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[The Political Analysis of Postcommunism. Kyiv: Political Thought, 1995, pp. 213-225.]

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Images of Social Structure


Among the most important products of a living and active society associated with various forms political of political discourse are variegated images of stratification and social structure. Such images are continuously produced by sociologists and the mass media, by politicians and political parties in speeches and programs, by state officials and ordinary citizens. The seriousness, steadfastness and even inspiration with which this is done testify to their deliberate character or, possibly, to the exceptional utility of these images. In any case, one can not deny their ability to create and serve the single communication space, where subject of political actions and interactions have a chance of coming to mutual understanding, to common definition of terms and circumstances, manifesting their intentions and future behavior as something foreseeable and consistent. In other words, they can create the single political community polity or, on the contrary, divide and differentiate it in accordance with the earlier defined criteria.

Especially rich in images of social structure and stratification are the programs of political candidates. Politicians manipulate such images so confidently that there may be no doubt about a certain lofty goal for the sake of which they are ready to sacrifice themselves completely or motives and values which impel them to do so. It is also reasonable to assume that there are rules according to which images of social structure are produced, disseminated, or manipulated. But while an active political player is concerned only with /214/ the efficacy of the images he uses, a sociologist looks for trends: that which are recurrent and that which determines the recurrence and direction of the course of events.

1. What is Structure and How Is It Reproduced?

Sociologists usually regard a "structure" as something invariable and unchanging, something that predetermines the course of social processes and behavior of individuals, that enables him methodologically to introduce explanatory schemes and fix the contexts of understanding; but which is, in and of itself, rather inert, stable and, most importantly, incapable of changing radically in historically short periods of time. This kind of notion may have originated and been consolidated in the course of studying what Claude LeviStrauss called traditional "cold" societies which evolve relatively slowly. But even in the late twentieth century it has not exhausted its eurystic potential, setting methodological benchmarks for theoretical and empirical research. There are at least three statements summarizing various approaches to and interpretations of the notion of "structure" in sociology.

Statement One: a structure is something that existed before and continues to exist after individuals and is independent of them.

It does not matter in this case whether structure is regarded as the ideal type of Levi-Strauss' binary cultural oppositions,18 Giddens's social "rules and resources,"19 as a material and real formation class-conscious "positions in the production of material wealth as understood by Marxism, "contributions" to society's survival in structural functionalism,20 "situations" on the labor market and at a given workplace21 or as "cities."22 It is classes, strata, categories of individuals, social groups, categories of individuals (i.e., societies and communities), as well as mental patterns and normative value complexes, that is most often meant by sociologists when they speak about structures in sociological terms.

Statement Two: a structure is not simply given or assumed; it gives birth to various forms of social life, sup-/215/ports, formulates, combines, and reconciles them. In other words, structure is in itself a generating and originating principle in any kind of individual and collective behavior. Every active member of society has to adapt to a structure, whether or not he/she is aware of the limitations the latter imposes. As an originating principle, it is known to determine the character and content of the processes and tendencies it initiates irrespective of the opposition of individual persons and groups.

Statement Three: structure, i.e., the aggregate of individuals joined together and their interrelationships, functions as an explanatory principle to which everything is reduced and from which everything flows. Thus the political (and in substantial measure general and mass) consciousness of a statement about the reality of an existing social structure is understood and interpreted beforehand on a pragmatic plane, i.e., from the perspective of the possibility of changing it in order to improve the social whole or rectify its shortcomings. The innate resistance of such independent and inescapable constructs and their resistance are usually ignored in such cases. It is evident that a social structure is the product of the hard work of history, sometimes clear and open, at other times quiet and secret, inaccessible to traditional social science methodology. Why this happens is a complicated question requiring special study. But since it cannot be ignored entirely, let us recall, for the sake of brevity, a remark by Norbert Wiener, who once said that there was an aphorism engraved on a stone slab at Princeton's Institute of Strategic Studies, which was headed by Albert Einstein: "The Lord God is cunning but not malicious." In other words, it may be extremely difficult to uncover the secrets of nature, but the latter resists the scientists' understanding unintentionally, without ill will.

