04 December 2008


As an anthropologist, I should be observing the world on the basic premise that there is a cultural difference between here and there; between us and them. By saying this, I am seriously simplifying complex anthropological theories. They argue that it is more important to see HOW culture is constructed rather than compare different cultural expressions. Yet, I doubt there would be any incentive to do ethnographic research if we believed that people are everywhere the same.

My fieldwork in Croatia is progressing comfortably well. I talk to lots of interesting people while getting smoked out in cafes and bars. I stick to coffee as my favourite drink, knowing full well the downsides of too much caffeine. Early morning beer or a shot of herbal brandy, which seem to be favourite choices of my male informants are beyond my level of fitness. I couldn’t handle those even for the sake of my PhD degree. Of course I can see how publishing, my ethnographic topic, is different in the Balkans from the one in the UK. The circle of people is much smaller and business is always done in the most informal of places. I am mostly astonished by the fact that no one is ever to be found in their offices. Instead, there is a street filled with cafes where you can find all the right people you need to get something done. And when translated into the context of a busy book fair, this means that nobody is ever at their stand, but doing business in a nearby bar or restaurant. I would say, Croatia is arguably more informal than the UK. But if I think again, this is questionable too. Why so?

When I stop asking WHAT and start asking WHY, it clearly transpires that glasses of wine that usually accompany London literary events or business lunches that people schedule in only to keep in touch and pick each other’s brains bring both groups of publishers to the same goal – doing business in an informal way. I hate to say this, but I fear I am becoming a traitor of my own academic discipline. The only thing that I have noticed so far is that people use different tactics to achieve the same results. Does that realization undercut an a priori position of social sciences that everything depends on the specific socio-cultural context? Am I becoming some kind of absolutist who believes that there is a part of human beings which is universal and unchangeable?

I can’t deny the evidence that prove my position, even though the academia might find it childish and obsolete. For example, a friend of mine told me that the streets of Zagreb have become extremely aggressive and dangerous. Teenagers with pent up rage scream and intimidate people on trams and the only way you can deal with them is if you firmly look in their eyes, as if saying – don’t you dare mess with me. You need a killer look, my friend teaches me. He is a Croatia’s war veteran and I don’t question his word. But I still choose the English way – look away on public transport. See? Both cultures use eye contact to achieve the same result. Here, we pierce with our eyes, there we avoid each others eyes, only to be left alone. Our basic human need is met – we have defended ourselves.

Both friends in London and friends in Zagreb talk about their relationship problems. I listen to them with patience because I sincerely want to understand the human nature. And guess what – I see no difference. Everything has always revolved around our desire to share love and closeness with another human being. How we do it might differ but why we bond, share, argue and fall out boils down to reasons that reveal our universal human nature. When the ethnographic work is finished for the day, and I sit silently making sense of everything I have observed, I have one overwhelming sensation – I have totally forgotten where I am. Am I in London or in Zagreb? Or is it just the same?