Workshop Report: “Social Disappearance. Explorations around a travelling concept from Latin America to Eastern Europe”

By Estela Schindel and Gabriel Gatti

From 7th to 8th of February 2019, the Exploratory WorkshopSocial Disappearance: Explorations Around a Travelling Concept from Latin America to Eastern Europe” was held at the Forum Transregional Studies. It was convened by Estela Schindel (Europa-Universität Viadrina) and Gabriel Gatti (Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea) and organized in the framework of the joint initiative of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung.

Ignacio Irazuzta, Gabriel Gatti, Estela Schindel. Photo: FTS.

Workshop questions and method

The aim of this workshop was to discuss the uses and reach of the category of ‘social disappearance’ in a dialogue between research from and about Latin America and Eastern Europe. We set out to explore to what extent a category shaped in the Global South, and that has had an intense transregional reception, namely the South American desaparecido, along with the set of conceptual tools developed around this figure, can be applied transregionally. More specifically, we wanted to find out whether and how a novel formulation of this category, the ‘social disappeared,’ allows to conceptually account for those emergent forms of exclusion, precariousness, or invisibility that seem to be difficult to address using conventional approaches of the social sciences.

The questions posed by the workshop have been addressed by the conveners in the “Disappeared/Desapariciones.”[1] Project. This joint research is aimed at testing the category of social disappearance as a tool for the theoretical and methodological analysis of social worlds marked by intense processes of de-structuring, de-institutionalizing, and rupturing of meaning. The working hypothesis is that what can be characterized as a sort of ‘originary’ figure of the ‘disappeared’ (those clandestinely abducted and murdered under Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s) has not only travelled globally and became a productive category transnationally; it can furthermore provide a conceptual and analytical instrumentarium capable of accounting for those contemporary extreme forms of existence that are even beyond of what the vocabularies of marginalization or exclusion can grasp. Not a direct consequence of state persecution as enforced disappearances, social disappearing would rather be the effect of structural abandonment, under registration or expulsion. Although different in nature and cause, social disappearance may produce similar effects in terms of unaccountability, the invisibility of the groups affected, and their detachment from legal inscription and civil protection – often intensified by transitional or nomadic living conditions. Preliminary results advanced by the Desapariciones/Disappearances project on the basis of empirical material have shown ‘social disappearance’ to be a fruitful analytical tool when engaging with such unstable worlds.

The goal of this workshop was to inquire about the use and validity of this category in Eastern and Central Europe. The dialogue aimed at contrasting both the respective empirical cases under study and our theoretical-conceptual frameworks, in order to identify regional specificities and/or transregional commonalities. A parallel goal was thus to stimulate a transregional exchange between Latin America and Eastern and Central Europe, two regions that have seldom been in direct intellectual contact with each other. The research objects of the workshop participants offered a wide diversity of empirical cases ranging from missing migrants and HIV positive Polish persons in Western Europe to people on the move towards Europe or the US, passing through the so-called ‘false positives’ (victims of state violence) in Colombia, the homeless and beggars in a Marketplace in Moscow, internally displaced persons in Ukraine, and those enduring war in the Donbass.

Participants were invited to engage in a horizontal discussion on the basis of pre-circulated impulse papers instead of the usual presentation of individual case studies. Photo: FTS.

The two-day workshop consisted of plenary sessions structured along main questions. There were no specific allocated speakers but assigned moderators who introduced and structured the discussion. Participants were invited to engage in a horizontal discussion on the basis of pre-circulated impulse papers instead of the usual presentation of individual case studies. This dynamic allowed enough time for engaging deeper into the exchange and it proved to be fruitful. A previously-circulated text by Gabriel Gatti served as a trigger for the first session, entitled ‘Social Disappearance. Uses and Reach of a Category in Transregional Perspective’, and was dedicated to a first assessment and exchange around that concept. The following session, ‘Life at the Edge: Worlds of Life under Extreme Conditions’, enabled a closer look into the empirical material of the participants inquiring into social worlds of extreme deprivation and instability. Under the title ‘Methodologies, Ethics, Access & Affectations’, the following session focused on the challenges that arise when doing fieldwork with such unstable research objects, like those associated with (partial) invisibility, difficulty of access to, or lack of continuity with the informants. Questions related to ethics, the protection of interviewees, and methodology were part of the discussion. Day one closed with a conversation on the use of mapping and visual material as alternatives to the conventional methodologies, as required when doing research about invisibilized, vulnerable, or nomadic populations.

