Elena Avetova and Igor Galin “Perception of Social Inequality in Central and Eastern European Countries: Evidence from Qualitative Data”
AIMS: The perception of social inequality has mostly been researched using quantitative methods of social enquiry, i.e. population surveys (Lubker M., 2004; Delhey, 1999; Marshall et al., 1999; Milanovic, B., 1998; Svallfords, 1997; Kluegel and Smith, 1981). The main aims of this study are to gain insights into attitudes towards social inequality and coping behaviours associated with the consequences of social inequality and to increase understanding of how social inequality is experienced and perceived by lay public in their everyday life using qualitative methodology.
METHODS: 54 focus groups (12 respondents each) distinguished by age and gender were conducted in 12 Central and Eastern European Countries (CEE), i.e. Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. The groups within each country were also distinguished by income and the area of residence (urban/rural).
MAIN FINDINGS: In all countries, social inequality is discussed either in stratification terms or in terms of income differences. In some countries, there is a prevalence of one discourse over another or a mixture of the two. Social inequality is perceived either as a gap between “two extremes” of “the wealthiest and those who are reduced to poverty” or as a great difference in earnings between high and low paid employees, e.g. there is “an astronomical difference between salaries’ or ’a big gap between high and low paid employees…approximately ten times”. Usually, when the respondents talk about the division between the rich and the worse off, they mention the absence of a middle class as a contributing factor to social inequality. When discussing earning differences, low salaries are referred to as “the primary point of social injustice” and the differences in salaries between high and low earners are seen to be unfair and a potential cause of social tension.
Many dramatic accounts from everyday life provide strong evidence that economic differences (income, benefits etc.) result in unequal access to public services, especially to health care services and education, which have a profound effect on people’s lives. According to the respondents, social inequality also manifests itself in age related differences in employment opportunities, gender inequality, unequal treatment by the legal system and access to power. Another dimension of social inequality that emerged in focus group discussions is the urban and rural divide. In almost all countries, the differences in access to public services and opportunities between urban and rural areas are seen as a manifestation of social inequality. In almost all countries, people residing in rural areas express dissatisfaction with their life circumstances and life chances compared to that in urban areas. However, whatever the area of residence, opportunities are believed to come only with money, e.g. “to people with high income all doors are open”.
Not only is there a gap between the rich and the poor, the divide between the powerful and the powerless is another feature of the post-communist societies. The powerful are “government officials”, “authorities”, “those who are in Parliament”, “local authorities” and “the national government” who enjoy political and financial power and benefits which separate them from the ordinary people. The division between ordinary people and people in power produces and maintains the regime of corruption which has penetrated all spheres of life and is seen as one of the sources of social inequality, especially in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania, Russia and Ukraine.
There is a noticeable generational shift in perception of social inequality. In five out of 12 countries, young respondents aged 19 to 25 of both genders hold noticeably different beliefs about social inequality in comparison to the old and middle-aged groups. The new generation believes that social inequality is not only inevitable but also “a good thing”. They emphasise the incentive aspect of social inequality, i.e. it is needed to motive people to get ahead. While being critical of the unjust forms of inequality such as unequal access to public goods and services and age and gender discrimination in employment and career opportunities, they tend to perceive economic differences or economic inequality as “normal” and even a desirable feature of modern society and the economy in which they want to succeed.
CONCLUSION: These data suggest that there are more similarities than differences in the discourse of social inequality between the countries. The magnitude of social inequality is perceived as “too large” in almost all of them. However, in no country did the respondents indicate the need for government intervention or redistributive measures to be installed in order to decrease social inequality, except for Estonia where the respondents said they would welcome more government control over the differences in wages and salaries. Whether this reflects disillusionment with the government’s ability and will to make any changes or the acceptance of the inevitable and even the desirability of a degree of social inequality remains an open question for further analysis. There is some evidence that the respondents do not support redistribution of wealth as long as they are satisfied with their own living standards, e.g. “Let someone have millions but if my family has enough, it would not worry me”.
Qualitative data used in this paper were collected as part of the EUREQUAL project ‘Social Inequality and Why It Matters for the Economic and Democratic Development of Europe and Its Citizens: Post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe in Comparative Perspective’, funded by the European Commission under contract No 028920 (CIT5), Framework 6.