However, sociologists cannot state anything of this kind in respect to societal "nature." On the contrary, here it is by design, whether good or ill, that so much is kept secret or hidden in the human world. And it is not seldom that something scarcely probable or altogether improbable may be explained as existing here and now merely by someone's /216/ whim or will, which must be happening in each point of the intra- and inter-group relations space. The suggestion and social reproduction of facts and artifacts (probably, in a larger number) are essentially biased, value and ideologically laden actions which, as a rule, do not meet the Weberian requirements of being value-free.

In society, facts and artifacts not only coexist but also enter into complex combinations. As a result, it becomes problematic whether it is even possible to separate "reality" from its interpretations or a social fact from its ideal symbolic reproductions. Of course, this flows not from the sinister designs of social agents permanently reproducing a secret space and keeping strangers out, but in a special, sensual-supersensual (in the words of Marx), the nature of the social subject matter. A sociologist proceeds from the fact that individuals and groups perceive and interpret situations and processes not only according to the latter's objective properties, but also in compliance with expectations, claims, errors, and stereotypes cultivated in a society or group. And, as was noted long ago, if they define a situation as real, its consequences are recognized as being just as real.23 Therefore, the behavior of individuals and groups is conditioned not only by a "real" sequence of facts, but also by the subject-matter of the sensual-supersensual kind composed of a rather random combination of truth with what is recognized as "true" at a given time and place.

This is equally valid in respect to a social structure. It is reproduced by the whole complex of social, economic, and cultural circumstances. In this sense it may be referred to as an "objective" phenomenon, an object of sociological research. However, a structure is intensively formed by the activity of the interested social subjects, such as political leaders, individual politicians, parties, independent and dependent experts, as well as professional and amateur sociologists. The knowledge of structure is thus another product of its social reproduction. According to P. Bourdieu, this is the production and gradual legitimation of a vision and perception, which the above social subjects find desirable, of a socially divided world through an act of symbolic suggestion. /217/ The more precisely the subject of this suggestion corresponds to reason and expectations widespread in society, and the more forcefully it is pressed by interest and will, the more certain is this legitimation of success.24

The intensity of producing a symbolic social structure grows dramatically during election campaigns, which are primarily a planned and announced time of intense political discourse. Precisely then, contenders for new vacancies in elective bodies of power are active in structuring the social space, giving it labels and meanings. Perhaps this is inevitable, for their programs are above all calls for as yet unrealized plans of transforming the existing order. In turn, this order is also represented by a social structure, i.e., the organized distribution of the most important vital resources among institutions of society, groups, and individuals. And from this, one may assume that the candidates' ideational social structural ization, which is simultaneously a means of legitimizing their political demands with the help of the imposition of a desired vision of society and the creation of, if only the appearance and illusion of political discourse, meets the requirements of the notion of social structure formulated above.

For empirical confirmation, the programs of 49 candidates from three electoral districts in Kyiv in the Ukrainian parliamentary election of March 27, 1994, is used. Statements mentioning directly or indirectly, positively or negatively, groups, strata, communities, and categories of individuals, that is, concrete divisions and partitions of the social unity, were recorded. There were 209 such utterances, and the relative values given below were calculated on the basis of this figure. They are not representative of the positions of the Kyiv candidates, because the objective was not to form a representative sample of their programs but to find the rules by which candidates made socially structuralizing statements. /218/

2. The Suggestion of Stratification Defects as an Important Component of Election Programs

As is most often the case in political struggle, a defining characteristic of social structure is seen in the programs' division of "ruling elite" and "people," a division which assumes pathological form. Statements about the inadequacies of the existing authorities and, hence, the need to replace them was the main theme and a fundamental thesis of the pre-election utterances of new candidates for political elite status. In their view, the open cynicism of legislators, who have ignored the interests of "the people" and used them for their own private and essentially egotistical ends and brought society to catastrophe, has become intolerable. As a result, society has been split, polarized, and lost its integrity, while the silent majority must bear all the costs of this situation. Moreover, this majority has lost control over the elite and has been de facto excluded from political life.

