How to study everyday life in post-socialist contexts?

Institute of Sociology, Macro Sociology, POB 4120, 39016 Magdeburg, GER
How to study everyday life in post-socialist contexts?
Conceptual remarks on a comparative research project on livelihoods in Kazakhstan
and Kyrgyzstan.
Prof. Dr Eckhard Dittrich, [email protected]
Prof. Dr. Heiko Schrader, [email protected]
Dr. Denis Gruber, [email protected]
A project funded by Volkswagen Foundation under Az.: 84933
General outline
The collapse of the Soviet Union caused great changes in the former Eastern bloc.
Perestroika and Glasnost aimed at changes not only in the spheres of the economy
or of politics. As soon as the changes gained momentum, it became clear to most
observers, that the overthrow of the old system meant a profound change of the
whole society. Even the former unity of the Soviet Union broke up. For analysts this
means a strong interconnectedness of all processes of change. To recognize the
―Gleichzeitigkeit‖ (Offe), simultaneousness, is therefore an important aspect of all
analytic endeavors. Questions of nationhood, of economic and political
organizations as well as of norms and values that is of cultural orientations and their
interwovenness are at stake. For analytic reasons one should keep this in mind even
if one analyzes detailed developments.
In the sphere of the economy, the reforms taken aimed at a change from a centrally
planned economy to a market economy. At least two general approaches can be
distinguished concerning the restructuring of the economy, a radical and a reformist
one. The radical one favored a shock therapy: a rapid transgression to market
economic institutions. It was believed that thus the development of counter powers
could be prevented that were able to question the aims. Roughly speaking, success
was believed to have been reached if the institutions of a market economy were
established. The accomplishment of this was thought of to be reached in a few
years. General opinion was that after five to ten years’ transition, the market
economy would fully function and the economic sphere would recover. Within this
time span, the societies would have to pass a deep valley of sorrows (Dahrendorf).
Prototype for this change is believed to be Poland. The opposite approach supported
a more gradual change. For most of the politicians and scientific observers, the
changes were believed not to be mere economic ones – in a market liberal sense –
but had to take the behavioral scripts of the populations involved into account,
especially their slow evolution. The process was believed to last much longer. Some
observers talked about one generation. They would declare Czech Republic a
prototype of this approach.
In general, one can say today, that the changes in the emergent independent states
followed different strategies and also the scientific camp was divided.
From a sociological point of view such a transformation is a complicated and
complex process. Traditionally theories of revolutions and of radical social change
were applied to explain the developments. In any case they did not just mean
implementing market organizations (Dittrich, Schrader and Stojanov 2008), since
the functioning of these depends upon market behavior of the actors involved. We
therefore distinguish between market economy and market society (Schrader 2004)
as the general aims of evolution. Market societies display special features, f.e. the
differentiation of a sphere of the economy and a political sphere with the institutions
of democracy and elements of civil society. Very soon scientific observers
discovered that a disentanglement/differentiation of economic and political spheres
had not happened as expected in analogy with the Western development.
Aiming at explanations, social scientists typed the evolving new features – the
above mentioned being not the only ones - as ―political capitalism‖ (Staniszkis
1991). With this they wanted to develop an explanatory scheme that was supposed
to help to understand the new form of capitalism in the post-socialist countries as
being distinct from the western type of capitalism. While this new type was initially
thought to be transitional, an increasing size of scholars began to believe that a new
type had started to be established and they adhered to parallel developments of
capitalism in the West. Varieties of capitalism were rediscovered. These varieties
were initially researched in order to explain an Anglo-Saxon from a continental
European capitalism displaying different institutions like e.g. special subsystems of
banking. The idea was that these special features found in research implied different
forms of economic behavior such as long term versus short term benefit
orientations. To these variations was now added a post-socialist variation. Implicitly
this meant to say, that the post socialist variation had established its own regulatory
power. The path-dependency argument (North 1991; Stark 1992) of social change
became increasingly important. It also helped to discover new variations also
between post-socialist economies and their stability.
Path dependency arguments imply the rooting of economic behavior in the political,
social and cultural web of society. Paths taken are decided on the basis of the
distribution of power and wealth and are guided by both formal and informal norms
and values that stem from cultural orientations. They are sedimented in traditions
and constantly renewed in ongoing formal and informal socializing processes that
have to find solutions for correct behavior for the individual in face of the society
and its structural impositions on it.
Simultaneousness, complexity and culture as necessary categories for analyzes
become even more evident if we investigate into everyday economic life. Here
scholars empirically will soon discover if and how far implemented organizations of
market economy as e.g. private property or money based transactions are really
accepted and guide economic transactions by the population or whether these have
been constituted as empty facades behind which lay different economic rationales.
