Capricious Borders: Minority, Population, and Counter-Conduct Between Greece and Turkey


Olga Demetriou offers a fascinating examination of borders and border politics in Western Thrace, a politically significant and historically complex border region in Northern Greece. She focuses upon the Turkish minority of Komotini, the Thracian town in which Demetriou carried out her fieldwork. Through beautifully written ethnographic passages and careful analysis, Demetriou offers a sophisticated examination of how difference is experienced, made, managed, and deployed in everyday moments by communities and individuals, with and against state minoritization practices and strategies.

Greece acquired Western Thrace following the Balkan Wars (1912-13), setting a new border with Turkey halfway across the river Evros-Meriç. This border was formalized in 1923 by the Lausanne Treaty, which also set the terms for a population exchange between Turkey and Greece: Muslims living in Greece were removed to Turkey, and Orthodox Christians living in Turkey to Greece., The Treaty also created new problematic categories of population and place within Greece as the nearly 120,000 Muslim inhabitants of Greece’s ‘new land’ were designated ‘éstablis’ (established) within an ‘exceptional’ region, and were thus exempt from the swap. As Demetriou explains, this created a problem of ‘heterogeneity’ (p. 4) for the state. Greece responded by putting into motion a number of attempts to address the otherness of the éstablis and the exceptionalism of Western Thrace. These attempts have shaped conditions on the ground today. Demetriou mines the friction between her consultants and the various processes of subjectivization they endure and resist. She makes her ethnographic focus what she calls the ‘counter-conduct of others’ – resistance against processes implemented for conducting otherness.

Notably, Demetriou herself has intimate knowledge of not quite fitting into the national imaginary or agreeing with the dominant political discourse. The author explains that she gained valuable insights growing up on Cyprus – an island divided by a border with Turkey, which experienced population relocation, and which is exceptional to Greece in its own ways. Readers are invited to consider the complexities of native anthropology, and the various significances of her subject position vis-à-vis a Cypriot studying Greece, and better, Greece’s internal others. This is certainly a fertile point of engagement for students in advanced methodology seminars.

In chapters 2 and 3, Demetriou explores bordering and counter-bordering as practices that frame the field within which minority subjectivization emerges and is resisted. Of particular interest are Demetriou’s contribution to Neni Panourgiá’s formulation of ‘political DNA’ (2009: 214-216) that makes this concept more directly relevant to other contexts of ethnic differentiation in Greece (and particularly important to those studying migrant and Roma populations), and her ‘homo-diplomat’ concept (those lay members of the minority who actively re-interpret official discourses about historical beginnings and sovereign claims). Chapters 4, 5, and 6 offer a more ethnographically rich examination of naming, genealogy, and state care: the basis of the social contract that binds individuals as citizen-subjects. Specifically, chapter 4 interrogates the toponymy and classifications of space and populations. In this chapter Demetriou considers what she calls ‘spatial bilingualism’, or the ability of her consultants to conceptualize and ultimately play with place as Greek, Turkish or something else (p. 70). Chapter 5 considers changes in underlying logics of genealogy as a device of biopolitical governmentality. Demetriou’s discussion in this chapter of the racialized understandings of population demonstrates very clearly the capriciousness, or contradictory nature, of bordering practice. Chapter 6 looks at the question of land ownership and, specifically, at policies meant to deal with lands owned by minorities, or putatively problematic lands. She examines the way citizens (of all description) are subjected into becoming conduits of state conduct and, in this, traces the ‘becoming of space’ (p. 132).

The following two chapters and conclusion deal more directly with the central themes and conceptual matters the book raises: community, counter-conduct, and the political. Demetriou argues, very convincingly, that by negotiating and appropriating some of the capriciousness of the borders that surround them, her consultants are able to bring about desirable ends while, incidentally, problematizing supposedly traditional understandings of community. To use her terms, the individual effectively becomes and disappears, into and out of community, within unexceptional networks of power, everyday. Demetriou locates the political not in the typical proceduralist or communitarian frames, but in the space of reflective play where other individuals deconstruct nationalism and ethnic difference in the course of making a life.

Demetriou’s postscript engages with a slightly different, but very current issue relevant to borders, bordering, governmentality and supposed others: that of undocumented migration. In a compelling editorial voice, she offers a meditation linking historical moments to contemporary politics. This brief chapter makes plain that borders pose a risk to states, exposing them not only to the impolitical, to movements and actions beyond conventional sociopolitical definitions, but also to expressions of the political without a sovereign tone. Thus, at stake in every politics of border control is an attempt to control the borders of the political.

Throughout, Demetriou makes a number of notable theoretical interventions – I’ll highlight two central contributions. Briefly, she offers a critique of Foucault’s biopolitics, effectively reframing biopolitical governmentality from a focus on the individual to a focus on population. She also expands on Foucault’s formulation of counter-conduct to include conceptual labor undertaken by agents to reimagine their position in society in ways that contradict official discourses (see especially pp. 60-61).

Capricious Borders is immensely interesting and insightful. It is also much needed as how minoritization emerges a nationalist, colonial, and neoliberal project becomes increasingly relevant to anthropologists interested in Southeastern Europe.

Othon Alexandrakis, York University

Reviewed in this essay:

Demetriou,Olga. Capricious Borders: Minority, Population, and Counter-Conduct Between Greece and Turkey. Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 2013. Read more at Berghahn.

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

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