern Bloc in line with the rest of the capitalist world. If no one foresaw the war, it was because it played no role in either of these epistemic constructs.

This is where Denitch’s background would have afforded a distinct advantage. The fact his parents came from a Serb minority in Croatia meant he never lost sight of the salience of ethnicity as a form of political identification, despite the fact socialism glossed over local nationalisms. His Yugoslav upbringing provided him not only with fluency in the language(s), but a degree of shared cultural references that made it easier to participate in local communities, including those composed of intellectuals. On the other hand, his entire professional and political socialization took place in the States: this meant he was attached to Yugoslavia as a case, but not necessarily as an object. Not only was his childhood spent away from the country; the fact his parents had left Yugoslavia after the regime change at the end of World War II meant that, in a way, for him, Yugoslavia-as-object was already dead. Last, but not least, Denitch was a socialist, but one committed to building socialism ‘at home’. This means that his investment in the Yugoslav model of socialism was, if anything, practical rather than principled: in other words, he was interested in its actual functioning, not in demonstrating its successes as a marriage of markets and social justice. This epistemic position, in sum, would have provided the combination needed to imagine the scenario of Yugoslav dissolution: a sufficient degree of attachment to be able to look deeply into a problem and understand its possible transformations; and a sufficient degree of detachment to be able to see that the object of knowledge may not be there forever.

Onwards to the…future?

What can we learn from the story? Balancing between attachment and detachment is, I think, one of the key challenges in any practice of knowing the social world. It’s always been there; it cannot be, in any meaningful way, resolved. But I think it will become more and more important as the objects – or ‘problems’ – we engage with grow in complexity and become increasingly central to the definition of humanity as such. Which means we need to be getting better at it.

 

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(*) I rarely bring this up as I think it overdramatizes the point – Belgrade was relatively safe, especially compared to other parts of former Yugoslavia, and I had the fortune to never experience the trauma or hardship people in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, or Croatia did.

(**) As Jane Bennett noted in Vibrant Matter, this resonates with Adorno’s notion of non-identity in Negative Dialectics: a concept always exceeds our capacity to know it. We can see object-oriented ontology, (e.g. Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects) as the ontological version of the same argument: the sheer size of the problem acts as a deterrent from the possibility to grasp it in its entirety.

(***) This bit lends itself easily to the Bourdieusian “aha!” argument – academics breed academics, etc. The picture, however, is a bit more complex – I didn’t grow up with my father and, until about 16, had a very vague idea of what my mother did for a living.

(****) Legend has it my mother showed the agent the door and told him never to call on her again, prompting my grandmother – her mother – to buy funeral attire, assuming her only daughter would soon be thrown into prison and possibly murdered. Luckily, Yugoslavia was not really the Soviet Union, so this did not come to pass.

Education – cure or symptom?

[This post originally appeared on the website of REKOM, the initiative for the establishment of a reconciliation commission for former Yugoslavia].

When speaking of the processes of facing the past and reconciliation within the context of violent conflict, education is often accorded a major role. Educational practices and discourses have the ability to reproduce or widen existing social inequalities, or even to create new divisions. The introduction of textbooks which have painted a “purified” picture of a nation’s participation in and responsibility for the war crimes perpetrated during the wars in the 1990s, or the abolition of educational programmes and classes taught in minority languages, are just some of the examples found in the former Yugoslavia. Such moves are usually linked with a repressive politics that existed before, during and sometimes after the conflict itself.

Because of that, reconciliation programmes are often aimed at achieving formal equality within institutions or an equal representation of differing views in public discourses. Such an approach is based on the idea that a change of the public paradigm is the necessary first step in coming to terms with the past. In this particular case, the process of reconciliation is being led by the political and social elites which influence the shaping of public opinion. Similar to the “trickle-down theory” in economics, the assumption is that a change in the official narrative through the institutions, including those in the educational field, will, in time, bring about a change in public awareness – that is, lead the rest of the population to face its traumatic past.

