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Workers protesting / Graphic representation of workers protesting / Dita detergent factory protected by workers in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Drawing on new research methods

McMaster Anthropologist to team up with Bosnian illustrator to investigate new forms of labour activism.

Dec 11, 2017

There is a growing recognition among scholars of the value of the graphic or comics medium in teaching and research.  Graphic forms can hold different ways of knowing in relationship to one another and facilitate new perspectives. 

This visual style of research is at the center of a new project that is being undertaken by McMaster Anthropologist Dr. Andrew Gilbert and Dr. Larisa Kurtović of University of Ottawa’s Department of Sociological and Anthropological Studies. They are embarking on a collaboration that aims to take the potential of this emerging style of research in new directions. 

“Most studies that use the graphic form do so to represent research already complete,” Gilbert points out. “Our innovation is to incorporate an illustrator and the production of illustrations into the research process itself."

The pair will investigate new forms of labour activism that are emerging in Bosnia-Herzegovina amid the disappearance of mass industrial employment.

Manufacturing industries are disappearing in Bosnia causing mass disemployment. There has also been a large shift to privatization that is often accompanied by the deliberate bankrupting of productive industries to enrich a tiny elite.

Bosnian workers have lost more than their livelihoods. The closure of factories weakened the social relations that make mass solidarity and other forms of political organization possible.

Yet, recent events —from mass protests led by unemployed workers to the successful restarting of idle factories occupied by their workers—have pointed to the importance of going beyond the framework of loss. 

In the city of Tuzla, a former industrial center in northern Bosnia, workers stood guard at Dita, an idle detergent factory. They protected their factory against theft and attempts liquidate its assets by absentee owners. Their hopes were for the possibility for future production. 

This controversial strategy paid off. Workers managed to restart production even though factory was under receivership.

Gilbert and Kurtović will be travelling to Dita with a Bosnian illustrator to record the experiences and critical reflections of Dita’s workers. They will produce a case-study in the new possibilities and limits of labour activism. 

Gilbert notes that incorporating a Bosnian illustrator as well as the critical reflection of workers are two ways this project seeks to offer a new model of what collaborative, community-engaged research can look like.

“Workers plan and conduct their political action in relation to how their struggle is publicly represented and socially recognized,” Kurtović explains. “Producing illustrations of worker experience during field research and then presenting these back to the workers for commentary can generate unique insights into the role that representation plays in labour politics.”

These insights will be incorporated into many research products, from stand-alone graphic ethnographies in English and Bosnian to public exhibits and discussions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Canada. 

The research project, entitled Labours of collaboration, labours of representation: EthnoGRAPHY of labour activism in postsocialist Bosnia-Herzegovina, was recently awarded a research grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.