the Slovenian
glasilo magazine
radio glas
info centre
who we are

Boundary Stories and the Development of Narrative Differences
by Tammy Smith

This article follows several recent works by scholars interested in the role narratives play in helping us understand how identities are formed, maintained and changed (Bearman and Stovel 2000, Polletta 1998a and 1998b, Somers 1994, Tilly 1998 and 2002, Trouillot 1995). Narratives are central to studies of identity since we – in part – instantiate our social identities through the stories we tell. As Trouillot notes, however, most studies focus on how identity narratives are maintained and passed on, and not on how they are initially formed or transformed. To scholars of identity, however, the way in which identity narratives are transformed is among the most important issues in unraveling how and why people switch from observation to participation in collective violence, protest, or other forms of mobilization.

At its heart, such an examination is about the creation, maintenance or breakdown of social boundaries. As Abbott (1995) notes, most studies of boundaries begin with two entities and then proceed to examine the boundary between them. Especially with respect to political or ethnic identities, however, such a starting point too easily may lead to reification of the identities themselves. That a boundary exists between a Bosnian Muslim and a Serb, for example, is assumed rather than demonstrated. In contrast, approaching identity from a narrative perspective enables the analyst to focus on how the identities emerge through spoken or written representations, which are creative and non-static products of social interaction. The task, then, is to see how narrative elements about social boundaries are shaped and sometimes modified through contact with opposing narratives.

Structural linguists understand changes in narrative meaning to result from changes in the way narrative elements are emplotted. For social scientists, however, understanding the social processes or mechanisms by which narrative elements become emplotted or reconfigured is the central question. What does it mean, for example, to say that a narrative about identity has been altered? By testing how narrative elements tie together both within and across narratives, this article will investigate how new narrative meaning becomes possible when relations among narrative elements are established or erased.

To illustrate how I understand this process to work, I will refer to the identity narratives of people from Istria, an area predominantly of mixed Italian and Slav influence in the northwestern-most region of present-day Croatia. As a result of violence and other pressure following World War II, many Italian-speaking Istrians fled the region, then under Yugoslavia, and settled in neighboring Trieste, Italy. Those who stayed in Yugoslavia and those who fled to Italy tell very different stories about who Istrians are as a people. Since the 1960s, these sets of Istrians have encountered each other in New York’s immigrant communities, where they have forged a common narrative about Istrian identity. Because the Yugoslav and Italian Istrian narratives emerged under circumstances that provided scarce opportunity for interaction, their meeting in New York offers a site from which to view how two identity narratives about the same or similar events have confronted each other and how they have been transformed through their interaction.

Narrative: Networks and Plot Options

The concept of narrative within historical social sciences has received increased attention in recent years. Admittedly, some of this attention has been in the form of critique, as scholars have engaged in a debate – which at times has been acrimonious – on the limits of narrative for causal explanations (Calhoun 1998, Goldstone 1998, Kiser and Hechter 1991 and 1998, Norman 1991, Orbuch 1997, and Somers 1998). Despite the various debates on the uses of narrative within the humanities and social sciences, there is general agreement that a narrative is a perceived sequence of non-random past events connected to each other in a way that schematizes the meaning for the listener/reader (Labov 1972, Ricoeur 1984, Toolan 1997).

Ricoeur (1984) further elaborates on the ways in which narrative integrates otherwise unconnected parts or events into a unified body through plots. Plots schematize for the listener the “intelligible signification attached to the narrative taken as a whole” (Ricoeur 1984:x). For Ricoeur, while narrative is mimetic of human action, it is crucial to understand that mimesis has three equally important functions: prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration. Through prefiguration, Ricoeur stresses that in order to comprehend a plot, a listener needs a prior understanding of human action. Moreover, events are not merely clumped together. Rather, they are emplotted or configured in order to relate to each other in meaningful ways. Finally, through refiguration, the message delivered by the narrative is applied back to the “real world” of the listeners and subsequently changes listeners’ understanding of that world.

The transforming aspect of refiguration provides an important step toward understanding how narratives change, though Ricoeur places us on the right path without showing us the social processes by which change occurs and what change might mean for the various elements that constitute a narrative. For social scientists interested in topics as diverse as group mobilization, collective identity, boundary maintenance, and innovation, questions of narrative change are central to understanding transformation in these other areas of study. The remainder of this section will present one possible path for analyzing narrative change, a path that emphasizes narrative’s relational properties.

A relatively new approach, a relational view of narrative seeks to marry insights from social network analysis with structural linguistics to produce an understanding of how narrative meaning emerges from the structure of relations among narrative elements, just as social meaning emerges from the structure of social ties. Somers (1994) offered one of the earliest steps in this direction with her conception of a “narrative identity.” Asserting that it is through narrative that actors constitute social identities, Somers’ work urges social scientists to step away from rigid categorical identities and toward a view of narrated identities as embedded in overlapping networks of relations that are in constant play. My own approach is close to that of Bearman, Faris and Moody (1999) and Bearman and Stovel (2000), who furthered the notion of a “narrative identity” by offering a formal method for mapping narrative relations. Their observation that network mapping of narrative sequences yields insight into the social meanings generated within narratives as a whole (Bearman and Stovel 2000) forms the underlying motivation for my understanding of narrative structure and the role of narrative sequences within that structure.

