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Regular version of the site

HSE Professor Christopher Swader Discusses His New Book

Christopher S. Swader is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Sociology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research at the HSE in Moscow. He also serves as Program Director for the new International Master’s Program in Comparative Social Research. Professor Swader sat down with HSE News Portal Editor Marina Selina to discuss his recently published book — The Capitalist Personality: Face-to-Face Sociality and Economic Change in the Post-Communist World.

― Is it true that you gathered the material for your book over the course of many years? And that you’ve lived in China, Germany, and Russia? Did you draw upon your personal experiences from living in each place?

― Yes, I completed the main research for the book as my doctoral dissertation, which took almost four years. It then took another two or three years to reanalyze the material and to re-write everything in a more accessible style. I lived in China for a total of nine months, Russia for a total of probably four-and-a-half years, and Germany for about 12 years. But the exact research (interviews) for the book took about three months in each place. I had a team of researchers from the universities in each city—Shanghai, Moscow, and Leipzig. Indeed, some personal observations were important in allowing me to understand these societies, and to compare them to each other and to other countries.

― How did the idea for the book come to you?

― The core idea for the book arose a long time ago, even during my BA studies. I read about a survey that claimed that Russians valued friendship and personal relationships more than people in the USA, for example. That idea was very interesting to me. And, during my three-month stay in Moscow as a student in 1996, I also observed that personal relationships were extremely important to many Russians I met, even when they were very poor. Then, later during my MA studies, I noticed two more things. First, crime rates in post-socialist societies rose very quickly in the 1990s. Second, some claimed that Russian society was becoming more self-focused. I realized that the theory of social control would allow me to explain all three issues. If economic development somehow caused people to focus increasingly on themselves and on their work, and less on intimate others, this means they are less controlled by others in their behavior. And, therefore, crime could be a result. So I decided to pursue this first aspect... value change in relation to economic development. This eventually became my book.

― On what evidence did you base your research? What types of people were involved? And, is it true that you interviewed representatives of different generations? 

― My evidence is from two sources. From the World Values Survey (WVS), across many countries, and looking at all types of people, comparing post-socialist and other societies, and also from interviews with successful businessmen and their fathers, in Moscow, Shanghai, and Leipzig. These interviews compare the generation that was about 18 years old or a bit older when the Soviet Union collapsed, with their fathers.

On Values

― How did family values change for people in post-communist countries during the transition to capitalist economics?

― Some evidence exists that people came to focus less on family. On the one hand, they started to delay starting families, and decided to wait to have children. But even more important, I point out that even those who have families may end up valuing them in a latent way, because in order to succeed in this type of economy, work, and the self, and economic success have to come first. So the central message of the book is about such value conflicts. That to succeed in work, the people I talked to had to do things that were detrimental to their valuation of the family as a side effect.

― What other values have been lost?

― I would say the main message is about value tensions, conflict, rather than about values lost. But in addition to the family-work tension, a tension exists between morality and money. To be successful, many people have to give up the moral values they previously held. For instance, they come to care less about honesty, exploiting and using others for their own gain, because they can succeed in business exactly through changing these strict moral ideas into less strict ones.

― Would you speak a bit about the new values people have acquired? As I understand it, these values fall into two main categories—one connected with consumerism and presenting oneself in society with the aid of material possessions, career positions, and so on, and the other connected with self-expression and self-realization. 

― Based on my analysis, the new value set—the one that tends to make people successful in an economy focused on profit—is ambition, a focus on self-development and self-expression, a focus on career, hard work, the ability and desire to rationally calculate profit, to fine-tune one's image, to turn time into money, to successfully use others for one's own goals, to get a ‘thick skin’ and become tolerant to failure, and to make morality more flexible. These new values tend to make people more successful in business, but they also challenge, come into tension with, strong valuations of close relationships (such as the family and close friendships). And I show that this is the case not only in China, Russia, and Eastern Germany (through interviews and the WVS); this direction of value change has also happened in capitalist western societies, such as the United States. So the reason for such individualization is not the communist past, so much as the capitalist present. Capitalism as a culture leads to internal tensions between family and work and morality and money. As people deal with these conflicts, they tend to solve them by allowing strong family and morality focuses to become latent.

