an interesting read on positive psychology

Natalie Hanson


It turns out that it’s been a big theme in my reading over the past few years – more so than I realized.  I just finished reading The Gratitude Diaries, and I wanted to share what I found most compelling about the books I’ve read on this topic, as well as some of the common threads that run through them for me.  Today is Worldwide Gratitude Day, so it seemed like a perfect time to finish off this post and share with all of you!


Of all the books on this topic, the one that has had the most staying power for me is Martin Seligman’s book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.  In his book, Seligman explains that psychology has typically focused on helping people to alleviate things that make us unhappy … but never about actually becoming happier.  His passion for the topic seems…

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Changing Mindsets in Post-war Bosnia Through Economic Development


I recently returned from a trip to Bosnia to research successful examples of sustainable economic development for my forthcoming book, provisionally titled: “Remaking Kozarac: agency, reconciliation and contested return in postwar Bosnia.”

After so much time focusing on the challenges of postwar contested return, it was quite uplifting to learn more about how ambitious and innovative some returnee-led businesses have become. But most of all, it demonstrated the importance of promjena svijesti (changing mindsets) as a vehicle for the kind of social and political transformation that is needed to create modern institutions and a functioning state in the long-term.

In Bosnia, systemic corruption is the norm, which is not surprising given centuries of colonial Ottoman rule followed by communism, war and then a post-war dependence on aid and international institutions. The old communist nomenclatura system of party patronage and state monopolies has passed into the hands of agents of a modern form of corruption: nationalist political elites, their family relatives and war comrades. Both systems tend to put state resources in the hands of political elites that see themselves as the embodiment of national destiny, resulting in a blurring of lines between personal and official interests, and supported by reference to the perceived dangers posed by internal and external enemies, which is reinforced by control of the media and education system.

Curbing corruption that is deeply ingrained in all aspects of social structures rather than just being an exception (individual cases) is a slow and challenging process. As North points out in his Nobel Prize talk, rules may be changed overnight, but the informal norms usually only change gradually – and thee, not rules, are what governs behaviour. There is also the classic game theory problem – if everyone assumes others are corrupt, they are less likely to behave correctly themselves, as to do so would be to lose out without any prospect of changing the norm.

Two decades of a postwar “transition” in which billions of dollars were poured in to build democratic, liberal governing institutions have not contributed much to social and political transformation. One of the reasons is that international donors have helped to keep the predatory elite in power by cooperating with them even in instances where they are attempting to fight widespread corruption, oblivious to the fact that the state’s politicians are in fact the crux of the matter. As Mungiu-Pippidi notes, the problem is that international organisations fail to take into consideration a particularist political culture and underestimate the extent to which corruption, in post communist countries at least, is inherently political:

corruption actually means “particularism”—a mode of social organization characterized by the regular distribution of public goods on a nonuniversalistic basis that mirrors the vicious distribution of power within such societies.

…their [people’s] treatment depends on their status or position in society, and people do not even expect to be treated fairly by the state; what they expect is similar treatment to everybody with the same status.

This phenomenon is problematic, but in a situation of contested return such as Kozarac, its impact can be even greater because the authorities are broadly hostile to the returnee minority and ready to use official Republic Srpska institutions against them. Therefore joining in with local corruption presents risks, but so too can any attempt to resist it and refuse to ‘play along’.

One of the defining characteristics of the Kozarac return story has been the need for self-reliance. In the early years, this was played out in fighting for return, re-establishing the local community and standing up for political rights and memorialisation. Increasingly today, the priority is economic self-reliance if the community is to reverse the slow drift of young people away from the area in pursuit of a future for themselves and their families.

On my recent trip, I visited two local businesses that are remarkable both for their ambition to create internationally-competitive products, but also for the way that they handle the ever-present challenge of corruption, quality standards and other aspects of the prevailing ‘mindset’ that they believe needs to change.

These two firms, Arifagic Investment and Austronet, are both led by members of the returnee community who are motivated to create a sustainable local legacy, rather than just to create short-term profits. Their work employs a curious mix of path dependence – knowledge of how and why things are the way they are – and also new thinking in the Bosnian context. They are aware that history matters, and here I do not mean only recent war losses and terrible experiences, but a long intergenerational heritage of economic models that created the country’s political culture. And yet, their life experiences and exile exposed them to new forms of learning and knowledge necessary to combat a “stuck” society such as Bosnia. They also draw upon their experience of doing business in Norway and Austria respectively to inform their belief that only by upholding the highest standards of quality and ethics can they avoid being dragged down by local norms. They not only refuse to take part in customary corrupt practices, they also understand that to do so requires them to be scrupulously ‘clean’ as any compromise on this point would leave them vulnerable. Therefore, although it is not perhaps their primary goal, both firms are pioneers that are changing the local mindset and demonstrating that even in Bosnia, and specifically in Republika Srspka, it is possible to create internationally-successful businesses.