While basically every citizen participates in economic action, certain transactions,
however, are restricted to those people living above the poverty line. For the general
understanding of the functioning of special market societies, however, it is very
important to take all forms of transactions into account. Only thus it is possible to
fully decipher the mix of social actions taken by economic actors in order to
organize their economic lives. Furthermore, empirical research shows that people
do not plan as pure individuals as assumed by economic theory, but set up strategies
as social actors, be they households or families or what so ever. That is we have to
reflect on the proper unit of research that might not necessarily be individuals`
transactions. These units of action follow their own rationale. It implies muddling
through and planning, maximizing profits, and/or minimizing risks. All agents plan
into the future, try to build security for times of crises, old age, the next generation,
etc. A lot of businesses may be involved: banks, insurance companies, building
companies, etc. but also neighbors, one’s own ethnic group, clans, migratory
possibilities, households, etc. And, besides market institutions, non-market ones
such as subsistence or informal strategies may be important as well (Schrader
1999). However, making a living beyond immediate consumption for survival
requires a certain level of stable income.
The research project and its theoretical concept
After having investigated the changes of economic actions in other post-socialist
societies (Russian Federation, Estonia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic; and formerly also
in post-colonial societies such as India and Indonesia) we decided to empirically
study the research issue in Central Asia. The basic research question is how far
people in everyday life have adapted to market economy so that we can indeed
speak of a market society.
Simply taken, the key element of the investigation is of whether care of the state
(―nanny state‖) in state socialism has been substituted by self-responsibility for
one’s own destiny in the new capitalism. Here we do not so much refer to a
―muddling through‖ that occurred during the early phase of transformation and still
occurs during economic and political crises, but to new forms of planned, rational
action of households to combine different household roles to a joint strategy to gain
long-term security. That is, our research is guided by the assumption that the first
phase of change is over and that post post-socialist societies develop new forms of
economic action made possible by the (precarious) stability of the new economic
systems. Households may follow strategies of minimization of risks preferred to
maximization of chances. A diversification of incomes, formal, informal as well as
subsistence incomes, within the same household may spread risks. Among such
strategies is also labor migration with which households secure incomes by transfer
payments. In the institutionalized market economies these changes may occur
through and are mirrored by institutions such as banks (savings and other bank
investment), insurance companies (health, old-age, unemployment, etc.), gaining of
private property (apartments, houses, business space) but also by relying on
personalized networks among relatives and friends to embed one’s own economic
behavior in social actions or socially accepted corruption. The stronger the reliance
on one of these forms of economic actions and of consecutive benefits, the
trust/distrust in market and state institutions occurs and stabilizes the experiences. It
is assumed that in rural settings strategies differ immensely from urban settings, in
so far that in such subsistence incomes as well as other forms of savings (e.g. in
kind by a herd of cattle) play a much more important role. Furthermore, cohort
differentiation assumes that younger cohorts are more easily adaptive to the market
economy and self-responsibility while older cohorts may more strongly rely on an
imagined ―nanny state‖ that existed under state socialist rule (McMann 2007).
Theoretically we use the concept of ―Sustainable Livelihoods Approach‖ (SLA)
(Chambers 1995) as an analytic guide line. The SLA is less a fully developed theory
than a practical analytical framework which was conceptualized for povertyoriented development projects. It is directed towards collecting, systematizing and
interpreting complex social structures. It is particularly suitable to consider the
reproduction capacity of vulnerable groups in a rapidly changing society. The
approach takes a ―bottom-up‖ perspective on a bundle of factors determining risks
in making a living, the reproduction of precarious life situations, the societal
embeddedness, political factors impinging on vulnerable groups, and the key factors
that are responsible for developing strategies for survival. While the approach was
initially used in rural contexts of developing societies (e.g. Chambers 1988, 1992;
Conroy 1988) it was also implemented in towns and cities (Espling 1999; Evans
2002a; Evans 2002b; Tacoli 1998). For post-socialist countries the approach is
particularly interesting because of rapid political and economic changes being
implemented by system transfer. Societal norms and codes of conduct have been
reversed, and with them everyday-life requires often contrawise action. The SLA
combines the micro- with the meso and macro levels. It does so because the life
strategies of households are closely connected to their resource basis that bridges
the analytic frame of levels. Here Bourdieu’s concept of different forms of capital is
helpful for analyses: capital sorts of economic capital, cultural capital such as
human capital, and social capital such as personal networks (Bourdieu 1977). But
one has to take into account also natural/environmental capital. It seems nearly selfevident that these forms are influenced not only by the individuals`contexts, but also
by the macro context (world economy, national economy and policies), by the
existence of organizations (e.g. availability of banks and their loans) and the
vulnerability context. While the different capital sorts may partly substitute each
other (e.g. lack of capital may be compensated by a network of friends who lend
oneself capital), it is equally true that certain social strata may lack access to any of
these capital sorts and makes them particularly vulnerable (e.g. single-headed
households, late migrants with no access to land, etc.).
