Maja Petrović-Šteger


The proposed project is an ethnographic study of specific strategies of confronting the past and securing ‘peace of mind’ in contemporary Serbia. After the 1990s wars, Serbs have been called to reconcile themselves to their misdeeds; some of them are, however, increasingly coming to understand the postconflict period not as healing but as shameful and wearing. My research ethnographically addresses the conjunction between the political imperative for Serbs to reassess their recent history and what my informants in Belgrade call, in a more medicalised register, their ‘mental hygiene’. More particularly, I will examine a range of material practices and rhetorical strategies concerned with the militarisation of Serbian psychological security.

In the 1990s, Serbia’s then nationalistic government promoted forms of mental discipline, intended, as they argued, to spiritually fortify the national psyche and safeguard the country’s ‘national consciousness’ as this was assailed by Serbia’s enemies. Deploying a rhetoric that, while highly specific in terms of military strategy, was both esoteric and religious, they asked that Serbia defend itself not just on conventional battlefields but in the minds of its people.

After the wars, most Serbs deplored these ideas as fatally paranoid and atavistic pseudo-science. Today, however, they appear to be enjoying a revival, as they resurface as a set of guidelines encouraging psychic self-help. My research hypothesises these phenomena, which purport to be about war and the country’s defences, as ways of dealing with socially precarious situations, including poverty and collective denial.

Using the anthropological method of participant observation, the study will consider a number of anti-war Belgradians who are addressing topics of the local and global crisis by reopening the question of mental hygiene. The project initiates an anthropological treatment of psychological security at a time of upheaval in a highly politicised southern European context.

The Research Idea

My proposal is innovative in identifying a new research topic—the ‘neo-cortical defence’ supposedly waged by Serbia during the 1990s—and connecting it to emerging, politically-informed treatments of the anthropology of fear.

In the 1990s, many people in their distress argued that it was not only ‘local enemies’ but rather Western powers and their interventions (like the 1999 NATO bombing) that bore the main blame for Serbia’s plight. Western elites were seen as conducting an all-out economic, technological, psychological, informational and environmental war against the Serbs. Serbia’s people had become the pawns in a ‘neo-cortical war’ (the term borrowed from official US military doctrine, Szafranski 1994) that sought to reprogram their values, thoughts and behaviour by manipulating their brainwaves. In response, a group of Serbian military experts, scientific researchers and public intellectuals organized a programme of non-violent resistance, calling for a technical and spiritual fortification of the ‘national psyche’, flushing the Serbs’ ‘mental hygiene’ through so-called methods of ‘neuro-security’.

While the left easily repudiated these ideas as absurd just after the war, today the same mental- and neuro-security rhetoric appears to be gaining currency with many alienated Serbs as a language of spiritual defence and psychic self-sufficiency. Mental hygiene is proposed as a bulwark against criminality, corruption and foreign capital; its practice, however politically obfuscatory, promises for some regeneration and atonement in the postconflict period (see Petrović-Šteger 2013, 2014).

The Focus

Proposed anthropological analysis will shed light on what many Serbs are feeling (and doing) now, at a time of reduced economic opportunity and political abjection.

My ten years of study in Serbia has amassed an ethnographic archive recording the frustrations of many Serbs over their political and economic future. These Serbs blame both themselves for their past passivity or support for the war and local and global politicians. In pushing for a public response to certain unacknowledged ‘wounds’, they both disavow and begin more obliquely to articulate feelings of denial, guilt and culpability in relation to the country’s part in the conflicts.

The proposed research focuses on how the mental hygiene of the Serbian people came to be imagined as a line of defence during the 1990s wars, and why it is being fashioned as a tool for psychic-intellectual regeneration now. Alternative concepts of security are usually seen in Serbia as nationalist-aligned. But it’s also possible to read mental health as engaging personal strategies in which some people reflect critically on local political structures. A surprising feature of the revival of these ideas of mental protection is that they are put forward not just by nationalists, but also by a section of educated, self-reflexive people known for their leftist and anti-nationalist orientation. My attention in this project will be therefore drawn to how complex attachments to national narratives and imagery play themselves out in the lives of ordinary citizens negotiating composite, perhaps indissoluble feelings of guilt and grievance.


The metaphors of neocortical defence and mental hygiene in Serbia are often mocked as ridiculously wishful. Those few scholars that took the notion of neuro-security in Serbia as worth discussing in any context tend to analyse them on a purely discursive level (Byford 2002, 2006). My argument, however, is that there is more to concerns with mental security than paranoia (Hofstadter 1967, Marcus 1999, Comaroff and Comaroff 2003, West and Todd 2003). A purely debunking approach to the real or imagined effects of neocortical war further misses the degree to which contemporary armies take it very seriously as an integral part of military operations. Psychological operations, moreover. have become the default mode of combat today. Military agencies worldwide generously fund research in the behavioural sciences and in neuroscience, psychiatry and more speculative brain-related studies in seeking to advance a science of warfare (Campen et al. 1996, Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1997, Denning 1998, Hayles 2004, Moreno 2006; 2008). Discussions in which political scientists and anthropologists analyse how the military and defence industries affect science and society (Gusterson 2007, Lutz 2008; 2009, Bickford 2008, Gusterson and Besteman 2010, Lutz and Gonzales 2011) will centrally inform the proposed research. These perspectives, together with approaches from the anthropological study of mindfulness (Schweder and LeVine 1984, Gray 2007, Cook 2010), suggest the need for a careful conceptualization of research questions concerning mental hygiene and its social implications in Serbia.

