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ETHNONYMS: Srbi, Srbin (singular, masculine), Srpkinja (singular, feminine)


Identification and Location. The majority of Serbs live in the state of Serbia, the larger of the two units of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) that was established in April 1992 after the breakup of the former Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). Serbia is in southeastern Europe, in the central part of the Balkan Peninsula. Its territory includes two autonomous provincesthe Vojvodina in the north and Kosovo in the southoccupying an area of 34,116 square miles (88,383 square kilometers). In 2001 Kosovo was under a United Nations (UN)-supervised administration, and its future relationship to Serbia was uncertain. Serbia borders Hungary to the north; Romania and Bulgaria to the east; Macedonia and Montenegro, the other unit of the FRY, to the south; and the now independent states of Bosnia and Croatia to the west. The northern and northeastern part of Serbia is part of the alluvial Pannonian Plain and is predominantly level. The central and southern areas are approximately one-third rolling hills and two-thirds highlands, intersected by canyons and wide river valleys. Serbia's rivers flow to the Black, Adriatic, and Aegean seas. More than one-fifth of the Danube River's length is in Serbia.

Demography. In the 1991 census the total population of Serbia was 9,779,000. Ten years later it had grown to some 10 million inhabitants, or 94 percent of the total population of FRY. Most of Serbia's population resides in medium-size to small communities. In ethnic terms, Serbs account for about 63 percent of the country's population. Of the remaining population, 16 percent are Albanians who live principally in Kosovo, 5 percent are Montenegrins, 3 percent are Hungarians, mainly in Vojvodina, and 4 percent are people who call themselves Yugoslavs. The other 9 percent are Croats, Slovaks, Romanians, Roma, Macedonians, Ruthenians, Bulgarians, Turks, Ukrainians, and Slovenians. Overall the Vojvodina, once a part of the Habsburg Empire, has the most diversified population. The Serbs are still an absolute majority in that region, but in Kosovo they are a minority among an overwhelming Albanian majority that in the 1991 census constituted 82 percent of the population. After the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) conflict with Serbia, large numbers of Serbs left Kosovo and many settlements, especially in rural areas, were abandoned.

The dissolution of the SFRY and the wars of succession in Croatia and Bosnia were accompanied by atrocities, including massacres and "ethnic cleansing" (killing and deportation). Those acts were committed principally but not exclusively by Serbian military forces against Croats and Bosnian Muslims. The Serbian populations in Croatia and Bosnia have also been affected. Many Serbs fled their homes in Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, preceding those who later became refugees from Kosovo. Thus, Serbia has had to cope with several waves of refugees. The number of Serbs in Croatia was reduced from 650,000 to 100,000 after the exodus in August 1995. According to Serbian statistics, over 700,000 refugees came to Serbia between May 1991 and December 1995. Over 80 percent were ethnic Serbs. Serbs still represent the overwhelming majority in the Republika Srpska, a semiautonomous unit within the newly constituted Bosnian state created as a result of the 1992-1995 civil war and the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995).

Linguistic Affiliation. The Serbian language is a Stokavian dialect of what has been known as the Serbo-Croatian language in the South Slavic group of languages, which is part of the larger Indo-European language family. Serbian has a modern standard literary version that exists in two basic variants: The Eastern, or Ekavian, variant is spoken in the northern, central, and eastern parts of Serbia, and the Western, or Jekavian, variant is used in the western Balkans, the Dinaric region. The main difference between the two dialects is in the pronunciation of an old Slavic vowel represented by the letter jat, pronounced as e in the Eastern variant and as ije in the Western one. Serbian and Croatian nineteenth-century language reformers chose the Stokavian dialect and the Jekavian subdialect as the basis for standardization. Croats and all other ethnic groups in the western parts of the former SFRY, except for Slovenes, speak the same language. That explains why during the "second" Yugoslavia the two subdialects were hyphenated into a common name: Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian.

History and Cultural Relations

The Serbian kingdom, with an autonomous Orthodox Church, arose in the early thirteenth century under the Nemanja dynasty, modeled on a Byzantine prototype. By the fourteenth century Serbia had become a major power in the Balkans, but it then disintegrated into lands controlled by competing feudal nobles. The whole area subsequently became part of the expanding Ottoman Empire, which lasted until the mid-nineteenth century. Symbolically, the independent Serbian medieval state ended with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. A mythologized version of that event came to represent the essence of Serbian identity, embodying both defeat and resurrection. The legend of Kosovo was instrumental in building the modern nation in the nineteenth century and was used most recently by Slobodan Milosevic to energize Serbian nationalism at the time of the breakup of the SFRY.

During the centuries of Ottoman occupation constant uprisings and insecurity motivated Serbian population movements. Most of those migrations were unplanned and involved regional kin groupings, but they had a strong effect on the current Balkan ethnic structure. A significant number of Serbian migrants settled within the Austro-Hungarian Military Frontier in Croatia. Those Serbs served as soldiers to shield the Hapsburg monarchy from the Ottomans. In addition to peasant-soldiers, Serbian society developed an educated and prosperous urban class. Two of the largest population movements from the Serbian medieval heartland to Hungary in the seventeenth century resulted in settlement on the Panonian Plain north of the Danube in today's Vojvodina and neighboring Hungary, creating another Serbian diaspora in the Habsburg lands. That area became a new Serbian cultural and religious center, largely replacing the one in Kosovo that had been mostly depopulated. That area also became the home of an expanding Albanian Moslem population.