Accusations against former deputies are represented by a wide range of verbal symbols ("mafia in power," "the establishment," "democrats," "new hetmans," "the corrupt caste," "the party of power," "theoreticians of unemployment," "guilty of plundering Ukraine") and make up 19% of all utterances. This also includes indirect invectives against the privilege of evading responsibility for breaking the law. 5% of all utterances demand equality of all before the law, pointing unequivocally to the ruling elite and its satellites who do not obey the law and live according to rules totally different from those for the majority. Another 6% call for honest people, dedicated to the cause of Ukraine and competent, to be elected to the new Parliament (of course, this implies that the former deputies lack such qualities). The share of utterances about polarization and even opposition of interests, character traits and vital aspirations of the political elite, on the one hand, and the masses, on the other hand, amounted to 30%, while the spectrum of accusations was firmly fixed within the scale ranging from "incompetence" through "corruptness" to "ignoring" or even "betraying Ukraine's interests." /219/

Those in power were held responsible for the state's anemia, which suddenly emerged and threatens to become permanent. The basic social institution has proved incapable of maintaining, let alone increasing, the economic and social status of the population's professional categories traditionally dependent on it: teachers, doctors, military servicemen and researchers (6% of the candidates' promises included pledges to provide a decent level of incomes). The state is also accused of having withdrawn its support from the disabled and socially underprivileged: the handicapped, old-age pensioners, veterans of war and labor, those who suffered the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, large families, young families, children, mothers with infants, and young people (27% of all structuralizing statements).

The alienation of the authorities in favor of a narrow circle of persons is treated as a structure generating another sequence of divisions in the social entity apart from those mentioned above. Some programs insistently drew attention to the polarization of wealth and poverty in the shape of a stratum of those who, on the one hand, rapidly enrich themselves and have access to limited benefits and resources and, on the other, to a stratum of those who are rapidly getting poorer and are, in fact, held hostage to the nearly bankrupt state (6%). A polarized representation is accorded to the stratum of honest but poor material producers and that of greedy, dishonest speculators, handlers, and bankers (6%) and also "haves" and "have nots" in terms of the opportunity to succeed in the privatization drive now underway in Ukraine (3%).

Thus, the pre-election programs of various Kyivan parliamentary candidates tried to instill in the electorate the image of a deformed political and socioeconomic structure, which needs to be fixed and made healthy. This was a deeply stratified and polarized structure "ruling elite" vs. "long-suffering people," "rich" vs. "poor," "law-abiding" vs. "those above the law" of things which could not be considered just; they did not correspond to popular expectations, they were the result of the self-seeking antisocial actions of those in power. This translates into a quite definite /220/ pattern of perceiving, understanding, and interpreting the existing situation. To convince the voters of the reality of a situation and inevitability of its consequences also means the legitimization and justification of one's own political agenda. It is the legitimation of the idea that the social structure is defective and that the processes of its stratification are anomalous.

Further, it is the legitimation of a radical will to change everything for the better. This is demonstrated not so much by the verbal determination to right the situation thanks to more competent leadership there were practically no accusations of incompetence as by the verbal radicalism which breathes references to implacable struggle against enemies and traitors characteristic of the first stages of building socialism. Radicalism also surfaces in pledges to be "a true servant of the people," that is, a return to naive romantic stereotypes to which fairly numerous categories of the population remain susceptible.

Active use of labels from the sarcastic to the abusive terms, identifies the powers-that-be as a bunch of plotters ("fat-cat democrats," "Comrade socialists," or just plain "evildoers") and thus discredits an opponent and lowers his status. Here we see a method of political struggle used on the stage of political theater in virtually every nook and cranny of the world. But the social meaning of such an action is not restricted to this statement alone.