Theory & Evidence Base

My topic is both apparently offbeat—in dealing with an apparent national delusion—and germane to a range of topics in cutting-edge political anthropology. The project will also draw on anthropological studies of the self and sociality (Cohen Cole 2009), shame, denial and guilt in relation to violence and warfare (Richards 2005, Hinton 2010), and national psychology (Djerić 2005, 2007) in the context of biopolitics (Rose 2007, Tarizzo 2011), war (Robben 2005, Rosenberg 2008, Navaro-Yashin 2012) and nationalism (Danforth 1995, Stolcke 1995, Stojanovic 1997, Kapferer 1998, Hobsbawm 1999, Gordy 1999, Herzfeld 2001, 2005). It also joins a body of ethnographic and archival research on the Balkans (Hayden 1996, Halpern and Kideckel 2000, Brown 2000, Čolović 2002, Bjelić and Savić 2002, Goddard, Llober and Shore 2004, Bougarel, Helms and Duijzings 2007, Žanić 2007, Longinović 2011, 2010, Živković 2011, Perica and Velikonja 2012).

My approach is distinctive in linking mental security both to war and a rationalisation of economic insecurity. The idea of intellectual and psychological defence is especially resonant for a former socialist country like Serbia. This will make my work an interlocutor of studies concerned with crisis (Harvey 1999, Graeber 2011a, b, Vradis and Dalakoglou 2011), and with mental and spiritual defence as a phenomenon of socialism and postsocialism (Kundera 1991, Kierullf 1992, Drakulić 1993, Verdery 1996, Ries 1997, Kürti 2001).Through bringing to bear these interdisciplinary considerations on the study of neuro-security, the research hopes to frame an anthropological perspective on distinctive configurations of subjectivity and security in situations of upheaval.


The investigation of research issues will be principally pursued through an intensive six months of fieldwork (January through June 2012). I will seek to identify the social conditions in which people can begin to conceive of mental security as a military asset. What connections do they imagine between physical and mental security? How does consciousness become politicized? In whose interest? Into what other practices do ‘patriotic technologies of mind’ translate? How are these tools used for consolidating or contesting contemporary politics in Serbia? I intend to pursue these questions through in-depth interviews with existing informants, as well as through new networks of informants including those who witnessed or participated in the conflicts of the 1990s. In consequence, my prospective interlocutors will be usually 35+ in terms of age, offering a particular generational view of the past and present.

I intend to work with both the ideologues of mental hygiene and security, including practitioners (many war veterans) and promoters (editors, workshop organisers and radio broadcasters and writers), and with critics of neocortical defence (politicians, psychologists, historians, neuroscientists, human rights activists). The hope is to gain an understanding of the scientific, political, ethical and legal criteria that inform experts’ deliberations. During the research period I will use standard ethnographic methods of participant observation, combined with more structured data-gathering methods. My research, as always, will follow the codes of practice of the ASA and AAA, respecting in particular the requirement of obtaining prior informed consent from participants.


The last six months of my research (July through December 2014) will be devoted to writing and dissemination activities. The writing-up phase of the project will start with a discourse analysis of media commentaries on mental hygiene and an analysis of collected material. I intend to write three publications based on the research. The first will be a chapter in an edited volume entitled ‘Materialities of Passing: On Health and Healing in Serbia’ already solicited for the collection “Materiality of Death and Time: Explorations of Transcience, Transition and Transformation”, edited by Anders Emil Rassmusen, Tim Flohr Sørensen and Peter Bjerregaard (due in 2015 from Ashgate). The article will explore the temporal dimension of healing, bereavement and denial in postconflict Serbia. The other two texts will be written as journal articles. The first will investigate practices of the politicization of national consciousness in uncertain times. The second will seek to gauge the success of peace-building efforts and transitional justice programmes as forms of mental hygiene in Serbia. I will submit the completed article to anthropology journals for publication, including JRAI, Current Anthropology, and PoLAR. Further, I intend to disseminate my research findings at two of most important and influential anthropological conferences: the biannual meeting of European Association for Social Anthropology in Talinn, Estonia, from 31st July-3rd of August, 2014, and the annual meeting of American Anthropological Association in Washington DC, December 2-7, 2014.


Security was for a long time conceptualised only in the context of military and developmental studies; this project insists on the primacy of its social dimension. An anthropological examination of security, which relates the term to the putatively psychological, even neurological basis of personal and national identity, is unprecedented. The research will be groundbreaking in applying ethnographic methods to mental security, and to the projection of that sense as a military asset, in a time of national turmoil. In contributing to the political anthropology of national identity in the Balkans, my work will be specific to Serbia as the country in which notions of neocortical defence became most emotionally and politically invested.

My previous work investigated the contemporary efforts to address past injustice through different forms of bodily accounting, focusing on the postconflict management and repatriation of human remains of the people still missing after the wars (Petrović-Šteger 2009). This work stands behind and will benefit the particular research I am proposing to ISRF.

It is my belief that an enquiry into the idea of neuro-security, as it gets caught up in contorted versions of patriotism and national consciousness, could not be more timely given the national crises induced by the current state of the southern European economies. Is some form of mental adaptation mandated by capitalism? In studying mental hygiene as a response to perceived assault, the project aims ultimately to contribute to the ethnography of collective (and personal) responses to social fear.