Shifts in Economy and Ritual in a Village in the Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria

The relations between transformations within economy and transformations within ritual practices in one village community of the district of Smolian, Bulgaria, are the topic of the project. Are there dialectics between economic life and rituality, and what is their nature? The project focuses on village celebrations, household rituals, and hospitality performed when external visitors are received. How are these connected to the local economy? Some preliminary data allows me to argue that the relative retreat of the state from the rural ritual arena after 1989 and the liberalisation of the economy did not necessarily entail a lasting decrease of ritual activity as a whole, but have redefined the meanings, usages, and implications of rituality. In order to examine this general hypothesis, attention will be paid to the explicit and implicit relations between economic changes, politics, and ritual activity.
The local inhabitants, Bulgarian Pomaks (Bulgarian-speaking Muslims, distinct from the Bulgarian Turkish minority) and Bulgarian Christians, have the reputation of hardworking people who warmly welcome even outsiders not belonging to the village community. The main economic activities in this mountain area are forest exploitation, potato growing (for consumption and as a cash crop), livestock breeding, and wage work in the larger cities. In addition, the locals offer accommodation in their houses to tourists during the summer. Although this mountain area appeals to a limited flux of visitors in comparison with the Black Sea coast, the villagers consider this additional and unofficial source of cash important.
After the fall of socialism, the rituals of hospitality performed when external ‘guests’ and ‘friends’ or ‘tourists’ arrive have gained in significance and frequency. The villagers seem motivated by a search for profit, because the need for cash has grown sharply. One assumes that the intensification of rituals of hospitality is motivated by short-term instrumental rationality. But where pure economic reasoning would expect the growing importance of visitors-welcoming rituals to be correlated with a decline in communal rituals, the locals prove, on the contrary, strikingly active in village celebrations. For instance, the mixed Muslim and Christian population of the village regularly celebrates religious feasts together. How can this vitality of communal rituality be explained? How is today’s highly individualised search for income connected with manifestations of communality? Does hospitality toward external visitors differ from hospitality toward kin and local friends? Since hospitality is usually displayed by women, what are the implications of this gendered aspect? Do people feel ambivalent about instrumental and communal aspects of hospitality?

Fieldwork will be carried out during more than eight months, between July 2009 and April 2010. An outline of the social structure of the economy at the level of the households and the village will constitute the first step of the field research. Special attention will be paid to practices, but also to local narratives about people’s material lives and the broader economy. In addition to the study of hospitality, one or two community rituals (possibly Easter and Saint George’s day) will be studied in order to uncover connections, or tensions, between ritual activity and the economic situation, between the participation of individuals and families in ritual and the density of their social networks.

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