Research Portfolio Post #1: Research Interests

Avatar When I applied for Olson Scholars this past spring, my intention was to try and understand the rather general puzzle of narratives, and how they are created, perpetuated and altered over time. Specifically, I wondered, “how does somebody disappear?”, [1]as in, how do social as well as governmental narratives form to radically alter the documented ‘truth’ of an event or person? In that time, I discussed these alterations in the context of authoritarian regimes such as that of the Soviet Union and perhaps looking deeper into the past of more modern democracies such as Canada and the United States regarding the documentation of Native Americans, which are still incredibly enthralling projects which I thoroughly intend to explore someday in my future, but now, after meeting with my advisor this past week, have moved on to something different.

Though I do still wish to study the development of narratives and ‘disappearances’ I am now looking into a region I had not considered before: the former Yugoslavia, which came about after re-reading journalist Joe Sacco’s graphic novel, Safe Area Goražde, where he documents his four months spent in Bosnia through 1995–96. The novel primarily uses interviews from people Sacco met to document certain aspects of the war, such as the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa. Overall, the novel is a great retelling of the war, and Sacco’s art truly emphasizes the brutality and shock of the event, but what particularly struck my inspiration regarding my topic area was a page entitled “Can you live with the Serbs again?”,[2] which culminated all of Sacco’s interviewees, who gave a variety of responses based their understandings and experiences, from the possibility of reconciliation, to none at all. From the page, I decided to take a deeper look into how the resolution was coming along since the Dayton agreement.

Looking deeper into the modern-day Yugoslavia, specifically Bosnia, I saw a peculiar, and I guess what I should now call “puzzle” in this reconciliation: the schools are segregated and have been since the agreement, despite a 2012 court ruling,[3] and even student protests in other cantons that it was indeed in violation of Bosnia’s anti-discrimination law. However, according to Bosnian Judicial law, the ruling is only binding on the immediate parties to the suit, and thus, the supreme court’s decision only applied to the schools in Mostar.[4] This means that in order to change the law across the Federation, Vaša Prava, the NGO who passed the law in Mostar, needs to bring strategic litigation in every canton, which it has attempted in another large canton known as Travnik, but failed upon the court’s claim that there had never been a complaint from parents against the policy. The court also cited language barriers between Croatian and Bosnian, despite the fact that two languages that are virtually identical,[5] as justification for the policy.

As a result, I want to understand why this is still present, and why there is a hesitancy towards changing these practices in other cantons. Not only that, I want to pick apart the differentiating narratives and understand how Mostar differs from the other regions, and hopefully uncover how it can be possible in other places, and even if it was a narrative shift at all that caused it. To understand this more deeply, I recognized that I also need to understand the narratives that the generations pass on to their children, specifically through pedagogical practices and even semiotics in schools. I initially wanted to utilize textbooks, but after a meeting with my advisor, Robert Adcock this past week, I will be looking into other sources of empirical evidence aside from historical accounts. These include more quantitative sources such as looking deeper into census data and demographics over the past few years, and potentially even death statistics surrounding those areas during the war through utilizing Geospatial technology, which as I have discovered, AU has a lab for. Alongside these, Dr. Adcock suggested that I additionally examine other forms of narrative evidence, such as speeches and legal documents from the Dayton agreement, as well as first hand ethnographies from journalists like Sacco to ensure that I have a clear narrative understanding across the different ethnic groups. Furthermore, Adcock suggested that I look deeper into the study of social rather than individual narratives, as the puzzle does relate more to the development of a more generalized narrative among large groups of people, rather than individual accounts and narratives, which I will be looking throughout the library for.

Beyond this course, I hope to carry this project into more cantons aside from the one I ultimately focus on and see if I can do a cross-comparison from different cantons on how their narratives compare throughout the country. I’d also like to further my study of narratives in my country of study, Russia, and understand how these findings can influence the overall education of the children of a variety of areas. Overall, I would like to further my overall understanding of narratives and utilize this project as sort of a springboard into more complex forms of identifying and understanding their formation. When I go to Russia, I’d like to see if I can bring better understanding into the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community in Chechnya, as well as Russia, to see how such things changed once Putin got into power, and what past and present narratives are driving those contentions, and seeing how we can help alter them without interfering too much with the present culture of the people living there, which many scholars have made the mistake of assuming throughout my research of this puzzle in the summer.

Apart from my own interests, a greater understanding of social narrative and how it influences our decisions can be utilized in many aspects of our lives, not just related to education, but also in interpreting and identifying the rhetoric of politicians and of our society as a whole. If we understand how narratives form at such a large level, we can better understand how to change and alter them at an individual level. Overall, we can better ensure that we are teaching from a perspective of truth, however that may be defined, which is a whole other issue in it of itself that I hope to understand through my exploration of narratives.

I greatly look forward to this semester and cannot wait to update you on my research journey next week!


[1] Tristen, Koffink. “Koffink_Olson Scholars Application” American University, 2019
[2] Joe, Sacco. Safe Area Gorazde, 12. (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2000),  161-162
[3] Ari Ruffer. ““Two Schools Under One Roof”: School Segregation in Bosnia and Herzegovina,”
Columbia Journal of Transnational Law ,  (2013)
[4] Katie Engelhart. “Bosnia-Herzegovina Court Orders End to Ethnic Segregation of Schoolchildren,”
Vice, 2014.
[5] T.J. “Is Serbo-Croatian a Language?” The Economist, April 10, 2017.

2 thoughts on “Research Portfolio Post #1: Research Interests

  1. Avatar Paroma Mehta says:

    Tristen, this topic seems so incredibly interesting and you’re obviously super passionate about it. While you mentioned looking at ethnographies, I do wonder if perhaps there is merit in even looking at the sociological/historical basis for the divides between groups in the region at a deeper level? This could potentially give you clarity on why there “had never been a complaint from the parents.” Additionally, something else that may be interesting would be to look at the anti-discrimination legal framework that exists in Bosnia and looking to analyse those may also make for interesting conversations in your research. I look forward to reading your work over the semester – and Joe Sacco is so great!

  2. Overall you are off to a very good start here, Tristen, and you have received some excellent advice from your faculty mentor (as well as some good thoughts from Paroma to consider). There is a good body of literature on the study of narrative in international affairs (sometimes framed in the fields of sociology or political science, but still 100% relevant). You might start by investigating some of the work from Margaret Somers on this general approach. The more specific topic area and tentative puzzle that you outline sound promising. Keep working on developing this explanatory puzzle into a preliminary “why…?” or “what explains…?” framework (keeping in mind that the framing and question will change a lot!). We can discuss some of these ideas when we meet. I look forward to seeing how your research develops!

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