In some way, these firms represent a much needed philosophy of abandoning what we know and embracing new learning practices and behaviours in the pursuit of radical change of a value system that influences both formal and informal institutions. The cornerstone of this is building a culture that goes beyond the self-interest of a leader. But how to articulate let alone achieve this in a community that often sees personal success as a threat or assumes it derives from some form of corrupt behaviour? Social trust is in short supply regardless which ethnic or social group one may belong to.

Jusuf Arifagic returned to Bosnia from Norway a few years ago with a significant personal investment and several hundred Norwegian cows of a special breed. He bought a plot of land in Trnopolje not far from the site of the camp where he and his family were interned during the war, and established Arifagic Investment as an agricultural business with visionary and innovative strategies for the future of Bosnian farming, meat production and biogas generation. He also planned to improve the education and training of young people through plans to build a secondary school with Norwegian standards of education, which could also provide additional training in Norway.

I met Jusuf last week and was impressed by his humility and vision, and his realisation that he needs to lead by example as a way to influence his workers and the local community. He employs young professionals who despite being smart are not above working in the stables, and needless to say, ethnicity doesn’t count here – just a willingness to work hard, an eagerness to learn and strong personal ethics. For example, one young returnee, a law graduate, could not find a job despite being a star pupil in RS, so he became a shepherd to support his old parents. Upon reading about him in the newspaper, Jusuf called him and after a ten minute interview, gave him a job.

During myDSC_0131 visit, I observed a young team of Vets enthusiastically getting on with their daily work, and it all seemed rather too professional and organised to be found in the middle of the Bosnian countryside. The cows enjoy the most up-to-date luxury accommodation, air quality is digitally controlled, and they are massaged and entertained with music to keep them relaxed. Jusuf is well aware that building an organisation so alien to local practice will take time to be accepted, but he is clear about the long-term benefits:

I returned to create something larger than my life, to leave it behind for my children and the coming generations to work on. I can only create the right conditions for the new ways of thinking to emerge, and work ethics, so that the society may focus on a better future devoid of corruption and wars.

While I was at the farm, an inspector arrived. He instructed his young lawyer to show him around, explaining to me that he receives many visits by various inspectors but does not want to deal with them personally, as many expect a bribe. He mentions in passing that regional politicians have tried to lure him into politics to bring him ‘on side’, but he is adamant he will not be joining them.

DSC_0147The other business I visited, Austronet, is a subsidiary of an Austrian company that manufactures modern, versatile fabrics that can be used in various ways including marketing banners, nets and wraps. It’s CEO, Enes Kahrimanovic, returned from Austria to set up the factory in 2007, and like Arifagic, has a very clear focus on bringing a more reliable and ethical way of working to the Kozarac region, explaining that this is the only way to respond to the apparatchiks of old and new corruption. To illustrate his point, he told me the story of a recent fire inspection:

He asked me if I have installed the fire sprinkler system with pipes’ at least 8mm in diameter around my warehouses. I said, if the regulations require it, then, yes. He then said: “oh don’t worry most people install pipes of 6mm, because the 8mm versions are very expensive. So I am sure you have not installed the 8mm one…but do not worry.“ I assured him that if the law requires 8mm pipes, then that is what we have, and told him he can view our technical drawings.

Kahrimanovic then remembered that there was a place in the building where the pipes are visible, so he measured them. They turned out to be 10mm wide. The point of this story was to illustrate how inspections are often performed informally, as though an inspector is doing you a favour and you ought to compensate him because it is expected behaviour to bend the rules.

The entrenched belief system that “everybody is corrupt, so why shouldn’t I or you be” is difficult to change in a political culture that has no incentive to tackle it. Mutual expectations that everyone is going to cheat eventually are particularly hard to grapple with in a postwar context. But as part of building a better future for the re-established community in Kozarac, these two businesses are examples of why it matters to do things differently.

Informal, personal modes of exchange that grant access to familial, socially or politically related individuals rather than universal, impersonal access based on merit is the dominant approach in Bosnia today. But to create sustainable businesses and institutions requires a more impersonal approach based on equality under the law, and in the absence of a healthy state that can create such an environment, perhaps it comes down to determined individuals such as Arifagic and Kahrimanovic to show another way is possible. A society and a state based only on small group trust (rather than wider social trust) and the Bosnian notion of who is and who is not naš (ours) cannot produce the kinds of modern institutions needed to thrive in the Twenty-First Century.

Memorialisation important but the best response to genocide is not to disappear

Photo by @HJS_org
Photo by @HJS_org

Earlier this week, I spoke at a Henry Jackson Society event in the House of Commons commemorating the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica and the Bosnian war, alongside James Gow and Brendan Simms.