The second day opened with the session ‘Recording, Counting, and Accounting: the State and Other Agents of (Dis)protection’, which engaged with problems of under-registration, social invisibility, and abandonment by the state. The discussion tackled the politics of counting and numbering in relation to practices of protection, disciplining, and making (dis)appear. In the next session, ‘Nomadisms, Mobilities, Itineraries,’ we discussed to what extent social disappearances are influenced by current mobility regimes and what this influence may imply for our rather static analytical categories and methods. In a context of cultural-political hegemony of the sedentary and the settled, movement is seen as an aberration. Since being on the move often intersects with current forms of social disappearance, mobility poses additional methodological challenges to the research. Under the title ‘Transregional Dialogue: Commonalities, Divergences, Parallels’, and with Manuela Boatcă providing a first comment, the last session of the workshop wrapped up the discussions and advanced some preliminary conclusions from the transregional dialogue. The meeting closed with an exchange on open questions and future perspectives for cooperation.

Concepts’ travels and translations

How do conceptual categories travel? And what happens to them when they travel transregionally? The importance of the context of emergence, circulation, and reception of concepts was particularly emphasized in the discussions. Mieke Bal’s category of ‘travelling concept’ was posed as a useful perspective, since it claims that concepts are not univocal but multilayered, in flux, and contested, precisely because they don’t mean the same for everyone. However, concepts do not travel easily and the challenge started for us with the diversity of uses and meanings across continents and languages. In the Latin American context, where the notion of ‘disappeared’ first crystallized, the term has gone through a process of grammatical and semantic transformation, i.e. from being a participle form to becoming a subject, from denoting an intransitive verb (to vanish) into one denoting an action (to make someone disappear). While in English a series of terms open up a space of semantic ambiguity (missing, lost, vanished), Polish native speakers present at the workshop explained how, in their language, two different words can be used to translate ‘disappearance’, with the meaning shifting if using either zniknąć (to disappear in mysterious circumstances, to vanish) and zaginąć (a term closer to ‘go missing’ and mostly used for ‘enforced disappearance’ as wymuszone zaginięcie’, but not actually fitting precisely into its meaning). Testing the novelty of ‘social disappearance’ for contexts where there is no such a popularly generalized understanding of the ‘originary’ term disappearance thus posed a challenge and proved that no category can be universally valid and ‘clean.’ The workshop discussions navigated the tension between the need to be precise when referring to the local manifestation of those social phenomena that can be assimilated to social disappearances, on one hand, and the reach and applicability of transregionally circulating concepts on the other. Even if the concept of the ‘disappeared’ travelled globally through international human rights law, the contexts where it may be applied have their historical and cultural specificities, as it is the case in the Central and Eastern European region.

The workshop discussions navigated the tension between the need to be precise when referring to the local manifestation of those social phenomena that can be assimilated to social disappearances, on one hand, and the reach and applicability of transregionally circulating concepts on the other. Photo: FTS.

The question of whether ‘social’, or rather ‘socially’, disappeared would be a better fitting definition was also posed, leading to the discussion of what exactly the ‘social’ in social disappearance means. Is it different from what are considered ‘politically driven’ disappearances? Or are all forms of disappearance somehow politically crafted? Beyond linguistic considerations, these questions stimulated a productive exercise of inquiring and sharpening the concept: While ‘socially’ denotes the disappearance from a social relation, a way of not being seen or taken into account, ‘social’ would refer rather to a disappearance from society, understood as an historically constituted collectivity which is built upon certain values and which confers a role and a place to the individual – thus conferring the notion of ‘social disappearance’ a broader reach. The validity and the benefit of this category were discussed in relation to other concepts that may have a more universal or anthropologically generalizable reach, like abandonment, precariousness, invisibilization, vulnerability, or social death. Questions of structural and normative violence and of the distribution of the sensible (Ranciére) were also named in this context as related analytical frames to which social disappearance can be connected, but from which it can also be distinguished.

