Unemployment and Social Support in East Germany and Northern China

Who helps you in times of need? It is the aim of my research to understand the relationship between unemployment and social support. My study investigates and compares emerging social support mechanisms in contemporary Northern China with the patterns currently unfolding in East Germany. It focuses on unemployed persons and their social support networks. Central to the research is an investigation of the influence of state welfare policy on patterns of social support. I shall attempt to examine the role played therein by notions, narratives, and experiences of socialism on the one hand and of a market economy on the other. How are unemployed persons supported and which support do they provide for others? Which meanings do people attach to their social support networks? And what do they expect from the state?
Unemployment is a perennial subject debated worldwide. It is perceived as a crucial matter and unemployment rates serve as an indicator for the social conditions in any given populated place, be it cities, regions, and countries. Generally, regions with low unemployment rates are judged to have better social conditions than regions with high rates. But this viewpoint is misleading since perceptions and experiences of unemployment are not homogenous. Rather, unemployment is a phenomenon that must be considered within the respective political, social, cultural, and economic structures. This is, for example, reflected in the way unemployment was first (re-)introduced in the research areas: The Communist Party of China (CP) had followed the implementation of a policy of full (urban) employment until the 15th Party Congress in 1997. It then started introducing various administrative categories which blurred formal employment/unemployment definitions in order to ideologically cushion a fundamental turnabout: By the year 2004 the administrative category of formal unemployment was fully introduced in all provinces of China. Things developed very differently in the former GDR (East Germany), which – like China – had pursued the implementation of a policy of full employment until the ‘Wende’. After the German reunification in August 1990 the social legislation of the FRG (West Germany) was applied to the region of the former GDR. Formal unemployment was thus immediately implemented in the whole of East Germany. Since unemployment and its categorizations serve different purposes everywhere, the situations of persons included in these categories vary greatly.  Because of this, the unemployed cannot and do not form a homogenous group. In respect to the state and society they are to be found in, they embody a socially, politically, and economically constructed group. This study traces the construction processes of the unemployed as political and social categories in the regions of the sites examined in this study.
In both cities that I investigate the state social security provides for the unemployed in various degrees. However, my research shows so far that in neither site the unemployed can cover all their basic needs with the social security provided by the state. By which means then are these needs finally met? Who do the unemployed turn to? This study investigates which forms, patterns, and mechanisms social support has. My research indicates for both sites the growing importance of support networks as well as an increase in alternative spheres of subsistence. I tend to interpret this as a consequence of social policy reforms in both countries. The domains where these changes manifest themselves are focal points of my project.
Unemployment is perceived as one of the most stressful events in the course of a lifetime, especially since long-term unemployment is often associated with the isolation and exclusion of people from society. But is it really true that unemployment leads to isolation? Earlier research has shown that, depending upon the model of the welfare state and on the unemployment regulation provided, the likelihood of disadvantages and experiences of isolation tend to accumulate. In this context I study the relationship between exclusion, social support, and the state. In which way do experiences of exclusion impede social support in case of unemployment? Or do they actually even foster support networks? Who is included in the social support network and who is excluded? With my research I aim at unraveling emic and etic notions that serve to qualify people as belonging to society on the one hand and to explain divisions within society on the other.
The experience with socialism gives rise to specific questions and problems. In socialism the question of unemployment is for the most part not a social one (with reference to the full employment policy it would rather be an economic one). This study scrutinizes the references made to socialist ideologies in regard to social support. Which effects do experiences of a socialist society have on support patterns in case of unemployment? In which ways are changing social support mechanisms interpreted within the framework of notions of socialism? My research aims at untangling the narratives underpinning change.
Furthermore, I investigate the handling of unemployment at the official and at ‘low level’ and the reactions thereto in both countries. Since everywhere a particular significance is attached to unemployment, there is no simple relation between unemployment and given social conditions. Therefore, the aim of my project is to show the specific meanings attached to unemployment in the investigated sites. The resulting social conditions are examined in detail.
Fieldwork for my research is based on participant observation (interviews: in-depth, structured, multigenerational, focus groups; surveys) in Halle, Germany (July 2007 to May 2008) and in Harbin, China (Summer 2004 and 2008).

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