Here are my rough notes of that talk.

The Bosnian war, and what many of us regard as the Bosnian genocide, was bookended by two of its worst atrocities: Prijedor and Srebrenica.

In the summer of 1992, Prijedor’s non-Serb potential leaders, intellectuals and organisers were tortured and killed and the rest of the community went through the camps whose names came to symbolise ethnic cleansing: Omarska, Keraterm, Trnopolje and Manjaca. Over three thousand were murdered and over a thousand are still missing. Then, in the summer of 1995, the Srebrenica massacre saw 8,000 men and boys brutally slaughtered and their devastated communities forced to leave their homes.

In 1992, there was no external help and the plight of Prijedor was relatively unknown until August when the first journalists arrived, whilst in 1995, Srebrenica was a UN safe area watched over by the world. It made no difference.

Victimhood and self-reliance

As an anthropologist, I have studied the impact of such events on a returnee community near Prijedor as they tried to re-establish their town in Republika Srpska.

The key thing I have learned is the importance of agency and self-reliance in overcoming trauma, and I think this all holds a lesson for how to respond to major international events such as the Bosnian war and the Srebrenica massacre.

The fieldwork also taught me that in our desire to listen to victims of violence, we can sometimes perpetuate their victimhood and their dependency on external helpers, when in fact the best we can do is support them in re-establishing an independent life and building a future, if not for them then for the next generation.

Too much memorialisation and ritual?

In the Bosnian context, stories of suffering have become practices of affectual memory. In other words, recreating the experiences of suffering for public consumption and for the benefit of NGOs, researchers and peace building actors. But because the Bosnian war never really ended, political control has remained in the hands of nationalists, and they sometimes use the voices of survivors to reinforce their attempts to represent the manifest destiny of “their” people.

Emir Suljagic, himself a Srebrenica survivor and author of Postcard from The Grave, has written of his lack of satisfaction deriving from ritualistic memorialisation and commemoration, in relation to burying his father in 2010 :

When it was over, I only felt cheated….victimised, as I did not get a chance to say anything, at the grave and the funeral of my own father, to say at least something, not to others and not aloud, but to him and to myself.

But many Bosniaks remain preoccupied with victimhood and righting historical wrongs, which is understandable, through symbolic rituals and remembering, whilst Republika Srpska – formed through ethnic cleansing – focuses on building a state and a future.

A story of return and self-reliance

The community I have studied is one of the only successful examples of contested return in Republika Srpska, which in itself is a testament to the failure of the Dayton peace process.

How and why did they succeed?

First, they were lucky to have a very organised, professional and determined fighting force in the shape of the 17th Krajina Brigade of the Bosnian Army. These were men and women who had been through ethnic cleansing and the camps, and often into exile as refugees, but who decided the best way to cope with trauma was to fight back. Together with their family members that, prior to the war, had worked in Western Europe, they formed themselves in Croatia in the summer of 1992 and marched into Bosnia to become one of the most successful mobile units of the Bosnian Army. They opened the road to Gorazde, protected Travnik, which was their base throughout the war, and participated in an attempt to break the siege of Sarajevo. But their main objective was to fight their way home to recover evidence of the camps, and to give their communities a chance to return.

At the end of the war, after taking Mount Vlasic against all the odds, they fought their way back into the Krajina region before the Americans decided they had achieved their neat division of Bosnia, and they were stood down despite being just 2 days from Banja Luka – if they have achieved their goal, Bosnia would not be divided as it is today. Above all, what the brigade gave their community was bravery, self-respect and a belief in their own ability to change their own situation.

Combat experience and skills acquired in the war were used by the leaders of the brigade to organise themselves and negotiate their return to Prijedor. It began with former soldiers living with their young families under tents on the grounds where their homes once stood, followed by womens’ organisations such as Srcem do Mira and Izvor, who played a crucial role in assuaging the returnees’ psychosocial anxieties in relation to homecoming in a hostile environment. Eventually, when the town looked like it might survive, the diaspora and their families began returning to stay during the summer, establish businesses and re-establishing some kind of normal life.

Help people to help themselves rather than intervene from above

International actors, NGOs, peaceniks, etc come and go, but none can claim credit for what the returnees themselves achieved, in spite of, not because of, the UN and its agencies in the region, the Serb authorities and the Bosnian government. In studying this community over the past decade, I have come to understand the value of self-reliance, and its key role in mitigating trauma. There are still those well-meaning souls who discover the community and want them to ‘tell their story’ and parade their victimhood, and the locals humour them politely. But they are of little or no help to them.

And here I think is a parallel between the personal world of recovering from trauma and the political world of how to respond in situations like this.

At the start of the war, many argued for international intervention in Bosnia, whilst others argued for simply lifting the arms embargo that prevented the newly formed Bosnian Army from defending itself. In fact, intervention did happen, but too little, too late and with the wrong goals – containment and feeding those under fire rather than protecting Bosnia from external aggression.

