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Report from the Plovdiv Workshop

Workshop Report

This report is a more detailed version of the summary of the proceedings which appeared in Bulgarian in the University of Plovdiv newspaper.

The aim of this workshop was twofold: i) to address the ways in which people experience crisis in their everyday; in other words, to see how the world in crisis looks from the ground up, and ii) to discuss various connections at the interface of how people talk about crisis while living in it. With an aim to present a thicker description (after Clifford Geertz) of the Bulgarian case, along with the project participants a few other Bulgarian scholars from the University of Plovdiv, Medical University Plovdiv, New Bulgarian University, and University of Sofia, as well as two anthropologists from the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology dealing with Bulgarian topics were invited.

The discussions were organized in four main sessions. During the first two sessions the focus was on the everyday life in the time of crisis. Various practices of coping with crisis, the importance of networks, the influence of regional and local factors on the everyday life of people, and the relations/intertwining between crisis and migration were among the discussed questions.

Session 1

Dimitar Zlatinov (Sofia University) presented the macroeconomic implications of the global crisis on Bulgarian economy since 2008 by following the efforts of the government and central bank to curb the negative impact on economic development. He focused on the behaviour of economic agents in the crisis (households and companies), and in addition addressed the changes in the external and fiscal position of Bulgaria that have changed the prospects for national economy.

Dimitra Kofti (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle-Saale) presented the ways in which the recent financial crisis has been responded in both Bulgaria and Greece and triggered local discussions about how ‘crisis’ hit the other side of each border. She positioned her analysis in the context of the broader discussion about geographies of power relations in Europe.

Miladina Monova (Associate researcher, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle-Saale) addressed the way factory workers and employers in the post-socialist town of Prilep (Macedonia) confront rhetorically in an unequal relationship, following opposite interests, and instrumentalizing in different ways kinship, friendship and community relationships.

After the presentations participants discussed the way in which employers manipulate notions of kinship and crisis, whereby employing kinship ties which are particularly important in the Balkan context for exploiting labour. The issue of various stereotypes of crisis was raised in terms of their alterity (are stereotypes received in a top-down manner, or constructed from the ground-up) vis-à-vis an existing economic reality. While the need for using the concept of hegemony was also addressed some of the participants remained sceptical and referred to the moralizing aspect of crisis rather. The concept of hegemony was discussed also in relation to other concepts such as mystification vs. demystification. In terms of the economic reality of the crisis – evident in the negative impacts of 2008 and its EU-wide repercussions on Bulgarian economy – the questions that emerged were in relation to the availability of data in terms of gauging inequality, for instance within household consumption, and the degree to which local economists forefront this issue in their analysis and/or whether the issue of inequality is obfuscated within overall averages of macroeconomic analysis.

Eirini Avramopoulou (British School at Athens) focused her attention on the emotional cost of the economic crisis in the Greek society and on the emotional reactions provoked by the new-born states of inequality and forms of social exclusions. She introduced the audience to individual stories that become paradigmatic of how crisis politics affect processes of subject formation and subjectivation when feelings of anger, depression, sadness, despair, shame and guilt interwoven with the banality of feeling are perceived as a subject of crisis.    

By implementing the method of Bogardus' social distance scale (1959) Alexey Pamporov (Institute for the Study of Societies and Knowledge at BAS) analysed the impact of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the refugees’ crisis in 2015-2016 on social distances towards given ethnic minorities in Bulgaria. He presented results of a series of representative surveys in the period 2008-2016. One of the findings that caught the attention of the audience was what Pamporov called the bad news: younger people used to be most welcoming, and now they are most hating.

The discussion after these presentations focused on the balance and dynamics between private narrative of suffering and public narrative of suffering. A consensus was reached that suffering is always a matter of social relation affected by peoples’ experience. Another point of interest was the social repositioning as a result of crisis (that is, estimation of others vs. self-estimation). Stemming from the Greek case (Greeks as subject of crisis, on the one hand, and on the other, as agents of resistance), the role of agency was discussed with relation to different ways of resisting and/or surrendering to power.  In addition, the often problematic nature of investigation of prejudices was addressed.  