The Serbs were on the victorious side in World War I and were unified with other South Slavic lands that were liberated from Austrian domination. This unification led to the emergence of Yugoslavia ("South Slavia"), a cultural and political idea that originated in the nineteenth century. However, the adoption of a centralized political system, dictatorship, and Serbian hegemony, coupled with a lack of economic development, doomed the first Yugoslavia and led to national animosities and the violent civil war that accompanied the German occupation during World War II. An important development was the role of the Croatian fascist government in organizing mass killings of Serbs in Croatia, which led to Serbian-led military groups killing Croatians in the 1990s.

The idea of integrating the South Slav peoples was preserved by the communist pan-Yugoslav partisan movement during the war. Under the slogan "brotherhood and unity," it was a foundation for Tito's communist Yugoslavia (1945-1992). However, the new regime never attempted to resolve ethnic animosities, including the consequences of the wartime atrocities. The ideologically motivated state manipulated national issues to its own political ends. After Tito's death in 1980 political rivalry and the struggle by political elites for survival in the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions of a changed post-cold war world led to the breakup of the second Yugoslavia. Social and economic problems were increasingly expressed as ethnic grievances.

In Kosovo, as opposed to the Vojvodina, where multiethnicity was the established way of life, ethnic rivalry between Serbs and Albanians led to occasional outbursts of violence. Each instance has added to the grievances, making every subsequent clash more serious and complex. The Serbian side claims that the period of violence that started in the early 1980s and has continued into the twenty-first century is the consequence of the injustice it had suffered from both the pro-Axis state of Albania to which Kosovo was annexed during World War II and Tito's postwar regime, which favored Albanians. Kosovo is regarded as the cradle of the medieval Serbian state.

This issue became politically significant as the Serbs increasingly perceived themselves as a victimized minority. The reemerging Serbian nationalism after the fall of socialist Yugoslavia led to the curtailing of the province's autonomous status and to unprecedented state oppression, terror, and atrocities committed against the Albanian population. Wellpublicized evidence of those atrocities led NATO to launch air strikes on Serbia in March 1999. That intervention initially exacerbated civilian massacres, especially by Serbian paramilitary forces. Some 850,000 Albanians became refugees seeking shelter in the neighboring states of Macedonia and Albania. After the Kumanovo peace agreement was signed in 1999, close to 200,000 Serbs fled the region to central Serbia as the Albanian refugees returned to their homes. Tensions remain despite the presence since June 1999 of NATO peacekeeping forces and a UN administration. Atrocities committed by the Serbian side were the grounds for indicting Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, for war crimes and crimes against the humanity by the Hague tribunal of the International Court.


Traditionally, there were two basic types of villages: dispersed and nucleated. In dispersed villages houses were far apart, with buildings, fields, and cultivated lands and meadows surrounding each one. Many were in what had been pioneering areas, previously forested lands. Nucleated villages had closely positioned houses along roads; some were associated with the Ottoman system of landholdings. The villages in the Vojvodina Panonian Plain region were developed according to regulations instituted by the Habsburg monarchs in the eighteenth century.

Towns in Serbia south of the Danube and Sava rivers were almost exclusively Turkish in character. In the Ottoman Empire towns or urban settlements were usually fortified but also had open parts with administrative, commercial, religious, cultural, and residential functions. The city plan consisted of an irregular pattern of narrow, winding cobblestone streets. Public and private areas were strictly separated, and residential quarters reflected segregation based on religious and ethnic affiliation.


Subsistence. Well into the twentieth century most rural households in Serbia were primarily self-sufficient, and so a diversified economy was characteristic, especially in the rolling hills and lowlands. Some herding often was combined with growing wheat and corn as well as cultivating fruit trees, gardening, and poultry raising. Livestock raising was predominant in the mountainous regions. These patterns continued into the second half of the twentieth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century new immigrants from the mountainous regions had settled in central Serbia in regions depopulated during the Ottoman and Austrian wars. Initially, acorn-fattened pigs pastured in the oak forest were marketed across the border in Austria, creating the first prosperous Serbian class, which was active in the early nineteenth-century revolts against the Turks. As immigration and population increase filled up previously forested areas and land became scarce, there was a shift from herding to the cultivation of arable land for human subsistence and animal feed as well as for the market. Corn became the most important crop. Most holdings were small, averaging about 15 acres (6 hectares), and fragmented because of extended household divisions. This situation was little altered till the end of World War II, when almost 80 percent of the population was agricultural, producing about 50 percent of the gross national product.

Commercial Activities. After the demise of communism in the late 1980s, privatization resulted in the reallocation of communal wealth within the ruling elite. The subsequent breakup of regional trade flows between newly independent states, a war economy, the UN's economic sanctions, hyperinflation, and mismanagement of the economy contributed to a catastrophic economic situation. NATO air raids during the 1999 conflict targeted important industrial facilities and infrastructure and added to the existing problems. In 1999, inflation was 42 percent and unemployment was 30 percent. Approximately 1,700,000 farmers hold about 82 percent of the arable land, contribute 20 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP), and produce enough food to allow a surplus for export. Some 30 percent of GDP is furnished by services.

Industrial Arts. Peasants had to be skilled in many trades so that they could maintain their estates and repair equipment. More complicated tasks were done by villagers who had specialized through apprenticeship in a specific craft. Villagers' other needs were provided for by migratory craftsmen and vendors in markets. Others, such as potters, woodcarvers, stonecutters, tailors, and sandal and candle makers, were based in small towns. After the Ottoman conquest the towns were in the hands of other ethnic groups, such as Turks, Greeks, and Jews. After the end of Ottoman rule Serbian artisans and merchants emerged as distinct social groups.

