Social Disappearance: Explorations Around a Travelling Concept from Latin America to Eastern Europe

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop “Social Disappearance: Explorations Around a Travelling Concept from Latin America to Eastern Europe”, which will take place on February 7-8th at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. We have been talking to the conveners, Estela Schindel and Gabriel Gatti, about the upcoming workshop.

The aim of the workshop is to discuss the phenomenon and category of ’social disappearance’? How do you define it? How did you come up with the idea and why is it important?

Gabriel Gatti: The concept is still being elaborated. Through the project Desapariciones[1] we perform very diverse and intense fieldwork at several locations across the globe, wherever we feel that the category can be of analytical use. In a strict juridical sense, according to international humanitarian law, Disappearance designates a subject who has been removed from those framings that give them a sense of existence and identity. This has devastating consequences, not only for the affected person, but also for the whole social environment. In Latin America in the 1970s, the processes that gave place to enforced disappearances were related to the repressive machineries of authoritarian states acting upon concrete populations and political foes. Now we are seeing forms of disappearance in much more ordinary situations and affecting subjects who have been invisibilized, forgotten, or who have never really become ‘subjects.’  We have seen this in Brazil or Uruguay in contexts of extreme poverty, at border zones of Colombia, Mexico or the European Union, or in situations of human trafficking and slavery across the globe. This is what we call, in an explorative way, ‘social disappearance’.

Estela Schindel: There is a good definition provided by one Argentine forensic anthropologist, who characterized Disappearances as ‘the separation between the body and the name.’ There were names of persons being searched for, on one side, and bodies being discarded or buried anonymously on the other. But the separation of the body and the name also points to forms of life where the sphere of biological survival and the civil inscription of the subject are being exscinded from each other. That means that the existence of the person is detached from the civil, social and cultural links that bind them to those collective framings that Gabriel was mentioning. The assumption we are working with at the project Disappearances is that these sort of dislocated existences may not be isolated or exceptional cases anymore, but become rather structural and permanent, something that Saskia Sassen observes for those populations that she calls “expulsed” (the displaced, refugees, the homeless and long-time unemployed) and those who may have little or no chance of reintegration.

Why is a transregional approach important for developing this topic?

GG: The phenomenon has reached planetary dimensions and that is both fascinating and challenging. The category ‘disappearance’ is now traveling across the globe and landing in quite diverse contexts in very different ways. In order to understand this, we need a comparative gaze and especially a travelling gaze: a gaze able to follow these movements in different parts of the world and to understand how the category applies to those different situations in order to explain them, and, inversely, it must also be informed and nourished by those specific situations in the field.

ES: We are particularly thrilled about the perspective of putting this conceptual framework in dialogue with colleagues from or working in Central and Eastern Europe. There has been very little research exchange between this part of the world and Latin America, which is where the figure of the Disappeared first crystalized and where much of our fieldwork takes place. The mutual knowledge is scarce. Most global intellectual or academic dialogues are mediated by Western European –or North Atlantic– institutions and vocabularies. The idea of the workshop is to encourage a ‘South-East’ conversation that may allow us to find analogies, parallels, and possibly also divergences both in the case studies we are studying and in our respective theoretical-conceptual approaches. In the Southern Cone of South America (I’m from Argentina and Gabriel is from Uruguay), the meaning of the figure of the Disappeared can be read against the background of a certain tradition of what it means to be a citizen and what the role of the Nation State is. We can suppose, but don’t know yet, that this may be different for social phenomena that had unfolded in the post-Soviet or post-transformation context. Not only the experience of the Soviet rule, but also previous historical political configurations may present us with a completely different scenario. Besides, we may all well be influenced by our own regional academic cultures and intellectual traditions. So we are quite curious about what the outcome of the workshop in terms of exchange will be.

What are the methodological challenges for scholars who want to study the phenomenon?

GG: The challenges are numerous and diverse. Researching disappearances has always been difficult for the social sciences, at least when they are sensitive to complexities and allergic to lineal explanations. We are facing an extreme case, a limit situation that someone even named as a new state of being: nor dead nor alive; nor present nor absent. How to represent what is non-representable, for instance, remains a strong, unresolved issue concerning disappearances. There has also been much reflection about the limits of the testimony. When it comes to ‘social disappearances’ the methodological challenges are even bigger because the situations we are approaching are more diverse and less ‘controllable.’  What is common to all of them is that we are talking about persons, entities, and situations that remain outside of what Jacques Rancière calls the ‘statute of the sensible.’ They are beyond what is visible, what is audible, and what is perceptible. They are therefore more difficult to register and to understand. We need, to say the least, much imagination to define a methodology which is able to tackle that. 


About the Conveners

Gabriel Gatti is full professor at the Department of Sociology 2 at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao. He is the Principal Investigator of the joint project Disappeared/Desapariciones. A transnational study of a category for managing, inhabiting, and analyzing social catastrophe and loss that reunites sixteen researchers from seven different countries studying different cases and forms of social disappearance. He is the author of several books, including Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay: Identity and Meaning (Palgrave 2014), as well as of numerous articles about the figure and meaning of the forcefully disappeared. His writing on the Disappeared’ worlds of life has been highly influential in the research about the effects of this particular form of violence.

Estela Schindel is a lecturer and researcher and the academic coordinator of the Viadrina Institute for European Studies of the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder). She got her PhD in Sociology from the Free University Berlin with a study about the social construction of the Disappeared during Argentina’s dictatorship in the 1970s. She co-edited, among others, the volume Space and the Memories of Violence. Landscapes of Erasure, Disappearance and Exception (Palgrave 2014). She initiated and took active part in several projects of exchange between scholars from Europe and Latin America in questions related to the cultural memories of state violence. Her current research engages with the entanglements of violence, nature, and technology in the EU border regime.

Estela Schindel and Gabriel Gatti

Citation: Gabriel Gatti and Estela Schindel, Social Disappearance: Explorations Around a Travelling Concept from Latin America to Eastern Europe, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.01.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/17794.


[1] “Disappeared/Desapariciones. A transnational study of a category for managing, inhabiting, and analyzing social catastrophe and loss”. http://identidadcolectiva.es/victimas-desapariciones/que-es-mundos-de-victimas/worlds-of-victims/


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