Like Bearman et al., I take the events described in narratives to be nodes within a network that are causally or logically linked. Events are described in narrative sequences that – like network nodes – have ties to other narrative sequences. For example, children in American schools typically learn that World War I begins as the story of the Hapsburg Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand driving with his wife Sonia down the streets of Sarajevo. As they pass a bridge on their way to the palace, a nationalist Serb named Gavrilo Princip jumps out from behind the crowd and shoots both the Arch Duke and his wife. This event kicks off a chain reaction of events that culminates in the countries of Europe lining up on one of two sides to fight World War One.

From this typical grade-school account, we can see that driving down a Sarajevo street is linked with passing a bridge. Passing the bridge is linked with Princip’s shooting. The shooting is linked with Franz Ferdinand’s death, and the death of a Hapsburg is linked with the activation of alliances that leads to the war. These are the relations in this very elementary account of the start of World War One. The Princip part of the narrative, though, exists in other narratives. It occurs in accounts of nationalist Serbs discussing their long struggle for joining all Serbs in an independent state. It also pops up in accounts that run counter to Serb nationalism: Princip and other members of the assassination plot attempted suicide after the attacks by ingesting cyanide. The cyanide was old, however, and managed only to make the plotters violently ill. In this account, Princip becomes a symbol of Balkan ineptness and a darkly comical character. With these examples we can see that the structure of relations among the events that make up a narrative matters for narrative meaning. Is Princip part of a group of terrorists, a group of freedom fighters, or a group of buffoons?

In my theorizing about narrative relations, I see that the events that make up a narrative may have one link to another event, or they may have multiple links to a variety of other events. When events have only one link, narrators must move the narrative from event A to event B. This is shown in Figure 1.

As linguists have noted, certain narrative elements such as words, phrases or clauses amount to alternatives of other elements and may be used at the same point in the verbal sequence without regard to narrative progression (Labov 1972, Toolan 1997). Translated into the relational framework presented above, we can say that such a word, phrase or clause would possess multiple ties to other words, phrases or clauses. If a clause has more than one tie, like the Princip part of the World War One narrative, the narrator must choose among the possible set of clauses (fig. 2). These clauses, in turn, are tied to other clauses. The second order clauses may be tied to the same third order clauses or to a completely different set of clauses. In Figure 2, clauses B and C are tied to the same third-order clause F. Functionally, clauses B and C are equals, in that they both move the narrative in the direction from clause A to clause F. This example stands in sharp contrast to the sequence A-D-G. In this case, the narrator, in choosing the A-D path cannot move the narrative to clause F, since clause D does not connect in any meaningful way to clause F. Conversely, telling clause E subsequently provides the narrator with choices, shown below as clauses H, I and J.

Viewed in this relational scheme, it is clear that some clauses may act as dead ends to narrative transformation, while others are either gatekeepers to a range of narrative options or merely links that move the narrative along in one, determined direction. A map of the singular or multiple ties among narrative clauses should reveal which clauses are more vulnerable to shifts in meaning and, thus, which clauses are most likely to transform the meaning of the narrative as a whole. Though a more formal analysis is possible with this framework, the more modest goal of this present effort is to show how the theoretical and methodological insights of this new approach help us better understand changes in narrative meaning making.

The schematic drawing in Figure 2 may appear to present a narrative map in which the narrator is understood to be consciously strategizing about which clauses to select at each juncture for the desired outcome or meaning. While it certainly may be the case in some circumstances that narrators strategically choose certain narrative paths over others, more commonly narrators tell their stories without recognizing narrative junctures. As has been pointed out by scholars of narrative, a narrator knows the end of the story he is telling before he begins telling it. Because the narrator knows the meaning before he begins, in essence the choices presented by junctures have been worked out prior to the beginning of the telling.

By viewing narratives in network terms, it is possible to map all of the relations among the clauses within a given narrative. Such a map would clearly show that some clauses have connections to multiple other clauses, while others lack such richness of ties. Whether a clause has multiple ties or singular ties will determine whether different narrative meanings are more or less likely to emerge. But what are the processes by which new ties are established and become vehicles for narrative transformation?

Narrative Transformation and Boundaries

In areas of study such as the development of professions, academic disciplines, institutions and states, boundary making has been identified as a phenomenon that brings about transformation in existing relations and, occasionally, the emergence of new forms (Abbott 1995, Gould 1995, Sahlins 1989, Tilly 2002 and 2003). Though not writing specifically about narrative or identity per se, Abbott (1995) defines a boundary as the collection of sites of difference that result from the local interaction of two entities. Recognizing the sea of change within which actors usually interact, Abbott observes that pre-existing actors are themselves transformed through interaction. Interaction, then, is one mechanism through which boundaries emerge and change, but it is not the only one.

