The social life of small archives and emotional labour

In a recent talk, Excavating Yugoslav: Socialism Archives, Social History and Research Methodology, delivered at the University of Graz, Vladan Vukliš drew from his dual roles as historian and archivist (at Arhiv Republike Srpske, Banja Luka) in outlining some key issues for undertaking historical research in Bosnia Herzegovina and the wider post-Yugoslav space. As part of his presentation, Vladan displayed a graph which maps out the chances of document preservation against scales of hierarchy and function. A broken green line divides the fonds. The material Goran Musić and I have been working with for the “Between class and nation” project tends to lie stubbornly north of the division in the “low chance of preservation” space. For the last two years, archival research more often than not has meant attempts to access living archives (i.e. still located inside factory premises) or to negotiate a few hours to consult unprocessed and haphazardly organised holdings under the watchful eye of reluctant local archivists.

vuklis hierarchy of dox
Graph prepared by Vladan Vukliš (2017)

Reflections about the value of conducting research in smaller archives and the unpredictable, time limited nature of access has been doing the rounds in recent weeks (in my facebook echo-chamber at least). An excellent piece by Max Bergholz recalls his time-limited access to archives in Bosnian Krajina while researching Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community:

But it was in the field—in the basements and storage depots of dusty Bosnian archives—where I learned something that universities don’t really teach. This is the importance of capitalizing on small windows of opportunity to literally grab hold of the past, which sometimes unexpectedly open up, and must be seized immediately, or perhaps lost forever.

Despite the contemporaneous nature of our research on late socialism, these small window of opportunity revealed themselves repeatedly. On at least three occasions access to documents was time limited and I suspect cannot be repeated. The postsocialist afterlife of socially owned firms and the tumultuous local events will lead to the documents’ disappearance or destruction rather than preservation. Ongoing bankruptcies, (usually failed) privatisations, flawed “social programmes” as well as elections and political battles from the level of state president and premier right down to the municipal level negatively impact upon archive preservation.

The small windows of opportunity that emerged for us did so because of a factor that Bergholz does not elaborate on – as a consequence of managing of social relations. Attempting to gain access to obscure local archives and living archives still inside factories is an intensely social process. It is dependent on finding connections and entry points, negotiating with gatekeepers, presenting oneself in a way that engenders trust and many, many hours of chatting, waiting, and drinking unwanted coffees with whoever may staff the factory offices. One should be affable in terms that are socially recognisable. This form of emotional labour appears to be largely unacknowledged in social history. Oral history methodology can offer some pointers – certainly in terms of ethical guidelines and on ways of establishing a cooperative working relationship with interlocutors. It is social anthropology however, that probably most capable of providing the vocabulary and concepts for interrogating the processes taking place.

Even though in his talk Vladan advocated formal institutional cooperation and the professionalisation of archival and research practices in the discussion that followed having “connections” [veze] was cited by some of the audience members as an essential component when undertaking research in local libraries and archives in former Yugoslav states. While this is certainly true I am of the view that social historians underestimate the emotional labour that fieldwork entails and at times confuse this labour with the cultivation of veze. The social historian does not always need friends in high places to access materials (though it undoubtedly helps). They do however have to be willing to painstakingly attend to social relations in the field. In non-institutional conditions where access to archives is personalised and depends on informal, negotiable rules, not only does the historian have to manage their own feelings towards interlocutors while conducting research but must also attend to the expectations, assumptions, grievances, suspicions and hopes of the various gatekeepers and interlocutors through whom access to archives rests. The researcher’s affective display should be appropriate for the particular context. To simply request access to documents in a transactional manner is likely to yield limited results.

In Serbia and Montenegro during 2015 and 2016 the locations where we were seeking access to archives were deindustrialised and economically depressed. Those workers who were still in formal employment often had not been paid for months, even years. Pension and healthcare contributions were in arrears. In at least two of the plants which were still functioning heavy handed private security had quashed stirrings of labour movements. The initial meetings, coffees and discussions at our fieldwork sites were understandably dominated by these concerns which were ravaging these communities. As our research topic was labour and everyday life in late socialism interlocutors would invariably compare contemporary working conditions with those of the socialist era. In fact, it would be impossible to begin our research without engaging in such conversations.

In FAP Priboj, a truck and heavily vehicle manufacturer in Sandžak, a pattern emerged whereby on average each hour spent in the archives would need to be matched by an hour drinking coffee and chatting to a rotating cast of employees (mostly white collar employees in offices – blue-collar workers would occasionally enter to have documentation stamped or signed but were not usually encouraged to converse with us by the interlocutors). Though never explicitly stated, we were expected to “sing for our supper”, by listening sympathetically and respectfully. Each working day would begin with an extended coffee. This was frustrating at times – time was limited, it was clear that access would be a one-off event and the quantity of materials we were attempting to scour in five days was formidable.

priboj archive
FAP Priboj archive, 2015

18 months after this stint of archival research in Priboj was undertaken the main FAP building containing the archives is under lock and key. The entire plant is now shut and the last workers have been made redundant. At times when tensions rise in the municipality – usually because of broken promises related to redundancy packages – private security patrol the parking lot and prevent anybody from approaching the entrance. I did not dare to park by it on my visit last summer but I did meet some of the interlocutors for coffee.

Rory Archer, 07.04.2017


Drawing discontent. Cartoons in workplace periodicals in the 1980s

A few months ago I wrote about using Yugoslav workplace periodicals as sources. One very fruitful source in these publications is informal content – jokes, aphorisms, interviews with workers on everyday life topics, and cartoons. Much of this content was produced, written and drawn by workers for workers.

Cartoons in particular offer interesting perspectives on social relations. Visual critique often went far beyond the bounds of what would be appropriate for the textual content. Yet, in the workplaces I have explored, the cartoons and informal content did not appear to have caused major controversy.