Session 2

Iliya Atanasov (Sofia University) addressed the question of the impact of the global financial crisis on emigration flows from Bulgaria within a wider time frame and in relation to outflows to particular contexts (in the EU and across the Atlantic) as well as the negative and positive effects of those on national economy.

Rossitza Guentcheva (New Bulgarian University) directed the audience attention to the understanding of crisis, by following and juxtaposing two accounts of Bulgarian migrants: one of a Bulgarian family that has lived for more than a decade in Cyprus and which has profoundly felt the crisis on various levels and dimensions, compelling them finally to return home; the other – of Bulgarian workers who have a sense of crisis on their current workplace in Bulgaria, which is prompting them to look for prospects abroad. In her presentation the financial crisis was discussed as a transnational phenomenon that forces people to mobilize networks and resources beyond the national scale.

As one of the major challenges to conducting economic research in relation to migration the group identified the asymmetrical availability of data so as to enable comparisons across different contexts. Questions about the relevance of referring to positive along with the negative impact of migration were raised. The interest of the audience in the Turkish exodus of 1986, considered the first political wave of migration, caused further discussion of this topic. Information was provided about the way these people (Bulgarian Turks) has kept their Bulgarian citizenship and effectively influence Bulgarian politics nowadays (particularly during the parliamentary and local elections). Also related to this discussion, topics like trust and loyalty were addressed.

Karim Murji (Open University), Mike Hajimichael (University of Nicosia) and Stoyan Antonov (University of Plovdiv) presented their autobiographic reflections of the lived experience of being in crisis times. Murji and Hajimichael analysed the way they lived in the 1970s in the UK – years of economic crisis and student protests, and compared their experience of that time with the contemporary crisis period. They payed attention also to the role of music, culture and politics in representing that. 

Stoyan Antonov focused on the critical for Bulgaria years 1996-1997 and described the everyday practices of coping with the economic crisis at that time of a young family with two small children. In addition, he compared the idea of ‘crisis’ then to the ‘crisis’ as a part of the public discourse in 2013-2014.

The discussion revolved around concepts such as organized labour, crisis as a norm, and what is political and what is progressive. Attention was paid also to various types of protests: on the one hand, protests of the angry young people in the 1970s in the UK and, on the other hand, protests of the “beautiful and intelligent” young people in 2013 in Bulgaria. Last but not least, the discussants emphasized how crucial it is not to lose sight of the notion of ‘class’, often obscured by present-day frames of identity politics.

Session 3

The third session entitled “Visually documenting crisis” involved the presentation, screening and discussion of the documentary A month in the life of Ephtim D. (Dir. Asen Balikci, 2003), produced under commission of the World Bank, which follows the story of a 73-year-old pensioner living in Bulgaria in the 1990s transition and the crisis of 1996/7. The documentary was introduced to the participants in the workshop by the director himself via Skype. Professor Balikci (University of Montreal, Canada, Emeritus) talked about the circumstances that led to the commissioning and production of the film, following his field study of Bulgarian pensioners in the 1990s among 50 families from different villages and towns across the country. The participants had the opportunity to learn details with regard to the identification and positioning of the subject of the film, the social, economic and political issues at stake at the time, as well as certain aspects of the film-craft and challenges that conducting visual anthropology presents. The discussion that followed after the screening touched variously upon issues related to the relevance of this individualized experience vis-à-vis the social group it might be taken as representative of (the elderly, pensioners) and also vis-à-vis the reality of the 1996/7 financial crisis in Bulgaria as a marker of locating “crisis” in the past, with a receding frame and often nuanced by forms of nostalgia for this particular geo-political context (i.e. nostalgic rendition of biographical life stages of different generations in the 1990s from a vantage point in the present; or the 1990s nostalgia for the previous period of national state communism, among others). With regard to the circulation and reception of the film, Rossitsa Guentcheva (New Bulgarian University) shared her experience of similar screenings among professional academic circles in Bulgaria at Departments of Anthropology and the mixed responses the film generates, often marked by generational lines. This session was also attended by MA and PhD students of the Faculty of Philosophy and History at the University of Plovdiv and the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Sofia with interests and academic experience in visual anthropology who contributed to the discussion.

