Challenges of studying East Europe as a region - Assignment Example

The collapse of the communism in East European countries has created an environment of aspirations, opportunities and threats. The last ten years of 20th century have been the witness of radical changes in European architecture which conducted to a huge process of political, social and cultural transformation.

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Limited regional European studies existed prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, mostly after 1970 when Europe started perhaps to gain interest in spite of other regions of the world. Katherine Verdery (1996) mentions that “few anthropologists had worked in Europe, being our own society it had low prestige. Many books dealt with Oceania, Africa or native America – with primitives”. Thinking specifically of East Europe, the same author mentions that almost no fieldwork therefore anthropological research has been done due to the lack of access in the region.

The fall of the totalitarian communist regimes and gain of unrestricted access of researchers in the region created an abundance of information unthinkable before ’90s. This abundance was characterized by Fleron and Hoffmann (1993) overwhelming.

During the last almost fifteen years not only that the subject hasn’t been exhausted but the process of transformation of the region is providing new challenges for researchers. Katherine Verdery (1996) mentions that there are at least three categories of opportunities which would drive further interests in the region: to fully understand what the socialism was, to better understand what is happening in the region, to broaden a critique of Western economic and political forms through the eyes of those experiencing their construction. As Bernard (2002) suggests, an anthropology research is never perfect and by deepening the research new horizons are brought into view. I tend to agree with this approach mostly because the radical changes in the region determine not only a fast evolution of the region but also the evolution of the East Europe concept.

An overwhelming resource of information

The process of gaining access to information began during Perestroika years, mostly after 1988. Even if few researchers were given limited access at the beginning, Davies (1997) mentions that “from 1988 onwards bastion after bastion began to fall”. He refers to TSGANKh, – the economic archives, NKVD files about Gulag, archives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Internal affairs and even KGB archives. The same process of free access to the archives took place in the other former communist countries.

Referring to quantitative methods of research, unfortunately the access to statistical data provided to researchers mostly biased information, distorted economic indicators and inaccurate indices. On the other hand this situation represented an interesting challenge for researchers to segregate reliable and biased data.

Related to qualitative methods, East European societies represent a rich research field for ethnography. Once the constraints of censorship and totalitarian systems removed, the ethnographic researcher has an almost unexplored ground at his horizon. As Ann Gray (2003) suggests the most fruitful ethnographic method is field research. The essential idea is that the researcher goes “into the field” to observe the phenomenon in its natural state. Ethnographers immerse themselves in the lives of the people they study (Lewis, 1985). This was a pretty new challenge for Western researchers who knew only partials about “Eastern life”.

Since the ethnographic study of this part of the world has been neglected before ’90s, the change of the regimes in the region has been just the trigger to access this fieldwork. Primary data are, of course, much more reliable and preferred by researchers. The methodologies applied for data analysis could be either within interpretivism tradition or more of an empiricism. Furthermore, the freedom of speech which sprang after the fall of communism created a new field for scholars in hermeneutics.

Evolution of the region – a new challenge for research

The East European countries found themselves in early ’90s in a dilemma: they couldn’t continue maintaining economies starved by shortages of goods and services, centrally planned, with focus on military industry while the West incorporated already high technology industries in a very competitive markets. A single method for development of the market economy couldn’t be imposed like an universal remedy.

As mentioned by Batt (2003) Hungary, Poland and former Yugoslavia have had technocrats understanding market economy already while Romania inherited impoverishment and inexperience. That timeframe was the point when many debates have been raised upon de methods which should be applied to implement the market economy: radical reforms as Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic have launched during 1990-1991 followed by Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in 1992-1993 or more of a gradual approach like Romania, Bulgaria and the Former Soviet Union republics have chosen?

The economic reform and different characteristics which were pursued have risen and are still rising specific interests for economists who apply quantitative methods in order to solve the transition paradigm to market economies. As Aslund ( 2001) mentions “economists had to create their own data sets, rendering empirical work arduous, but that was also true of privatization, which aroused innumerable enterprise surveys”. Therefore not only that the fall of communist regimes didn’t extinguish the “flame” of economic research in the region but it even fueled it by adding new variables to the transition equation: liberalization, privatization, freedom of trade, financial stabilization.

Simultaneously with the entrance of new economic variables, the East European states were rapidly confronted with political issues such as formation of parties, campaign financing, reforms of legislative and judicial systems, government reforms and organization of free elections. In the same time if not earlier the new bureaucrats and elites formed. The Western model of abundance and individual rent seeking came easily on the “scene” and due to scarce benefits there was only one easy way to achieve it. The old habit of bribery from communist era when everyone tried by all means to get a “piece of meat” became a regional disease named corruption. The East European fieldwork became more complex, additional study has been required in order to eradicate corruption, reduce crime, organize free elections.