In an unpublished paper on the mechanisms that help shape and transform social boundaries, Tilly outlines two sets of mechanisms, which include interaction, that: i) contribute to the creation of boundaries, and ii) constitute boundary change. For Tilly, enactment of a boundary entails distinctive relations on each side of a separating zone, distinctive relations across the zone, and shared representations about the zone. Tilly’s orientation toward a relational view of boundary formation helps us conceive of narrative change in relational terms as well. If narratives are sets of interconnected clauses that relate to each other by causal emplotment, then the clauses on the boundary between two narratives necessarily link the two narratives. Importantly, these boundary clauses share the same referent but may have different meanings within their respective narratives. It is here that we find the potential for narrative change.

The boundary between narratives is the common set of clauses between two narratives that speak to the same event. Because they are embedded in a set of clauses that are different from each other, however, they do not necessarily share the same meaning. The period of Irish history known as the Plantation of Ulster, for example, exists in the identity narratives of both Unionists and Republicans in Northern Ireland. The meaning of this event and its importance for framing future and past events, however, is radically different. Within the two narratives, accounts of the Plantation are points of interaction, but interaction that leads to differentiation. Because of their use in distinguishing sites of difference between two entities, the clauses along the boundary of narratives can be said to serve a function similar to that of other boundaries: they differentiate between “us” and “them,” sites of difference Tilly (2002) calls “boundary stories.”

However much it may produce opportunities for differentiation between two entities, though, interaction also produces a tie or a link between two entities. In the narrative case, the interaction of two narratives produces ties between the narratives through the referents they have in common. Incorporating the notion of boundary stories into the relational view of narrative clauses that I have outlined above, we can see that boundary stories have three properties that make them important to narrative transformation and identity change: i) by definition, boundary stories are embedded in a web of relations within their own, original narrative, ii) like other non-boundary clauses, boundary stories may be connected to other clauses through multiple ties, and iii) through these ties, boundary stories from some narrative A come into contact with a new set of narrative clauses in some narrative B. In the language of network analysis, boundary stories are the bridges between otherwise unconnected networks (see fig.3). This tie opens up the possibility that a boundary story in narrative A may develop relations with other clauses in narrative B by transiting through narrative B’s boundary story. By combining the three properties outlined above, boundary stories become the possibilities through which new narrative clauses may be introduced into a narrative and, consequently, the means through which new narrative meaning may emerge. The remainder of this paper will illustrate how such changes in narrative meaning may evolve by examining how the meaning of one referent common to the identity narratives of two contending groups from Istria, a region in the former-Yugoslavia, has changed as the two groups have come face-to-face in one New York immigrant community.

Istrian Boundary Stories and the Transformation of Meaning

Starting with a brief overview of the Istrian region’s troubled history during the 20th Century, this section will then outline the three different identity narratives of Istrians in Trieste, the former-Yugoslav Istria, and New York. The historical background and introductions to the various Istrian narratives will help us follow a specific boundary story as it appears in the narratives of Istrians from Italy and the former-Yugoslavia before its meaning is transformed through the interaction between Italian Istrians and Yugoslav Istrians in New York.

The region of Istria has existed as a boundary region under the Venetians, the Hapsburgs, the Italians, the Yugoslavs, and finally in the present-day republics of Slovenia and Croatia. The region officially passed to the Italian state in 1921, though Italy had effectively controlled most of Istria throughout the First World War. Animosities between Italians and Slavs in the region, which had erupted prior to Italy’s annexation in a spate of pre-fascist attacks on Slovene and Croat properties, became institutionalized as the territory came under Italian authority. Under the fascists, Slavic languages were banned in the courts, churches, the press, the local administration, and schools, and Slavic surnames in the region were Italianized (Petacco 1999). Such policies prompted the flight of thousands of ethnic Slavs in what some Croats and Slovenes call the region’s “first forgotten exodus” (Ballinger 1998). By the eve of the Second World War, repression took a more violent turn as the fascist state began expropriating property belonging to Slavs, burning Slavic villages, and establishing special tribunals of suspected Slavic agitators.

After Italy’s capitulation in 1943, Slavic and Italian partisans briefly held all of Istria to Trieste. News of infoibimento, or the murder of suspected fascist collaborators by throwing them into cave-like pits, reached the coastal towns that housed most of Istria’s Italian community, raising fears of reprisals against ethnic Italians. As German and Italian fascist troops regained Istria, ethnic Slavs again became the victims of harsh counter-reprisals in the final year of the Second World War. In what would be the last exchange of the war, partisans reclaimed Istria in 1945 and began the final assault on ethnic Italians, culminating in a four-week occupation of Trieste during which an estimated 800 went missing and were presumed to be victims of a second infoibimento (Calzine 1970).