Trade. Open-air markets were first established and regulated toward the end of the nineteenth century. The first city green markets were places where Central European culture influenced Serbian cuisine. Farmers and vendors from the Vojvodina introduced vegetables and other foods used in Hungarian, Austrian, German, and Czech cooking. After World War II and the socialist restructuring of property, all large-scale commercial enterprises were controlled by the state. Private small-scale retail trade and services were permitted and supplemented the state system. The private sector expanded in the 1970s and especially in the second half of the 1980s. Much of the trade in luxury goods dates from that period.

During the years of severe economic crisis in the 1990s, what remained of the state-owned sector was unable to provide for consumers' basic needs. Private entrepreneurs were the only functional part of the economy. In addition to legal stores and shops, semilegal kiosks abounded on the streets of Belgrade and other towns, with inventories including foods, detergents, clothing, automobile parts, and illegally imported cigarettes. Goods were sold for foreign currency, but vendors never seemed to have problems, with demand always being higher than supply. Many vendors were professionals who had lost their jobs or were only nominally employed by state corporations.

Division of Labor. Ideally, the outside world, fields, markets, and cafés were traditional male places for business and socializing. The house and garden were the woman's domain. In rural areas men were the sole owners of the land, implements, and agricultural and livestock herding knowledge and were generally the providers of subsistence. Day-to-day food processing, making dairy products, baking bread, cooking meals, and hauling water were women's work, in addition to raising children. Women also processed textile fibers that were used to weave linen, cloth, decorative parts of their clothing, and household furnishings such as rugs, blankets, and towels. Women were the official mourners for the dead and communicators with them. They also were healers who used herbal remedies and magic.

Women were supposed to keep poultry for meat and eggs and grow vegetable gardens. They could sell those products at the market and keep the money as income. However, since the extended family household with sufficient male labor was an ideal that was not always achieved, women also had to take over men's chores when men were not available, particularly in times of war, when women and the elderly provided agricultural labor. That pattern continued in households in which the men were full-time factory workers. Those activities did not help women obtain decision-making and property rights, although the situation changed in post-World War II Yugoslavia.

Land Tenure. In the medieval period landholdings included property held by the king, feudal lords, and monasteries. Peasants were tied to the land with fixed obligations that included military service. After the Ottoman conquest lands were allocated to Moslem officials who collected taxes, keeping a portion for themselvesthe so-called tax farming. The status of farmers in the medieval Serbian state and under Ottoman rule was similar. There was also communal village property that included forests, pastures, and water rights. The return of church, monastery, and royal properties confiscated by the communists has not been completed.


Kin Groups and Descent. The kinship system is based on agnatic principles congruent with a patriarchal ideology that involves patrilineal descent and patrilocal residence. Although they do not function as formal corporate groups, agnatic lineages are significant in economic cooperation and marital exogamy. Village neighborhoods are often populated by the same lineage, with reciprocal patterns of aid and labor exchange. Each lineage had a patron saint's day marked by a household feast to which affinal kin were invited. These ties are significant in urban areas even after generations of urban residence.

Kinship Terminology. In general, terms of consanguineal kin are more descriptive than are those for affines. Thus, there are specific terms for up to the fourth ascending male generation. Until the middle of the twentieth century it was possible for many rural males to recall lineal and collateral male ancestors to a depth of six or more generations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In rural areas and until recently in urban areas as well, marriage and childbearing were important symbols of adult status. Age at marriage has remained in the early twenties for men and women in rural areas for more than a century. Recently, the prolongation of education and housing problems have delayed marriage. While one-child families have become almost the norm among urban middle-class families, rural values have encouraged multiple births if a male heir has not been produced. For most of the twentieth century abortion was an accepted means of birth control, often to the detriment of women's health. Divorce has become increasingly common. Warfare in the 1990s reinforced patriarchal values as heirs, carriers of the family name, and defenders of the honor of the family and the state.

Domestic Unit. The zadruga, or South Slav extended family, has been the ideal, although not always attained, prototype. Even in urban areas family units often included kin of the extended family. In the nineteenth centuries households of married brothers were common and were divided only when the children matured. There has never been a simple transition to nuclear family households. Households have become smaller, but linear extension of up to four generations has occurred as a result of increased longevity.

Inheritance. Traditional inheritance patterns reflected the dominant patriarchal ideology. These rules were of supreme importance because land was the key to survival. After World War II women were given equal rights, but they often were reluctant to exercise their options because of social pressure. Sisters would give up their rights to inherit paternal land and pass the land to their brothers. Educational attainment and a range of urban opportunities have diminished the economic importance of agricultural land.

Socialization. Mothers are loving caregivers, protective, understanding, and forgiving. Fathers traditionally played a more detached role and were strict disciplinarians with undisputed authority. Among the modernizing urban classes the socializing process has become more egalitarian over the last several decades. However, respect for elders within a hierarchy of age and gender is still highly valued.

Epic poetry was an important source of socialization in traditional rural culture. It was the repository of archetypal characters and positive and negative male and female role models. The Serbian Orthodox Church and later the state educational system played a role in supporting patriarchal values. With the building of a modern nation-state in the nineteenth century, educational institutions took over part of the role of socializing individuals into appropriate gender roles. The recent wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo have supported an official patriotism and reference to the past to glorify selected traditions supporting a patriotic effort to fight for Serbian ethnic space and the integration of Serbian-populated lands on the borders of the nation. The media became an important factor in socialization, especially official television with its depiction of appropriate heroic roles for youth in military recruitment videos for the war in Bosnia.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Village social organization was based on the kin-structured patriarchal household, with extension by ritual kinship in the form of godfatherhood and blood brother ties adding support to the structure. Territorial proximity, as in village neighborhoods, was also important. Those relationships were confirmed by obligations of reciprocity in ritual feasts, the cult of the dead in regard to shared ancestors, and cooperative work groups for agricultural tasks such as harvesting and house building. Village autonomy was significant in building viable community structures that were implemented through leading village elders who often drew their strength from their lineage ties moderated through the office of the village headman, who acted as a bridge between the village and the government.

