ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

“Scientific socialism”, rational planning and local knowledge: the post-socialist experience

Contact Convenor: Susanne Brandtstädter

Department of Social Anthropology,  University of Manchester
Roscoe Building
Oxford Road
Manchester, M13 9PL

Tel: 0161 275 3488  

Co-Convenor: Maia Green

Panel abstract

Many state-socialist countries claimed “science” as the basis for what were possibly the most grandiose centrally planned efforts at social engineering in human history, ranging from Stalin’s collectivisation in the Soviet Union to Great Leap Forward in China to the villagisation projects of Julius Nyere in Tanzania. In these projects local knowledge and local realities did not figure, as the party claimed exclusive possession of the scientific knowledge that allowed it to plan development. After the collapse of state socialism, ironically, many of the successor states imported the most radical neoliberal economic models of development, which promoted strict “rationalisation” and the dismantling of all socialist institutions -- a tabula rasa -- for a successful “transition”. In the postsocialist projects of social engineering, thus, local knowledge and local realities often continue to be considered obstacles of development. But the weakened grip of the state over the conditions of social existence in these countries has also created more space for local life-worlds to improvise on innovations introduced from above. The panel will look at continuities and changes in top down efforts at social engineering, and at local responses to and local concepts of central planning.

Labour and love: competing constructions of nursing in a Prague nursing home

Rosie Read, University of Manchester

This paper will examine competing ideas about nursing in a Prague nursing home/convent. This institution was founded by nuns in the 1990 s, who work alongside civilian nurses in caring for elderly patients. The paper will focus on contestations between nurses, nuns and management around the idea of service , particularly whether good nursing practice should be formally defined in terms of caring service . The exploration will draw out how different positions taken on this issue are linked to divergent experiences of nursing work during the socialist period and in the present.  

Chaos , order and development : visions of the state, the market and of society in rural China

Susanne Brandtstädter, University of Manchester

This paper explores how notions of order and chaos derived from the socialist period continue to influence visions of the state and of society, social hierarchies and social relations in rural China. For many Chinese, chaos (luan) remains exemplified by the period of the Cultural Revolution, where not only established hierarchies and differences were blurred (e.g. between men and women, old and young) but, more importantly, where society apparently broke out of the control of the ordering state. This vision of an intrinsically chaotic society undermining the order imposed by the state and its scientific plan is extended today to the market and to such social phenomena spawned by the market as semi-illegal, unregulated migration, anonymity and social atomisation, unregulated births, unregulated spaces, crime. But at the same time, the market now supplies all that what is seen as modern or developed (fada), as against a past where centralised, scientific planning held the promise of development. Moreover, local governments are today themselves perceived as chaotic and as withholding the promises of modernity and development from the villagers. Instead, apparently traditional local institutions help to retain order and further development by attracting resources and taking over state tasks. This paper looks at how notions of order and chaos, development and tradition are played out in different social arenas, and affect social inequalities and shape changing state-society relations in rural China.

After Ujamaa: development continuities and the representation of power in post-socialist Tanzania

Maia Green, University of Manchester

This paper explores the absence of a clear break between socialism and after in rural Tanzania where socialist structures of social organisation for development planning interface seamlessly with the institutions of participatory development promoted by international development organisations. This continuity is not surprising. The relationship between Tanzanian socialism and international development was integral from the start, despite claims to autarky and a local African socialism as a political response to the neo-colonial order. The content of this continuity is more intriguing. The collapse of the state in the later years of socialism has largely been reversed through massive international subsidy and large scale public sector reforms. While higher tiers of the public services have been transformed through these measures, the rural social structures of local adminsitration remain relatively intact but lacking any significant resources. One consequence is the perpetuation of late socialist styles of the enactment of power through the ritualisation of bureaucratic practice. Whereas such gestures would once have been aligned with power to implement levies and sanctions at the village level, such powers are gradually being eroded not so much through changes in village governance as public non compliance.