As the rest of the war in Europe was ending, then, hostilities in the region continued to flare. Questions over whether Italy or Yugoslavia should govern Istria and its neighboring Italian region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia threatened to draw the United States and its Western European allies into a confrontation with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. In an effort to quell tensions, the region was divided into two zones to be controlled by an Allied Military Government (AMG) of American and British troops until a final territorial settlement could be determined. From 1945 to until the London Agreement of 1954, the AMG governed Trieste, though Yugoslav troops maintained de facto control over most of Istria. During this time as many as 350,000 Istrians left the region, claiming discrimination, harassment and violence, during what has become known among Italians as the Exodus. Following the London Agreement, Trieste was awarded to Italy, while Istria became Yugoslavia’s western-most county.

The Italian Istrian Narrative of Violence: Many Istrian “exiles” settled in Trieste, Italy, where they fell under the jurisdiction of the Allied Military Government and the newly forming democratic Italian state. In order to settle the on-going territorial dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia, the AMG established a series of commissions to determine the merits of historic and human rights-based claims each state was making on Istria and Trieste. Concurrent with the commissions’ data collection, the Italian government, together with Italians in Trieste and Istria, sought to persuade the AMG that violence and discrimination committed against Italian Istrians demonstrated that basic human rights could not be guaranteed under Yugoslavia and that Istria should be awarded to Italy. Organizations in Trieste such as the Comitato di liberazione nazionale dell'Istria (National Liberation Committee of Istria) and later the Unione degli Istriani (Union of Istrians) organized exiles’ stories of flight into published documents which were then distributed to the Allied commissions and domestic Italian political and cultural associations.

In addition to framing the Istrian experience through organizations established during the territorial negotiation process, the standard Italian Istrian story of flight and persecution under the Yugoslavs became central to the creation of numerous cultural associations and political parties active in Trieste. Using the institutions available to them under a democratic state, Italian Istrian leaders developed and broadcasted a coherent account of the experience of exile and passed this account to subsequent generations. Since the 1970s, local elections in Trieste and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia have been dominated by the politics of remembering, and exiles have successfully mobilized to elect their candidates for mayor of Trieste in elections from the 1970s to 2001, based on platforms that have occasionally bordered on hate-speech against Slovenes and Croats.

In sharp contrast to their cousins in Istria and New York, the Italian Istrian identity narrative is graphic in its detail of episodes of violence related to mass flight after the Second World War. Often, exiles attribute Slavic violent behavior to primordial traits of barbarism, attributes that have been reinforced by accounts of atrocities committed in the 1990s in ex-Yugoslavia. A recently published work by an Italian on the exodus, for example, introduces the notion of exodus as “ethnic cleansing” and reinscribes exiles’ post-war experiences into the on-going history of ethnic conflict among the Slavs: “…ethnic cleansing is a tragic custom of racial struggles that periodically have covered the Balkans in blood, facts confirmed by recent events in Bosnia and Kosovo” (Petacco 1999:141). This sentiment was echoed in an interview I conducted with an exile in Trieste in 2001:

Laura: The biggest reason for this, for what happened, was that they wanted us to go out. To leave our houses. It was the first pulizia etnica. What they do now in Kosovo they did fifty years ago.

Many Italian Istrians who participate in Istrian cultural associations in Trieste, maintain that the Slavs are unable to fully develop as a people and that the root of this inability stems from their origins as a backward and savage race. In its starkest version, Italian Istrians justify centuries of Italian economic and political domination over Slavs in Istria by stressing their superior culture and longer history in the region, as Mario did for me within the first five minutes of our interview in 2001:

Mario: No ‘-ic’… ‘-ic’ was never heard before they came. My family can trace its origins back to Roman times, but they – they only came in about the 600s. And they were our slaves. It’s where ‘Slav’ comes from – ‘schiavo’.

In an interview that is similar to discussions I have had with exiles in Trieste, a husband and wife recount for anthropologist Pamela Ballinger (1998) the standard Italian Istrian view of those Istrians who remained in the region.

Husband: They always hated the Italians. The hatred of the Slavs for Italians, always hatred…because they weren’t workers…

Wife: The majority [in the interior of Istria] were Slavs, signorina. And they didn’t even know how to work. And in the houses [abandoned by the Italians], they were afraid when they came in [and saw the accouterments of ‘civilization’] (Ballinger 1998:204).

Analyzing the standard Italian Istrian identity narrative using the narrative network approach outlined earlier, we can trace the relations among these story fragments within the Italian Istrian narrative.

