Pabirčenje (Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina)

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Location: Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina
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Author: Jovana Dikovic
Affiliation: University of Zurich

Jovana Dikovic, University of Zurich

Pabirčiti is a verbal form in the Serbian and Croatian languages that refers to the collection of grains that are left over in the field after harvest. Etymologically, the verb derives from the noun pabirak, which means the ‘remains’ in fields, vineyards and orchards after the harvest. In a broader context this noun may refer to the remains of food, the remains of wood after cutting, or small pieces of a bigger whole. The use of these terms is widespread in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are similar sounding words in Slavic languages. The Russian verb pobirat’sya is associated with begging for remains of food. The English term ‘gleaning’, French glanage, and German nachlese, all have the same meaning – gathering activity after the harvest or an informal ‘second harvest’. This practice exists in many other European languages, although in varying forms and degrees. The practice was depicted in one of the better known paintings of Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), a French painter in the tradition of realism and naturalism. Currently in the Museum d’Orsay, The Gleaners (Des glaneuses) (1857) depicts three poor women picking up leftover grain in a field.

The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet (1857)

The practice of gleaning in general is linked to the centuries-old custom embedded in common law, whereby the master of the land has the right to allow the poor to follow reapers in the field to gather and glean fallen grains for their own needs. One of the earliest Hebrew agricultural laws, described in the Old Testament, illustrates how the generosity of the master determined the amount of gleaned grains (The Story of Ruth 2: 2-23)[1]. This early form of welfare for the needy is still present in countries from Syria to the USA. The old custom involves a relationship between the landowner and the poor that is still maintained in some places, while in other places faith-based groups glean and redistribute the leftover crop as part of their religious calling. The practice of gleaning is widespread in rural areas and not constrained to Europe; rather, it reaches out to the areas of Biblical Levant and beyond.

The practice of pabirčenje in Serbia spread predominantly in agricultural regions, particularly in the province of Vojvodina[2]. Part of the current territory of Serbia used to belong to the Ottoman Empire, and part to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so the prevalence of the feudal mode of production, or ‘tribute mode of production’[3], lasted longer than in other parts of Europe. The end of feudal relationships came as late as the first agrarian reform (1919-1941) in an independent Kingdom of Serbs Croats and Slovenes, where small private holdings started to emerge. Until the first agrarian reform, for the landless, gleaning was often the only way to evade starvation. The poor could not, however, enter the fields without the consent of the landowner. The explicit or implicit, socially and culturally, communicated consent was fundamental for the practice of pabirčenje [4].

There were at least two reasons for landowners’ explicit consent and generosity: sociability and instrumentality. On the one hand, generosity was meant to build the landowner`s reputation in the community, to extend and to strengthen his social network by providing favors or protection to his subordinates. In this way, pabirčenje was a way to sustain and support his clientelist network that could potentially become instrumental in support of his political ambitions, local leadership, etc. On the other hand, there was even more pragmatism in pabirčenje. By allowing the poor to glean on his field in the short run, the landowner prevented the potential social unrest and acquired stable political support among the local population in the long run. As Foster points out, in traditional communities all social interaction is based on well-recognized norms of exchange and reciprocity[5]. Similarly, Wolf ascertains that various redistribution practices in traditional communities may not be as altruistic as they appear at first glance, because they were often socially forced, and moreover they resulted from social and class stratification[6].

After the first agrarian reform and subsequent changes in agriculture and state provision of welfare, perceptions of pabirčenje changed significantly due to several factors. In socialist Yugoslavia (1944-1991), the category of landless people officially disappeared due to the parallel existence of three types of property: collective, state and private. In the same period, the state took over the role of welfare provision. Under socialism, reliance on the state for the provision of welfare rather than private patrons changed perceptions and practices of pabirčenje. It can be argued that state welfare and maintaining of private property in land (though limited to 10 ha in socialist period) are fundamental factors that contributed to diminishing significance of pabirčenje. This continued following liberal-democratic reforms in the post-socialist period (from 1991) when private owners were granted the right to enlarge their property without any restrictions, unlike socialist times, while the state still remained the main provider of the welfare.

