Field Research Update: Unpacking the Legacy of Ethnic Policies in Communist Albania

Mary Shiraef
10 min readApr 15, 2024

During February and March, I was supported by a U.S. State Department Title VIII Fellowship, managed by the American Councils for International Education. This update, as requested by the American Councils, summarizes my fieldwork and language study in Albania during this period.

Research

The motivation behind my Ph.D. research in Albania is evidence that a communist-era policy toward ethnic minorities both recognized and repressed different members of the same group for strategic, political reasons. Recognition of an ethnic minority meant that the Albanian state officially authorized the ethnic groups’ language within the state apparatus — as well as allowed children to attend school in their native language in the students’ early years of schooling. The Greek minority was the most substantially recognized group, per my archival review, but the Macedonian minority was recognized too. Repression of an ethnic minority meant that former members of a non-Albanian speaking group did not receive these same rights and, instead, were forced to learn Albanian, speak only Albanian in public, and “become Albanian” for all intents and purposes — as well as access to basic services.

This policy, initially a method I used to establish causal links between repression and ethnic identity trends, has proven intriguing in itself due to its contrast with Western homogenization policies and the rich data available from the affected populations.

My study focuses on “multiethnic identity engineering” during communism and its impact on family-level identities post-communism. The key research questions aim to understand how minority identities are transformed under authoritarian regimes and the conditions linking these changes to persistent political beliefs and behaviors.

Preliminary Findings

The repressed ethnic group in my study assimilated, in part, by adopting the Albanian language and Albanian names. Conversely, the recognized group continued using their ancestral names, with new names still reflecting their Greek origins — as my study’s design hypothesized and rested on as a “control” group in the study.

Language Study

I advanced my Albanian language study in the last two months with my in-country instructor, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Vjollca Osja. In particular, we made progress in the following areas:

  1. Review of difficult vocabulary words
  2. Sentence writing, speaking, and pronunciation practice using a list of key adjectives curated by my instructor
  3. Irregular verbs

We also watched and discussed several very interesting videos about Albanians in the Albanian language. The first one was an interview of Aledia Bilali, an Albanian who took up a very interesting educational trajectory and career in Germany — as so many Albanians have done in the last decade. Aledia became a traffic engineer, a specialization within civil engineering, and works (at the time of the video) for BMW. It was particularly interesting to me because my future research is about Albanians who immigrated outside of Albania (primarily to Greece, Italy, Germany, and the US) as well as those who have returned to live in Albania again after migrating. I think people far outside of Albania or Albanian studies will find it interesting too (it has English subtitles) because of how unique of a specialization it is, despite how ubiquitous of an issue traffic is — as well as how thoughtful Aledia is in her responses.

The second video we watched was a recent interview between an Albanian politician and a Greek politician. Although my project operates at the family and societal level, it has a political backdrop, and my degrees are in political science and international relations after all. Thus, this video, between Greece’s socialist party, Syriza’s new leader, Yanis Varoufakis, and Albania’s former foreign minister, also in the socialist party, Ditmir Bushati, was also very interesting to me — although dark and cynical. More to the purpose, the video was also fantastic Albanian reading practice since the bulk of the interview was in English, but its video has Albanian language subtitles. My Albanian language comprehension is not at the level of politics and intellectual discussion yet, but this is my basic goal (both reading and spoken).

Timeline and Work Completed

In line with my Project Timeline, I continued a 50% research and 50% writing plan based primarily in Sarandë, Albania — a key site for my project’s research. I conducted analysis, in particular, on the group in my study who were recognized as Greek during communism — using first name data sourced by cemeteries and Albania’s civil registry. I conducted two additional interviews — one more than projected in this timeline. One of the interviews was particularly enlightening because the interviewee is from the one village in my study for which I was unable to locate a cemetery — Perdhikar, Albania — because the entire population was forced to move by Albania’s communist leader, Enver Hoxha, in 1951. This interviewee was able to tell me the story of the village as well as identify where most of them have been buried or moved to since the forced migration. (If others reading this have any connection to or knowledge about Perdhikar and are willing to do an interview, anonymously or not at your comfort level, please reach out to me in the comments!)

The second interview was important too because it was of a woman who is not Greek by her identification or heritage but married into a Greek family (after which, she began to identify as Greek) and grew up near Greeks who were recognized. So she was able to differentiate the experience for me of growing up in an Albanian Orthodox village. She confirmed that her fellow students from the recognized villages would attend classes in Greek, but she was not permitted to based on the village she was from. I asked her how she learned to speak Greek in this case, and she said she learned by watching shows with subtitles and from a friend, especially after 1990. Her village cemetery is one my project would classify as part Greek, part Albanian because a significant part uses Greek script on their graves.

Furthermore, I conducted the preliminary analysis for and wrote twenty pages toward my dissertation’s core empirical chapter / “job market paper” — with around ten more + edits to go. The headline result is reported above.

I also traveled to Tirana and was approved for formal access to the 1975–2008 portion of my study’s data collection, which uses Albania’s Ministry of Interior data on first names and other variables. (This was with partial support for travel and research assistance costs from the ND International Security Center at my host university, the University of Notre Dame.)