Each point A, B, C, etc. in the two narratives illustrated in Fig. 4 represents a series of events, which in turn are composed of smaller, interrelated events illustrated by the hollow circles in the box. Together, the points create elements of the narrative that move the plot along. Focusing on Italian Istrians as the singular victims in the region’s history, the standard Italian Istrian narrative begins by seeing the region during the pre-war period as an idyllic environment (point A) where ethnic Italians ruled firmly but fairly over the region’s Slavic population, to whom they imparted a superior culture (point B), a point that is strikingly made in my interview with Mario. The violence and harassment experienced by some that prompted the flight of many (point C) affirms the barbarism of the Slavs and their violent nature (point D). The narrative, moreover, emphasizes that the violence was committed by local Istrian Slavs, trusted villagers known to the Italians’ social circle. The boundary story (point E) about those who remained in Istria, then, portrays the Slavs as both perpetrators of violence as well as backward peasants. As with other points within the narrative, this boundary story is comprised of smaller accounts, as represented in the box in Figure 4, including the assertion of the husband and wife in Ballinger’s interview who claim that Slavs were awed by the accoutrements of civilization, as well as other more explicitly violent accusations of torture and murder by Slavs. Point F, then, is the event of leaving Istria in the post-war era. Although it is not represented in the box in Figure 4, point F also is commonly composed of typical smaller actions or events connected to leaving, including being ordered to leave, packing one’s belongings, and attempting to cross the checkpoint at the border. As Laura illustrates, the events represented in A through F culminate in what is now believed to be “ethnic cleansing” (point G), a view that was introduced and affirmed by atrocities committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

* * * *

Yugoslav Istrian Narrative of Tolerance: In contrast to the Italian Istrian narrative of victimization, the Yugoslav Istrian narrative stresses inter-ethnic harmony and tolerance and suppresses any reference to violence between the groups. This narrative emerged as a result of population movements that reconfigured social relations within the region at a time when the state promoted an Istrian narrative that silenced references to violence. Before exploring what it means to have remained in Istria within the Yugoslav Istrian narrative, below is a brief glance at the conditions and policies that help us situate the Yugoslav Istrian narrative development.

The depopulation of Istria’s coastal towns that resulted from the post-war flight of ethnic Italians created a shortage of workers along the relatively more developed coast. The population of Pula, for example, the largest town in Croatian Istria, decreased from 75,254 in 1931, to 46,407 by 1948, before reaching record lows of barely 20,000 in the 1950s (Goldstein 1999, Zulic 1994). The difficulties created by this shortage were heightened by Yugoslavia’s industrialization campaign of the 1950s and 1960s, which concentrated economic resources in larger coastal towns such as Pula, Rovinj, Labin, and Slovenian Koper. To compensate for the shortage of workers, Yugoslavia began a program to induce agricultural workers from Istria’s central villages to relocate to the coast (Padem 1968).

The move of agricultural workers from the center to the coast coincided with the implementation of several other state policies that together yielded a dramatic change in the way Yugoslavia’s Istrians remember the past and understand the present. Once on the coast, repressive Yugoslav policies aimed at fashioning a common “Yugoslav” identity to reduce antagonisms among Yugoslavia’s constituent nations contributed to an atmosphere of fear among relocatees and coastal natives alike. Key among these policies was a ban on public discussion of past atrocities coupled with harsh punishment for rule-breakers, including forced labor, imprisonment, and in some instances, state-sponsored executions (Marcan and Sentija 1992, Pavlowtitch 1971). Fear penetrated even into family ties, as parents refrained from passing stories of wartime atrocities to their children lest these stories be repeated in school or other public fora, as “Ivo,” a man who grew up in post-war Istria recounted for me.

Ivo: After the war everybody was afraid to talk, especially against communists, partisans, who were in control at that time – and didn’t tolerate much dissent and any sign of criticism was viewed as dangerous to the state, dangerous to the peace of the country. So, and then this kind of went into people’s bones of – I don’t know the expression – that they kept it, they kept that fear on even when there was no reason for it.

In place of personal accounts of war activity, the state presented a new version of Istrian history that emphasized the valor and cooperation between Yugoslav and Italian communist partisans during the war (Terzluolo 1985) and glossed over or completely ignored atrocities committed by the various ethnic groups. In a speech delivered in Istria in 1984, for example, the Yugoslav Premier told those present, “The slogan ‘brotherhood and unity’ of all nations and nationalities has become deeply rooted in this area, since it stems from the very essence of the people here. Chauvinism and other forms of the poison of nationalism have never found fertile ground here.”

Rather than discussing the violence that drove hundreds of thousands of their cousins from their homes, the Yugoslav account of Istrian history stresses heroic actions of both Slavic and Italian partisans. The below passage illustrates how Istrians who remained in Yugoslavia perceived their group’s history.

