EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Middle-class subjectivities and livelihoods in post-socialist Europe
Location U7-13
Date and Start Time 21 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Elena Magdalena Craciun (National School of Political and Administrative Sciences) email
  • Anca Simionca (Babes-Bolyai University) email

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Discussant Dr. Jennifer Patico

Short Abstract

This panel explores ethnographically the (re)configuration of the middle classes in post-socialist Eastern Europe. We ask how these (relatively) new forms of livelihood and subjectivity can be better understood through the theoretical lenses of our discipline.

Long Abstract

The global middle classes have become a topic of growing interest in anthropology, a discipline that is more attentive than ever to the structural forms of socio-economic inequalities (Heiman, Freeman and Liechty 2012, Carrier and Kalb 2015). However, analyses of middle-class livelihoods and subjectivities in post-socialist Europe are still rare (Fehervary 2013). In addition, in this region, the middle classes remain largely under-analysed in the local public and academic debates that deploy the concept of class (Ost 2015). We suggest that the (re)configuration of middle classness in Eastern Europe requires further attention for several reasons: it takes place under neoliberalism, but in relation to pre-socialist and socialist ideas and realities; it benefits from the economic and political repositioning of Eastern Europe, but happens at a time when new potentially challenging relationships develop across classes and national spaces at the European and global levels.

This panel invites contributions about the middle classes in post-socialist Europe. The participants are encouraged to take into consideration the following questions:

• What does it mean to be middle class?

• How is middle classness imagined, performed and lived?

• How are local configurations of middle classness embedded in global and economic processes?

• How do 'old' (pre-socialist, socialist) and 'new' (post-socialist) middle classes relate to each other?

• How has the succession of political regimes and modes of production impacted on individual and inter-generational conceptualisation of middle classness?

• How do socialist and neoliberal conceptualisations of the middle class intersect in the local and regional imagining of middle classness?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Who is the middle class in Macedonia: between politics, nationalism and intellectualism, the generation gap?

Author: Ilka Thiessen (Vancouver Island University)  email

Short Abstract

My paper will argue that the understanding of middle-class in the Republic of Macedonia is defined by anything but income. While the older generation is contained by the past, the first post-socialist generation defines itself by its social-democratic values and its internationalism.

Long Abstract

I am going to argue that in Macedonia today the middle-class is a thin sliver between the really rich and the poor. I am going to ask how the middle-class in Skopje defines itself, and argue that today's middle-class and lower middle class define themselves in opposition to the supposedly corrupt and thieving upper-class. The middle and the lower middle-class, the people that were under socialism from the same class as today's oligarchs, define themselves as different to today's upper class mostly through their education. The middle-class is connected to international agents in the country, NGO's, journalists and foreign governments.They are computer savvy, speak English and other foreign languages fluently, go to cultural events and are intellectually superior to the Rich in the country. It is the generation that lived in both, in Yugoslavia and in the Republic of Macedonia. Their parents generation however have experiences a continuous regression. In the early nineties, at the height of the war in Yugoslavia, The Republic of Macedonia declared independence. During that time Serbia found a way to plunder the foreign currency accounts of Macedonian citizens, Greece boycotted the new Republic because of the name ‚Macedonia' which they felt was an appropriation of greek history, and Serbia was under boycott by the international community. During the same time companies were build to launder money, fancy foreign cars appeared in the streets. However, the middle-class does not envy the oligarchs but look down on them.

Personal development and the flexible contracts: depoliticized class struggles between the middle class and working class in Cluj, Romania

Author: Norbert Petrovici (Babes-Bolyai University)  email

Short Abstract

I aim to understand the relation between the employee and the firm by putting in doubt the classless imaginary of the employability discourse. I explore the way employability is producing class tensions between the middle and the working class in Cluj, a second tire city in Eastern Europe.

