Academic knowledge production in ‘home’ institutions: a call for material positionality in research on Bosnia and Herzegovina

As we prepare to meet in person in Newcastle, we will present some of the papers and panels that the WG sponsored at our last online annual conference in 2021.  As we are aware of the visa and financial restrictions that make attendance difficult for scholars based in South East Europe, we hope that we can share new research more widely and build a broader community. 

Michiel Piersma's piece was a part of the roundtable titled Within/Without: Strategies and possibilities for cultivating knowledge with the Global East. Elena B. Stavrevska and Katarina Kušić convened the roundtable and served as editors for the ensuing blog posts. 

This article was written by Michiel Piersma
This article was published on

As a post-graduate student studying Bosnia and Herzegovina, and trained in UK institutions, I have been pushed to reflect not only on personal positionality that shapes my encounters in the field, but also on the material positionality that makes both me as a researcher and the academic fields in which I live and function. In my short reflection, I thus argue for examining our institutional ‘homes’ with as much scrutiny as the ‘fields’ in which we work in. 

In November and December 2020, a staggering range of academic conferences, keynotes, panels, webinars, and Q&As commemorated the 25 years that have passed since the Dayton Agreement was signed. These events discussed the futures of Bosnia and Herzegovina from a variety of disciplines, with the majority speaking from international relations (IR) and political science.[1] The knowledges produced in these meetings are emblematic of a continuing mainstream academic interest into the post-war configurations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Apart from ‘thank yous’ in acknowledgements or anonymised quotes in paywall-protected articles in niche academic journals, Bosnians and Herzegovinians in their communities often do not benefit from such academic interest. Symptoms of a power imbalance between an academic core and the periphery they write on - but not for nor from - is innate to many academic disciplines (Smith, 2012), not excluding international relations (Agathangelou and Ling, 2004Rutazibwa, 2018) and South East European Studies (Blagojević, 2009; Majstorović 2013; Laketa 2020). Listening in on many of the ‘Dayton at 25’ gatherings, it struck me how very few of the speakers took time to discuss their own complicity in the so-called international intervention industry (Mac Ginty and Richmond, 2007). Left unspoken was the production of knowledges on Bosnia and Herzegovina that circulate within Western European academia, sustaining a system of legitimized academic positions, professorships, publications, journals, conferences, and research grants. By quietly acknowledging this powerful system of creating authority, the events preserve the Eurocentric idea that our Western European knowledges are objective, universal, and superior (Chakrabarty 2000).


Material positionality in international relations


This frustration of unspoken complicity stems very much from a similar dissatisfaction encountered in my own PhD process. The disciplines of international relations and political science in which I was academically raised, do not traditionally teach their students to think through why they know what they know. Writing my literature review, I was left dissatisfied with the limited vocabulary to critique the knowledges on which I am building my doctoral thesis. Engaging with deeply reflective discussions in IR and South East European Studies, of which the roundtable at BISA 2021 was an episode, I formulated an epistemological argument that enables a deeper questioning of the ‘expected’ productions of knowledges in IR/political science research on Bosnia and Herzegovina in Western European academia. When I say ‘expected,’ I refer to the Eurocentric foundations of such scholarship firmly rooted in, and for, Western European academic circles, that has served as conventional knowledge in these disciplines for a long time. I argue that I am very much the product of these expected knowledges, being a male, white postgraduate student at a British university, who was not proficient in the language of his research community prior to being accepted onto the PhD programme. Our vocabulary to critique this expectedness of certain produced knowledges can be broadened by embracing a ‘material positionality’ that discusses the material ‘political economy of knowledge’ (Rivera Cusicanqui, 2012) in our own familiar academic environments ‘at home’. I want to acknowledge here that for many, academic homes are obviously not only located in the United Kingdom, or Western Europe. My argument, however, is a critique of mainstream IR/political science that is writing from those spaces, so this is where I geographically situate my notion of academic environments.

The importance of positionality and the situatedness of knowledges have been incorporated into academic circles, to a good extent even to disciplines where the turn to reflexivity has been made more recently, such as political science and IR. What is an account of positionality worth, however, if this positional thinking and writing is limited to a traditional view of what the ‘field’ consists of? How do we question our subjectivities if we only position the subjective knowledges we produce in spaces where we traditionally go for ‘fieldworking’, that is, the places where we conduct interviews, organise focus groups, collect archival material and observe research communities? In reality, the field should be seen as a socially constructed, negotiated circumstance, subject to and product of power relations, located in field sites themselves, but very much also within the academic environments from which we write. Moreover, this traditional notion of the ‘field’ inhibits the possibility of a researcher to have biographical or ancestral ties to the communities in which their research is situated.

The division between homes and fields is emblematic to disciplines of IR and political science, which traditionally rest on the notion of Western (European) researchers leaving home to travel to a field far away (Routley and Wright, 2020). Anthropology has for long developed critiques of the Eurocentric and artificial binary of the home and field (Gupta and Ferguson 1997Günel et al, 2020); strands in international relations have started to follow suit as ethnographic fieldwork is becoming more common practice (Richmond, Kappler and Björkdahl, 2015Kurowska, 2019Poets, 2020). With them, I argue that much of the personal positionality accounts continue to adhere to these artificial boundaries and do not extend the situating of produced knowledges outside of the ‘field’, thereby neglecting the institutional and material aspects of produced knowledges that find their origin in the academic environments around us (Nagar, 2014, 82).