Smith: Yes, I had heard a lot about the cooperation between Yugoslav Partisans and Italian Partisans, but then I’ve also read about a lot of the interethnic violence particularly after the war --

Ivo: -- There –

Smith: -- around Trieste

Ivo: There were Italian nationals from Istria who were part of the Yugoslav army in fact, and [extended pause] there’s a well-known hero over there locally, you wouldn’t know but, Pino Budecin, after a war hero of Italian nationality that – they were just part of Yugoslav units with all Italians in that particular unit. Istrian Italians were pretty much afraid – but not afraid, I would say, they didn’t like fascism, Mussolini, and they did revolt before – sometimes more openly like in coal mines, Labin coal mines in 1921 when they took it over, sometimes more quietly. And the reason – the reason that Istrians did join the Yugoslav army, which was never there before, they were never part of Yugoslavia or Croatia or those states – the reason is just because they thought it would be a good change from Italian fascism. So there were – getting back to your question – there were Italian anti-fascists who were fighting either alongside and, in this case – the case I mentioned in Istria – they just fought under Tito’s command within Yugoslavian units.

The closest Ivo came to discussing violence against Italians in post-war Istria came after two hours of interviewing during which Ivo repeatedly had avoided answering direct questions about violence. Although Ivo acknowledged that Italians may have been targeted in post-war Yugoslav Istria, he quickly discounted the danger and instead suggests that people simply panicked. Ivo also used a narrative strategy common to many Yugoslav Istrians in demonstrating Yugoslavia’s openness to ethnic Italians by noting language rights and state support for Italian language schools.

Ivo: The ones that sympathized with fascists they had, they were in a little danger probably. There was revenge, or threat of revenge, or fear of revenge and they just, I think a lot of them just panicked and saw everybody else leaving so they joined. Meantime, those who stayed they got pretty much the rights like everybody else and more because they were – they got schools in Italian and organizations that are supported by the government in preserving their culture. Maybe the government felt they are not a threat anymore because there were so few left but a lot of – the great part of the exiles, what they call exiles, I think was out of fear, which wasn’t always founded.

The Yugoslav Istrian narrative views wartime resistance against the fascist state as a heroic project in which all could participate regardless of ethnic group affiliation. This is represented by point E´ in Figure 5. We see from Ivo’s account that E´ is composed of smaller events that contribute to this notion, including the pre-war rebellion at the Labin coal mine, and the participation of mixed Slavic/Italian partisan troops within the Istrian war resistance movement. In the earlier description of the Italian Istrian narrative we saw that point F was the act of leaving Istria. Point F´ within the Yugoslav Istrian account also relates to those Istrians who left, but because these actions are embedded within a plot that de-emphasizes violence, the meaning of this narrative sequence is transformed from evidence of victimization to evidence of guilt or panic among those who left. Once the Yugoslav Istrian account establishes that Istrians who left were not forced out, it is able to valorize those who remained for their commitment to socialism. Finally, the Yugoslav Istrian account exits the narrative boundary zone by highlighting Yugoslavia’s support for ethnic minorities and Istria’s historic tolerance of multi-ethnicity (point G), a conclusion that runs opposite to the Italian Istrian narrative.

* * * *

New York Istrian Narrative of Common Victimization: Italian Istrians and Yugoslav Istrians and their correspondingly different narratives confront each other in New York’s immigrant communities. In cultural associations, churches, ethnic clubs and restaurants these two sets of Istrians manage to co-exist and have developed a third narrative based on their common “Istrian-ness.” To achieve this, New York’s Istrians have learned to tell their stories without the polarizing aspects of each of their respective original narratives. The remainder of this paper will trace the changes that have occured to both the Italian and Yugoslav Istrian accounts of the boundary story that describes the Istrians who remained in Istria. By creating links that did not exist before among story parts in the original narratives, this boundary story has become one of the means through which the third, New York Istrian narrative has been able to integrate each of the opposing narratives and smooth over differences between Italian and Yugoslav Istrians living in New York.

From the preceding description of the Italian and Yugoslav narratives one can easily anticipate the friction that likely develops when the two groups encounter each other. Italian Istrians claim they have a unique status as victims of an innate Slav barbarism. Yugoslav Istrians, while not confronting this narrative directly, deny the Italian Istrian victimization by stressing an opposite history of ethnic harmony and tolerance. How, then, do these two sets of Istrians manage to produce agreement about what it means to be Istrian? In what ways has the boundary story about the meaning of the Istrians who chose to stay in Istria been transformed in order to allow both sets of Istrians to claim kinship to a mutually recognized idea of “Istrianness”?

As noted earlier in the section on boundaries, the boundaries of narratives that demarcate “us” and “them” are points of contact between two opposing sides as much as they are points of difference. These narrative elements – boundary stories in Tilly’s language – afford a means of confronting the other but also act as potential links through which narrative meaning may be transformed. It should not be surprising to discover, then, that Istrians living in New York have integrated their identity narratives through transformations in the meaning of boundary stories. In this case, changes in the boundary story that describe the meaning of the Istrians who remained in Yugoslav Istria occur as a result of the two original narratives’ boundary stories linking in new ways to narrative elements in the opposite narrative.