The fact that the 17th Brigade could fight back, and the fact that the eastern enclaves held out for so long, suggest that supporting Bosnians to help themselves would have been a better option than assuming responsibility for the safe areas only to lack the political will to act in the face of aggression.

Yes, memorialisation is important, but the best response to genocide is not to disappear.

Postwar Bosnia has received a lot of international funds and attention. But too much of this has propped up corrupt and incompetent government structures or provided employment and excitement to well-meaning foreigners. The best partners in my experience, and those who really understand trauma and what reconciliation means, are those communities like Srebrenica and Prijedor returnees who are fighting to rebuild and to create a sustainable future in the face of nationalist hostility. Helping them to help themselves means more businesses and organisational capacity in civil society, rather than just memorials.

Thoughts on Fieldwork

Over the last century or so, the debate in the field and in University departments about the tenets of anthropology has changed a lot. It has reflected how a discipline labelled “the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences” is a rich and complex domain, precisely because it focuses on the human condition as practiced in the here and now. However, for me, the most poignant discussions are about the conduct of fieldwork and how we transcribe human experiences and perception.

I recently enjoyed read the 4th edition of Adam Kuper’s book, Anthropology and Anthropologists – an ethnographic study of British Social Anthropology of the twentieth century. I particularly liked the little stories inferred from written biographies and departmental tales of covetous and tribal behaviours present among the founders and early practitioners of anthropology, and especially their discussions about what field research should entail.

A ‘Malinowskian’ understanding of good ethnography is based on intensive, long term participant observation where the fieldworker is concerned with all aspects of the everyday life of her subjects and locality. The idea is that only through the process of immersion can one access insights into how individuals adapt to a particular system and find meaning and purpose even under a regime of custom that may seem absolute:

The immobility of custom, I believe, is largely the effect of distance. Look more closely and you will see perpetual modification in process; and, if the underlying dynamic be partly due to physical and quasi-physical causes, such as changes in climate, movements of people following the consequent variations in the food-supply, and so forth, yet, most fundamental condition of all, there is likewise at work throughout the will to live, manifesting itself through individuals as they partly compete and partly cooperate with the other. (R.R. Marett in Kuper’s book)

Such research was previously regarded as essential in order to grasp and convey the ‘native’s point of view’. However, then and now, varying methods of fieldwork research exist. A century ago, Rivers distinguished two styles of ethnography: survey and intensive fieldwork. The former was about sketching out local vernaculars, traditions, crafts and so on, while the latter required more time and a detailed understanding of people acquired through living among them and conversing in native languages. He contended that survey field research produces incomplete and sometimes a misleading characterisation of those we study. In a similar vain, Seligman (in Kuper’s book) opined that people don’t always make the best informants as they quickly learn what the researcher is after and may decide to simulate it:

The Nilgala headman sends word when strangers are expected, then the Veddas repair to their very striking hut on the rock dome and often post a look-out on a big rock about half way up…These folk, who when we saw them wore their Vedda loin cloths and were smeared with ashes, are reported to wear ordinary Sinhalese clothes when not in their professional pose….Indeed it appeared that not only have members of this community learnt to play the part of professional primitive man, but there has even been specialisation, for as far as we could learn, the men we met at the look-out hut are those who always receive visitors or come to Bibile when sent for, while the others whom we did not see do not pose as wild Veddas.

Further talk with these people showed that it was impossible to obtain reliable information from them, they had been utterly spoilt as the result of being frequently interviewed by travellers.

Anthropological theory, knowledge and locality have indeed expanded since those early days of ‘exotic’ places and people; so too have the modes of ethnographic inquiry enabled by social technologies that may complement, test and deepen the traditional fieldwork. In my next post, I want to share how, in the context of post-conflict Bosnia, I enriched my understanding and generated empirical knowledge that would otherwise be imperceptible to me, by using mixed methods of online community study with traditional fieldwork.

The Omarska Memorial Project as an Example of How Transitional Justice Interventions Can Produce Hidden Harms

This article uses the example of a failed project, whose aim was to achieve consensus around constructing a memorial at the former Omarska camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to illustrate some of the dangers of transitional justice interventions involving victims of dislocation and violence, as well as the potential for hidden harms. It is based on nine years of ethnographic research into a small returnee community in Kozarac, in the municipality of Prijedor. Well-intentioned as the project undoubtedly was, it had unintended consequences for the social relations of the local community. Like other internationally led initiatives, it can be argued that it helped reinforce a victim-perpetrator dynamic that prevented rather than assisted progress. Although we cannot draw too many conclusions from one project, the issues highlighted by this initiative have been echoed on a smaller scale in much of the international involvement of transitional justice scholars and activists in the town since then.

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