What follows below is a selection of cartoons from various Yugoslav workplace publications. Some common themes are visible including divisions between blue and white collar workers, corrupt management, problems of theft, laziness and absenteeism and cynicism about the widening gap between theory and practice in Yugoslav socialism.

From Rakovica to Prizren and from Titograd to Pula cartoons in worker periodicals revolve around similar themes and concerns. They serve to remind that despite decentralisation and increasingly divergent conditions between the republics (autarky), common working class tropes of dissatisfaction remained remarkably similar across the country for much of the 1980s.

Rory Archer, 15.04.2016




Yugoslav workplace periodicals

Yugoslav workplaces published various documents to inform workers about their place of employment. Some of these were strictly internal documents or bulletins but by the 1970s larger workplaces frequently published periodicals in a magazine or newspaper format.

In researching labour in late socialist Yugoslavia these workplace periodicals are arguably the most valuable source. Factory archival holdings are often inaccessible, destroyed, non-existent or ‘disappeared’ with the privatisation (pillaging) of socially/state owned firms.

In our research project these periodicals are the first source to be examined and we refer back to them throughout the research process (for examine in corroborating oral history accounts or comparing them with documents encountered in archival holdings).

fabricke novine

Cover pages from periodicals (Srbijateks Beograd, 1986; Jugolinija Rijeka 1988; Srećno Nikšić, 1978)

Many of the workplace periodicals emerging in this period referred explicitly to the 1976 Law on Associated Labour, Article 546 of which stated that Basic Organisations of Associated Labour (BOAL) were obliged to provide regular, timely, truthful content to workers in an accessible manner.[1] The restructuring and decentralisation of the Yugoslav economy with this law provided an impetus to regularly publish a periodical as a means of communication between the increasingly atomised BOALs, League of Communists, trade union and other institutions of self-management associated with an enterprise.

While one might expect these periodicals to exclusively represent management and craven party views they do still inform upon the concerns of workers and provide a range of viewpoints and critique, not only in and between the often unruly BOALS but also in regard to the wider community and state. The social historian concerned with everyday life can usually find quite a lot of material in the ‘I’ voice. As political and social rights were deeply connected to the workplace (‘the centre of one’s social universe’ as Susan Woodward terms it),[2] such publications reported not only on production and work related activities but also on the housing, leisure, health, political participation, education, living costs, trade union activities, state holiday celebrations and entertainment of employees and their families. Indeed one could consider these publications as providing sites where abstract phenomena (e.g., institutions of self-management, labour practices, concerns like unemployment, economic stabilisation) can be observed in particular, concrete instances, intersecting with lived experience. These periodicals frequently addressed the position of specific groups of workers – for example those with low wages, young workers, disabled workers, (non-) party members, workers in direct production, female workers, workers without secure housing. They also tacked social and public health issues such as unemployment, HIV/AIDS and alcoholism. Thus they are valuable sources not only for researchers of labour and self-management but also of Yugoslav social policy (welfare, healthcare etc.)

Between censorship and ‘interpersonal informing’

Many publications explicitly stated their intention not to function as a ‘top-down mouthpiece’ but as a site of mediation between employees of various backgrounds and the atomised BOALs For example the first issue of the Jadrolinija ferry company periodical in 1976 mentions the importance of ‘strengthening the influence of workers’ in the publication’s content and informing workers as part of a ‘battle against all attempts of individual and group influence of technical-bureaucratic structures’ on the flow of information. It was also deemed necessary to fight against ‘censorship and the holding back of information under the guise of ‘business secrets”’.[3] The expression ‘interpersonal informing’ was used to stress the ‘wish that the list not get a one-sided character by informing “from the top”… from the perspective of individual leaders to “those below”.

Indeed the reflexive nature of such publications could be seen in regular appeals for workers to participate by writing texts or providing feedback about the publication (in the case of Jadrolinija for a honorarium).[4] The periodical Srećno of the Bauxite mine complex in Nikšić, Montenegro appealed “Srećno is your paper! If you are not pleased with it, write for it so it can be much better!”[5].

srecno je vas list

A report on a reader satisfaction survey in the publication Minel (of the former Belgrade based construction and infrastructure giant) broached the issue of censorship in rather open terms by admitting that the publication could not always report on issues known to the editors but deemed it better to publish ‘half-information rather than no-information’.[6] Readers considered that (falling) living standards were not being sufficiently addressed, in particular that of housing.[7] The editors agreed and future editions of the publication contained more frequent reports on such issues. More items on women’s issues (another request by some readers) were not accepted – although the editorial team was entirely female they argued that the small proportion of women in the firm (both in management and in production) rendered dedicated ‘women’s interest’ content unnecessary.[8]

Accessing workplace periodicals

These publications are readily available in national and city libraries across the states of the former Yugoslavia (in sharp contrast to the rather haphazard access to the archives of enterprises – more on this in a future post).

Predictably the National Library of Serbia in Belgrade has the widest selection which transcends the Socialist Republic of Serbia but smaller city and university libraries can also have good resources for the particular region (e.g. Pula University Library stocks many periodicals of shipping and mining enterprises in coastal Croatia). Srećno!

Rory Archer, 05.11.2015


[1] Informativni list radne organizacije Zetatrans br. 39, novembar 1981, 14.

[2] Susan Woodward, “The Political Economy of Ethno-Nationalism in Yugoslavia” Socialist

Register 39 (2003) 76.

[3] Jadrolinija: Informativni list organizacije udruženog rada, br. 1, lipanj 1976, 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Srećno: List Rudnika boksita Nikšić, br. 63, mart 1981.

[6] Minel: Informativni list složene organizacije udruženog rada, br. 201, oktobar 1982, 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.