Long Abstract

Job creation was predicated in the Eastern European cities on service offshoring, consultancies and managing the sale of state assets and the creation of new economic institutions, local business-to-business chain making, and command and control function for the new production facilities set up in the region. However, the firm becomes increasingly unreliable in providing a stable position or even the prospects of advancement, but may offer the necessary support to enhance one's employability. Employability promises the freedom to choose between successive positions and transform them in learning experiences within a career field. A new wave of optimism came with the narrative of "portfolio worker" as the social structure of the city accommodates an expansion of the professional positions at the expense of the blue collars relocated in the suburbs and surrounding towns. In this paper I aim to better understand the relation between the employee and the firm by putting in doubt the classless imaginary of the employability discourse. Focusing on the employability narrative among the middle class and working class in Cluj, Romania, a second tire city in the urban hierarchy of Central Europe, I will question the very assumption that the whole issue of the employee-employer relation is a one-to-one relation between a person and the firm, without political consequences for the other employees. In this paper I explore the way employability works in producing new class tensions between the middle class and the working class, following the classification effects of the self-development, self-bettering and self-education narratives.

Uncertainty of the new middle classes in Russia in the context of changing policies and practices of consumption

Author: Volha Biziukova (University of Vienna )  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the changing consumption practices of the new middle classes in Russia as the medium through which they negotiate their political subjectivities and position themselves vis-à-vis the state under the condition of embargo on food imports and the economic crisis.

Long Abstract

The embargo on food imports (introduced in 2014) coupled with the mounting economic crisis has jeopardized the lifestyles of the new middle classes in Russia. The future of these groups - which were largely acknowledged through their westernized consumption practices -, seems now uncertain. Drawing on fieldwork data collected during the period 2015-2016, in Moscow and Smolensk, this paper explores changing consumption practices of the new middle classes and the interplay between their political subjectivities, citizenhood and strategies of positioning within socio-economic hierarchies as well as vis-à-vis the Russian state.

The ethnographic material questions the widespread assumptions about the middle classes in Russia as vanguards of social change and as consumerists preoccupied with the satisfaction of their needs and desires; in short, it allows us to rethink the concept of new middle classes rather than taking it for granted or reifying it. Although "middle classness" remains ostensibly silent as a basis of self-identification in daily practices, I argue that new middle class positions remain influential in shaping people's subjectivities, the ways they interpret, represent and act in the world they live in. These positions are entangled with relations and practices of work and consumption at the specific conjunction of state and capital within post-socialist dynamics.

Suburbanisation and middle-class formation in the post-socialist city

Author: Gabriel Troc (Babes-Bolyai University)  email

Short Abstract

The paper investigates the post-socialist class divide through the urban changes in the second-largest Romanian city, Cluj-Napoca. Two newly-built neighbourhoods are seen as loci where the ideologically fostered "middle class" ideal is taking a material shape.

Long Abstract

Seen as landmarks of social change in post-socialism (NedoviĆ BudiĆ: 2006), the newly-built neighbourhoods speak mostly about the class separation process, specific for a capitalist society under formation, with all the associated processes: residential segregation, land appropriation, symbolic and material bordering etc. Unlike the emergence of the american suburbia, made possible by governmental investments and technological innovation (Baldassare:1992), the raising of the post-socialist neighbourhood is bounded both by previous socialist infrastructures (Szelnyi, 1996) and by the recent Eastern European extreme neoliberal deregulations. What has resulted is a very particular formation which links together low-quality habitation spaces with highly (symbolically and materially) invested habitation units. Their inhabitants had projected here their aspiration for a "normal and decent life", as they imagined it during socialism (Fehérváry:2002), but also new ideals, new tastes, and new manifestations of the self, which emerged in the time of the "transition". Based on ethnographic investigations in two neighbourhoods from Cluj-Napoca, the paper analyses the process of becoming an inhabitant of these new spaces (with all its phases: planning, buying or building, decorating, inhabiting) and the matching process of the emergence of a subjective and objective status/class situation which can be deemed as specific and distinctive for post-socialist social stratification.

