Bosnian Culture

Core Concepts

  • Warmth
  • Pride
  • Nationhood (Narod)
  • Generosity
  • Neighbourhood (Komšiluk)

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina (also known in short as “Bosnia”) is a Balkan nation bordering Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The country’s name refers to the two regions of the country; the northern part of the country is ‘Bosnia’ while ‘Herzegovina’ refers to the smaller southern portion. There is no clear boundary between the two. “Bosnian” can refer to someone from the geographical northern region as well as citizenship to the country itself, whereas “Herzegovinian” is generally only used to refer to someone’s regional identity in the south.

 

Some people find that using “Bosnian” as a cultural description can be insufficient. The nation has multiple distinct cultural traditions and many people have different folk, religious and ethnic identities. This has been influenced by a rich history of rule under former Yugoslavia, Croatia, German occupation, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Ultimately, different civilizational periods have led to a blending of Islamic traditions and Near East/Turkic cultural behaviours with Christian conventions and Western European values. 

 

Daily Life

Bosnians are renowned for being cheerful, outgoing and engaging people. One can expect to be met with great generosity and warmth. People are quick to offer their support to both strangers and friends. This selflessness of the culture is noticeable on a day-to-day basis. For example, Bosnians commonly feel compelled to lend a hand and help others, even when the person has not requested their assistance. This can be important as a sense of pride may inhibit Bosnians (men in particular) from asking for help when they need it; the cultural generosity can save one from the embarrassment of having to ask for favours. However, it also means Bosnians can sometimes put themselves in difficult situations where they find themselves over-extending beyond their means.

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina has quite a relaxed and slow pace of life. People tend not to schedule their day extensively. Rather, they may prefer to allow events to transpire naturally, deciding to do activities impulsively as they bump into friends throughout the day. Indeed, they are known to sometimes act spontaneously for enjoyment when they are in the mood to do something. This is called ‘ćeif’, when one is carried away by the moment.

 

Bosnians may enjoy leisurely strolls down promenades (korza), and most like to meet and spend a long time chatting in cafés/bars (kafići). People especially like to socialise over coffee. It’s common to meet at evening gatherings, known as ‘sijelo’. This could involve several members of a neighbourhood going to a household and spending a long evening drinking coffee and discussing the latest news, or it could be a group of younger people going to a social event together.

 

The relaxed approach to time and emphasis on socialisation is deeply embedded in the culture, but it also can be partly attributed to the high unemployment rate. Roughly 40% of the population is without a job (Trading Economics, 2017). Hence, permanent financial stability and prosperity is a primary ambition. Nevertheless, Bosnians are resourceful people. As it is often too expensive to pay for labour, most people try to fix or build things themselves with the help of friends or family. This self-reliance and do-it-yourself approach reflects the traditional agricultural lifestyles of the Balkans.

 

Geographical Distinctions

Regional identities continue to have a great deal of importance in Bosnia. People’s hometowns can imply a lot about them, such as their ethnicity, religion, politics and beliefs. Smaller towns and villages may also have distinct folk identities that differentiate them from their neighbouring provinces. A cultural divide is noticeable between those that live in urban areas and those that live in the countryside. The former tend to stereotype villagers. This has influenced the younger generation to be more inclined to move into the towns or cities. Nevertheless, more than half of the population continues to live in rural areas.

 

People from urban areas tend to pay more attention to their personal appearance and material wealth. Those who can afford brand and luxury items generally show them off. Bosnian Serb and Croat women from metropolitan areas may also dress very stylishly. However, those that are religious may dress more conservatively.

 

Bosnians are very proud of and loyal to their hometowns and regions. Even those who have moved to cities generally maintain close ties to their provincial identities. However, for many Bosnians, these identities have been fractured since the Bosnian conflict. Many were displaced or forced to leave hometowns where their family and community had lived for generations. Others have found that, since the country’s division into ethnicity-specific regions, their town or village now has a different ethnic majority, meaning they face social and political marginalisation or even intimidation in some cases. This has prevented some from returning to their pre-war homes as well as prompting many people to move to an area where their ethnicity is more dominant. More explanation of this conflict and surrounding circumstances is provided below.


Community and Neighbours

A Bosnian’s neighbourhood (komšiluk) is essential to their support network, especially for those whose kin live in a different village or on the other side of town. Some Bosnians may take it upon themselves to visit their close neighbours every week. Women often represent a household in this way, bringing the wishes of the entire family as they visit other wives while husbands are at work. Men tend to socialise with other men in more public places such as coffee houses. Both these activities maintain friendship and community spirit. If people visit one another frequently and then perhaps miss a visit for one reason or another, the neighbour can be led to think they have done something wrong.