Before the twentieth century village communities in central Serbia were rather homogeneous from a socioeconomic perspective, leading many foreigners to describe the land as a peasant state. The transition to capitalism and a growing role for the market economy stratified the villages to a degree, but there were not many people categorized as servants within households and relatively few households were landless. However, the differences were acutely felt. Arranged marriages were seen as a way to build family alliances.

In urban areas the most desired goal was the security of a job in the government bureaucracy, followed by a military career or a professional occupation as a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or engineer. The number of people in commerce also grew, increasing the significance of wealth in relation to middle-class status. The elite society consisted of the royal family and the circle around the court. At the opposite pole were the urban poor. In the period between the world wars the urban social structure remained stable. After World War II the social organization was completely restructured. The old elite class disappeared, as did elements of the commercial class. There were some executions, a significant amount of imprisonment, and flight abroad of class enemies who included prosperous and politically active peasants. The new society was also stratified; those who had been with the communist partisans from the beginning of the war constituted a favored group. While formally the three main categories were industrial and other workers, peasants, and the intelligentsia, actual power resided with the Communist Party, the police, and the army. At the top were the political elite, or nomenclatura, consisting of high-ranking Communist Party officials, some of whom served as directors of major economic enterprises. The other elite group was a cultural elite consisting of writers, artists, and university professors representing for the most part an alternative worldview and lifestyle that resulted for some in the loss of their jobs or imprisonment. The largest segment of this group consisted of middle-class professionals, some occupying administrative clerical positions.

The post-Tito era witnessed the implosion of the social system and its values, the destruction of the middle class, and the expropriation of state resources by the political elite. That period saw the emergence of a larger and more aggressive criminal class. The elite drew support from the previously passive portions of the population and those on the fringes of the social system, including the less educated, pensioners, and small-scale entrepreneurs.

Traditional forms of social organization were highly adaptable and continued to function in both rural and urban areas, making up for deficiencies in the communist and post-communist systems. Examples are patron-client relationships and nepotism based on extended kin ties. Nonkin ties in professional organizations, clubs, school alumni groups, and sports associations coexisted and overlapped with traditional linkages and provided societal coherence.

Political Organization. In the post-World War I period a constitutional monarchy was established that was formally based on democratic principles, but with great authority given to the king, whose dynasty had previously ruled only Serbia. From the beginning there were tensions from conflicting national interests among the Serbs and Croats, who constituted the two major political forces in the new state. The influential Serbian Radical Party had a broad base among the peasants and also had middle-class support. There was also strong support in Serbia for a centralized government. This was in direct opposition to the aims of groups such as the Croatian Peasant Party, which was in favor of regional autonomy. Declaring opposition political parties illegal and arresting their leaders were political practices of the centralized authority whenever it felt threatened. In 1929 the king abolished the constitutional regime, political parties, and the assembly and replaced them with a royal dictatorship until his assassination in 1934. Loss of civil liberties, repression, censorship, emigration of political leaders, and the formation of new alliances abroad resulted. Some political organizations developed ties with fascist movements.

After World War II the victorious Communist Party used terror, intimidation, and police pressure to abolish all political opposition. Voters were offered only the government list of candidates. That situation remained unchanged for almost half a century until 1990, when the Communist Party lost its monopoly on power. The party exercised control even though its membership accounted for only 10 percent of the population, concentrated mainly in the institutions that controlled vital state functions.

A multiparty system was reinstated in 1989, and elections were held in December 1990. A large number of newly established parties participated, some with ties to parties of the pre-Communist period or even to those of the previous century. The Socialist Party of Serbia was a transformed version of the Communist Party. The country's long era of autocratic, personal rule ended when Slobodan Milosevic and his Socialist Party lost the election in September 2000 and a moderate democratic coalition came into power.

Social Control. Mild forms of informal control and self-control such as respect for traditional values; monitoring of familial, kin, and neighbor groups; and fear of negative public opinion, gossip, and ostracism continue to exist in both rural and urban environments in addition to formal mechanisms. The legal system established with the formation of the modern state in the nineteenth century is based on civil law. Local, district, state, and federal courts with appointed or elected judges and prosecuting attorneys were the legal forums for settling disputes. During the Communist era the police, especially the secret branches, and the courts secured the political conformity of the population. Centralized political control has been developed as a way to suppress ethnic conflicts. The Hague tribunal has held trials of members of armed military groups who during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo committed criminal acts against civilians.

Conflict. Daily life was filled with disputes over property, inheritance, borders, and other offences that were dealt with at village assemblies and in courts. On the national level, the history of Serbia is filled with conflicts with external and internal adversaries. Internal conflicts included inter-ethnic clashes and intra-ethnic rivalry. Ideological polarization between liberal and conservative, traditional and modern, nationalistic and cosmopolitan, "pure" village and "contaminated" urban worldviews is the leitmotif of cultural dynamism in Serbia.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Serbs are almost exclusively Serbian Orthodox Christians. The church has been autonomous since 1219. Elderly women are the most regular churchgoers. Older women are in charge of family rituals that are connected to the pre-Christian belief in woman's ritual purity after menopause. Church attendance is highest on major holidays such as Christmas and Easter and on the family patron saint day, which links home-based rituals with formal religious practices.

