Soviet Society, Social Structure, and Everyday Life: Major Frameworks Reconsidered

By Edele, Mark | Kritika, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Soviet Society, Social Structure, and Everyday Life: Major Frameworks Reconsidered


Edele, Mark, Kritika


This is a good time to be a social historian. The linguistic turn has thoroughly discredited any attempt to see politics and culture as mere surface phenomena of deeper social transformations and thus freed social history from unnecessary reductionism. As a result of the sometimes harsh postmodern critique, historians are keenly aware of the complexities of the historical phenomena they deal with and the epistemological problems of their craft. It is time to move beyond these criticisms and reconstruct the project of writing a history of society. (1) Such a reconstruction of social history would see the linguistic turn as a constructive critique of older approaches, rather than as an all-encompassing paradigm shift. (2)

One major effect of the critique of social history on our own field is a reluctance to theorize social structure and social stratification in the Soviet context. (3) By the mid- 990s, even labor historians felt compelled to theorize "class" as an "imagined community" rather than as an objective structure of differentiated access to life chances. (4) Where class is encountered, it is deconstructed as a category of state engineering. (5) It is as if the critique of vulgar Marxist class analysis (with all its assumptions about base and superstructure, historical progress, and consciousness) has de-legitimized the study of stratification per se. (6) It may be time to remember that the major classical theorist of social hierarchy was not Karl Marx, but Max Weber. (7)

A second major effect is that the study of "society" was replaced with the study of "everyday life." (8) In what amounts to a social history with the structure left out, historians focus on everyday practices rather than on large-scale structures such as classes or society at large, as the "old" social history had done. The one over-arching structure left in such analyses is the state. Not only in the cities, but even in the under-governed countryside, Sheila Fitzpatrick, for example, focuses on interactions with the state as the essence of the Soviet everyday. (9) Similarly, for Stephen Kotkin the "grand strategies of the state" define the field of action in which the "little tactics of the habitat" play out. (10) It is as if the everyday has replaced "society" in the old dichotomy of state vs. society which informed much of social history in the Soviet context. Again, it might be time to remember one of the major propositions of classical sociology: that the state is only one element of the larger social organization that forms the context for everyday life and is in turn reproduced by it. (11)

The goal of this article is to recover some of these insights of classical sociology in order to reconstruct a theoretical framework for a history of Soviet society. Rather than develop one coherent theoretical model, this article explores the general conceptual frames that lie at the base of several attempts to think about society and everyday life in the Soviet context. I start with the too often neglected Harvard Interview Project, which is most directly influenced by classical sociology. I contend that a re-appropriation of the general outlook of this approach is an essential step in a reconstruction of a history of Soviet society. I then contrast the Harvard Project's conceptual approach with several major alternatives: the political economy of state socialism, social history in a state/society framework, and the history of everyday life a la Kotkin. Rather than replacing the conceptual work of Alex Inkeles, Raymond Bauer, and Clyde Kluckhohn, I argue that these approaches add specific complications to the original framework. Rather than stressing shifts between generations of researchers, this article thus assumes that different approaches have developed different aspects of a larger whole. Instead of stressing the differences between successive paradigms, I suggest we think of the historiographical development as the unfolding of a larger research agenda: the attempt to understand the socio-cultural complexity of Soviet society. …

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