The two passages below, taken from one Yugoslav Istrian and one Italian Istrian who live in New York, illustrate how New York’s Istrians discuss their cousins who remained in Istria. The first passage is from Darko, who was raised and educated in Yugoslavia before moving first to Italy and then to New York as an adult. Though he briefly passed through Italy, Darko firmly identifies himself as a Slav. Similar to other Yugoslav Istrians, Darko refuses to discuss the possibility that ethnic Italians were targeted for harassment or victims of violence. Rather, Darko employs a rhetorical strategy typical among Yugoslav Istrians and uses evidence of state support for minority language rights to affirm that ethnic Italians did not experience harassment under Yugoslavia. In a typical Yugoslav Istrian account, however, the narrative would end with language rights and a final comment on how tolerant Istria has always been. Since such an ending would be offensive to Italian Istrians’ narrated suffering, in New York the boundary story on the meaning of Istrians who remained in Istria is transformed to include all Istrians as victims. In this vague way, Yugoslav Istrians can acknowledge the suffering of their Italian Istrian cousins and Italian Istrians can be victims without turning all Slavs into savages.

Darko: So when they [Istrian men] came home after the war…they felt that maybe we can, I can speak my own language now. I don’t have to go to an office where everybody speaks Italian, where I am forced to speak Italian because, you know, in 1922 when Mussolini came over night all of the schools, Croatian schools, in Istria became Italian schools. Well, when Yugoslavia came, even though they were communists, they did not push the Italian people to go to Croatian schools. If there was an Italian school in Pula, you can go to an Italian school. So that part was a little bit better. But they were both nasty. [laughs] I mean, come on. One was extreme to the right, one to the left, but for Istria both did not bring any prosperity.

Michela, an Italian Istrian born in what is now Croatia but raised in Italy and New York repeats the victimization of all Istrians noted by Darko.

Smith: Well, when you say that they [Istrians who remained] didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, what do you mean?

Michela: I don’t think, especially the peasant class, they were illiterates many of them. My mother went to the fourth grade. She wasn’t into politics – how did she hear of it? All locals were knowledgeable of was “we have to have a better way.” Then along comes this idealism of socialism – free for all, equal rights – why not? Everybody wants it. What they didn’t know was what Tito was really all about. Who knows what a dictator is about until he’s in power? It’s too late then. But he apparently brought in his armies of henchmen, given specific names – you may know the names but I don’t – what’s the word? It’s a specific term, like the Germans had for their violent secret police…

In this passage Michela reaffirms the notion of Istrians as innocent victims who were duped by Slavs from outside of Istria: Isrians were only looking for a better life when Tito “brought in” his armies of henchmen. This approach to Istrian victimization stands in sharp contrast to the Italian Istrian narrative, where all perpetrators of violence are duplicitous Slavs from Istria. In New York, however, where the Italian Istrian narrative of violence encounters the Yugoslav Istrian narrative of heroism, the Istrians who remained in Istria are transformed into heroes who fought for equality and freedom for everyone but who were tricked by outsiders. This new link is illustrated by the tie between E3 and E3´ in Figure 6.

Once the clause describing the meaning of those who remained in Istria is transformed, the revised clause acts back upon the original narratives. This acting back upon, or “reconfiguration” in Ricoeur’s language, transforms the meaning of the original narratives through the links the clause has with other elements in the original narrative as a whole. Such reconfiguration is evident in a passage taken from an interview conducted with an Italian Istrian woman, Irenia, who left Istria with her husband and children in the early 1950s. In the passage below, Irenia describes how her husband was working in a tunnel when he was threatened in their hometown of Fiume (present-day Rijeka). Though the incident she refers to takes place well after both the war and German occupation had ended – when Fiume was under Yugoslavia – she blames a German for threats made against her husband.

Irenia: … they took him, a big German took him to the …underground….

Smith: Tunnels?

Irenia: Yah, tunnels. And they were digging something and he was going back to his work. And once he made a little mistake just because he was working 18 hours a day and he dropped something. He was wrong, I don’t know, he never explained exactly what he did. But he did something that he wasn’t supposed to do. They said, “There’s nothing else but to give you to the OSNA. The police. They’ll put you in the place.” He never wanted to go [to the United States] before, but he came home and “we have to do it, we have to go.” [begins crying] I was pushing but he never wanted to go till he was threatened. My best man died, they never knew what happened to him. And a lot of other people too.

The mistake of labeling an aggressor “German” is unthinkable in the Italian Istrian narrative, yet it has been repeated in New York interviews with both sets of Istrians. Irenia’s passage further demonstrates how the reconfiguration of the New York Italian Istrians’ narrative has muted other divisive events and symbols present in the Italian Istrian narrative. For example, Irenia presumably is referring to the foibe when she refers to “the place.” Her unwillingness to say the word foibe, which is full of symbolic meaning for Italian Istrians, signals that Irenia is accustomed to telling the story without reference to divisive symbols. Further supporting this analysis, at the end of the passage, Irenia notes that the best man in her wedding “died” when she seems to be indicating that he was, in fact, murdered.