During the last decade of the twentieth century interest in paranormal phenomenon flourished. In addition to indigenous traditional magic, soothsaying, prophesying, and healing, occult traditions from around the world were employed as a survival strategy amid the disorder of everyday life. At the same time the official propaganda used popular fortunetellers, psychics, and astrologers to transmit messages that confirmed the official interpretation of worldly events as an expression of divine will.

Religious Practitioners. The clergy and the administrative structure of the Serbian Orthodox Church are hierarchically organized. The patriarch is the head of the church.

Ceremonies. The folk calendar and the annual customs cycle were centered on agricultural activities and seasonal changes. The traditional Christmas celebration still contains elements that were a part of pre-Christian winter solstice celebration, while some Easter rites resemble those for the vernal equinox. The highly ritualized celebration of slava, which involves an elaborate feast, is a hybrid of pre-Christian beliefs, especially those connected with the cult of the dead, and Christian sainthood. In addition to traditional rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and death, important life cycle events such as birthdays, graduations, send-offs for those serving the obligatory term in the military, promotions, and retirement are celebrated.

During Socialist rule there was an attempt to replace the main religious holidays with secular celebrations. The New Year's celebration was the replacement for Christmas. New holidays important to the state ideology such as the Labor Day (1 May) and the Day of the Republic (29 November), commemorating the date when the second Yugoslavia was founded, were introduced. The public celebrated the state holidays but continued to observe the religious holidays in private. Thus, the New Year was celebrated with the Christmas tree and Grandpa Frost (Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus), both of which were imported into Serbian urban culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Orthodox Christmas (7 January) remained a traditional celebration. Christmas Eve retained elements pertaining to the cult of the dead and pagan solar rituals, expressed by the nature of the dinner food and the Yule log.

Arts. Traditional oral literature included decasyllabic epic poetry recited with the accompaniment of the gusle, a single-string instrument stroked with a bow, lyric poetry, fairy tales and other stories, proverbs, and riddles. Music was a popular form of expression composed within the pentatonic and eight-tone scale and employing many different rhythms. Folk dances are numerous and often feature the nonpartner kolo. Kolo dancing was an important event at village gatherings and provided an opportunity for courtship. Folk music remains popular in both rural and urban areas. Newly composed folk music has had a following since the 1970s. Neofolk music is based on authentic Serbian and Balkan folk music but also borrows styles and structures from other traditions and combines them with popular instrumentation and arrangements. The lyrics refer to the everyday situations of common people and their way of coping with love and life and sometimes express a nostalgic component such as happy, idealized memories of rural life. Neofolk celebrities have great influence on their audiences, and the neofolk media were used to disseminate "patriotic" and militant messages during the violent dismantling of the former Yugoslavia.

Medicine. There was increased trust in medical professionals and greater availability of modern health care after World War II. However, for several decades, when the government was trying to stimulate the "socialist sector" and abolish private ownership, accessibility to modern medical facilities was used as a discriminatory tactic. While state employees and their families had full health coverage, for those in the private sector, including individual small farmers (the majority of peasants) and small business owners, health benefits were almost unaffordable. Gradually, government policy changed and coverage became more inclusive.

The prevalence of Western medical care has not eliminated other approaches to healing. Folk medicine, with its use of touch, chants, magical action, and "magic potions," is still sought after. Herbal medicine and the healing potentials of substances such as bee pollen have wide popularity. Herbal medicine has been accepted by medical officials and often is administered as a supplemental therapy. In late 1970s and early 1980s Eastern medical traditions such as acupuncture, acupressure, aromatherapy, and macrobiotics became popular as alternative ways of healing. State-operated medical facilities experienced severe shortages of medical supplies and drugs in the 1990s. While their services were rapidly declining, private pharmacies and state-of-the-art clinics thrived. The cost of their exceptional services was beyond the means of most people.

Death and Afterlife. In accordance with the strong animistic component of traditional Serbian religion characterized by a dualisticmaterial and spiritualconception of the world, the cult of the dead in traditional religion is important and elaborate. Death is considered a part of life cycle that does not annihilate the existence of a person but only transforms it. The bond between the living and the dead members of the family and lineage are permanent, and reciprocity of good deeds is expected for the benefit of all. The living must be extremely careful not to offend or estrange the deceased in order to secure their help in earthly activities and prevent their revenge or transformation into the dreaded category of the "undead," "vampires," "werewolves," and other equally evil creatures. As the netherworld is imagined to be similar to the world of the living, the dead are believed to have the same needs there, and it is the duty of the family to provide for their needs, such as food, light, clothing, and money.

The core myth, the legend of Kosovo, is based on the Christianized version of dual existence: a burdensome earthly life and eternal bliss thereafter. True national heroes who were ready to perish for the freedom and faith of the homeland secured eternal existence in the celestial kingdom not only for themselves but also for the entire nation. Reverence for the fallen kept the channel of communication between the two worlds open and enabled the two realms to become one in times of need.

For the original article on Serbs, see Volume 4, Europe.


Halpern, Joel M. (1967). A Serbian Village, rev. ed., illustrat ed. New York: Harper & Row.

and Barbara Kerewsky Halpern (1986). A Serbian Village in Historical Perspective. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Hammel, Eugene A. (1968). Alternative Structures and Ritual Relations in the Balkans. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Prosic-Dvornic, M. (1990). "At the Crossroads of Europe and the Orient (The Change of Internal City Structure in the XIX Century Belgrade)," Ethnological Review 26: 65-82.

(1992). "Rurbanization of Belgrade after the Second World War" in: Die Volkskultur Sudosteuropas in der Mod erne. (Southeast European Folk Culture in the Modern Era), edited by Klaus Roth. Vol. 22: 75-102. Munich: Sudeteeuro pa-Jahrbuch.

