Ruth Mandel & Caroline Humphrey (eds.) (2002) Markets and Moralities: Ethnographies of Postsocialism

Oxford: Berg. ISBN 1-85973-572-X (cloth); 1-85973-577-0 (paper).

The Myths and Moralities of Markets after Socialism

Christopher Colvin

One of the myths of capitalist economics that accompanied the wide variety of ‘market reforms’ in the ‘postsocialist’ period in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia was that the move from socialism to capitalism would entail a progressive de-linking of the (formal) political and economic spheres. A similar myth, found often in the disciplinary projects of economics, political science and development studies, suggests that economic activities and market behaviours can be explained, or even predicted, by a good enough model of homo economicus, a rationally choosing individual who supposedly acts in an ends-maximizing fashion, regardless of the decorative vagaries of culture, class, gender, race, history, etc. This volume brings together a number of anthropologists and development researchers in order to contest the notion that the introduction of the ‘market’ into postsocialist societies is accomplished through a separation (and rationalization) of the economic domain from all other domains – political, social, cultural — as well as its simultaneous rationalization.

In a valuable and concise introduction, the editors of Markets and Moralities argue that marketization affects a myriad of institutions of social life and it is ‘because none of these institutions can be simply seen as economic units that anthropological insights into the ways they constituted social relations and intertwined with local values is so important (9). In a similar vein, they later contend that the consequences of market reforms are often unpredictable and thus:

. . . any persuasive explanation for such unforeseen patterns would be extremely complex and would have to account of macroeconomic factors . . . yet a part of the explanation must lie with the everyday practices of ordinary people participating in the economy according to their own priorities, social pressures and values. (12)

This focus on the local, the specific, and the ethnographic is one of the key strengths of the book and also its biggest challenge. Though its theory and writing are firmly situated within the social anthropological tradition, the collection seeks to make its insights available and relevant to the perspectives, debates, and concerns of economists and political scientists. To a large extent, it succeeds. Often the connections between the moment of ethnographic insight and the world of development policy or political science are only implied. This partly results from an unavoidable problem of space. Most of the chapters, however, are written clearly enough to extend their value beyond anthropology, even if this ‘disciplinary extension’ remains somewhat understated.

In the introduction, the editors of the volume not only provide a summary of the contributions, but, more usefully, list a series of themes that cut across many of the chapters. These include problems of history, identity, indigenous concepts of property, local understandings of labour as distinct from commerce, gender constructs, and other areas of culture usually neglected in economic analysis (13). After their introduction, the book is organized into three sections. The first set of four chapters in the volume is devoted to ‘Trading Cultures, Market Ambiguity and Historical Transformation’. Farideh Heyat’s wide-ranging analysis of the gendered dimensions of entrepreneurialism among Azeri women opens the volume with a discussion of how women’s unfolding public and private roles during the Soviet and post-Soviet eras affected their ability and willingness to engage in entrepreneurial activities. She argues that while Soviet-era gender norms that kept women in the house made it easier for them to get involved in informal trading and the underground economy, the post-Soviet period, with its ‘strongly male-oriented business culture’ (20), is cutting many of these same women out of the new economic opportunities. She also includes a valuable linguistic analysis of the tensions between the terms al verji (traders) and ziyali (academics), and describes how the rise of the market has meant that many former ziyali now find themselves in the formerly denigrated positions of al verji.

Where Heyat’s contribution takes a wide scope and considers many (sometimes too many) facets of the problems women entrepreneurs face, Deema Kaneff’s piece on market activity in rural Bulgaria tightens the focus considerably and provides a richly ethnographic portrait of market traders and the dilemmas of morality and identity they face as they wrestle with the ‘shame and pride’ of market activity after socialism. Through a revealing examination of two women, mother and daughter, who have both been forced recently for economic reasons to trade surplus produce at the local market, Kaneff illustrates how differing conceptions of ‘work’ and ‘production’ can bring about differing emotional responses to trading. Her analysis complements Heyat’s first chapter well in the ways it looks at how roles in, and attitudes about, ‘the market’ have made it difficult for some and easier for others to adjust to the ‘shock therapy’ of marketization.