Conflicting modernities: trains, combines and the end of peasant farming

Frances Pine, University of Cambridge

The paper examines the changes generated in kinship and economy in the southern Polish highlands by the introduction of particular technologies at particular political moments. Local ideas of what constitutes the  traditional , and what the modern are constantly negotiated and contested against a backdrop of a rapidly changing national and international political economy. The modern, as a way of life, and a tool or technology, is both highly sought after, and rather elusive in this region.  Modernity as something imposed from outside, however, tends to be highly distrusted because of its association with the ideologies and aims of the socialist project. I argue that a focus on critical moments when there are simultaneous shifts in political structure and technology, such as the opening of the railway in the 1940s, the opening of the local factory in the mid-1950s, and the arrival of combine harvesters in the early 2000s, reflects ways in which people balance and redefine their concepts of modern and traditional and suggests that in this region at least the formulation of knowledge about technologies is always politically situated. In the final part of the paper, I compare this rather marginal region to the far more central and industrialised region of central Poland, and argue that here the introduction of similar technologies, the opening of the factories, the coming of the train, had quite different political meanings. 

Rationality versus Contingency: socialist and post-socialist city planning in Almaty

Catherine Alexander, Goldsmiths College, London

The Soviet, official valorisation of scientific rationality is well-known the natural wilderness tamed by technology to benefit mankind (think of the dramatic last shot in film of Dr Zhivago: a colossal dam standing for the achievement of the Soviet enterprise). By contrast, this paper discusses actually existing scientific rationality during the socialist and post-socialist periods in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan; that is, the differences between officially espoused models of rationality and what actually happened on the ground due to contingent exigencies (lack of finance and skills, inappropriate terrain, conflicting political demands etc.). The specific case study for examining these differences, and the reasons given for such disparity is city planning: the endless generation of grand plans in line with official ideology, grounded in statistics and the latest scientific methods, and yet never fully implemented. Such rational, standardising, goal-driven planning was to be the socialist bulwark against the wild irrational, restless, essential incompleteness of capitalism. Yet now, even though extreme ideas of the market hold sway in Kazakhstan, city plans are still being produced, although now touted as being driven by the market. The current gulf between abstraction and practice appears to be even more extreme than before as still representations of the future are now based on increasingly erroneous statistics as an unregistered, newly mobile population is rapidly vanishing from the bureaucratic, scientific gaze.

A super dam and an elderly woman's suicide

Jing Jun, Tsinghua University, Beijing

This paper examines an elderly woman's suicide within the context of the Three Gorges Dam in China. Being built on the Yangtze River to replace the world's largest dam to date, the Three Gorges Dam entails the relocation of 1.3 million people. Most of these people are rural residents living on the river's bottom land, and their relocation has been one of the dam's most sensitive issues for discussion within China. Focusing on Li Quanxiu, an elderly woman who committed suicide after moving uphill for resettlement, this paper explores the irony of unintended consequences associated with a hydraulic scheme whose anticipated consequences have led to many feasibility studies and policy accommodations. The author argues that unintended consequences could be a useful entry point for evoking and applying anthroopological knowledge in examining the frequently arranged marriage of science and policy in development programs. The author has followed the debates over the Three Gorges Dam since 1989 and condcuted field research in the dam area four times in the past decades. He wrote the country report on China for the World Commission on Dams in 2000 and one section of that report covered the resettlement program of the Three Gorges Dam.

The science of governance and local Bulgarian responses

Deema Kaneff, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle

Democratic centralism was the scientific principle by which state socialism was organised in Bulgaria.  It proscribed the nature of the relationship between the state (the Party, government and other institutions) and the people .  As a centralised governance structure that nevertheless demanded the participation of the masses, democratic centralism provided a blue print for society.  It specified the role of institutions and relations between them as an objective and necessary part of the process in the attainment of the future goal of humanity, communism.  Local participation in this ideology about governance and development resulted in interesting inflections: the opportunity to engage directly with the all-pervading state centre through by-passing the bureaucratic hierarchy.  The reward for local engagement in socialist ideology was access to centrally controlled resources and privileges.  I look at how a village in socialist Bulgaria successfully cultivated such relations with the state centre. The socialist situation is compared to the more recent post 1989 period, when one scientific ideology about governance is being replaced by another, ideologically opposed one.  While the ideology has changed, the power of the scientific paradigm is still evident.  In the neo-liberal model adopted by postsocialist states, observed facts which are systematically classified under general laws (that advocate a weak state and strong market) still uphold the promise of a predictable vision for the future of society, exemplified by a new utopia - the West .  I focus on the ways in which the Bulgarian community is cultivating relations with the new governance structures; partly by using bureaucratic skills developed during the socialist period and partly through establishing strategies that capitalise on the new, decentralised order. 