The traditionally separated academy and field should rather be seen as ‘continuations of one another, not boundaries’ (Poets, 2020, 112). I thus argue for analyses of the material conditions that have come to constitute the day-to-day functioning of academia, and that enable the production of knowledges in our disciplines, in this case IR and political science on Bosnia and Herzegovina. What do those material conditions of the scholarly world we write in look like? Such conditions are really all around us: departments, journals, presses, conferences, associations, and funding bodies. Instead of lifeless, invisible institutions that ‘naturally belong’ to academia, they are living, performing, financing and producing systems of knowledge (Rivera Cusicanqui, 2012, in Tilley, 2017). The material, institutional and economic practices that dominate these everyday environments shape to a significant extent the position and consciousness on which researchers in their personal positionality accounts would reflect on. In short, personal positionality explains for the particularities surrounding the researcher in their field environments; material positionality goes further and allows to denaturalise the very existence of this researcher in their field.


The material positionality of my knowledges


A central question of the BISA roundtable revolved around the knowledge production and cultivation ‘within and without the Global East.’ I write this piece explicitly from spaces outside of the Global East. Rather, I have argued that I am very much the expected outcome of the traditional, Eurocentric foundations of IR/political science scholarship on Bosnia and Herzegovina. The argument for ‘material positionality’ then allows me to interrogate the material conditions of this scholarship. I conclude by illustrating what such an exercise of material positionality could look like.

Firstly, it is essential to consider the political circumstances in which scholarship on Bosnia and Herzegovina exists. Knowledges produced in the political arena, media, and education are in close contact with academia, and societal constructions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or ‘Balkans’, are intertwined with scholarly ones. I went to school in the Netherlands, a society that rarely discusses its personal involvement in the Bosnian war and the Srebrenica genocide. I remember well how the role of the ‘Dutchbat’ United Nations battalions stationed in Srebrenica in 1995 was not discussed in our history classes, nor in wider history education in the Netherlands (Van Berkel, 2020). What images of Srebrenica, the Bosnian war and the Balkans are reproduced in Dutch classrooms? Coming from a material positionality standpoint, how is the Srebrenica genocide discussed at the Ministry of Education, and how are efforts to educate about the legacies of Dutchbat and Srebrenica financed? Such questions seem to deviate from the topic of academic knowledge production, but in fact shine light on the intertwining of knowledges between academia and other institutions in society.

Secondly, still not much attention is given in our disciplines to the materiality of application processes, grant applications, and selection committees in academia. Specifically, I am thinking of IR and political science departments, in which topics such as fieldwork and power imbalances are often not discussed. I was admitted onto a PhD in a British politics department based on a research proposal that rested on language-driven ethnographic fieldwork, even though I was at the time not proficient in the language of my research community. Such expectations of what research is supposed to do intertwine in many departments with limited institutional and financial support for language learning. What role does language proficiency play in hiring committees in such IR and political science departments? And how common and important are discussions about ethics and research communities that go beyond informed consent? Recent work by Daniela Lai (2021) describes how many politics/IR departments institutionally disincentivise language learning — or how I would put it, maybe incentivise not learning languages for research by not providing sufficient time, funds, or expectations. The production of academic knowledges is indeed essentially material: scholarship committees hold both money and expectations about language proficiency and ethics, and thus indirectly co-produce the academic knowledges that are possible, and expected, in our academic environments.

Those potential avenues are attempts to articulate the material conditions that underpin international relations and political science disciplines studying Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have argued that these disciplines lack the vocabulary to grasp how their academic knowledges are produced, or put simply, why we know what we know. Such a vocabulary is, however, necessary if we want to formulate critiques to the expected mainstream knowledges on ‘traditionally over-researched societies and communities’, as formulated in the abstract for the BISA roundtable, of which this piece is a result. All participants to the roundtable brought their respective ideas forward on how to engage in knowledge cultivation ‘from without the spaces’ in which we engage with research communities. We collectively emphasised, nevertheless, the continuation of knowledge production imbalances reflected in the conference's inaccessibility for many scholars working in South East Europe. My argument to excavate the materiality of our positions is formulated explicitly within and against those knowledge circles, as I see my contribution in articulating what is left unspoken in my academic upbringing. The roundtable showed, however, how such discussions only serve a purpose if they travel beyond these academic environments and geographical areas. 

Michiel Piersma – University of Liverpool

[1] A selection of those events: Heinrich Boll Stiftung and Courrier des BalkansUniversity of SarajevoUniversiteit UtrechtEuropean Council on Foreign RelationsHarriman InstituteYale University, Italian Embassy in BiHInternational Institute for PeaceAssociation for the Study of Nationalities, and Association for the Study of Nationalities II.