Property and Social Change in Rural Russia
(A project under Department II - Postsocialist Eurasia)
My work in rural Russia is concerned both with the economic effects of decollectivisation and with the moral and symbolic consequences of new property regimes for community life. I sought to integrate the economists' rational choice perspective with two major themes of anthropological theory. The theory of envy - deriving in large part from Foster's classic article on the 'limited good' and related also to Banfield's controversial concept of 'amoral familism' - deals with the way people conceptualise, and attempt to overcome, a form of negative social pressure that threatens both individual success and collective action. Envy, sometimes presented as the residue of socialist indoctrination, is in fact perceived as a major social problem in rural societies throughout the world. The second major theme is the theory of kinship and its links to both the symbolic construction of community and the practical organisation of production and reproduction. The Hajnal line separating low and high intensity demographic regimes also divides individualistic from collectivistic property regimes and descriptive kinship terminologies from partly classificatory terminologies. By focusing on contemporary attitudes to both envy and kinship, The aim was to make a theoretically and empirically grounded contribution to the debate concerning the existence and nature of Russian 'collectivism'.
I carried out fieldwork in 2000 and 2002 in three contrasting districts of 'peasant Russia'. Collective farms seem to be in sharp decline everywhere, and very small-scale private production is growing; but, as elsewhere in post-socialist Europe, people are reluctant to claim their full rights to private land and to engage in significant economic cooperation. Kinship ties are prominent in practical terms - in day-to-day helping, coping with sickness, and access to housing - and are also clearly a key element in people's sense of what a community is. A particular interest was in how far the conceptual inclusiveness of the kinship terminology is reflected in practical cooperation, and how the relationships involved may be changing.
I am continuing to work on these themes in the context of the Russian section of the KASS project.