Encounters between Yugoslav Istrians and Italian Istrians living in New York have radically altered the identity narratives of each group. By creating connections that previously did not exist among boundary stories within a narrative, such encounters among Istrians have provided the mechanism through which the meaning of boundary stories have been transformed. These transformations, in turn, have created the possibilities for overall narrative change.


The network representation of narratives helps us to focus on the relations among the various clauses that comprise a narrative. This orientation enables us to see that clauses are tied to each other in certain, specific ways to produce meaning within the narrative. I have used this orientation to reconceptualize Tilly’s notion of boundary stories.

With their countervailing ties – both within their original narratives and across the narrative boundary to the opposing narrative – boundary stories act as bridges to otherwise unconnected narratives. Their bridging ties create possibilities for transforming the meaning of the boundary stories, while their multiple ties to their original narratives open up opportunities for importing new clauses into existing narrative structures. As such, boundary stories become the most probable vehicles for narrative change. Subsequent work will formally test whether, in fact, it is the clauses with multiple ties or boundary positions that are the most frequent transformers of narrative meaning. This present effort has been a first step at outlining what a network approach to narrative might look like and what the implications would be for narrative change.


Abbott, Andrew (1995) “Things of Boundaries,” Social Research 62:857-882.

Ballinger, Pamela (1998) Submerged Politics, Exiled Histories: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans. Doctoral dissertation, Johns Hopkins University.

--------------------- (2003) History in exile: memory and identity at the borders of the Balkans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bearman, Peter, Robert Faris and James Moody (1999) “Blocking the Future: New Solutions for Old Problems in Historical Social Science,” Social Science History 23(4): 501-533.

Bearman, Peter and Katherine Stovel. “Becoming a Nazi: A model for narrative networks,” Poetics 27 (March 2000) 69-90.

Calhoun, Craig (1998) “Explanation in Historical Sociology: Narrative, General Theory, and Historically Specific Theory,” American Journal of Sociology 104:846-871.

Calzine, Paolo (1970) Italo-Yugoslav relations: proceedings and discussions. Roma: Istituto Affari Internazionali.

Goldstein, Ivo (1999) Croatia: a history. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Goldstone, Jack A. (1998) “Initial Conditions, General Laws, Path Dependence, and Explanation in Historical Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology 104:829-845.

Kiser, Egdar and Michael Hechter (1998) “The Debate on Historical Sociology: Rational Choice Theory and its Critics,” American Journal of Sociology 104:785-816.

Labov, William (1972) Language in the inner city; studies in the Black English vernacular. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Macan, Trpimir and Josip Sentija (1992) A short history of Croatia. Zagreb, Croatia: Most.

“Milka Planinc on Problems in Implementing Economic Stabilization,” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, September 25, 1984.

Norman, Andrew P. (1991) “Telling it Like it Was: Historical Narratives on their Own Terms,” History and Theory 30:119-135.

Orbuch, Terri L. (1997) “People’s Accounts Count: The Sociology of Accounts,” Annual Review of Sociology 23:455-478.

Padem, Juraj (1968) Istra i njeno povezivanje sa zaledem. Zagreb, Yugoslavia: "Informator.”

Pavlowitch, Steven (1971) Yugoslavia. New York: Praeger.

Petacco, Arrigo (1999) L’Esodo: La tragedia negata degli italiani d’Istria, Dalmazia e Venezia Giulia. Milan: Mondatori.

Polletta, Francesca (1998a) “’It was like a fever…’ Narrative and Identity in Social Protest,” Social Problems, 45(2): 137-159.

------------- (1998b) “Contending Stories: Narrative in Social Movements,” Qualitative Sociology, 21(4): 419-446.

Ricoeur, Paul (1984) Time and Narrative. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Somers, Margaret (1994) “The Narrative Constitution of Identity: A relational and network approach,” Theory and Sociology 23:605-649.

-------------------- (1998) “We’re No Angels”: Realism, Rational Choice, and Relationality in Social Science,” American Journal of Sociology 104:722-784.

Statisticki ljetopis hrvatskih zupanija. Zagreb: Drazavnog Zavoda za Statistiku Republike Hrvatske, 1993.

Terzluolo, Eric R. (1985) “Nationalism and Communist Resistance: Italy and Yugoslavia, 1941-1945,” Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism 12:25-45.

Tilly, Charles (1998) “Contentious Conversation,” Social Research 65:491-510.

--------------- (2002) Stories, Identity and Political Change. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.

--------------- “Social Boundary Mechanisms,” unpublished paper.

Toolan, Michael (1997) Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction. London: Routledge.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph (1995) Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.

Zulic, Stanko (1994) Hrvatska Istra: Suvremene narodosne prilike. Zagreb, Croatia: Nakladni Zavod Globus.


1. Darko, Brooklyn, NY; March 13, 2001
2. Ivo, Astoria, NY; October 9, 2000
3. Irenia, New York, NY; March 14, 2001
4. Michela, New York, NY; May 24, 2001