Simic, Andrei (1973). The Peasant Urbanites. New York: Seminar Press.

Internet Sources

Statistics, Serbian Government Serbia-Info,


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Identification. Serbia is the larger of the two remaining Republics that constitute the Federated Republic of Yugoslavia as of 1992. Ethnically homogeneous within Serbia proper, the republic also contains two autonomous provinces. The autonomous province of Vojvodina in the north is mainly Serbian but also contains large minorities of Romanians and Hungarians. The province of Kosmet (Kosovo-Metohija) is located in southern Serbia and has a majority Albanian Muslim population in which Serbs are a minority. Substantial Serbian populations live in the neighboring republic of Montenegro and in the independent states of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Location. Serbia is bounded on the north by Hungary, on the east by Romania and Bulgaria, on the south by Albania and Macedonia, and on the west by the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. Its location is approximately 42-45° N and 19°30-23° E. geographically, Serbia is two-thirds highlands and one-third rolling plains. Šumadija, the agricultural heartland of Serbia, lies west of the Morava River valley, just south of Belgrade. The climate of the plains is markedly continental consisting of dry, warm summers, long, humid autumns, and cold, dry winters. The growing season begins in mid-March and runs through November. Average annual precipitation is 76 centimeters. Temperatures vary from an average high of 23° C in July to 1.6° C in January, the coldest month. Within these patterns, however, considerable variations exist, with recorded highs well over 38° C and lows down to below -10° C.

Demography, The population of Yugoslavia in 1990 was estimated at 23,864,000. At this time some 8,591,000 Individuals (36 percent) were identified as ethnically Serbian, making them the largest ethnic group in the country.

Linguistic Affiliation. Serbs speak mainly the Ekavian Subdialect of the Štokavian Dialect of Serbo-Croatian, a South Slavic language from the Slavic Branch of Indo-European. Slovene, Macedonian (both spoken in other former Yugoslav republics), and Bulgarian are the closest related languages. The Serbs still prefer the use of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet, which differentiates them from the Croats who use the Latin alphabet. In recent years this situation has changed somewhat with street signs, bus routes, etc. being written in both scripts, but Cyrillic remains the alphabet of choice for official documents and newspapers.

History and Cultural Relations

Early Serbian migration into the then largely unpopulated Balkan Peninsula dates to about a.d. 500-600. Moving south from the area adjacent to the Carpathian Mountains, these early settlers arrived with their flocks and herds. The first Serbian state dates to the middle of the ninth century. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, internal warfare had facilitated Ottoman conquest of the region. For the Serbs, this conquest is still symbolically remembered today by the defeat at Kosovo Polje (Kosovo Plain) in 1389. Modern settlement of the region dates to the 1700s and the wane of Ottoman power in the area. Prior to this time, much of the population had fled Ottoman conquest and remained in the Dinaric Alps to the west. By 1830, after years of continuous rebellion including the First Revolt of 1804 and the Second Revolt in 1815, Turkey was forced to recognize Serbia as an autonomous principality. Serbia was later proclaimed an independent state in 1882, but it was not until 1918 that the first Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was established. The modern socialist state of Yugoslavia emerged out of World War II and the concomitant civil struggle between Mihailovic's Chetniks and Tito's Partisans.

Modern former Yugoslavia was an ethnically diverse and complicated state. Recent economic hardships coupled with political tensions have resulted in the flaring up of historical ethnic tensions between Croats and Serbs and between Muslims and Serbs. With the Croatian moves toward Independence in 1990-1991, full-scale civil war between Croatia and the Serbian-dominated federal army erupted in the summer of 1991, after Croatia and Slovenia declared their Independence. Also threatening at the present time are the tensions in the Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians fueled by growing Serbian nationalism. Yugoslavia is formally nonaligned.


Traditionally, neighborhoods or hamlets within villages were composed of closely related kin belonging to the same vamilija (lineage). Today, however, the population of Serbia is predominantly urban: over the past decades a tremendous shift of population to urban centers has occurred. Only about one in every four Serbs now lives in the countryside. Peasant villages in the Šumadija tend to be dispersed in small clusters, with each house surrounded by its own orchards, fields, and outbuildings. Three other types of settlements are found also. Agglomerated villages, in which houses are crowded together along narrow, crooked streets, are found mainly in eastern and southern Serbia. The cross-road village, with its evenly spaced houses and well-planned appearance, can be seen near Belgrade and in the lower Morava Valley. Finally, the ciflik, walled and densely packed villages created by Turkish landlords during the period of Ottoman domination of the area, are found in southern Serbia near the Macedonian border.

Houses ideally are made of brick and stucco with tile roofs. Wood dwellings, which were common historically, are considered inferior. A pattern of paying as you go in building, rather than financing through mortgage, means that a new house sometimes takes years to build.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The pre-World War II economy was based primarily on subsistence agriculture with a concentration on wheat and maize. Oats and barley are grown as market crops. Raising of pigs, cattle, and sheep was also important. Postwar modernization and urbanization have resulted in decreased dependence on agriculture. Most rural households have a diversified economic base that includes at least some wage earning. Some Serbian males (Between 4 and 5 percent) work outside the country, predominantly in western European industry. The former Yugoslavia as a whole was noted for its labor policy of worker self-management.

A typical diet historically consisted primarily of bread and a variety of stews in a lard base. Fruits and vegetables were normally available on a seasonal basis. Lamb was Reserved for holidays and other festivities. Cheese is made and eaten, but milk is rarely drunk. (Kefir is more common.) An important change over the last few decades has been the switch to the use of sunflower oil in cooking.