Materialism and Self-Expression

― Materialism is making people more egotistical. However, in your book, you also write about things such as self-expression, self-development, and self-realization. Are these values replacing family values and the value placed on close relationships?

―Yes, it becomes very hard to achieve both at the same time. And since the workplace rewards these self-development values and not the family—close relationship families—cultural change works in the direction toward self-expressive values. 

― In some ways, have self-expression and self-development become a new form of evil that decimates traditional values?

―This is too strong of a statement. I don't think that they are evil. Nor are traditional values only good. Rather it is important that new values come into tension with old values. And these new values do great things as well, but we need to be aware of this tension and be able to analyze it.

― Will the value placed on self-expression increase in Russia and other post-communist countries? If so, will family values become increasingly less important?

― Generally, that is the trend in ALL capitalist societies, not just post-communist ones.

― Many Westerners are quite secure materially, so they are in a position to value self-expression over material possessions. But people in post-communist countries are just beginning to get accustomed to a better material life; more emphasis is placed on material things, particularly in Russia. Research shows that while many countries are moving in the direction of self-expression, Russia still tends to cling to materialism. Do you think post-communist countries will evolve in the Western manner, or will their values take shape in some other way?

―They will be the same in terms of valuing self-expression. But their response to materialism may be different. Western societies indeed are post-materialist in some ways (caring about the environment, human rights, etc), while post-communist societies have not yet inherited this post-materialist side.

― You describe the value conflict that people face in capitalist countries. What is the nature of this conflict? Is it a conflict mainly between family and career and money, or between family and self-expression?

― It is between the demands of adaptation brought about by new kinds of work and a new economy. That creates a conflict mainly between work and family and between money and morality.

― You write that men are more affected by the new values than women. Your interviews are mainly with men (what proportion, by the way?). Some would argue that women suffer more value conflicts because it’s very difficult to simultaneously raise a family and engage successfully in self-expression. Many women want to build good careers, they want to be creative—but, it’s a real conflict, especially for women in post-communist countries where people have traditional views on the role of women in the home. How can women, in general, overcome this conflict?

― My respondents from the WVS were both men and women, in equal proportions. But, my personal interview partners were all men (except for one woman, in the case where the father was no longer living, so we interviewed the mother). I think you might be right that women feel the same pressures, but men can more easily get rid of the pressure by caring less about relationships. For cultural reasons especially, it is more difficult for women to stop caring about relationships. Almost all surveys show that women are more family centered, less competitive, and more compassionate. This makes them more conflicted and also less adapted to self-centered capitalist work, because they are more likely to refuse to change. 

West and East

― You write that people in the East are individualists, just like people in the West, and that individualism is something that destroys close relationships and traditional relations. But which individualism is more dangerous for traditional values and morality—that of the West, or the East? Do any major differences exist between them?

― I would not use the word destroy... it conflicts with… has a tension with family. But, individualism is also a very good thing.  I would argue that we need a balance between the two. Both eastern and western individualism can clash with family and with interpersonal relationship values. However, the trend of post materialism in some western societies puts a limit on certain extreme forms of individualism. And post-socialist individualism can be more radical, both because it lacks the post-materialist dimension and because some post-communists interpret capitalism more radically, as egocentric, immoral, and decadent.

― One final question: Do you think the traditional family will survive or will mankind ultimately live in quite a different way because of the values revolution?

―This is an interesting and difficult question. Human beings will always be social and will care about one another. However, that form of caring may carry greater and greater costs if we continue to economically develop and individualize in this way. That cost may very well be internal and social tensions that arise from not being able to fully fulfill this social drive. My hope is that individualism will be controlled by a growing cultural understanding and appreciation for face-to-face communication and relationships as fundamentally important aspects of what make us human. The other extreme could bring great costs for civilization, which could construct itself in ways that are no longer 100% compatible with our social bodies and social cultures.


Book Information:

The Capitalist Personality: Face-to-Face Sociality and Economic Change in the Post-Communist World

Christopher S. Swader

New York, NY: Routledge, 2013

238 pages

Price (Hardcover): $125.00
ISBN: 978-0-415-89221-6

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