Modernization Revisited: Searching for a New Conceptual Scheme

Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: Federal Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology, RAS
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Journal nameSotsiologicheskie issledovaniya
EditionIssue 8

The author reviews a monograph recently published abroad on issues of modernization in post-Soviet Russia. The book Russian Modernization, A New Paradigm indeed offers a new paradigm of research targeting social change in Russian society. The paradigm is based on the theory of structuration by Anthony Giddens furthered by Finnish sociologist M. Kivinen. The theory enables researchers to expand the number of actors who can influence the situation in the country. The theory incorporates three levels of analysis, the general one, reflecting on the basic structural characteristics of society, the local one that aims at theorizing in the medium-term context, and the empirical one that amasses and analyzes data attempting thereby to confirm or refute the hypotheses related to reproduction and change. The prospects of Russian society are presented as an inevitable choice between several scenarios of further evolution. The structuration theory approach has both strengths and obvious weaknesses. It overlooks the matter of the social-change actors’ presence understood as modernization. In the current situation, there is a consensus in Russian society between elites and the bulk of the population that guarantees relative stability of the existing social order and social system. Therefore, modernization, having no obvious advocates in the ruling elite, will most likely assume the form of gradual cultural, as it were, evolution that includes gradual transformation of the fundamental values and behavior standards.

KeywordsModernization, reforms, social structure, ruling elite, social institutions
AcknowledgmentThis article is a translation of: Черныш М.Ф. И снова модернизация: в поисках концептуальной схемы // Sotsiologicheskie Issledovaniia. 2021. No 7: 3–13. DOI: 10.31857/S013216250014946-3
Publication date27.09.2021
Number of characters37808
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1 In Russian discourses on social changes mentions of the concept modernization provoke predictable apprehension. In the 20th century Russia repeatedly embarked on a modernization course, and every time the policy of modernizing the life of society yielded contradictory results. In Russia modernization, its goals and means have always, at all times been determined by the ruling elite that proceeded from the assumption that the masses were archaic, inert and could be set in motion only by tough (and occasionally, ruthless cruel) measures. Each time modernization from on high plunged society into a state of non-freedom: in some cases, by a series of reprisals, in others, by economic measures that pushed the public to the brink of survival. It is this experience that has instilled in today’s social consciousness a lasting aversion to the very notion of reform (let alone revolution). After all, in Russia’s history reforms and revolutions, that initially evoked an upsurge of energy and enthusiasm, then inevitably caused large-scale violence, the Dark Ages, where the best part of society paid a heavy toll. And every time the benefits gained as the result of reform were questioned afterwards, while the pre-reform condition of society was described as the good times, as the true Russia that we had lost.
2 All of this can be fully applied to the neo-liberal reform of the last twenty years. Monetizing perquisites, reforming education, optimizing and commercializing medicine, raising the retirement age brought about massive losses, plummeting living standards, glaring inequality, an increase in problem strata locked in social space. Every time, in order to preserve social and political stability, the authorities had to take one or several steps back; neither the monetization nor the education reform had been implemented as they had been conceived originally. One of the reasons was, alas, the reformers’ extremely vague idea of the society they lived in, and their conception of reforms borrowed from foreign, far from unambiguous, practice. Yet the main reason for their failure and half-measures was apparently the fact that the changes they planned were not based on a theoretical construction, which might correlate the general and particular goals of reforms, creating an acceptable repertory of means to achieve the latter. Whereas Chinese communists plan the life of their country for decades to come, and carry out today’s reforms in cold blood, having some notion of the kind of fruit these will yield tomorrow, the Russian reformers, conversely, are chiefly guided by neo-liberal models, quite often rejected by other countries, because they have proved utterly inadequate in other societies.
3 If one wishes to understand the problems of Russian modernization, the book of considerable interest will be the new publication Russian Modernization. A New Paradigm recently published abroad by an international team of authors (including Russian sociologists M.V. Maslovsky, of the Higher School of Economics Research University in St. Petersburg, and others), edited by M. Kivinen and B. Humphreys [Russian Modernization…, 2021]. Stemming from comprehension of the Russian reform experience, it puts forward a sociological conception under which the purpose of reform should be shifted toward general welfare, while the means of attaining the goals set would imply not narrowing, but broadening civil rights and liberties. Let us examine this bold attempt at comprehending conceptually the Russian experience so as to have a better understanding of the way the problems of our national progress are seen from abroad. The point of this paper is not only to acquaint the reader with the new theoretical publication on Russian society, but also present an alternative vision of the concept of modernization given there.
4 One has to give the authors their due: they are actively using the theoretical legacy, as it were, at the disposal of modern sociology. The basis of the modernization conception in the view of its creators, M. Kivinen and M. Maslovsky, is the theory of structuration by A. Giddens [Giddens, 1984: 1 – 34]. Giddens pioneered his structuration theory in 1976 in New Rules of Sociological Method [Giddens, 1976] as a project of overcoming limitations set on the understanding of society by previous theoretical schemes.
5 Marxism and structural functionalism, he believed, imposed a what might be called imperial approach on social sciences, under which society prevailed over the individual will. An alternative to both paradigms at the time was the hermeneutics school that proceeded from the fact that it was precisely the individual who was the end subject of social action, while society existed merely as a sum of individual wills and was totally dependent on their configuration. The advocates of “total” theoretical constructions saw no point in delving into the details of individual life, while the adepts of phenomenological sociology did not regard society as something essential, for the latter appeared in this paradigm as a simple aggregate of standard actions performed by actors at the individual level.

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