Performative democratic practice: An ethnographic study of the Women’s Rights Centre in Montenegro

Smolovic-Jones, Sanela (2019). Performative democratic practice: An ethnographic study of the Women’s Rights Centre in Montenegro. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis explores how democratic practice is enacted by non-governmental organisation practitioners in a country in transition and seeks to unpack the embodied experiences of people who are increasingly perceived by international stakeholders and scholars as being important actors in processes of democratisation. I offer an in-depth ethnographic account of the work of practitioners within a women’s NGO in Montenegro, the Women’s Rights Centre, as they seek to enact democratic practice within and through a context of patriarchy and corruption. Whereas the extant literature on democratic practice in relation to NGOs offers insight into the processes of democratisation in countries in transition, it does not, by and large, account for the lived experiences of practitioners as they strive to democratise their societies. Bearing this gap in mind, I turn to contemporary theories of democratic practice, deliberation and agonism, perspectives that explore democracy as participative engagement between people, groups and governments. I interrogate these from a poststructuralist perspective. Specifically, I interpret them through Judith Butler’s theory of embodied performativity, an account of agency within a matrix of re-iterative norms, which is adopted as my theoretical framework. Pursuing a participant-observer research identity, I draw on my own observations generated through a 30-month-long ethnography, 11 of which were spent in the field. I adopt a multimodal discourse analytic approach in analysing the multifaceted and embodied sense of what it means to enact democratic practice as an NGO practitioner. I present three broad democratic practices. The first, embodying democratic practice, surfaces the bodies of practitioners as sites through which democracy is enacted. The second, navigating corruption, illustrates the struggle of practicing democracy within a ubiquitous context of corruption. The third, the aesthetics of assembling, offers insight into how democratic practice can be enacted through the entanglement of different aesthetic mediums, connecting and drawing diverse people into a public assembly.

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