Industrial Arts. Many people engage in part-time craft-work, particularly in the manufacture of wood and metal utensils, tools, and furniture.

Trade. In addition to Western-style stores and shopping centers, open-air markets (pijaca ) with an array of fresh meats and produce, as well as handicrafts, are common.

Division of Labor. An emerging social pattern is the socalled "feminization" of agriculture as households with male factory workers maintain a diversified resource base. Previously, labor tended to be divided into inside (female) and outside (male) activities. For example, baking, cheese making, weaving, cleaning, and washing were almost exclusively female jobs while chopping wood and most agricultural tasks were men's work. In urban areas, a similar pattern of women working outside the household also has emerged.

Land Tenure. Despite a Socialist government, the vast majority of land is held privately. Attempts in the late 1940s and early 1950s to socialize landholdings met with staunch peasant resistance and were eventually abandoned. Although a few large collectives remain, most peasants continue to work their own land. Current law limits private holdings to 10 hectares, but contiguous holdings by different family Members often allow joint working of larger parcels. Recently, the government has made some attempts to develop plans for reorganizing private holdings, which have become increasingly fragmented, into more productive integrated holdings. This attempt has been poorly received.


Kin Groups. The most important kinship group after the zadruga, or extended family household, is the vamilija (Lineage) . Tracing descent patrilineally from a common known ancestor, sharing a common last name, and having the same patron saint, a vamilija nonetheless lacks the corporate functions normally associated with true lineage structure. Lineages are exogamous, and the bonds created by marriages between them are socially important. In addition, the fictive kin relationships created by godfatherhood (kumstvo ) and blood brotherhood (pobratimstvo ) are important social ties.

Descent. Descent is strictly agnatic, and to die without male heirs is one of the worst personal tragedies that can befall a traditional Serbian peasant. Village society is built on the matrix of male kin relationships as expressed in lineage structures and the relationships between them. Knowledge of this matrix, and one's place in it, are important in knowing who you are and where you came from. It is common for rural men to be able to recall accurately several hundred living and deceased male relatives spanning eight, or even ten, generations.

Kinship Terminology. Serbian kinship terminology is complicated and does not fit readily into conventional categories. On the first ascending generation, however, terminology is bifurcate-collateral for males and lineal for females. In general, terms for consanguineal kin are more specific than for affines. For example, a cover term, sua or snaja, can be applied to all in-marrying females.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In rural Serbia where marriage and childbearing have remained important symbols of adult status, the age at marriage has remained low. Both men and women typically marry in their early twenties and immediately start a family. Postmarital residence is almost exclusively patrilocal. Matrilocal residence is a possibility only in cases where no sons are present. Such in-marrying males are commonly referred to as a domazet. Traditionally, marriages were often arranged. In urban areas, where living space is less available, marriage may be delayed until later. Legal abortion is a principal means of birth control. Divorce has become increasingly common in the postwar era.

Domestic Unit. The zadruga, or South Slavic extendedfamily household, is the most prevalent rural domestic unit even to this day. Even in cities, domestic units often contain extended-family members. Historically, zadrugas consisted of married brothers, their wives, and children. Households of ten or more members were common. These extended-family households functioned as single units of production and provided a common defense. Normally, married brothers would remain together until after the death of their father, but as their own families matured, the household would be divided. Often this went so far as actually disassembling the dwelling and evenly dividing the building materials. Today these households are typically smaller and lineally, rather than laterally, extended. Nonetheless, most rural Serbs continue to live in extended-family households. There has not been the pattern of family nuclearization so often associated with modernization.

Inheritance. Historically, land inheritance was strictly through male lines of descent. Land was divided equally Between a man's sons when the household was divided. Men without male heirs would frequently seek to find an inmarrying son-in-law (a practice counter to the norm of Patrilocal residence). Post-World War II legal codes specify bilateral inheritance, although the laws are still frequently circumvented.

Socialization. Corporal punishment is a common means of discipline. Emphasis has traditionally been placed on Respect for adults and the aged and on conformity to household goals. It is not uncommon today, however, to hear people complaining that children no longer respect their parents and often ignore their wishes.

Sociopolitical Organization

Yugoslavia is a Socialist federated republic with separate heads of state and government. The Communist party as embodied in the National Front remained the principal political force in the country until the late 1980s. After Tito's death in 1980 and the establishment of a collective presidency to replace him, the head of the collective presidency had been rotated between members representing each republic and the two Serbian autonomous regions. By 1991, however, the Central government was in danger of disintegrating and the national Communist party, under its old framework, had been dissolved. Late in 1991, Croatia and Slovenia withdrew from the republic and declared their independence. War between the Serb-dominated national army and Croatians has left Serbia in control of some territory within Croatia. The Serbian republic's government remains headed by ex-Communists, as of early summer 1992.

Social Organization. The class structure of modern Serbia is occupational and simple. Some pure agriculturalists remain in rural areas, but most households combine agriculture with some wage earning. Landless working people also exist. Successful peasant agriculturalists may still be esteemed, but the urban upper commercial class now wields real political power.

Political Organization. Administrative divisions below the republic level have been reorganized several times since 1945. Village and other local councils are important to local affairs. Village council members are locally elected and responsible for the exercise of federal and republic government policies at the local level, as well as deciding policy on local affairs. Membership in the Communist party is not a prerequisite to being elected.

Social Control. Public opinion and tradition, coupled with a well-developed federal court system, are important to conflict resolution and the maintenance of conformity.