 

In such tightly knit communities, everyone knows one another and one’s family background implies a lot about a person. This lack of privacy means word of a family’s business can circulate quickly. Thus, Bosnians are generally careful when seeking support to make sure their grievances don’t become the subject of community ‘gossip’ and embarrass the household name. However, the intimate neighbourhood also gives a sense of belonging and safety. Bosnian culture is quite collectivistic in this sense. This community spirit is also not exclusive to rural areas or townships. In cities, entire apartment blocks may know each other and look out for one another.


Generational Differences 

There is a traditional hierarchy of age in Bosnian culture. Elders are to be respected because age brings authority, experience, knowledge and wisdom. However, the social status of age is changing amongst the technological and cultural changes of the current era. Many older people have had difficulty embracing new approaches that the younger generations adopt quite fluidly. Furthermore, since the Bosnian War occurred, many traditional norms and customs have either been transformed or set aside as different priorities have taken hold. Whilst elders are still shown visible respect, the post-war period has brought the young generation forward in the social scene and given them great social power. As a result, individualist attitudes have become more noticeable among the younger generations. 


Ethnicity

Bosnia and Herzegovina is the most multiethnic country of the former Yugoslav nations. While most citizens are descended from Slavs, distinct identities have developed over time. Today, many individuals generally understand themselves as belonging to a specific people/nationhood (narod) or ethno-religious group (nacija) in addition to their national citizenship. The three main groups are Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats. These are considered to be the ‘constituent’ ethnicities of Bosnia, meaning they have a claim to the constitution. Meanwhile, further minority ethnicities (such as Roma Muslims and Bosnian Jews) are not constitutionally recognised and are excluded legally from the political process.

 

It can be a very controversial matter to state statistics on the different ethnic demographics. Estimates are often disputed. However, the 2013 census found that 50.11% of the population is Bosniak (also known as ‘Bosnian Muslims’), a further 30.8% is Bosnian Serb and 15.4% is Bosnian Croat. One’s ethnicity generally determines their religious affiliation in Bosnia, with most Muslims being Bosniak, Orthodox Christians being Bosnian Serb and Roman Catholic Christians being Bosnian Croats (but not exclusively). Some Bosnians may feel more loyalty and affiliation to these ethnic identities than the Bosnian national identity. More recently, ethnicity has become the biggest social identifier in Bosnia since the civil war.

 

While ethnicity may form the basis of public administration in Bosnia, some people who have moved to Australia may not wish to reveal their ethnic background. This may be due to concerns about potential repercussions in the aftermath of ethnic persecution during the Bosnian War, or they may not want to carry the stigma attached to their ethnicity’s role in the conflict. Some may have taken a personal stance that seeks to eliminate ethnic divides by refusing to identify with any group. Others may also prefer not to commit themselves ethnically if they have mixed heritage. One may find that a Bosnian identifies as a “former Yugoslav” rather than a particular ethnicity to avoid this question.

 

The Bosnian Conflict (1992-1995)

It is important to have a basic understanding of the Bosnian conflict to appreciate the circumstance and history of the Bosnian people, as well as the role ethnicity now plays in society. However, some Bosnians who were young during the war (born since 1980) may have a limited understanding of the conflict themselves. This is because the older generations can be reluctant to talk about it. Furthermore, the exact causes and dynamics of the war are hotly contested. At least three competing explanations of the war continue to circulate as each ethnicity seeks to portray themselves as the primary victim of the conflict, minimising and denying war crimes to suit this purpose. Therefore, it remains very difficult to talk about each ethnic group’s role in the war without offending some Bosnian citizens. However, expatriates in Australia may be less likely to hold strong nationalist views in this regard, preferring to exclude themselves from the debate to avoid the pain it can cause.

 

Generally speaking, the conflict occurred following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Ethnic nationalists made various territorial claims over Bosnian land they regarded as belonging to their people (sometimes with the support of neighbouring Serbia and Croatia). Various attempts to achieve independence from Yugoslavia and ethnic secessionist movements resulted in the Bosnian War.

 

The war was savagely fought from 1992 until 1995 through ethnic cleansing, massacres, mass rape and other crimes against humanity. Thousands were killed and at least 2 million people were displaced (around half of the population). The international community has concluded that the massacres and mass expulsion of Bosniak civilians by Bosnian Serb forces amounted to genocide. Such immense devastation has significantly minimised the heterogeneity of the country. The war crimes carried out by militant forces during the conflict have made reconciliation very difficult.