While the SLA gives particular emphasis on vulnerable groups, we take,
however, a broader view by particularly referring to households above the poverty
line and their strategies to make a living. With some regards, this comes closer to
Max Weber’s conception of ―Lebensführung‖ (conduct of life), which was
developed further in Germany, however, usually refers to individuals rather than
households or families. Therefore we will try to combine the strength of both
approaches and try to avoid their weaknesses.
Methodology of the empirical research
Evaluating the ongoing changes in post socialist countries and deciphering the
institutions and processes that drive them, can best be done by a comparative
design. Insofar one would classify our research as intercultural: we analyze different
national orientations and their possible influence on economic behavior. This
implies epistemological problems as usually researchers are only familiar with
one’s own culture. Of course, in sociological research, theory served and serves to
overcome these restrictions stemming from the cultural bias. Since the development
of modern social sciences theory served the overcoming of this bias and allowed for
generalizations and thus the possibility ―to transfer results from one context to
another‖ (Baur, 2008, 193) the discussion about ―scientific colonialism‖ given, we
added to our strictly theory driven research agenda our ―mixed team approach‖. It is
an additional helper to avoid cultural biases. In this case, our research brings
together cognitive orientations from people from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and
Germany, not to mention that some also won part of their education and/or working
experience in other countries. Thus, we hope to add to the validity of our empirical
We compare two countries in order to add to the ongoing discussions about varieties
of capitalism on the global level as well as in the post-socialist countries. The
underlying assumption is that the post-socialist societies go through a lengthy
process of changes. To analyze them it is necessary to define temporality. In order
to show the new forms of economic behavior after the initial organization building
phase, we - so to say - personalize temporality. We argue that the generation being
brought up after the 1989 divide and especially having had its first working
experience under the new conditions is no longer structurally socialized into a
Soviet type of society as were their forerunner generations, so that social change
will occur inter-generationally (Inglehart 2003). They still struggle more strongly
with the remnants of the past. Of course, there is no clear divide but nevertheless we
expect to find different types of economic behavior, maybe even different forms of
world views in the different cohorts. This may, of course, sometimes also engender
tensions within the same household as different generations may live under the
same roof. This is a particular challenge to researchers and can, for example, be
solved by group focused interviews.
We believe that the basic unit for research in looking at changing economic
behavior should be households. Private households are open security networks
based on common residence. This common residence for the members may be
temporarily or non-temporarily. Households combine the activities of different
family members belonging to it. Incomes in these households are pooled. The
incomes may take monetary as well as non-monetary forms. Here we roughly
follow Bourdieu’s concept of different forms of capital, adding social, cultural and
environmental etc. assets to the monetary ones. The entities that will be investigated
are private urban and rural households in two strongly diverging post-socialist
societies: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
This differentiation between rural and urban is grounded on theories of social
change arguing that modernization processes initially start from cities and then with time gap - spread to villages. In the countryside resistance to modernization
processes normally is much stronger due to a higher degree of subsistence economy
that embodies strict adherence to traditional forms of behavior. As most research on
transformation is done in the urban centers we hope to broader the view on them
(Dittrich, Oswald 2010).
Empirical research will take place in two steps: we will start with quantitative data
gathering. We will use questionnaires and thus collect data in and around Astana
and Almaty, as well as Bishkek urban contexts). These data will be analyzed with
statistical methods (SPSS descriptive and analytical statistics to find dependent
variables). From the first insight thus gained, we will develop an interview
guideline for indepth interviews to gather and later on interpret the qualitative data
Participating researchers in this project are Prof. Aigul Zabirova (L.N. Gumilev
Eurasian National Univ., Astana), Dr. Nazym Shedenova (Al-Farabi Univ.,
Almaty), Dr. Galina Gorborukova (Univ. of Central Asia, Bishkek), Dr. Markus
Kaiser (OSCE Academy Bishkek), Batima Mambetalina, MA, and Nigina
Avganova, M.A. both Univ. of Magdeburg. Additionally we involve PhD students
from the participating institutions.
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