Although the influence of formal discourses cannot be neglected, it is important that we understand that the causes and consequences of conflict, and thus the prosecution of those responsible, usually depend on a whole array of social and economic factors. It is highly unlikely that critical narratives examining the past will find a fertile ground in the educational institutions of divided and isolated societies. In this respect, the textbooks are just the metaphorical tip of the iceberg. It bears repeating that all educational institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from elementary schools to universities, are ethnically segregated. The situation is similar in Kosovo, where this institutional segregation is virtually complete – just like in the nineties, there are in practice two parallel systems in existence. The universities in Macedonia also reflect its constitutional make-up, based on the division of political power between its two largest ethnic groups. Even in more ethnically homogenous communities, such as those found in parts of Serbia or Croatia, the presence of religious education in school curricula – a subject which, in its present format, segregates students according to their faith – stands as a lasting symbol of the impact of identity-based politics on the education system.

The institutionalization of divisions rooted in the legacy of the conflict fought in the former Yugoslavia does not end with education, but instead pervades other relationships and activities as well, such as employment, freedom of movement, family structure and the creation of informal social networks. It goes without saying that the political parties in all the successor-states are, by and large, made up of those who have profited in some way from the breakup of Yugoslavia. The transition from socialist self-governance to neoliberal capitalism has served to further degrade the stability and independence of social institutions. Such a context fosters political ideologies such as chauvinism and nationalism, and breeds fear of all that is different. What we must therefore ask ourselves is, not just how to change the content and the paradigm of education in the former Yugoslavia, but also – who profits from it staying the way it is?

These questions require critical analysis, not just of the responsibility for the crimes perpetrated during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, but also of the economic and political legacy of its breakup. This is a huge challenge, which implies dialogue between the different parts of society in each successor-state. Educational institutions, universities and science institutes in particular, can play a potentially major role in establishing such a dialogue. This implies, first and foremost, an agreement on what its rules and goals are – which Habermas considered a crucial element in the development of the public sphere. For as long as there is no such agreement in place, deliberations on contemporary history will remain fragmented along the lines of ideological affiliation or political belief. Education based on such interpretations of the past thus continues to serve as an instrument of the proliferation of the same (or at least similar) divisions which shaped the dynamics of the conflict following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, rather than as a motor of change.

This, of course, does not mean that every change in education requires the whole social structure to be changed beforehand, but it does mean that these two elements go hand in hand. Although this change is very likely to be gradual, it is far more important to ensure that it is permanent. In the end, the educational narratives we are dealing with might brush up against the past, but they concern the future.

Jana Bacevic works on social theory and the relationships between knowledge (and education) and political agency. She is presently writing her PhD in sociology at the University of Cambridge, Great Britain, and has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Belgrade. She has worked as a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Arhus and taught at the Central European University in Budapest and Singidunum University in Belgrade. Her book “From Class to Identity: Politics of Education Reforms in Former Yugoslavia” was published in 2014 by Central European University Press.

Higher education and politics in the Balkans

In this entry of the thematic week on crisis, Jana Bacevic from the Department of Public Policy, Central European University (Budapest)  examines higher education in the context of  ethnic and religious divisions in recent Balkan history. 

In situations of crisis – whether it’s economic, environmental, or humanitarian – higher education is hardly the first to come to mind. Aid and development packages tend to focus on primary education, essential for teaching reading, writing and calculus, as well as successful socialization in peer groups, and, in some cases, on secondary – usually vocational – education, supposed to enable people to work both during and in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. However, slowly but steadily, higher education is beginning to occupy a more prominent place in contexts of crisis. Why is this the case?

Critics would say higher education is a luxury, and that focus on higher education is hardly anything but empty rhetoric aimed at rallying support for the agendas of politicians or trade unions. However, there are many reasons why higher education should not be ignored, even in times of crisis. Issues and policies related to higher education hardly ever stay confined to the university campus, or even to the boundaries of nation-states, whether new or old.

Access to higher education is directly linked to the access to work, income, and, to some extent, social and political participation. In this sense, who and how can access higher education (and under which conditions) are questions that have explicit political consequences for human and minority rights, social stratification and (in)equality,  and the overall quality of life. Higher education institutions do not only reflect the dominant ethos of a society; they also create and reproduce it. Politicians and policymakers know this, and this is why higher education can become such a politically charged issue.