Lives at the edge: methods and concepts for unstable social worlds     

To what extent could workshop participants use the concept ‘social disappearances’ for their objects of research? Does this category apply to them, even if they have not been previously defined as such? How do we grasp the actors’ unstable social worlds conceptually and methodologically? These questions provoked a rich exchange in terms of methods and strategies in the respective fieldworks. Approaching socially-‘erased’ or volatile subjects poses a challenge not only because the dialogue with them can be difficult, but also because there are cases in which it is precisely a certain invisibility what allows them to manage their existences. What does it mean to become visible for the research? Is the use of the category ‘social disappearance’ already a situation where we are speaking on their behalf? Is the practice of writing about the social disappeared a way of making them appear? How to interpret silence? Reflections on these questions were discussed in relation to the use of exploratory methodologies and the issues of ethics and sensitivity. Alternative resources like sonic cartographies, mapping, drawings, or photographs were deemed to be useful in producing ‘windows’ in the more conventional gathering of ethnographic data, while allowing space for experimentation and affect in the research.

Is the practice of writing about the social disappeared a way of making them appear? How to interpret silence? Reflections on these questions were discussed in relation to the use of exploratory methodologies and the issues of ethics and sensitivity. Photo: FTS.

Altogether, the introduction of the category ‘social disappearance’ proved to be productive in order to provoke and stir the debate. While some participants were skeptical about its validity for their fieldwork cases, others found the category suggestive for accounting for the quiet, silent, disappearances of the social worlds they study. Lives of social disappearance, even if not named as such, reveal certain common features that are characteristic for the neoliberal globalization which are transregional and therefore present in both regions. In this convergent transregional frame the category of social disappearance can produce resonances and stimulate critical thinking. At the same time, it became clear that the disappearance of the ‘social disappeared’ cannot be seen as an absolute condition: it takes place in the threshold between law and exception, or between mobilities and institutional barriers. The social disappeared may be related to certain conditions of appearance towards certain agents and may actually not be invisible, but included in certain kinds of networks. Marginalized or ghostly, these existences may still have a place, for which participants draw on concepts like ‘differential inclusion’ (Mezzadra).

Concerning the life worlds of social disappearance, most participants emphasized the relevance of agency and of resources for survival on the side of the subjects they research: factors like religion, a plan of migration and hard work abroad for a future’s sake, activist engagement, interstices of leisure and pleasure – which may include the routines of addiction –, and the attachment of happiness to narratives of care, self-sacrifice, or altruism were named as elements that can organize and provide a meaning or a sense of purpose to lives lived at the edge. Such practices were named among the strategies for daily survival and for managing the logistics and infrastructures of the everyday when lives are made of ‘ordinary catastrophes.’ These logistics may include the conscious navigation between the spheres of legality/visibility and illegality/invisibility. People can, for instance, go missing ‘voluntarily’ because they feel that they had ‘failed’ as migrants. They make choices, even if these contradict or even oppose the normative ideals of political and medical welfare regimes –like patients going underground and fleeing the networks of humanitarian care. Crucially, the difficulty of finding universal criteria for deciding what a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ life is, and under what terms this can be determined, was voiced. In this context, the Andean concept of ‘buen vivir’ (kuwak samsay) was put forward as an alternative orientation for defining a good life. In the end, it was claimed, there can be no absolutes in terms of the definition of good or bad living since all social facts are relational and history has proved that life conditions can always be pushed to the worse.

During the course of the workshop it became clear that the notion of (social) disappearance is always defined against the background of a certain definition of citizenship, which implies not only a certain assumption in terms of what a qualified life is, but also a specific relation to the state. In the context in which ‘disappearance’ as a figure was crystalized in Latin America of the 1970s, the ‘good life’ was that of the liberal citizen. However, political regimes and definitions of citizenship or even individuality differ greatly across and between the two regions under discussion.

Transregional differences and convergences

Latin America and Eastern Europe have both experienced dictatorships and massive state violence. In a larger historical perspective, according to Manuela Boatcă, they can be seen as the two first regions of peripheral capitalist expansion, which operated as laboratories of capitalist modernity. In the two regions, new types of governance were experimented for the first time, together with modern ways of extracting value from (forced) labor. Slavery, another ‘disappeared’ population that ‘does not count,’ emerges thus as a historical connector between the two. Parallel cultural tropes can be attached to the legacy of slavery, like the figure of the zombie in Latin American and Caribbean imaginaries and, in the Slavic cultural-historical tradition, that of the robot: two cases of animated but soulless creatures associated with forced labor.

