Interest in Sociology through Interest in Russia and Eastern Europe
The new term’s cycle of methodology seminars SotsUp at the HSE Centre for Youth Studies in St Petersburg began with a talk by Dr. Charlie Walker of Southampton University on the social mobility of young working class women in the service industries.
Charlie Walker’s talk was designed to coincide with the publication of his article ‘I Don’t Really Like Tedious, Monotonous Work’: Working-class Young Women, Service Sector Employment and Social Mobility in Contemporary Russia in the journal Sociology. Walker’s research helps us to develop a complex picture of young women as he focuses on changes in the way young working class girls in St Petersburg transfer into adult life. As in many European countries, the new forms of employment in Russia in the service industries and the increased accessibility of higher education open up new horizons of social mobility for young women.
Charlie Walker answered a few questions for the HSE News Service.
— Your research covers Eastern European and CIS countries. Why do you focus on this region?
— I first developed an interest in Russia and Eastern Europe when I was studying History as an undergraduate, and was fascinated by the Russian revolution, as well as Russian literature and music. So, I actually developed my interest in sociology through my interest in Russia and Eastern Europe, rather than the other way around, when I first visited Moscow in 1998 as an undergraduate history student, and saw how capitalism was developing in the post-Soviet context. For me, sociology is primarily the study of modernity — of the human and social experience of modernisation, be that through welfarist capitalism, state socialism or neoliberalism — so it was studying Russia's rather traumatic experiences of modernisation that got me interested in what are really wider, global processes and questions.
— What could be the driving force for a scientist today? What challenges do you see for yourself and how do you inspire your students?
— I can't speak for the natural sciences but certainly, I think that social scientists cannot fail to be driven by the very important, and sometimes disturbing, transformations that are taking place in societies across the world at the moment. Russia is one example of a country that has seen a massive increase in social inequality, a decline in social action through trade unions and other social movements, and the marginalisation of a variety of different communities, including the working class. The job of social scientists is not only to study, but to publicise these problems, and of course to imagine ways of addressing them. In my case, I try to understand the changing nature of social inequality - not only in material terms, but in the way it is experienced subjectively, given the more individualised lens through which social actors tend to see the world nowadays. Certainly my students seem to relate to this, and hopefully it inspires some of them.
The job of social scientists is not only to study, but to publicise these problems, and of course to imagine ways of addressing them.
Faculty Member of University of Southampton
— Could you, please, say a few words about your latest research on young women in modern Russia?
— The research project that is the subject of the seminar at Vyshka actually took place back in 2007, but sometimes it takes a while to complete these things! It was about young women training to work in the new service economy in St. Petersburg, especially in areas such as tourism and hospitality. What I found was that this kind of work offered a lot of 'symbolic capital' — status, essentially — for young women from typically working-class backgrounds, and this was very appealing for them, despite the fact that careers in these industries are very badly paid, and in many cases, offer few prospects. This seemed to me to illustrate something that is happening in capitalist contexts globally - we often hear about how 'the future is female', partly because of the massive shift away from manufacturing towards the more 'feminine' service industry, but the cultural feminisation of the economy, for working-class young women at least, has not led to greater gender equality. The young women in my research achieved a kind of symbolic social mobility, but in material terms, were worse off than they would have been as a sewing machinist in a factory.
— What's next on your research plate?
— Although this research is about femininities, most of my work is currently about masculinities. Between 2012 and 2013 I conducted a project involving interviews and participant observation with sixty working-class men (mostly factory workers, but also some builders and other service workers) in Moscow and Ulyanovsk. Working-class men in Russia were seen by both the media and academics as an extremely vulnerable group in the 1990s, but the recent period of greater economic stability has led to the assumption that the problems they faced have largely gone away. Despite improving levels of material and physical wellbeing, however, my research indicates that the lives of working-class men still need to be understood in relative terms, as my respondents struggle to live up to the standards set by an increasingly dominant version of 'successful masculinity' - not the factory worker, but the white-collar professional with the flat, the car and the family. Given the low pay on offer, many men still cannot live up to the high (and rising) expectations of them, so my latest research is exploring how they deal with this.
— Do you have any specific plans on developing cooperation with the HSE?
— Yes, in relation to both education and research. Over the last couple of years I've been trying to develop a dual Master’s degree in International Social Policy, in which students from Vyshka would come to us at the University of Southampton for one semester during their second year, and would receive co-supervision of their dissertations. Hopefully this will be realised over the next year or so. In regard to research, I've been involved in some research bids with colleagues at HSE and am always open to new collaborations.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, Specially for the HSE News Service
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