The local modernities of scientists:  post-socialism, space, and rationality in the Novosibirsk scientific center

Amy Ninetto, New York University

This paper is an ethnographic exploration of how scientists in a Siberian science city are redefining what counts as a scientific space.  Under socialism, science was the model for state rationality as well as the tool through which it was accomplished.  Now, however, even in a city specifically constructed to house science, scientists see themselves being pushed to the margins of society.  New rationalities have become prevalent in particular, the instrumental reason of the market.  This is reflected in the changing spaces of the science city where laboratories have been turned into shopping centers, for example and also in attempts by scientists to enforce who or what can rightfully exist in a science city if it is to remain scientific.  In carving out both physical and social spaces for science under post-socialism, scientists must move between the socialist-era definition of the scientist as the bearer of rationality, modernity, and progress, and an ongoing redefinition of rationality and progress as tied to the market.  In the Novosibirsk Scientific Center, the result has been an emergent notion of a local modernity, which, while it seems to subvert the very universality that gives science its authority, suits the way scientists are reconfiguring their specific community as neither socialist nor capitalist.

Nation-building as a communist rational planning strategy subverted by local knowledge. The case of identity politics in Cieszyn Silesia

Marian Kempny, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Science

As one can claim following Zygmunt Bauman: communism was thoroughly modern in its passionate conviction that a good society can only be carefully designated, rationally managed and thoroughly industrialized society . As a result in an attempt to out-modernize the modernizers in order to purify of social life of the last shreds of the chaotic, the irrational, the spontaneous, of the unpredictable, the rulers of state-socialist countries tended to introduce pseudo-scientific solutions and centrally planned endeavours also in the domain of the identity politics. In this connection the paper is aiming at examining of the nation-building project grounded in the ideologically-saturated ethnological discourse during the communist past in Poland as contested by local knowledge. The case of the community of Cieszyn Silesia Lutherans will be discussed in the context of its struggles against an illusion of monolithic national culture. The significance of the local knowledge (including the local history production) in challenging the official version of national homogeneous culture and strengthening the bonds the local solidarities and loyalties will be emphasized. Besides, against this background of the local responses to nation-building processes the recent experience of recognition for cultural diversity in the region will be described to illustrate futility of attempts at holding a grip on collective identity by social scientific projects in the previous era.  

Contours of an anthropology of the Chinese state

Frank N. Pieke, University of Oxford

Thirteen years ago, after the crackdown of the protest movement in 1989, the Chinese socialist state looked weaker than ever before. A fundamental shift seemed inevitable, either leading to a more democratic and pluralistic form of government, or else the fragmentation or at very least radical decentralization of the state. Some of these things have certainly happened, albeit in a much more gradual and incremental fashion than anticipated. However, they have taken place in the context of, and even as an integral part of, an unexpected streamlining, professionalization and centralization of the Chinese state apparatus. As a result, the rule of the Chinese Communist Party once again rests on a very solid footing. In my view, anthropologists of contemporary China have been slow to catch on this, still viewing China through the lens of a rather simplistic state-society dichotomy, in which the state, particularly at the local level, inevitably has to yield more and more of its power to entrepreneurs, foreign investors, non-state organizations, and local communities. This paper argues that an overhaul of this image is overdue: viewing the state as a weakening external force that seeks to make its influence felt on the communities we study does not describe the dynamics of contemporary Chinese society. In order to understand China, anthropologists have to come to terms with, first, the developments of and within the Chinese state itself, and second the multifaceted and often quite deliberately ambiguous interaction that takes place across the state-society interface. The paper draws on fieldwork in two rural Chinese localities to illustrate these more general points and to indicate how they might translate into a broader agenda for research. This call for an anthropology of the Chinese state resonates both with the reinvention of the subfield of political anthropology over the last ten years or so, with its focus on policy, rule, and rights, and with recent calls by mainly political scientists for the development of an interdisciplinary anthropology of the developmental state.

Discussants: John Gledhill, University of Manchester, Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov, University of Cambridge