Since the 1990s onwards, due to the civil war in former Yugoslavia (1991-1995), and during the political and economic transition of Serbia after 2000, poverty and criminality have risen in cities and villages respectively. Given the fact that Roma belong to the most vulnerable groups in villages because they are unemployed, uneducated and mostly landless, they are often related to criminality, partly due to these factors and partly due to their traditional stereotype of being ‘free riders’. These unfavorable circumstances have influenced the fact that Roma are seen as trespassers, while the contemporary use of the term pabirčenje mostly represents a euphemism for the field theft.

The previous semantic connotations of pabirčenje – that included relations of social, economic and political reciprocity, plus the landowner’s consent (which was the main condition activating the right to glean) – have been almost lost today. This is due firstly to the growth of private property and a significant decrease in the number of landless people. Secondly, the growing importance of state welfare created a general perception that the needy are the responsibility of the state and its social institutions. In such an environment landowners have neither a social nor a political stimulus to support persons in need. Correspondingly, landowner consent to pabirčenje is steadily vanishing.

On the other side, would-be pabirčari (gleaners) are well aware that their activity is potentially theft. This is not to say that every case of pabirčenje is theft, but sometimes it crosses over into stealing from unharvested fields. The pabirčari justify their actions by referring to the socially embedded practice of pabirčenje in order to avoid social criticism and potential sanctions. The authorities display a similarly ambivalent attitude: on the one hand, the state is committed to prosecuting cases of theft, but in practice the police tend to be very tolerant towards alleged pabirčari – a de facto form of institutional patronage over socially vulnerable groups. Such a fluid situation can aggravate tensions between agricultural producers and state institutions such as the police and the courts, resulting in farmers’ distrust of the state.

In this modern context, contemporary practices of gleaning have lost their main driver, the bonds of reciprocity. It became a self-serving practice with little social purpose, aggressive rather than consensual, and satisfying short-term needs rather than long-term relationships. In other words, pabirčenje has drifted away from being an informal norm in the past, with socially shared unwritten rules, that were created, communicated and enforced outside of official state and public channels [7], to a substantively different type of informal behavior. Contemporary pabirčenje has become an informal strategy of individuals without land or regular income, who view it as socially justifiable in the absence of other types of access to means of survival.

Such tendencies are closely linked to the formalization of welfare institutions. From the beginning of the twentieth century, and particularly in the former socialist societies, the state established a monopoly over welfare provision (see Palmer 2012[8]). As a result, forms of informal welfare such as gleaning, based not merely on charity but also on mutual supportive mechanisms for the interested parties (the landowner and the poor) have been ‘crowded out’ by the state provision of welfare. Correspondingly, practices of gleaning that remain have lost their give-and-take embeddedness in the local community, and gained an aspect of parasitism. The role of self-regulating informal forms of organization has diminished, thus leaving it to the state to penalize, or to overlook, practices of gleaning.


  1. Bible, King James Version. The Story of Ruth 2: 2-23
  2. Pavković, N. 2009. Banatsko selo: Društvene i kulturne promene: Gaj i Dubovac. Novi Sad: Matica srpska, Odeljenje za društvene nauke
  3. Wolf, E. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Oakland (CA): University of California Press
  4. Pavković, N. 2014. Studije i ogledi iz pravne etnologije. Beograd: Etnološka biblioteka. pp.284-296
  5. Foster, G. 1973. Traditional Societies and Technological Change. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. p.105.
  6. Wolf, E. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Oakland (CA): University of California Press. p.98.
  7. Helmke G. and Levitsky. S. 2004. “Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda”, Perspectives on Politics, 2(4): 725-740
  8. Palmer, G. (ed.) 2012. After the Welfare State. Ottawa (IL): Jameson books