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Arts & Humanities Research Council
British Academy

New Dimensions of Social Inequality

This Postdoctoral Research Project was carried out by Dr. Charles Walker, now Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Southampton, from April 2007 to April 2009.

Why social inequality?
Patterns of inequality in the post-Socialist context

Furthering the agenda – research and events

Social Inequality Events

Why social inequality?

Social inequality refers to the ways in which socially-defined categories of persons (according to characteristics such as gender, age, ‘class’ and ethnicity) are differentially positioned with regard to access to a variety of social ‘goods’, such as the labour market and other sources of income, the education and healthcare systems, and forms of political representation and participation. These and other forms of social inequality are shaped by a range of structural factors, such as geographical location or citizenship status, and are often underpinned by cultural discourses and identities defining, for example, whether the poor are ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’. Understanding the changing patterns, causes and consequences of social inequality in the post-Socialist countries of Eastern Europe, both within and outside of the borders of the European Union, is central to the CEELBAS agenda. This is because comparative evidence from Western Europe and elsewhere in the world suggests a strong link between social inequality and a variety of socio-economic and political ‘ills’. In the sphere of health, for example, high death rates and stress-related illnesses all appear to be closely correlated with high levels of income inequality, as does violent crime. With regard to democratic development, deepening inequalities within and between different groups in society are associated with low levels of social cohesion and participatory citizenship. In addition, social inequality can impede democratic consolidation by stimulating social conflict and political instability, and in turn may act as a support for the establishment of authoritarian regimes. For these reasons, if we are to understand the nature of the societies which are emerging in Eastern Europe, as well as the directions in which they are moving, it is essential that we understand the changing patterns of inequality experienced within those societies.

Patterns of inequality in the post-Socialist context

As Eastern European countries have shifted from state-controlled to market-based economies, so the nature of social inequalities in the post-Socialist region has undergone a variety of significant changes, each of which raises new questions and concerns for Russian and East European studies. Levels of income inequality, for example, although relatively stable in the western-most countries of the region, have risen dramatically in some of those countries emerging from the former Soviet Union, a number of which are now characterised by extremes of poverty and wealth. In turn, this divergence in levels of inequality indicates that channels of social mobility, and the degree to which these are open to different social groups, are developing in different ways across the region. One such difference may stem from the predominance of informal relations in key aspects of socio-economic life – in the labour market or in the business and political arenas, for example – which has emerged in some post-Socialist states. At the same time, it is unclear to what extent the failure of social institutions and the use of personal ties that accompanies this serves, on the one hand, to re-embed traditional forms of social division, or on the other hand, to cross-cut them. Indeed, the level of social and institutional change which has taken place in Central and Eastern Europe makes it a fascinating case study in attempting to understand broader issues relating to social mobility, namely, the degree to which such mobility is limited by social ‘structures’, and conversely, the extent to which those structures are malleable in the face of human agency. It would certainly appear that, within all of the countries in the region, increased freedoms of economic activity and movement have led to the emergence of significant new classes of people – entrepreneurs and economic migrants, for example – which are altering the social structure of those countries.

While the post-Socialist period may have given rise to new forms of mobility, it is equally likely that old and familiar forms of social division – stemming from gender, social class, residence in rural areas, or disability, for example – continue to be highly salient, but are simply produced and re-produced in different ways. Access to education and the labour market, for instance, was always highly stratified in Socialist societies (despite their professed egalitarianism), such that forms of stratification within these spheres may simply have transferred from state-distributive to market principles. In turn, this may have impacted upon the ways in which social inequalities are experienced. As the market makes access to a variety of services and forms of consumption dependent on individual means, an inability to access those services may become increasingly ‘individualised’, and thus experienced as a matter of individual rather than social responsibility. In connection with this, the establishment of variously successful forms of democracy in Eastern Europe raises questions about the ways in which social inequalities are expressed in the political realm – that is, about the ways in which citizens understand and are able to act upon social inequalities, and how this is manifested in new forms of political representation and division.

Furthering the Agenda: Research

Given the multi-faceted nature of the problem, Russian and East European Studies has so far drawn upon a variety of methodological and disciplinary approaches in order to understand the changing dimensions of social inequality in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, the country and region-specific expertise of area studies has allowed its research always to be overlaid with and contextualised by knowledge of the cultural and historical specificities defining the position of different groups within Eastern European societies. The nature and effects of social disadvantages associated with gender, class, ethnicity, disability, age, locality, and citizenship continue to be central to the Russian and East European Studies research agenda.

Many of the questions and issues outlined above are currently being explored by the EUREQUAL project, a major study of social inequality in 12 countries across Eastern Europe based at the University of Oxford. EUREQUAL approaches the issue of social inequality as a multi-level problem, using quantitative and qualitative data collected over the past decade to address social inequality at the individual, party, and country levels simultaneously. In this way, the project is able to explore: the changing character of social inequality across Eastern Europe over the course of the post-Socialist period; the impact of social inequality on social mobility and other life chances; the meaning of social inequality both to citizens and to political parties; the impact of differing national institutions and state capacities on levels of and attitudes towards social inequality; and the impact of social inequality on the economic and democratic development of post-Socialist states. To learn more about the project, please see the EUREQUAL website

In order to complement and seek synergies with the research conducted by the EUREQUAL project, CEELBAS has appointed Dr. Charles Walker as Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Social Inequality in Eastern Europe. He is responsible for research, seminars and other academic activities within this strand of the CEELBAS programme. Charles has a background both in History and in the Social Sciences, with degrees from the University of Lancaster and the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham (for further details and a biography, please see Profile)

Charles’ main research interest is in the sociology of youth and the nature of youth transitions to adulthood, within which social inequality is a central theme. It is through the experiences of young people in education, work, housing and family that we are able to see the emergence, intersection and embedding of social divisions rooted in characteristics such as class, gender and ethnicity, as well the impact of structural factors such as locality. Within this area, Charles’ research focuses on young people studying in vocational education systems, which are a particularly important site in terms of the reproduction of social inequalities. Not only do students of vocational education tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but also, by tracking young people into particular forms of employment at a young age, this type of education has always been seen as doing more to embed than to address existing divisions of labour. Furthermore, young people studying in vocational education systems are particularly disadvantaged in modern labour markets, as traditional routes into manual labour have become less and less available to young people who leave school with few academic qualifications. This is especially so in many Eastern European countries, whose industrial and agricultural sectors experienced a severe recession after the collapse of the Socialist system, but whose newer sectors have yet to fill the gap in terms of employment opportunities.

Charles’ doctoral research explored the changing prospects of young people graduating from vocational colleges in the Ul’ianovsk region of Russia, while his post-doctoral research is being conducted in the Russian and Lithuanian cities of St. Petersburg and Vilnius. The research explores the impact of social inequalities rooted in class, ethnicity, locality and gender on the experiences of young people in the two cities, thus drawing comparisons between the emerging education systems and labour markets of post-Socialist states situated within and outside of the eastern borders of the European Union. For more information about this project, including the dissemination of its findings, please see Project Outline

Furthering the Agenda: Events

Alongside his research activities, Charles is convener of a series of seminars and workshops which bring together academics, students, NGOs and policy-makers with shared interests in the various aspects of social inequality. As well as encouraging dialogue between different user groups, these events are multidisciplinary in character, thus establishing and developing convergences between the different disciplinary and methodological approaches of the wider CEELBAS community.