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Ukraine’s ambivalent future

By Blog Admin, on 4 November 2014

Events in Ukraine have polarised opinion, but the country’s present and future are best understood as  permeated by ambivalence, argues Alena Ledeneva.

The situation in Ukraine might grasped best by a specialist on geopolitics, a scholar of the (il)legitimacy of power, an ethnographer of insurgencies, an analyst of media propaganda wars, a trauma therapist, or by a psychologist of phobias and love-hate relationships. I have none of these specialisms, but I share their intellectual challenge: the theme of ambivalence.

As ‘East’ and ‘West’ embark on another cycle of ideological confrontation and political standoff, there is little room left for marginal positions or ambivalent attitudes. As the outside world lashes out at Putin over the Crimea and East Ukraine, Russians turn wartime patriotic. Yet paradoxically, exactly because it is impossible to achieve a consensus – and because the black-and-white positions over the Crimea and east Ukraine split families, friendships, and international clubs – it is the understanding of grey areas and backgrounds that may help define the way forward for Ukraine.

One legacy shared by most survivors of oppressive political regimes is what George Orwell called ‘‘doublethink’’ – which Yury Levada and Alexander Zinoviev branded as being the key feature of Homo sovieticus. Under late socialism, when present-day elites in Russia and Ukraine were growing up, it was irrelevant whether people believed official ideological messages or not. Instead, the relation to officialdom became based on intricate strategies of simulated support and on ‘nonofficial’ practices.

Individual doublethink developed into collective double standards that implied the ability to hold contradictory views in private and in public and the capacity to switch between them smoothly, when applied to ‘us’ and ‘them,’ to ‘ordinary citizens’ and to the Party leaders, and to one’s personal circle and to society as a whole.

In its sociological sense, ambivalence, as defined by Robert Merton, refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. The incompatibility is assigned to a status and the social structures that generate the circumstances in which ambivalence is embedded. The core type of sociological ambivalence puts contradictory demands upon the occupants of a status in a particular social relation. Since these norms cannot be simultaneously expressed in behaviour, they come to be expressed in an oscillation of behaviours.

In the context of modernity, ambivalence is associated with fragmentation and failure of manageability. Zygmunt Bauman defined ambivalence as the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category. Bauman views it as a language-specific disorder, with its main symptom being the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions.

Those who have detailed knowledge of the geography and the economic history of Ukraine or have done exhaustive research on the conflicting accounts on the current situation end up developing symptoms of ambivalence (more…)

Folk Psychology: more than nationalist pseudo-science?

By Blog Admin, on 23 September 2013

KlautkeMindEgbert Klautke talks about his new book, which re-evaluates the historical discipline of  ‘Folk Pyschology’ in Germany. It was, he argues, more than nationalist pseudo-science.

 BB: How would you define ‘Folk Psychology’ and what drew you to the study of it?

Egbert Klautke: ‘Folk Psychology’ is an awkward translation of the German term Völkerpsychologie. Originally, it referred to attempts to study the psychological make-up of nations, and as such is a forerunner of today’s social psychology. However, in today’s common understanding, Völkerpsychologie equals national prejudice: it is seen as a pseudo-science not worth considering seriously.

My first book dealt with perceptions of the U.S.A. in Germany and France, and much of these views could be described as Völkerpsychologie: clichés and stereotypes about a foreign nation, which were of a surprisingly coherent nature. Back then, my rather naïve idea was that there must be a general theory behind these perceptions, and I embarked on a study of Völkerpsychologie.

 BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?

EK: When I started my research, I shared the general view of Völkerpsychologie as a flawed attempt to present national stereotypes as academic research, and was suspicious of its nationalist agenda and racist undertones. I also considered it typically German. Having completed the book, I have a much more sympathetic view of ‘folk psychology,’ at least of the early attempts by [Moritz] Lazarus, [Heymann] Steinthal and [Wilhelm] Wundt. Despite its flaws and shortcomings, Völkerpsychologie was a serious and honourable attempt to introduce a social science to the university curriculum. As such, it influenced pioneers of the social sciences not only in Germany, but also around the world.

 BB: What are some of the factors that led to the demise of this kind of psychology?

 EK: Most importantly: the Third Reich. Even though the Nazis were not particularly interested in ‘folk psychology’ after 1945 this approach was quickly associated with Nazi theories and race ideologies. The genuine weaknesses of ‘folk psychology’ contributed to its demise, but it was mainly the assumption that Völkerpsychologie was part of Nazi thinking that contributed to this process. By the 1960s, the very term had become a taboo in the social sciences. (more…)

“Medvedev is written off by Russian commentators, but they might find they’ve done so too soon”

By Blog Admin, on 14 December 2012

Dmitry Medvedev in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, November 2011-28

Photo: www.kremlin.ru Creative Commons license

Russia’s former President – and current prime minister – Dmitrii Medvedev is sometimes seen as a political puppet of Vladimir Putin. However, as Pete Duncan tells SSEES Research Blog, Medvedev’s role may have been underestimated.

 SSEESResBlog: Medvedev is often seen as a politically weak figure, wholly dependent on Putin. US diplomats privately described him as playing Robin to Putin’s Batman. Why does he deserve a whole chapter in your book on Russian foreign policy?

 PD: As president Medvedev had responsibility for foreign and security policy and Putin specifically gave him that responsibility. Even though Putin was still the most powerful figure in Russia at the time, it’s clear from looking over the four years that Medvedev made his mark on foreign policy. His foreign policy was separate from and different to that of Putin.

 This was partly a matter of style – that’s the most obvious difference – but style can become a matter of substance. And that’s what happened. As soon as Medvedev got the opportunity to change the state of relations, which had got so bad. Already in 2007-8 but then with the war in Georgia, Russia’s relations with the West were the worst they had ever been since the fall of the Soviet Union.

 When Barrack Obama came to power and the new American administration decided, they had to have the reset and Medvedev took full advantage of that. Now Russia and America were on friendly terms again. It’s very hard to see Putin with his KGB and macho background being able to pull that off. Or even getting support from the American side for it. (more…)