Dr Maja Petrović-Šteger

ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow 2014-15

Dr Maja Petrović-Šteger

ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow 2014-15

Maja Petrović-Šteger ISRF

Maja Petrović-Šteger is a social anthropologist (PhD, University of Cambridge 2007) with long term research experience in the former Yugoslavia, Tasmania and Switzerland. Over the past eighteen years her work explored various contexts where bodies – whether living, dead, or in the form of medically usable remains – become the sites of political, legal, scientific and artistic attention. Equally interested in what anthropology can contribute to understanding of the mind and consciousness, she has published on psychological and military concerns with mental health, mental hygiene and neuro-security in Serbia.

Her latest projects consider 1) the material and narrative conditions through which rivers are understood and imagined in rural and urban Serbia, and 2) contemporary societal conundrums and climate of precariousness. She is examining the culture of social entrepreneurship and looking at the transformative power of imagination in engaged creative practices of envisioning the future.

Maja is a Research Fellow and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Institute of Anthropological and Spatial Studies, at the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Coming to Terms: Mental Hygiene in Contemporary Serbia

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.

Contacting Fellows

If you would like to contact any of our Fellows to discuss their ISRF-funded work, please contact Dr Lars Cornelissen (Academic Editor) in the first instance, at [email protected].