Conflict. Serbian history is fraught with warfare, both Internal and external. Centuries of war with the Turks is a Common theme in traditional oral epic poetry and is an important symbol of solidarity against the outside world. Serbia, and the former Yugoslavia as a whole, were decimated in both the First and Second World Wars.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Serbian Orthodoxy is the principal Religion of Serbia. However, holiday (rather than weekly) church attendance is the norm. Easter is the most important general religious holiday.

Religious Practitioners. In addition to the village priest and Western medical facilities, help may also be solicited from a vračara, typically an older woman.

Supernaturals. The saints are highly revered in Serbian Orthodoxy, and in Serbia each clan or lineage has its own patron saint from whom help may be solicited.

Ceremonies. The most important holiday in addition to the church calendar is the slava, or feast of the patron saint, held on the saint's day. Every family has a patron saint who is inherited through the male line. Formerly, these were lavish affairs often lasting three days.

Arts. Serbian culture is noted both for its traditional oral epic poetry, recited with an accompanying gusle (a singlehorsehair string instrument stroked with a bow), and its naive art painting movement.

Medicine. Modernization has meant increased access to Western medical facilities. Women now give birth in hospitals rather than at home. However, for some types of illnesses, help is still solicited from a vračar or vračara. Illness may be attributed to many causes, and self-diagnosis has been Important to the decision to seek help from a folk practitioner or Western-style physician.

Death and Afterlife. Peasant society readily accepts death as part of life, but in contrast to church theology its concept of the afterlife is more one of a continued life in heaven. Funerals are held the day after death. The dead continue to serve an important integrative function both in terms of Lineage recall and lineage solidarity. Large graveyard feasts traditionally are held one week, forty days, six months, and one year after the death.


Federal Statistical Office (1983). Statistički kalendar Jugoslavije (Statistical pocket book of Yugoslavia). Belgrade.

Halpern, Joel M. (1967). A Serbian Village. Rev. ed., illustrated. New York: Harper & Row.

Halpern, Joel M., and Barbara Kerewsky-Halpern (1972). A Serbian Village in Historical Perspective. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Rev. ed. 1986. Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press.

Hammel, Eugene A. (1968). Alternative Social Structures and Ritual Relations in the Balkans. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Lodge, Olive (1941). Peasant Life in Jugoslavia. London: Seeley, Service & Co.

Simic, Andrei (1973). The Peasant Urbanites. New York: Seminar Press.


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"Serbs." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Serbs are South Slavic people who predominantly live in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia. They are also a significant minority in the Republic of Macedonia and Slovenia.

Serbs constitute about 66 percent of the population of Serbia. The largest urban populations of Serbs in the former Yugoslavian region are in Belgrade and Novi Sad (in Serbia) and in Banja Luka (in Bosnia-Herzegovina). Serbs are also present as a sizable minority in all capitals of the former Yugoslavian republics. They make up 2 to 3 percent of the population of Zagreb, Skopje, Ljubljana, and Sarajevo. Another 1.6 million used to live in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 600,000 lived in Croatia prior to the Yugoslav wars, but they have now been largely expelled from the latter.

Serbian culture was largely influenced by the Byzantine Empire starting in the ninth century and throughout much of the Middle Ages. Another source of persistent influence is the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, prior to the Ottoman invasion in the fourteenth century Serbs were strongly influenced by the Catholic Church, especially in the coastal areas such as Montenegro and Croatia. Austrians and Hungarians have also been highly influential among Croatian Serbs, Serbs of Vojvodina, and Bosnian Serbs to a smaller extent. Serbian culture declined during the five-hundred-year rule of the Ottoman Empire. After Serbia became autonomous in 1817, there was a resurgence of Serbian culture that remains strong today in Central Serbia. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was formed following World War II and was in existence until the wars of the 1990s, was part of the Soviet Bloc of Communist countries, but in recent decades there has been a growing influence from the West as well as a resurgence in traditional culture.

Serbs have played a major role in world history. In 1914 Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918), a Bosnian Serb, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914), heir to the imperial throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This act precipitated the crisis that would lead to World War I. In more distant history Djordje Petrovic Karadjordje (died 1817) led the 1804 rebellion against the Turks, who were then in power. Serbs have played a significant role in the development of the arts and sciences as well. Prominent Serbs include the scientists Nikola Tesla (a Croatian Serb; 1856-1943), Michael Pupin (18581935), Jovan Cvijic, and Milutin Milankovic; the famous composers Stevan Mokranjac and Stevan Hristic; literary authors Ivo Andrić (1892-1975) and Milos Crnjanski; and Vuk Stefanovic Karadzić (1787-1864), credited with reforming the Serbian language. Other famous members of the Serbian community are sports stars Vlade Divac, Peda Stojakovic, and Nemanja Vidic; and actor Karl Malden (Mladen Sekulovich). From the entertainment arena there are movie directors such as Dusan Makavejev, Peter Bogdanovich, and Emir Kusturica, and TV producer Paul Stojanovich.

SEE ALSO Croats; Ethnic Conflict; Ethnicity; Identity; Milosevic, Slobodan; Nationalism and Nationality; Ottoman Empire; World War I


Cirkovic, Sima M. 2004. The Serbs. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Radan, Peter, and Aleksandar Pavkovic. 1997. The Serbs and Their Leaders in the Twentieth Century. Brookfield, MA: Ashgate.

Dagmar Radin

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Serbs Slavic people who settled in the Balkans in the 7th century, and who became Christians in the 9th century. They were distinguished from Croats and Slovenes by their use of the Cyrillic, not the Roman, alphabet. Most of them now live in Serbia but there are Serb minorities in Bosnia and Croatia.

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