Exploring the meaning of justice in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Short reflections on the research process
The pitfalls I faced doing fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina or my (very) short love letter to fieldwork in socio-legal studies.
Tuesday 2nd of May, and I’m walking down the streets of Sarajevo on my way to conduct my first ever research interview. As I head towards the meeting point I arranged with Katherine, my participant, I’m feeling nervous and excited at the prospect of finally doing what I’ve been preparing for the past month or so. I arrive 10 minutes early and send Katherine another email describing my outfit and my exact location on the public square. Looking back, it must have been the formality of scheduling an interview that made me tense.
This brief anecdote is one of the many experiences I took from a fieldtrip to Bosnia-Herzegovina in May 2023, as part of the Law and Society master’s course “Current Issues in Law and Society: the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina”. The course centred on exploring the meaning of justice and the role of the rule of law in the post-conflict context of Bosnia-Herzegovina, following the 1992-1995 war that ravaged the country and led to tragedies, such as the Srebrenica genocide. One important component of the course was developing our socio-legal fieldwork skills. Through fieldwork, we set out to study the perspectives of actors in the country, including ordinary citizens or NGO representatives, on different facets of justice – in my case, the everyday justice concerns of the youth.
While our respective findings advance an interesting perspective on the relationship and distinction between law and justice, I would like to present my reflections on the process of doing fieldwork as a valuable method for exploring justice and legal issues. Although there are many books on conducting socio-legal fieldwork (see this handbook on socio-legal theory and methods or the Leiden Law Methods Portal), I would like to offer the point of view of a novice who, despite having read a few of these accounts, encountered for the first time the joys and challenges of doing fieldwork.
Reflections on fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Much like this blog, our fieldtrip to Bosnia-Herzegovina was very short. We had about one week to conduct interviews, take fieldnotes, and deploy visual methods. Over the span of that week, I interviewed five persons, talked to many more, and attempted to observe different social settings. Here are the lessons I learnt from this introduction to fieldwork.
- Be vigilant when interviewing friends and acquaintances
Before this fieldtrip, I was already familiar with Bosnia-Herzegovina as I went to high school at an international boarding school in Mostar. As a result, I was able to interview two ex-classmates.
Interviewing people I knew was very helpful. Since we already trusted each other, they did not give me socially desirable answers during the interviews, and I could test with them what I heard from the other participants. It allowed me to recognise social desirability in my participants’ answers. For example, participants often downplayed the problem of ethnocentrism to me, a foreigner. After interviewing my friends, it became clear that the participants were telling me what they believed I wanted to hear.
Interviewing friends or acquaintances also has drawbacks, particularly when it comes to obtaining informed consent. I emphasise ‘informed’ because the existing trust entails that friends may not pay close attention to the details and implications of participation, which makes it tricky to assess if a person was informed enough to give consent. Through this experience, I realised that we tend to pay closer attention to obtaining consent from strangers, while this issue is just as important with friends and acquaintances who would more readily agree to our requests.
- Know your preferences
I find fieldwork appealing because it requires the ability to adapt to the contingencies of a given situation. This preference for spontaneity distinctively shapes my approach to fieldwork. In Sarajevo, I learnt that I prefer semi-structured or quasi-unstructured interviews – with guiding topics, but not strictly pre-determined questions. Concretely, this meant that I would purposefully forget to look at or even bring my interview guide. Beyond spontaneity, I enjoyed quasi-unstructured interviews because they allowed me to get closer to my participants and to view them as whole, complex human beings with more to say than the very pointed questions I asked. It also enabled me to take a step back from my research and its importance. To illustrate – during one interview a participant's sister gave birth, which made this last point especially clear to me.
- Talk to people you dislike or disagree with
Fieldwork is quintessentially about patience and listening, and one of its biggest benefits is exposing the researcher to perspectives they would not have known or had access to otherwise. The biggest pitfall of my fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina was unconsciously avoiding certain segments of the youth whose opinions I disagreed with by going to alternative cafés and spaces. In particular, I avoided speaking to ethnonationalist young people or those I stereotyped as having conservative sexist views, based on my previous experience of living in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This bias on political opinions shaped my interactions, my selection of participants, and most of all, my findings. This experience taught me to carefully consider the spaces I decided to go to.
Final recommendations to other novices
When doing fieldwork, you will be asked to consider your positionality. Positionality refers to the multiple identities a person holds, such as their gender, ethnicity, class, education, occupation or political opinions (as discussed above), and how your own identities influence the research process. Positionality allows us to understand the limits of the findings, in turn leading to nuance and refinement. My final recommendation is to consider who your participants are and what your relationship with them is. Answering these questions is an entry point to examine your positionality, and to reflect on your fieldwork.
I hope to have highlighted the joys and challenges of doing fieldwork. These reflections are personal and specific to the research we did in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and if you conduct your own, you will probably face other challenges. While fieldwork comes with its challenges, it provides a unique method to understand law and justice from the perspective of the people who experience them.