Coaching middle-class subjectivities

Author: Michal Mokrzan (Uniwersytet Wrocławski)  email

Short Abstract

The main purpose of this paper is to define the middle-class by means of technology of the self. Based on the ethnographic research within coaching community in Poland I show that the middle-class is performed and lived through the coaching process, which can help to reach the emotional capital.

Long Abstract

In their self-help book Middle-Class Lifeboat, Paul and Sarah Edwards offer answers to the following question: "how we can ride through the waves of change and continue to enjoy the promise, security, and gratification a middle-class lifestyle"? The authors argue that, in the face of the "economic sea change", one of the ways to achieve this aim is to participate in life and career coaching. Coaching is defined as a process oriented on upgrading skills, overcoming limitations and changing professional or personal life of either individuals or occupational groups. From the analytical perspective, coaching can be seen as a materialization of neoliberal governmentality aiming to produce accountable and effective middle-class subjectivities. In my paper, which is based on ethnographic research on the coaching community in Poland, I present how the middle-class is performed and lived through the coaching process. I argue that the definitions of the middle-class based on its relationship with the economic, cultural and social capital are not sufficient. To this list I add another type of capital: emotional. Coaching helps to reach that emotional capital. The identity of the middle-class members' is not only created by accumulating material goods and by acquiring ideas and objects of cultural value, but also by applying practices which serve to achieve personal development, emotional intelligence, and inner wisdom. These practices are the neoliberal technologies of the self. To sum up, in my paper I define the middle-class by the concepts of technology of the self and emotional capital.

Objects of compassion: preliminary findings on morality and middleclassness in Bucharest

Author: Stefan Lipan (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will present the preliminary findings of an ongoing research on the construction of middleclassness in Bucharest. It focuses on the moral values embedded in the meanings and usages of objects given to charity in acts of compassion by persons who aspire/identify themselves as middle-class

Long Abstract

This paper discusses the preliminary findings of an ongoing research on middleclassness and morality in Romania's capital, Bucharest. More specifically, it explores the meanings and usages of objects that are given to charity in acts of compassion by persons who aspire to be/identify themselves as middle-class. The latter has been approached anthropologically from different angles, commodity consumption featuring as the main marker of middle-class identity in much of the literature. Having this in mind, this paper considers middle class as a cultural practice, a process in the making, and takes into account the role of culture in social life while also inscribing the practice in the context of unequal distribution of power and resources between classes. Furthermore, the Romanian scene is one in which class talk, as in many post-socialist contexts, has been approached with a general reluctance and, when used, class has been more of a gradational concept rather than a relational one. The paper's argument is grounded in a material culture perspective, according to which objects are important and express values in a manner which is not possible in areas of explicit formulations. It is precisely their 'humility', their capacity of fading out of focus and, yet, silently determining expectations and behaviours, quietly pointing out the normative, that accounts for their importance. Thus, focusing on 'objects of compassion', on seemingly unimportant (given) objects, e.g. a pair of socks or coloured crayons, has enabled an unexpected access to the moral values of middle classed persons.

Marathon running, "bodies for others" and social class in Estonia

Author: Toomas Gross (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on 50 narrative interviews with recreational runners in Estonia and the content analysis of dozens of runners’ blogs, I suggest that long-distance running as a bodily experience fits with various class-specific ideals of self-discipline, motivation, success, and perseverance.

Long Abstract

Like many other countries, Estonia is currently experiencing a fitness boom and the growing popularity of recreational long-distance running is one of its most notable aspects. Since the turn of the millennium, the number of Estonians running at least one marathon a year has grown nearly twentyfold. This paper seeks to understand the corollaries of this process and links of the marathon boom to broader socio-economic and value changes in the country, as well as to novel ideals of health, wealth, and success. Drawing on fifty narrative interviews with recreational runners and the content analysis of dozens of runners' blogs, I will pay particular attention to "runner's bodies." Bourdieu's notion of "bodies for others" is helpful for making sense of the runners' perception of their bodies in the changing social and economic environment. As I will suggest, long-distance running as a bodily experience is related to middle-class identity. According to Bourdieu, a sport is more likely to be adopted by a social class if it does not contradict that class's relation to the body at its deepest and most unconscious level. Recreational marathoners subject their bodies to regular physical strain, which corresponds to various class-specific ideals of self-discipline, motivation, success, and perseverance. Constant self-monitoring and measurement by means of modern technology are also increasingly common. Such technologically enhanced and informed "optimisation of the self" constitutes a new form of biopolitics that fits with the neoliberal values of efficiency and productivity.