Phenomena that could be associated to ‘disappearance’ have long been present in Central and Eastern Europe, at least since the Holocaust and the Polish soldiers disappeared after WWII. They concern the uncertainty about the whereabouts of individuals vanished (either by Stalinist repression or Nazi genocide) under totalitarian regimes. However, the framing of such cases has been significatively different from that of the ‘disappearances’, which imply the emergence of a new, ambiguous status suspended between life and death. Under Soviet oppression, subjects where violently absented by the action of the State but this meant not, like in the Southern Cone in the 1970s, the production of a new ontological state. People would be taken away and uncommunicated, but under the secrecy and the silence there was something categorical, absolute, and irrefutable about their absence. Political repression, assassination, or genocide may be better framings than disappearance for those practices. These cases would not, as under the dictatorships in South America, open a space for contestation and reclamation to the state (‘where are they?’) but imply an openly known secret and an absolute: they are gone. The word used was categorical (‘he/she was taken’) and left no place for doubt or contestation: there is not the somewhat ‘dialogical’ condition already implied in the use of the euphemism ‘disappeared’. The term ‘disappearance’ instead contains a euphemism and within it a question and an interpellation to the State: “no one just ‘disappears’, so where are they?” It is this thin layer where contestation is possible what did not exist in contexts of oppression by totalitarian regimes.

The workshop participants. Photo: FTS.

The invitation to think about social disappearance transregionally proved to be stimulating not only in terms of the effective ‘applicability’ of the concept in itself, but especially because of the resonances, associations and narratives that it inspired in relation to the participants’ own research work. The definition of the disappeared as a condition that produces ‘the separation between the body and the name’ was deemed to be a key added value of the category. In view of their increasing mobile condition and of the new digital technologies of population surveillance, a third dimension, namely data, may be separated as well. Data does not equal individual identity, but rather flows (in/dividuals, algorithms) and brings along the emergence of the so called ‘data doubles’, with the consequent dislocation of space/place and time, and possibly the emergence of new configurations where disjointed identities are created. The workshop highlighted the potential of the term (social) disappearance due to its origin as a form of popular claim in the South and due to its further expansion across the globe. At the same time, it became clear that the category needs to be historicized, situating its reception in specific historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts.

In some (post-)Soviet contexts, social disappearance may apply and become particularly useful in relation to those groups that may be ostracized from society, like the gay or the aged, who do not ‘socially’ exist. The category was seen as productive for imagining situations of social erasure, social inexistence, or ostracism like forms of civil or social death. Almost all the case studies discussed during the workshop imply forms of deviation from citizenship and from the processes that produce modern liberal citizenship. However, the production of citizens is not the same everywhere. The category of social disappearance seems to apply and to work if and insomuch as the object of disappearance is a subject conceived as an individual who is a right-holder. Therefore, it assumes and demands two typically modern pillars for subjectivity, namely the ideas of individual and citizen, which are attached to the liberal conception of (good) life and, as it was remarked in relation to the gender variable, are neatly defined as male. The definition of the individual-citizen as a figure of fulfilled identity, however, is not universal, and in certain contexts the background against which the (social) disappeared is produced can be thus blurred. In (post-)Soviet contexts like Central Asia, indeed, accountability for individual existences cannot take place like in the West –or in the Western influenced Latin America– with their modern liberal ideas of citizenship since the individual as such does not exist with equal weight and singular biographies do not matter as much.

Altogether, the workshop showed how fertile transregional traveling concepts can become, precisely if they are not meant to define, equate, or simplify, but to complicate and inquire. The exploratory workshop opened a productive path that will be worth following and proved that there is and there will still be much to learn mutually between the East and the South by way of future conversations.

Workshop Participants:

Juan Pablo Aranguren Romero. Universidad de los Andres, Bogotá

Manuela Boatcă. Universität Freiburg

Michal Buchowski. Adam Michewski Poznan University & Europa-Universität Viadrina

Zuzanna Dziuban. Freie Universität Berlin & Amsterdam University

Karollina Follis. Lancaster University

Gabriel Gatti. University of the Basque Country

Laura Huttunen. University of Tampere

Ignacio Irazuzta. Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey

Pawel Lewicki. Europa-Universität Viadrina

Anna Matyska. University of Tampere

Oksana Mikheieva. Ukrainian Catholic University Lviv

Anton Nikolotov. Freie Universität Berlin & Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Estela Schindel. Europa-Universität Viadrina

[1] Disappeared/Desapariciones. A transnational study of a category for managing, inhabiting, and analyzing social catastrophe and loss”, directed by Gabriel Gatti at the University of the Basque Country.

Citation: Estela Schindel, Gabriel Gatti, Workshop Report: “Social Disappearance. Explorations around a travelling concept from Latin America to Eastern Europe”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.07.2019,


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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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