The privilege of giving evaluative references, names and definitions was formerly possessed only by the ruling elite and those it empowered to do so. This privilege was identified in the past with power. Now the ability to name, define, and evaluate things has become open, accessible, and attractive to a great many people thanks to elections. The relative ease of getting on the ballot involuntarily imparts a simulative, role-playing nature to the whole process (the participants' political intentions can remain, of course, very serious). The production of various kinds of socio-structural "simulacra" today, organically fits in with the scenario of an election campaign, reinforcing the pleasure of possessing the power to assign names. The struggle of classifications, in the /221/ words of Bourdieu, is naturally accompanied by the struggle for official nomination, for the monopoly to set a "correct" classification and a "correct" order.25

However, most rules of such a name-game, with all intentions to assert oneself in a symbolic autonomous area, are by no means arbitrary; they follow the unwritten principles of the unyielding social matter. The crisis and disappointing fall in living standards stressed in the programs are insistently declared as consequences of the established order of distributing positions and posts of authority and, hence, access to the limited material and social benefits (i.e., the consequences of the inadequate organization of the social structure). The contenders for seats in a legislative body come out "for" the people and "against" those in power, "for" the honest and law-abiding, the downtrodden and those undeservedly deprived of state help, and "against" the greedy and prosperous, who cynically flout the state's interests and seem above the law. They claim to have taken sides with the suffering majority. It is on the social territory occupied by this majority that the candidates for a new political elite enter into contact with the former, and develop a discourse aimed at formulating mutually coordinated definitions of the situation in society. That is why selective appeals to the masses of the humiliated and downtrodden (the entrepreneurial strata were positively mentioned by only 3%) are determined by the norms of political rationality: the ruling clique, alien and (to be more exact) hostile to the masses, is to be removed from the political arena (the term "clique" being used in a sociological sense; it was not used in the programs).

3. The Unheeded Warning of a Catastrophe

Undoubtedly, the materials presented indicate that the above-formulated statements about sociological interpretation of the social structure, function, among other things, as definite rules governing political rhetoric. The division of a social unity (social stratification) is the product of society's /222/ vital activity which, in its turn, pre-sets the rhythms of actions for the latter and determines the status of access to limited resources. An intensive value-related coloring of preelection rhetoric justifies the necessity and obligatory nature of changing the existing structure, i.e., the previous social


There is also no doubt about the following: the voters recognize the images of social structure relayed through the above programs. The structuralization of the social world repeatedly projected by these programs in the mass media corresponds to the everyday individual and group experience of a sizable part of the population, which can be stated to a high degree of probability, even without resorting to sociological examination of a given hypothesis. The crux of the issue is that in postcommunist society neither the rich nor poor hide themselves in seclusion from one another. They walk the same streets and physically see each other, and for many this is an unaccustomed and shocking personal experience. Today social stratification is easy to grasp; virtually everyone is subject to its symbolization and evaluation by politicians and the mass media. The forced receipt of new status, in the image of which people experience their new social condition, the comparison of the former with the statuses of closely-related or reference groups and strata all this is easily understood impels people to some extent to act in various ways, including asserting and defending their rights. Today numerous occupational categories have amassed experience in labor conflicts, and this shows that those categories have carried out the "operation of identifying" their position in a structuralized society.

The images of stratification created by political scientists and sociologists do not run counter to the ideas used by politicians and in large-scale everyday awareness. At best, the latter only specify the general picture without great differences in interpretation. Sociologists are inclined to recognize the degradation of a social structure as a consequence of destructuring tendencies, the latter being the result of the first years of Ukraine's sovereign and independent existence in the post-Soviet and international communities. /223/

Most radical in this respect is the view that modern Ukrainian society is an amorphous formation lacking any clear-cut social strata, while individuals have lost the criteria of social self-identification.26 Statements concerning the polarization (dichotomization) of structure actually complement this view.27 As stated above, crises may find their origin in the lack of structure of the social entity as well as in the existence of zones of opacity, which may be either structured or amorphous. And this hardly differs in any way from widespread notions of the "lumpenization" of a considerable part of the population which cannot be forgotten or banished due to the candidates' propaganda during the incessant political campaigns of 1994, as well as due to all kinds of support from the mass media. The latter are used by analysts, sociologists, and journalists as a forum for passing judgment on the degree of society's stratification status.