What ideal is driving these societies towards transformation? The answer is quite simple: democracy. Does the democracy exist in pure form? This answer might be more difficult. Carothers (2002) defines a so called “Gray Zone” of countries where basic principles of democracy have been achieved in different proportions. Perhaps one can define “shades of gray” depending on level of consolidation: lighter, therefore more close to the consolidated democracy as Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Estonia and Slovenia (Carothers, 2002) and darker, reflecting somewhat less progress for Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria. The same author argues that “the process of democratizations can go backwards, stagnate or move forward along the path”. Few of the scholars are making interesting parallels between Latin-America, Africa and East Europe processes of democratization which proves once more the increased researchers “appetite” to conceptualize the re-design of the region.

Once the paramilitary secret police which was a characteristic of totalitarian regimes in East Europe weakened the control over the population, a whole range of ethic and religious tensions sprang with different intensities. In the same time, the new formed politic elites either agreed to re-design a society where different ethnic communities are accepted or decided to eliminate multiculturalism. As Smith (1999) suggests the most extreme variant of the later involved systemic genocide which has characterized the break-up of Former Yugoslavia or “softer versions of ethnic cleansing” such as forced migration (e.g. Armenian settlers from Nagorno-Karabakh had to flee their homeland for Armenia). As Batt (2003) mentions “diversity is the hallmark of Central and Eastern Europe” therefore its ethno-religious mosaic became the fieldwork for many ethnographers and anthropologists after the fall of communism.

The process of economic liberalization and freedom of trade created a new kind of “consumer”, well-oriented towards Western products that became suddenly available. The already achieved taste of consumerism triggered another process: the transformation of collectivistic cultural identity to a more individualistic one. In order to consume, one needs the means to buy. Therefore the individuals have to get better wages. The change of educational identity is just a step.

Diplomas don’t provide an entry to higher status groups as in collectivistic cultures but they increase economic wealth and self respect. (Hofstede, 1997). The aim for economic well-being determines the establishment of small businesses where owners and employees are working side by side. The old large power distance cultural dimension from socialist companies is easily forgotten for a new approach where one may call his superior with the first name. Yet this continuous run after economic wealth creates a more harsh competition between employees. The labor market becomes very active, the strong uncertainty avoidance tends to get weaker, as defined by Holfstede (1997).

Not only scholars became interested in this process of cultural identities change but also companies which have to determine consumers’ preferences through applied qualitative methods and market analysis in order to increase their market share in the region.

Regional integration and globalization represent other challenges for studies of the East European region. The EU enlargement understood as accession of the East Europe countries to the EU, process started in 1998, is still raising questions. Are the dominant political actors trying to create the ideal of an “European citizen” or a supra-national political entity? Do they want to abolish the notions of East and West Europe or they want to preserve the inferiority-superiority distinction between the two? Do they accept to preserve the national and cultural identities or they will persuade the “cultural assimilation”. On the other hand, is the accession of some East Europe countries to NATO structures going to influence the balance of military forces in Europe? I guess political analysts and scholars have another domain of fruitful research which they couldn’t even think about before the end of the Cold War.

Evolution of the East Europe concept

Even if the East Europe concept has been modified throughout the last fifteen years to reflect the different pace of economic, politic, social and cultural transformation for different countries, the region remains a center of interest when one thinks of transitions towards consolidated democracies.

The origin of the concept has probably its roots in 16th century and strong arguments sustain the existence of an economical, social and political frontier between West and East. The time period between 16th and 19th centuries was a turning point in Europe’s economical evolution and this was mentioned also by Berend (1986). A decline took place in the development of Eastern Europe for which many find the explanation in Turkish conquest of Kingdom of Hungary. Even the neighbor states like Valachia and Moldavia (parts of actual Romania) which fought for autonomy had to pay tribute in products (mostly grains) or gold. While Industrial Revolution was pursued in England and Social and Political Revolution in France, the Balkans fell economically behind (e.g. Romania continued to have an agrarian economy during the first four decades of 20th century).

Political argument is also convincing: after communist insurgency failed in Greece and created the Eastern Western state, World War II and Yalta Treaty provided to the region, according to Berend (1986), ” a gloss for Russophile”. Beside the political influence of former Soviet Union over the satellites, the socialist economic model prevailed in a desperately hope to overcome the gap with the west capitalist countries.

The fall of the communist regimes in early 90s has just re-emphasized the differences between East and West. East Europe concept became applied as itself and/or more like sub-regions: Central Europe when we speak about Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, South East Europe represented by Romania and Bulgaria, Baltics when we speak about Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and Commonwealth Independent States when we refer to the republics of the Former Soviet Union.

I believe that the collapse of the communism did not undermine at all the rationale of study East Europe as a region, furthermore the transformation of the region together with the evolution of East Europe concept provided additional thrust to the study.