Anthropology Postsocialism
by
Gareth Euan Hamilton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0178

Introduction

Trying to give a simple definition of postsocialism is not simple, which is not merely academic poise—in the texts that are suggested here it is a common theme. As David A. Kideckel notes in The Unmaking of an East-Central European Working Class (Kideckel 2002, cited under Ownership and Production), it “is an amorphous concept that defines societies by something they are not. Instead of what they are.” However, there are common themes, and considering the similarities will enable readers to gain a useful overview. Unifying all the texts in this bibliography is the general subject matter of focusing on societies in which “state socialism” or “communism” (where the ownership of the means of production was in the hands of the state on behalf of the people) was formerly practiced as the governing system of the states in which they are located. Rather than focusing on grand narratives, scholars in the anthropological tradition study how this affects people living in those societies and, conversely, how people shape their societies. As a common factor, during the postsocialist period—since such events as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the ending of the Soviet Union, which have entered common consciousness—there has been a general movement toward a market society. This is accompanied by other related changes involved in moving toward a capitalist system, such as new or reconstituted rights to property, or ways in which people operate within this new market economy. Whereas it might appear natural to some from outside the region that these changes would bring joy at new freedoms and opportunities, especially given media images of happy people at the time when these changes began, the picture uncovered by anthropologists is much more ambivalent at best, and hostile at worst. While change has been embraced, there has also been resistance, or nostalgia for certain aspects of the socialist/communist era and the certainties it exhibited, in comparison to the more biting economic and social inequalities that the postsocialist era could bring, alongside any political freedom and democracy. Society itself has changed, with the removal of the social control exercised by the authorities allowing “civil society” institutions to be (re)established. However, in a cautionary note, it will be seen how this has been partly due to efforts by Western-based entities that have desired to strengthen democracy but ignored already existing local structures. This goes alongside the imposition of neoliberal economic structures also seen as necessary to completely reform the economies concerned. Indeed, the imposition of ideas from outside and ignoring of local ideas will be seen to have been raised within postsocialist anthropology itself. In general, however, despite these apparent changes, there have been notable continuities between the two periods, with, for example, the informal economic practices of the former being continued into the new, which anthropologists have noted from the very outset of the period.

Overview of Resources

The breadth of reading available to scholars who wish to gain an overview of postsocialist anthropology is not small. This reflects the wide areas of interest of those writing about the topics within this wide subdiscipline. There are some particularly worthwhile books (especially edited volumes by multiple contributors) that are worth pursuing.

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