Many of those making a bid for power today warn, in terms of Levi-Strauss' dual classification, about an ever-increasing "cooling" in Ukrainian society, its transition to a condition dominated by the traditional, in many ways anachronistic, mechanisms of social reproduction. The only real perspective for this kind of society is to is to harden and ossify into intense oppositions incapable of resolution. In this case it makes no difference which sociopolitical ideals pervade the thoughts of the program's authors that of a totalitarian-distributive or a market-oriented productive society. The threat of a final transition to the category of "cold" societies is being brought home to the electorate by the bearers of different political persuasions and ideas.

Ideas about the deformity and defects of a social structure turn into a stereotype and catch-phrase used by both experts and dilettantes. The obvious warps in the social space (warnings from all sides) engender structural tensions fraught with destructive or virtually unpredictable conflicts. The programs of candidates might be construed by the rank-and-file voter as, first of all, an appeal to use his ballot to prevent a war of social structures or social catastrophe.

It is a paradox, however, that the rank-and-file voter, by and large, did not take heed of the appeals: only five out /224/ of 21 vacancies in Kyiv were filled. In most cases the election was invalid because the required 50% of qualified voters did not go to the polls. The preoccupation of power-seekers, their ostentatious readiness to take responsibility and rectify the not-so-hopeless situation run into indifference or imperturbability of the electorate and failed to overcome them. Kyivans put off indefinitely the alteration of political and everyday life, as if not sharing the candidate's alarm over their own future and the future of their state.

What requires interpretation is precisely this transformation of rather realistic images of stratification into simulacra which are not capable of initiating and maintaining political discourse, as does political absenteeism. They are unlikely to be fully explained away by the fatigue and indifference of voters, their exasperation at the disconsolate picture of social stratification imposed insistently and impudently on them by claimants to power, mass media, and sociologists, by an unlucky choice of time, or by the intrigues of slick operators who have staked their bet on a revelation of political will. Rather, one has to admit the existence and influence of factors connected with the general rules and regularities of division and differentiation (as well as those of mutual gravitation) in the political and private spheres, the sphere of rigidly structured instructions and that of individual life worlds which struggle desperately to defend their sovereignty and preclude outside intrusion.

One should also not exclude the possibility that in the situation of impermeability and opacity an unspoken agreement on the division of competence, jurisdiction, and influence be concluded naturally. The state and politicians are confined in their sphere and immersed in their own problems. They fail to influence stratification processes in society and quickly lose any motivation to do so, if ever they had it. In turn, population groups and strata adapt themselves, with varying degrees of success, to an unusual socioeconomic environment where "asystemic" elements dominate systemic and stabilizing ones. Neither side expresses a desire to interact constructively and communicate or perhaps they do not know how. In Kyiv, images of social structure have not be-/225/come common factors of the situation. Perhaps this is because politicians and voters were in "different" situations, had their "own different discourses" and each subject of the political discourse would like to remain in his own situation and discourse.

18. Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (Moscow, 1983), pp. 245-257 (in Russian).

19. A. Giddens, "Agency, Institution and Time-Space Analysis," Toward an Integration of Micro- and Macrosociologies, ed. K. Knorr-Cetina and A.V. Cicourel (London, 1981), pp. 168171.

20. K. Davis, and W. Moore, "Some Principles of Stratification," Readings on Social Stratification, ed. M. Tumin (New Jersey, 1970), pp. 368-377.

21. M. Weber. "Class, Status, Party," Readings on Social Stratification, pp. 29-39.

22. Social Structures: A Network Approach, ed. B. Wellmah and S. D. Berkowitz (New York, 1988), pp. 19-61.

23. W. Thomas, The Unadjusted /354/ Girl (Boston, 1931), p. 41.

24. P. Bourdieu, The Sociology of Politics (Moscow, 1993), p, 72 (in Russian).

25. Ibid., pp. 76-77.

26. V. Polokhalo and A. Slyusarenko, "Political Process and Political Elite," Political Thought, No. 4, 1993, p. 12.

27. V. Volovych and S. Makeyev, "Social Stratification and Politics," Political Thought, No. 1, 1993, pp. 15-16.

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