In his chapter on ‘heritage and enterprise culture’ in northern Russia, Julian Watts picks up the question of entrepreneurialism again and takes to task those commentators who see in Russian culture an instinctive antagonism to entrepreneurial activity. By looking at a variety of texts from the mid-19th century up until the 1990s, he reveals the critique of entrepreneurial work in the Russian North to be much more complex, informed by local traditions (invented and otherwise), by the long history of the relationship between the local community and the state, and by the disappointments many Russians have with the brand of gangster capitalism that seems to have taken root in their country. Like the authors of the previous chapters, Watt includes some very useful linguistic analyses as well. He also reinforces Kaneff’s discussion about the importance of local conceptions of ‘production’ when he argues that critiques of recent entrepreneurial activity are not critiques of entrepreneurialism per se, but complaints that recent entrepreneurs do not ‘produce’ or contribute to the real economy in any tangible way.

Frances Pine rounds out this section on ‘trading cultures’ with a fascinating look at the economic anthropology of cash in the Polish countryside during and after socialism. She argues that people’s interactions with, and attitudes about, different kinds of cash are much richer in meaning and strategy than a pure economic perspective would suggest. She describes, for example, how Polish zlotys earned working for the state were often valued less than Polish zlotys earned through entrepreneurial activity. Dollars, however, were more valued than any kind of zloty and enabled their holders to participate in a range of valued economic and social transactions. Building on the discussion of ‘production’ of previous chapters, Pine also reveals how monetary transactions were complicated by the relationship between household economies and external economies.

Opening the second section on ‘Consumption and Modernities’, Adam Drazin takes the ethnographic gaze to new and unexpected places in his look at spring cleanings, moth hunts and the ways ‘dirtiness and cleanliness relate to a sense of progress’ in Romania (101). He examines the tensions between households characterized by weekly family ‘clean-ups’ of dusty carpets and furniture and those more ‘modern’ households that embrace the recent proliferation of soaps and cleaners designed to reduce (and individualize) the labour involved in cleaning house. Emphasizing an historical perspective on the question of cleanliness in Romania, he suggests that, while the intrusion of the market after socialism plays a role in changing perceptions around cleanliness and progress, this is part of a longer-term historical development in Romania. He maintains that the ‘transition’ (a term problematized by many of the authors in this volume) was not the first time Romanian domestic life has confronted the problems of dirt, of community and of progress.

Continuing the theme of reactions to newly available Western products, Sigrid Rausing sets herself the question of why Estonians in the ‘transition’ from socialism to a market economy would often choose to consume Western goods at prices they could scarcely afford when locally produced (and often equivalent) products were available for a fraction of the cost. Using ethnographic and linguistic data, she argues that consuming extremely high priced Western goods was a way of performing a shift in Estonian identity, from its ‘abnormal’ relationship to the East and Russia to the current period of ‘normal’ relationship with the West. This kind of consumption was thus a way of rejecting its recent, ‘not-so-normal’ past with Russia. This took place despite a continuing ambivalence towards the individualism and ambition Estonians associated with many parts of the West.

Andre P. Czegledy examines the consumption of another kind of Western product, fast food, in post-socialist Hungary. He shows how fast food enterprises in Hungary have both reflected local perspectives on food and labour and common fears about the growing influence of the West. He also demonstrates how they have impacted on ‘cultural notions of the division of labour, including the articulation with traditional structures of trade expertise, gendered aptitude and professional entitlement (144).’ Czegledy’s analysis of a particular restaurant chain in Hungary looks at the cultural and political dimensions of postsocialist fast food from a variety of angles, including labour relations, menu design, marketing, interior decoration, food packaging and even tipping. Perhaps reflecting his ‘dual profile’ during fieldwork as researcher and consultant, his chapter is one of the more successful in terms of being able to speak to a wide range of audiences about the qualitative, sociological dimensions of an economic activity.

Louise Perrotta’s chapter is the first in a final set of chapters on ‘rural and institutional transformations’ and examines the consequences of postsocialist political and economic changes in rural Ukraine for the living standards of the rural population. Her piece is drawn from a number of international development research projects and combines quantitative data, case studies and interview material. She identifies the ‘uneven adoption of “market reforms”. . . [and the] persistence of monopolies and monopsonies and widespread corruption’ (188) as factors affecting the economic growth and improvement in living standards for rural Ukrainian populations. She also highlights some of the social, cultural and historical issues that make the development of small businesses in this area difficult.