 

Current Peace and Divisions

In order to end the war, a peace agreement ethnically divided Bosnia into two federal entities to ensure that Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats could not gain advantage over each other. The ‘Republika Srpska’ (Serb Republic) covers most of the northern and eastern areas. It’s essentially controlled and populated by Serbs, with 96.2% of all Bosnian Serbs living there. Meanwhile, the ‘Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ covers most of the central and western areas and is dominated by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. The federation is further subdivided into 10 cantons allocated to Bosniaks or Croats respectively. However, most major cities are largely multiethnic.

 

This system is meant to ensure that Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats are all able to govern themselves and be equally represented. Each ethnicity has its own government, parliament, police and other bodies. Bosnia even has three presidents (one Bosniak, one Serb and one Croat) that take turns in office. However, it is widely recognised that this complex configuration has maintained ethnic divides and prevented unification. This is not to say that relations are necessarily hostile, but outside of cosmopolitan cities, this system generally limits interethnic contact to business relations. There has been an effective population transfer as people have moved to regions where their ethnicity is the majority.

 

There is speculation over the sustainability of the current state system, what alternative is available and whether Bosnia will even exist as one country in the future. However, most Bosnian citizens are primarily concerned with maintaining the peace. While the wounds from the heartbreaking war are still fresh, opinion polls show that the Bosnian population is not as preoccupied with ethnic differences and nationalisms as politicians suggest.

 

Most Bosnians have returned to their normal life and interactions between the ethnicities on a day-to-day basis are friendly, respectful and peaceful. Interethnic marriage is also common. Some people may still have a low level of trust for other ethnicities. However, this is generally determined by whether one has a strong loyalty to their ethnicity/narod over their citizenship. Generally, those who have an advanced  education and higher socioeconomic status are more likely to have more friends of mixed nationality than those who are very religious or have been displaced by the war (O’Loughlin, 2010). 


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Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Population
    3,861,912
    [July 2016 est.]
  • Languages
    Bosnian [official] (52.86%)
    Serbian [official] (30.76%)
    Croatian [official] (14.60%)
    Other (1.79%)
    Unspecified (0.2%)
    [2013 census]
    Note: The methodology of the 2013 census remains disputed and Republika Srspka authorities refuse to recognise the results.
  • Religions
    Islam (50.70%)
    Orthodox Christianity (30.75%)
    Roman Catholic Christianity (15.19%)
    Atheism (0.79%)
    Agnosticism (0.31%)
    Other (1.15%)
    Unspecified (1.12%)
    [2013 census]
    Note: The methodology of the 2013 census remains disputed and Republika Srspka authorities refuse to recognise the results.
  • Ethnicities
    Bosniak (50.11%)
    Serb (30.78%)
    Croat (15.43%)
    Other (2.73%)
    Unspecified (0.89%)
    [2013 census]
    Note: The methodology of the 2013 census remains disputed and Republika Srspka authorities refuse to recognise the results.
  • Australians with Bosnian Ancestry
    23,630 [2016 census]
Bosnians in Australia
  • Population
    23,956
    [2016 census]
    This figure refers to the number of Australian residents that were born in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • Average Age
    46
  • Gender
    Male (49.3%)
    Female (50.7%)
  • Religion
    Islam (29.6%)
    Eastern Orthodox Christianity (27.5%)
    Catholic Christianity (21.7%)
    No Religion (15.1%)
    Other (6.0%)
    Not Stated (3.8%)
  • Ancestry
    Bosnian (47.8%)
    Serbian (23.6%)
    Croatian (15.6%)
    Other (9.6%)
    Not Stated (3.4%)
  • Language Spoken at Home
    Bosnian (44.2%)
    Serbian (26.7%)
    Croatian (17.5%)
    English (6.0%)
    Other (5.7%)
    Of those who speak a language other than English at home, 75.6% speak English fluently.
  • English Proficiency
    Well (75.6%)
    Not Well (23.5%)
  • Diaspora
    Victoria (35.7%)
    New South Wales (30.1%)
    Queensland (12.9%)
    Western Australia (11%)
  • Arrival to Australia
    Prior to 2001 (84.9%)
    2001-2006 (10.6%)
    2007-2011 (2.5%)
Country https://dtbhzdanf36fd.cloudfront.net/countries/76/ba.svg Flag Country Bosnia and Herzegovina