Negotiating worker identity under post-socialism: an ethnographic approach (2010 - 11)

Funding: £7,000 (British Academy)

Researcher: Jeremy Morris

The project will theorise, and provide a basis for comparative evaluation of, the impact of neoliberalism on the working class outside the normal focus of such research (Europe and N America).

Studies of economic transformation and ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ (Brenner and Theodore 2002) mainly focus on policies and macro processes, rather than lived experience. In contrast, this project uses ethnographic methods to study a particular community of ‘losers’ under market reform: low-income workers in a small Russian town.

Micro-level studies have an important role in testing the view of post-socialist societies as passive recipients, or otherwise, of market reforms. This methodology has not yet been used to examine the meaning of 'class' in today's Russia.

This research addresses two key debates in social research and area studies. It

  • evaluates the transformative power of neoliberalism on the public and private identities of workers (Krinsky 2007)
  • helps theorise this experience within the context of post-socialism and globalisation (Stenning and Horschelman 2008).

Project aims and objectives

The project seeks to examine the following key questions on post-socialist working-class identity formation under neoliberalism. The three areas of enquiry can be summarised as problematizing firstly, workers’ narratives of identity, secondly, the categories of work and worker themselves, and finally, worker and employer dynamics under post-socialism:

Where has the normative worker, formerly working in large-scale industry and ‘freely’ selling his labour, gone (Krinsky)? If the concept of the normative worker has been misapplied to the Soviet context (Burowoy 2007) then the emergence or non-emergence of this category under post-socialism is crucial to understanding spaces of resistance to neoliberal operations, as well as regimes of hegemony and coercion among the economically marginalised. Does the emergence, and ubiquity of, informal economies render difficult the concept of ‘worker’? Or on the contrary does the informal economy reinforce identities of workers and contribute to social network formation?

  • How do worker subjectivities connect to class identities outside the sphere of work (Sherman 2007)? What is the salience of the intersection of different identities (Katznelson 1981)? Does the interference of other identities and loyalties prevent politicisation? Is class identity as depoliticised as in other spaces (the US, for example) where neoliberal ideas are operational?
  • How are the above formations affected by larger-scale structural changes within the framework of the marketisation of social relations after the adoption of neoliberal policies? In the post-socialist context in Russia does a discourse of neoliberalism disguise a continuity of paternalistic enterprise-worker relations from the socialist era? In other words, does discourse match practice at the shop-floor level?