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Pride and Pragmatism: Linguistic and Political Ambivalence in the Everyday Lives of Serbian Students and Teachers


This dissertation investigates the everyday lives and experiences of Serbian youth born amidst war and the breakup of Yugoslavia. It argues that historical and political events in Serbia have inspired widespread ambivalence about national pride and cosmopolitanism, how to restore Serbia's international reputation, and the ability of citizens to enact societal change. Such ambivalence manifests itself through different genres of speaking and types of social encounters. The dissertation explores the ways in which a new generation takes up and reinterprets recent social upheaval amidst changing local, European, and global landscapes.

The study draws upon one year of fieldwork in a prestigious high school in Belgrade, Serbia, where I recorded history, civics, and literature courses, videotaped and conducted participant-observation with students and their peers outside of class, interviewed students and teachers, examined textbooks and other school materials, and analyzed students' interactions on Facebook. This ethnographic corpus offers rich insights into 1) Inter-generational constructions of histories and futures, both personal and collective; 2) Talk itself as simultaneously a symbol of futility and an instrument of political action; and 3) Social media as a site for youth to express their ambivalence, experiment with new connections between language and identity, and overcome feelings of isolation and stigma that still weigh on the previous generation.

Analysis of the corpus suggests that ambivalence in Serbia is historically-grounded, is constructed through a range of linguistic features and types of interaction, and has been experienced as alternately constraining and empowering. Students and teachers oscillate between nostalgia and skepticism when recounting shared histories and use a range of linguistic features to ambiguously assert or downplay Serbia's responsibility for past events. Teachers alternate between criticizing and participating in bureaucratic interactional routines with their students. Online, students mix politically-charged writing systems in novel ways that seem to redefine modern Serbian youth identity while reasserting the advantages of living between `East' and `West.' Overall, this study reveals ambivalence to be a pervasive cultural and political mood that can either lead to feelings of political and social paralysis or become a resource for new and creative forms of identification.

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