Children's extracurricular activities and constructions of middle-class in Bucharest

Author: Dumitru-Alin Savu (National School of Political and Administrative Sciences)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation will illustrate how the middle-class is imagined by Bucharest families using extracurricular activities as strategies of class reproduction and upward social mobility. The second part will explore the experience of middle-class children engaged in such activities.

Long Abstract

Drawing on the work of Vincent and Ball (2006), the first part of this paper presents the case of families from Bucharest enrolling their children into extracurricular activities (such as various sports, arts and crafts, foreign languages, etc.), as part of their strategies of class reproduction or upward social mobility. I discuss how the Bucharest middle-class is imagined through the choices related to extracurricular activities and the role parents think they play for (the future of) their children. While studies have long concentrated on the role of schools, families and education in class reproduction (Bourdieu, 1986), what is less explored is the experience of the main subjects of these processes. Therefore, the second part of the presentation deals with how the Bucharest middle-class is lived through the experience of children engaged in this kind of educational/recreational activities. What does it mean to be the subject of middle-class aspirations as a child? What do these children's routines and daily lives look like? Is the class ideal poignant in them? Using snippets from the daily lives of ten children from Bucharest I will answer these questions, addressing issues such as consumption, time management, children's relational spaces and notions of class and childhood.

The data used was collected throughout a nine-month fieldwork, using participant observation in institutions providing extracurricular activities, semi-structured and in-depth interviews with parents, children, teachers, child psychologists and therapists. Moreover I used operationalized drawings and family journals for recording routines and practices of the middle-class family from a child's perspective.

"Aren't we European or what?": exploring middle-class subjectivities among Bulgarian migrants on their way to the west

Author: Polina Manolova (University of Birmingham)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the subjectivities of Bulgarian self-proclaimed middle-class migrants in the UK as structured around hegemonic narratives of Western cultural superiority. The migration process reinforces symbolic class divisions and conceals their structural economic basis.

Long Abstract

The postosocialist transitional mythological narrative of 'catching up' with Europe, centered around a western modernizing discourse, served to justify the implementation of market reforms with devastating social effects (Lavergne, 2010). One of the main aspects of successful social transformation was said to be the adoption of a new mode of personhood in which the collective, socialist mentality of the backwards masses had to be replaced by an 'entrepreneurial', western-oriented individualism (Dunn, 2004). This paper explores how the adaptation of this hegemonic discourse informs the emergence and reproduction of middle-class self-identification among Bulgarian migrants to the UK. The analysis of informants' narratives will demonstrate how the main marker of their middle-class distinction revolves around a perceived degree of 'Westernness', expressed in their western lifestyle, mentality and defense of liberal democracy and capitalism. The 'Bulgarian Westerners', as I refer to them, constructed themselves as an exclusive group that represented the cultural and moral elite of the nation and in opposition to the majority of 'typical Bulgarians' and their Balkan mentality. This self-proclaimed liberal elite understood their migrations to the UK as a journey 'back home' where their transformed subjecthoods would receive deserved recognition and bring the desired upward social mobility. However once in the UK 'Bulgarian Westerners' were often subjected to similar degrees of institutional discrimination and public stigmatization as the 'typical Bulgarians', a subordination they often compensate by further stressing their own cultural superiority. Class identities, in the process of migration, are thus reinforced and reproduced as merely cultural and normative - not socio-economic - distinctions.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.