Young people in ethnically divided post-conflict societies are often happy to date across ethnic lines, notwithstanding its prevailing discouragement. My recently published Identities article, 'Kiss don't tell: attitudes towards inter-ethnic dating and contact with the Other in Bosnia-Herzegovina', examines this in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which it takes as a typical case of an ethnically divided post-conflict society: young people struggle to meet other ethnic groups due to the high levels of segregation in society. Such contact is also discouraged in the home, in schools, in religious institutions and in the media. I use focus groups conducted on Facebook and follow-up interviews to speak to young people across the country who date across ethnic lines despite these obstacles.
The findings show that the activity of dating produces two strategies that allow individuals to overcome these obstacles. First, individuals are able to meet through the pursuit of cooperative activities that allow for routine contact with the Other without ethnic labels attached. This happens through inter-ethnic civil society efforts, volunteering, activism and travel.
Groups that facilitated this included international civil society organizations (for example, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement); regional civil society organizations that provide exchange programmes (for example, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, YIHR) and various classes and discounted travel opportunities.
Second, the pursuit of shared aspirations allows individuals to overcome normative barriers to inter-ethnic dating, which, in the context of dating in Bosnia-Herzegovina, took the form of marriage and children. Families worry about dating, since it can lead to marriage and children, which in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as elsewhere, is marked with ethnic customs and traditions.
For example, weddings are typically marked by ethnic symbols (such as flags and music) and children are given names that denominate their ethnic group. Individuals who date across ethnic lines also develop their own repertoire of practices that allows their relationships to function and to maintain peaceful relations and civility with those around them. They speak about giving potential children neutral names (perhaps Scandinavian) or about mixing traditions at a wedding, if they have a wedding at all. In doing so, they also bring their families and friends into contact with the Other.
These findings have important theoretical implications. They show that Allport’s often criticized contact theory can be adapted to better suit the post-conflict environment if it is re-conceptualized as activity. Activities involve a type of contact between different groups, both physical and symbolic (such as interaction with outgroup symbols), which allows them to gain knowledge about the outgroup.
These activities can take place in domains often ignored by the scholarship, such as dating. Activities that occur in day-to-day life are not seen as forced or artificial by the public; they do not aim to create shared narratives in order to overcome a violent past, which are often rejected, and they are laden with acquaintance potential that can transform relationships.
Other types of activities which are not seen as artificial or imposed on inter-ethnic communities provide an avenue for future research in this area, which could start identifying which activities can transform inter-ethnic relations for the better and why.
Blog post by Ivor Sokolić, University of Hertfordshire, UK
Read the Identities article:
Ivor Sokolić. (2022). Kiss don't tell: attitudes towards inter-ethnic dating and contact with the Other in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2022.2127666 OPEN ACCESS
Read further in Identities:
Identity, ethnic boundaries, and collective victimhood: analysing strategies of self-victimisation in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina OPEN ACCESS
Introduction to the construction and the interplay of European, national and ethnic identities in Central and Eastern Europe
International marriage in Japan: reconstructing cultural toolkits in marriages between Japanese men and women from the former Soviet Union
The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.