Old and New Connections

While in Tirana, I met with Prof. Dr. Mëniku, my in-country advisor and, incidentally, a researcher who has completed work using first-name data in the past. She shared with me some critical resources for my project and introduced me to a potential research assistant for some of the translation work I need to have completed before the conclusion of my dissertation.

Tirana by day and Tirana by night on either side of a photo of me and Linda Mëniku

I also met Assoc. Prof. Dr. Konstantinos Giakoumis, a former in-country advisor of mine, when I completed work for my project connected to a Boren grant. He provided a new contact for me at Albania’s National Library, who has answered several of my questions and provided digital access to several articles before I make plans to review their non-digital records on Albania’s ethnic minorities this summer.

Back-to-back coffee meetings in Tirana always bring me joy and fresh insight © Mary Shiraef

I also completed my Albanian language class in person — which is always a delight in the hustle and bustle of central Tirana’s coffee scene since my instructor previously helped me map out the Cafes with good coffee in Tirana.

Co-curricular Activities

Although the bulk of my time is spent on writing and research, I have been sure to schedule at least one social activity each week to meet my cultural ambassador role — whether simply a coffee with a local professor, getting my nails done with my “host mom,” celebrating locally celebrated holidays (such as welcome summer day, followed by welcome spring day, thank your teacher day as well as Iranian New Year all within the span of a week) or planning a weekend excursion to the respective villages of both my host parents.

One of my all-time favorite examples of a co-curricular activity turned into a research finding is when I got a bridesmaid dress hemmed at a local tailor and, through the exchange, happened to find someone from Perdhikar, the long-lost village in my study. Hilariously, the dress (sanctioned by my friend Susanna) led to the tying up of one of my dissertation’s most persistent puzzles (to be detailed further at a later date).

The dress (sanctioned by my friend Susanna) which led to the tying up of one of my dissertation’s most persistent puzzles © Mary Shiraef

I have too many gems and stories to convey here, but here are a few photos to capture the love and meaning behind these moments, which I will treasure forever.

On the left and right, my host parents + their pup Cookie (spelled and pronounced “Kuki”); in the middle, I am meeting a local economics professor, Bedrie Ibrahimi Marjani © Mary Shiraef

Challenges

I have no significant challenges with my fieldwork to report. My work seems to be on track with my timeline as planned, and I believe the plan for my upcoming work (involving data collection in Tiranë and a homestay in Nartë) is reasonable and feasible.

Of note logistically is that a significant portion of Sarandë’s municipality seems to be under construction. From the buildings to the roads to the literal mountainside, there is near-constant noise and work occurring. I grew used to the noise, but it is a bit worrying since little regulation of ongoing projects is in place, and not all of them seemed viable in the long term. Some of them, however, such as the city center’s new pedestrian road, turned out beautifully — as did the construction on my nails incidentally.

On the left, nails by “Ada Nails” and on the right, construction in Sarandë, March 2024; I was amazed at how Albanian women walked through the unfinished road in heels, around wet pavement like pros, and even **jumped** over puddles — as I witnessed on several occasions. © Mary Shiraef

I am still not 100% sure when my dissertation defense will occur, but based on my department’s determination, it will either occur in early July (virtually) or at the end of September in person after this grant period concludes. I have expressed my desire to defend in September so the data I have been collecting in Albania during this grant can be included in my finalized dissertation content — and so I can defend in person. However, I am open to either timeline since there are pros and cons both ways.

Interview prep in Sarandë © Mary Shiraef

Changes and Looking Forward

One exciting shift is in my university affiliation; for the duration of this grant, I will be dually affiliated (with the University of Notre Dame and Mannheim University) because I accepted an offer for a Lorenz-von-Stein Fellowship from the University of Mannheim — in particular, for the work required to publish papers from my dissertation and prepare a major grant proposal to continue studying Albanians who migrated outside of Albania after my dissertation is completed. The proposed work outside of Albania (in Greece, Italy, Germany, and the US) is projected to begin in April 2026 — thus, there will be no conflicts with the responsibilities or Title VIII funding line items of this grant. Documentation was provided to the American Councils upon request.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my Ph.D. supervisors for their patience in what has been a long and windier-than-anticipated data collection process; my formal and informal in-country advisors for their consistent support and guidance; Albania’s Ministry of Interior for access to their data; and most of all, my “host parents” in Sarandë, who have made my experience in Albania truly well-fed, unforgettable, and one-of-a-kind.

A well-balanced breakfast spread on the left, hearty soup for lunch, and homemade pizza for dinner by home chef Urania Gjoçi © Mary Shiraef

I am further grateful to the participants of my study who have elected to remain anonymous but contribute a great deal to my work, nonetheless.

Family photo in Sarandë © Mary Shiraef

Permissions

Permission was granted by the lovely individuals represented here to share their photos and names for purposes of this report — except for house dog Kuki and street dog Mr. Snaggletooth, who were photographed on a regular basis without consent.

To be fair, when I tried to work outside, Kuki would end up forcing his way onto my lap! © Mary Shiraef

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Mary Shiraef

Everyday Researcher, Occasional Teacher. I write here about the people, experiences, and businesses that bring me joy and occasionally, the politics that don't.