The recent history of higher education in the successor states of former Yugoslavia provides many examples of the interplay between higher education and political dynamics. Early during the conflict, two universities in Bosnia and Herzegovina were divided between ethnic groups. The Serbian staff and students of the University of Sarajevo founded the separate University of East Sarajevo in 1992. The University of Mostar was split between the Croatian part (University of Mostar, or “Sveučilište u Mostaru”) and the Muslim part (University of Mostar “Džemal Bijedić”). In Kosovo, the University of Prishtina was at the very center of political contestation between the two biggest ethnic groups, Albanians and Serbs. Following series of Kosovo Albanian demonstrations at the end of the 1980s, the Serbian authorities forbade the university to accept any more Albanian students. The result was a complete split of the academic sphere into two domains – the “official”, Serbian one, and the “parallel”, Albanian, which existed outside of the institutional frameworks.

After the NATO intervention in 1999, the Serbian students and staff fled to the northern part of the province, predominantly controlled by the central Serbian government, re-establishing the university as the “University of Prishtina temporarily located in Kosovska Mitrovica”. Meanwhile, Albanian students and staff returned to the premises of the university in Prishtina, developing a new system under close supervision of the international administration. Just like in Bosnia, the configuration of higher education today reflects the deep ethnic and social cleavages that are the legacy of the conflict.

Higher education can become a subject of political contestation even in the absence of a large-scale armed conflict. For instance, one of the issues that precipitated the conflict between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian police in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2001 was the demand of ethnic Albanian parties for a separate university in their own language. Following the de facto consociational arrangement provided by the terms of the Ohrid Framework Agreement peace treaty, the previously private Tetovo University was given public status in 2004. However, the same town was already home to the Southeast European University, founded in 2001 by the international community (primarily the OSCE) in order to work on the post-conflict development and foster integration of the ethnic Albanian and ethnic Macedonian youth. Currently, two universities coexist, teaching similar programmes and even sharing staff, although differing in the approach to the use of languages, as well as in the composition of student body.

A similar story can be told about Novi Pazar, the administrative center of Sandžak, a multiethnic region of Serbia with high proportion of Bosniak Muslims. The private International University of Novi Pazar was founded by a local Muslim religious leader in 2002, with support from the government in Belgrade who, at the time, thought it would be a good solution for the integration of Bosniak Muslims within the framework of the state. Two years later, however, after the change of government and political climate, the state founded a new university, named the State University of Novi Pazar, withdrawing support from the International University. The two universities continue to exist side by side, teaching similar programmes and, in theory, competing for the same population of students. Their internal rivalries reflect and reproduce the political, social and, not least of all, ethnic cleavages in Sandžak.

Universities in the Western Balkans are just some of the examples in which the links between higher education and social divisions can be seen most clearly. However, they are neither isolated nor unique: conflicts can persist and occur across and outside of ethnic and religious lines, sometimes teeming below the surface even in societies that, from the outside, appear peaceful and stable. This is why higher education should not only be reactive, responding to cleavages and conflicts once they become visible, but rather proactive, revealing and working to abolish the multiple and often hidden structures of power that reproduce inequalities. On the one hand, this can be done through policies that seek to ensure equal access to and representation in higher education institutions. On the other, it can also mean engagement in research and activism aimed at raising awareness of the mechanisms through which inequalities and injustice are perpetuated. This latter mission, however, requires that higher education institutions turn a critical eye towards their own policies and practices, and examine the ways in which they are – perhaps unwittingly – reproducing the societal divisions that, in times of crisis, can easily evolve into open conflicts. Frequently, this is the hardest task of all.

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Jana Bacevic holds a PhD (2008) in Social Anthropology from the University of Belgrade. Previously she taught at the University of Belgrade and Singidunum University and worked as higher education expert on a number of projects aimed at developing education in the post-conflict societies of the Western Balkans. Her research interests are in the intersection between sociology, anthropology, politics and philosophy of knowledge, and her book, “From class to identity: politics of education reforms in former Yugoslavia” is being published by CEU Press in 2013.