Development discourse comes under attack in David Sneath’s chapter on the ‘age of the market’ in Mongolia where he tackles international development thinking as it has been applied to the Mongolian economy. He shows how the privatization of Mongolia’s economy has led to falling living standards and rising unemployment and crime. He adds, however, that a broader problem lies in the disjunction between a development discourse that sees the economic sphere as a separate realm of sociopolitical life and indigenous Mongolian perspectives that see economic activities as simply one part of a holistically-imagined social world. In particular, Sneath says development plans for economic growth conflict dramatically with local notions of property and ownership. This chapter is one of the best in terms of being able to combine ethnographic and linguistic data with historical surveys and macroeconomic theory, an approach which Sneath pulls off in a way that is accessible to a wide range of disciplinary audiences.

Rosamund Shreeves rounds out this volume with a contribution on gender and development in rural Kazakhstan. She investigates the gendered dimensions of work and entrepreneurship on privatized farms in order to show that conventional theories of market reforms and the gendered divisions of labour between public and private do not adequately capture the range of interests, strategies and activities on these farms. Her analysis problematizes in particular the idea that privatized farming enterprises (1) will be driven by individual entrepreneurs and (2) will be ‘market/profit-oriented’ ventures. In both cases, she argues, an anthropological perspective in necessary to see how women’s roles on these farms seriously challenge both of these assumptions. Shreeves asserts that women’s intense, but often under-recognized, involvement in many aspects of farming businesses calls into question free market (i.e. individualized, profit-seeking) models of privatized business in these rural communities.

Taken together, these chapters display a number of strengths. Firstly, most of them look beyond the moment of ‘transition’ (itself a term that is usefully problematized in the volume) and delve more deeply into the long, historical trajectories of social, political, economic and cultural change. ‘Postsocialism’ is not only about the transitioning point between socialism and whatever comes afterwards. The strongest chapters situate the long era of socialist power in terms of the even broader sweep of local history.

Secondly, the volume brings together a wide variety of topics and countries as well as analytic and methodological approaches. Despite the theoretical and methodological differences, however, the book is integrated enough to enable these different authors with their widely varying field material and approaches to speak to one another. Some, of course, are more successful at communicating across chapters (and to different readers) than others. Czegledy’s chapter on fast food in Hungary and Sneath’s chapter on Mongolian pastoralism both bring a good balance between ethnographic data, macroeconomic and geopolitical contexts, and historical dimensions to their respective problems. Drazin’s fascinating chapter on the cultural history of moth hunting and domestic cleanliness, however, is persuasive but poorly integrated into the theoretical concerns of the other chapters. Likewise, Perrotta’s piece on economic changes in rural Ukraine combines quantitative and qualitative data with great skill, but not in a fashion that allows her chapter to intersect usefully with the others.

One of the most interesting aspects of this volume is the way many of the contributors develop close linguistic analyses of relevant local words and phrases. Even to a reader not familiar with these languages, the linguistic analyses are a consistently useful and engaging way of outlining how local perceptions and histories colour the impact of marketization in these societies. Given the similarity of many of the words examined, it would have been even more useful to have developed more cross-referencing between chapters (an extremely helpful thing rarely done in edited volumes), especially given the fact that, in other ways, this volume constitutes an unusually well-integrated entity.

Similarly, another useful addition might have been the inclusion of a ‘response’ or ‘afterword’ section to bring the concerns and arguments of the chapters together. The thematic and linguistic resonances across the various chapters are unexpected, given the wide range of case studies reflected in the text. All the more reason to tie them together more substantially.

This volume should appeal to a wide range of readers beyond specialists in economic anthropology. I have already discussed the potential for this book to reach policymakers and those in economics and political science. With only a couple of exceptions, all of the pieces are clear, well-edited and tightly structured. Most individual chapters would be excellent for undergraduate reading assignments. The lessons of this volume, however, extend beyond the socio-cultural history of postsocialism — several of its chapters would be valuable for scholars of globalization more generally as well as for those trying to understand the link between economic and social analysis.

Christopher Colvin is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Virginia, USA.