In the second part of the session, Dobrinka Parusheva’s (Plovdiv University) presentation “What a crisis gnawed at us: crisis and caricature” focused on a selection of caricatures thematically revolving around the financial crisis 2007/8 and its repercussions thereafter across different geo-political contexts. These were produced by local cartoonists (such as Christo Komarnitski, Ivailo Ninov and Margarita Yantcheva) and published in electronic and print media editions (such as Sega, Starshel, etc.) targeting both international and Bulgarian-speaking audiences. The analysis and the discussion thereafter covered a range of issues from formal, technological and generic characteristics of caricatures to methods of analysis and reading to issues of cartoons’ contextualization and function within media discourse. Some of the questions raised were: how and where we identify the location and/or the direction of the political jab; what the immediate relationship between a cartoon and the texts in the newspaper is; does the cartoon accentuate, confirm or critique the headlines, news text or the textual context in the newspaper; are they illustrations and/or subversions to dominant media discourse, etc. Further, participants also paused on the issue of whether (and how) the perception and/or nature of cartoons might have changed after “Charlie Hebdo”. Since Dobrinka Parusheva’s presentation involved “texts” published both in English and in Bulgarian and at the same time involved generic and contextualized characteristics of humour (as a form of protest, as power shifts and/or current political commentary, etc.) the discussion in this section resonated with some of the issues raised in the session “Translating crisis: discursive practices”, especially with regard to translating metaphors of crisis across linguistic and cultural contexts, as well as in relation to the comparative study of anecdotes of the financial crisis in Russian and Bulgarian by Lilyana Tsoneva (Veliko Turnovo University)“Laughing it out: the global financial and economic crisis 2007/8 in anecdotes”, which was provided as a background reading in English.

Session 4

Participants in the fourth session discussed how crisis is presented in media and the ways in which crisis depends on and is read / interpreted according to the context.

Tao Papaioannou (University of Nicosia) presented the research carried out together with Gregoris Ioannou (Frederick University, Cyprus) on the interplay between protesters and media. Using the case of the ‘Save Akamas’ campaign against the government proposal of restricting the natural reserve area in Akamas peninsula within measures of stimulating the Cypriot economy, their study explored whether and how activists strategize performative framing of protest events and whether they benefit from these strategies in their news media coverage. 

Julien Mercille (University College Dublin) discussed the discourse of crisis and emergency circulated in the Irish media about the healthcare system since 2008. He claimed that such alarming discourse plays a negative role with regard to the public healthcare system; it is rather an instrument in favour of the already started privatisation of the system.

In the focus of attention of Henry Silke (University of Limerick) was the media coverage and reception of Thomas Piketty’s academic (but not only) bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century  (2014), which discusses the economic inequality, in several European states (Austria, Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom).

As a follow up from these presentations questions were raised about the celebrity and environment (Piketty as an icon), the overall media representation of economists, the relation between performance and framing – and what scholars should do when framing is no longer effective.  In addition, the importance of what is framed was underlined and a further point was made that, in fact, framing is behind the text (and related to this statement the role of metaphor was addressed too, i.e. not losing sight of both framing and performance as metaphors that could lead to blurring the boundaries between intentionality and non-intentionality). In relation to the emergent critical address of media discourse surrounding the healthcare system in Ireland, useful parallels were drawn to the NHS in the UK which could be taken to serve as a point of contextualizing later day developments in Ireland.

‘The social life of a verbal sign’, or the diverse ideas of Brexit in the UK and Ireland – this was the topic of Marnie Holborow (Dublin City University). According to her reading, influenced by the Marxist linguist Voloshinov, the way language is used exemplifies struggle for hegemony between different ideologies. 

The last two presentations were even more linguistically oriented: Snezha Tsoneva-Matthewson (University of Plovdiv) analysed the metaphors of the global economic crisis and outlined the specifics of conceptualisation of the events during the period 2008-2013 in English and Bulgarian. She drew parallels based on a corpus of examples from newspapers in the UK and Bulgaria with opposing political orientations.

