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Published: 2023-11-27

Research trip in Mostar

PROFILE A Day at work for Matheus Souza, doctoral student in Peace and conflict studies

Image: Matheus Souza

What is the aim of your doctoral research?

In my research, I explore how people experience and narrate places in cities affected by armed warfare. I am particularly interested in whether and how these narratives provide different – sometimes conflictive – stories about space in (post-)war cities, sites where space is often contested.

Why were you in Mostar?

Mostar is a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina that has been affected by two wars in the 1990s (one in 1992 and the other between 1993 and 1994). I chose the city as one of the case studies for my research because space was quite central both in the war and post-war periods. Mostar was severely damaged and a great part of the urban infrastructure in the city centre was completely destroyed. For this reason, space became a central aspect of post-war politics as reconstructing the city space and urban infrastructure was an urgent priority.

I was there to obtain more knowledge on the city in general and on how people narrate and experience the city space in particular. I met a lot of different groups of people there, such as city dwellers, local politicians, foreigners involved in peacebuilding activities and tour guides, who kindly agreed to participate in my research and to tell me more about their own perspectives on spaces and places in the city of Mostar.

In what way were you conducting your study there?

Since I am interested in how people narrate spaces and places in the city of Mostar, I conducted my research using a ‘walking and talking’ approach. Basically, I asked my collaborators in Mostar to show me places in Mostar that they thought would help me understand their everyday lives and politics in the city. My collaborators planned the walk themselves, and together we visited places that are central to them on a personal level – such as the neighbourhoods they live in and places that they usually visit – but also places that are contested and neglected – such as war ruins, the Old Bridge and the Partisan Memorial Cemetery –, which are topics in ongoing political debates in Mostar. This was quite different from my normal routine as a researcher, which involves a lot of desk research, and it was definitely the most stimulating and engaging part since I started my work.

Is this a common method in your research field?

I would not say that this is a traditional methodological approach either within Political Science or Peace and Conflict studies because it is not often that scholars explore space as a research theme per se. However, walking and talking methodologies and urban ethnographic methods are common approaches amongst scholars that call for a spatial turn in peace and conflict studies and geographers and urban scholars since places and spaces are often central analytical categories in their research.

Why is it important to do this type of research?

I think looking at space helps researchers to grasp the materiality of peace and conflict and the complexity of urban dynamics in post-war cities such as Mostar. Through my research, in particular, I have been able to understand the contested aspect of places in Mostar and how different groups of people understand and experience places rather differently. For instance, many of my collaborators showed me war ruins when we walked together, but they expressed different opinions about them. Some framed war ruins as sources of trauma and reminders of wartime violence, others represented them rather positively as places where people can reclaim their right to the city through artistic interventions, and some others see in them an opportunity to profit by attracting tourists that are interested in visiting cities where war ruins can still be seen. So, those are quite distinct positions and opinions, and I believe uncovering them can help inform academic and public debates on the politics of urban reconstruction in post-war cities.