Ivaylo Dagnev (Medical University Plovdiv) and Zlatka Chervenkova (University of Plovdiv) discussed the everyday life discourse of crisis in the two languages – Bulgarian and English. The corpus under investigation included both tabloids in English and Bulgarian, and specialized economic and financial publications, highlighting differences in conceptualizations across and within cultures. In the opinion of the authors, the diversity of linguistic manifestations of the idea of crisis in both languages is predetermined by the economic differences between the countries as well as their cultural peculiarities.  

During the discussion the opinion was shared that the Brexit invites the idea of crisis per se. Some participants mused on the wording of Gr-exit, Br-exit asking the question exit of what, of “Europe”? The role of emotions and the application of metonymy was addressed once again, and the pre-ideological and/or trans-ideological meanings and contexts were questioned and contemplated on.

Field trip

The idea of the Plovdiv team behind this field trip was to offer workshop participants the opportunity to “immerse” themselves into the everyday life of Plovdiv residents, to show different forms of dealing with crises (pl.) though inhabiting urban space – the crisis of the state and government, economic crisis, the crisis of institutions, new social stratifications, social mobility, etc. To this aim we invited the workshop participants to visit residential area “Trakia” which was built as a new residential zone with multi-storey apartment blocks. The construction began in the 1970s, during the years of national state communism, but continued after 1989. The traces of the ensuing transformations of Bulgarian society and the range of crises within this extended period have “seeped into” and are now evident in the developed hybrid architectural forms and can be observed in first-floor-flats turned into shops, photo studios or offices, in the utilization of balconies for expanding living space through kitchen relocation, etc.

Project participants had the opportunity to visit the Festival “One Architecture week” and meet its director Lyubo Georgiev and Lueneburg, Curator main exhibition, who presented the architects’ point of view on “Trakia”, namely their current project “Citizen participation in the creation of the urban environment”. Through visual markers during the walk, the group could see and discuss some of the strategies employed by city residents in dealing with financial scarcity and deficits – economic, social and ideological – through their practices of inhabiting living space, development of social connections and relations, the heteronomy of urban space. The first workshop within the frame of the project in Cyprus began with the discussions of crisis as haircut and the restrictions, the protests and the social price that people have to pay. The last workshop in Plovdiv metaphorically concluded with the “haircut” of one of the participants from Greece in one of the tiny local hairdresser’s set up in the former garbage collecting depot designed by the architects of “Trakia” in the 1970s (and never used to its initial intended aim). Both “transformations” – of the space and of the person – were successful.

The final session of the workshop -- which also marked the concluding face-to-face activity formally falling within the project proceedings – was structured along the lines of an auto-reflection. Within the spirit of the overall framework of the workshop in Plovdiv whereby the emphasis was an methods of cultural anthropology (yet certainly not exclusively so), the session bore the provisional heading of “Think and speak about your experience in the project” and aimed at providing a semi-structured forum for reflections among core project group members along the lines of the following questions (circulated in advance):

  • Which workshop matched your interests most? Why?
  • To what extent the working and discussing environment helped you participate in the project?
  • Outline three points that you liked most and three points that you liked least during the project’s ongoing activities (workshops, site visits, writing collaborations and commitments, etc.)? (Both during organization and implementation)
  • In your opinion, on which of the issues discussed project participants had most convergent or shared views? On which issue(s) participants’ views were most divergent? What would you attribute that to?
  • Tell a story from your project experience that you will not forget.

Addressing these questions allowed project participants to revisit the two years of unfolding project collaborations, highlight salient to them features of the emergent project narrative, express both personal and professional opinions and memories of the dynamic and intensive connections that the process of professional networking and shared communal experiences have woven. Without going into details, overall the discussion revealed that in the course of two years since the first project workshop in Nicosia (Cyprus), when the core group met in person, momentum has been generated for further collaborative work that participants variously articulated in terms of developing a framework for (a) another joint publication stemming from the focus on “Living the crisis: everyday life and translation”, possibly submitted to Plovdiv University Press for consideration; and (b) seeking further funding for follow-up activities (in manner of conference, workshop,  coordinating meeting for continuing networking, etc.).