Viktor Vakhshtein: “Social ties are the most effective in Tatarstan. Much more powerful than in Dagestan”

The head of the Expert Council of the Laboratory of Social Sciences SSL about how social relations have changed during the pandemic

The pandemic has not had a long-term impact on our behavioral habits, says well-known sociologist Viktor Vakhshtein — with the fall of restrictive measures, people still gravitate towards offline and gather together. However, what has really changed is social connections. And here the world went according to different scenarios. Tatarstan has shown an anomaly in this issue, Vakhstein told Realnoe Vremya. With effective social ties, the society here still shows a high level of trust in regional authorities, although the picture is reversed throughout Russia.

“The word 'values' is absolutely meaningless”

In one of the posts on your page, you compared self-isolation with an artifact that fulfills desires: you wrote that during self-isolation, people begin to do what they really want. You then gave the answer what many people in their hearts want — but a joke one. And how have the values of Russians really changed during the “coronavirus” half-year?

Partly a joke. But the thing is that the very concept of values is not good. It doesn't reflect anything. In the language of sociology, the concept of “values” had some meaning in the late 19th-early 20th century. Then it went from sociology into the language of psychology. But even there, it didn't work very well. Then it was adopted by economists, they like to talk about values.

The word 'values' is absolutely meaningless. We say it when we have nothing to say. For example, “I value family” — so what? How does this relate to behaviour? In now way?

You think so?

Yes, it's called a paradox.

Well, to put it simply, “I value my family” means I'll do something for their well-being. Or “I don't care about my family” — I won't do anything.

The answer to the question “what do you value” has nothing to do with your behaviour. This is a big problem for economists, and why cultural economics itself remains a relatively marginal field — values do not describe behaviour.

We remove the word “values” because it still has at least some meaning for economists, but in public speech it is absolutely meaningless, such as “spiritual bonds”. This is a propaganda word, not a descriptive one. Then we can talk about how either practices have changed — what people actually do, or how collective perceptions have changed. These are not values, they are pictures of the world, ideological things. Whether you believe that the Russian state protects you or poses a threat to you — this is a collective view.

Or we can talk about how social connections have changed. These three levels — cosmogony, morphology, and everyday life — are what modern sociology does.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
Everyday practices generally have this property — they change very quickly and instantly return to the usual norms

If we start with collective perceptions?

Collective perceptions were wildly polarised before the pandemic. There was such a strong wave of politicisation, when from the sphere of political discussion ideas about the world began to determine a lot in everyday life. Previously, you discussed the outcome of a football match with an Uber taxi driver, now you will discuss whether Navalny was poisoned by a Novichok agent or not. A year ago, you discussed, for example, the Moscow case.

This moment, the spread of political logic to all spheres of life in 2019, greatly influenced how we met the pandemic. And of course, all this was interpreted in a political way.

The a very interesting story begins about how many opposition media suddenly begin to use a wildly authoritarian model in the spirit of “More control!”. They suddenly began to say that they do not control the movement of people enough, “I went out today, and there are crowds” — the opposition media write this. Conversely, in the completely loyalist media, there are statements that “no, after all, individual freedom, freedom of choice”.

But this was the effect of the first three months. Then everything fell into place, everything returned, new worldview patterns appeared. For example, conspiracy theory, which was dormant somewhere in the background of public speech, suddenly turned out to be the most popular model for explaining what was happening.

Here is your wonderful young minister of digitalisation very funny went through this — in his picture of the world, all conspiracy is connected with technophobia. But no, conspiracy theory can also be linked to anything — a Chinese conspiracy, a conspiracy of doctors-poisoners. It is based only on the premise that everything that is shown to you and what you are told is far from the truth. This kind of thinking has also become popular because this basic consensus has been shaken.

And the most constant part is everyday practices. You can wait as long as you want, that now people will get used to learning online ans will not want to return. But no. Taking a walk around the city — screw social distance!

Everyday practices generally have this property — they change very quickly and instantly return to the usual norms. What will really have long-term consequences is social connections.

Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov
The answer to the question “what do you value” has nothing to do with your behaviour. This is a big problem for economists, and why cultural economics itself remains a relatively marginal field — values do not describe behaviour

Four strategies for self-isolation

How have social connections changed?

We are trying to understand this, since what we have now is not what we will have in a year. In general, several scenarios are described in terms of the response of the social network architecture to the pandemic. The most interesting study is the work by Peter Baer, written in 2008, about how during the pandemic in Hong Kong, that is, the previous “Covid”, there was an incredible solidarity. Then people who were complete strangers to each other but did not trust the Beijing government began to use digital platforms, volunteer resources, and the relatively independent media that still remained in Hong Kong to unite against both the Beijing government and the virus threat.

Another strategy is polarisation. In Montreal, there was unity, but exactly along the line of the split of Francophonie (the French-speaking population — editor's note) — Catholics and Anglophones-Protestants, they united against each other. In other words, there was a powerful strengthening of social connections and, at the same time, a very powerful split.

The third strategy that we see in Moscow is atomisation. Our social connections had been growing for 8 years, and in 2020, we saw that the level of these connections dropped sharply. People locked themselves in their apartments, and it became clear that social connections are what they maintained at work, what they used to create a comfortable environment around them. When they expanded their circles of interpersonal trust simply because they didn't trust institutions (you don't trust hospitals, but you know a doctor, you don't trust the police, but you know a cop). And suddenly you lock yourself in an apartment, live on Facebook, and don't have any real social connections.

And another strategy that we see in the regions is when we have a set of strong social ties — friendly, and weak ties — friendly ones. Weak connections are used to, for example, get advice or recommend something. So, weak ones broke up, and strong ones have become even stronger.

Photo: Ilya Repin
And another strategy that we see in the regions is when we have a set of strong social ties — friendly, and weak ties — friendly ones. Weak connections are used to, for example, get advice or recommend something. So, weak ones broke up, and strong ones have become even stronger.

Is it in any region? Here, in Kazan, too?

Not anywhere. Tatarstan must be analysed separately.

This is a big city, and isn't it clear which model it is closer to?

The situation with social relations in Tatarstan is quite interesting. There is such a concept — the impact of social connections. The extent to which social connections are used “for”. To get loans, to find employment, to get advice on how to get your son to the Kazan Federal University. And here social connections are the most effective. What we saw in Tatarstan is something you will not see in many places. Much more powerful than in Dagestan.

There was another rather funny effect, what else was different about Tatarstan. In Russia, there is a direct proportion — the more trusting relationships, the less people trust the regional authorities. This is not the case in Tatarstan. In Tatarstan, the level of trust in regional authorities was not inversely relative to the level of trust in their friends and acquaintances. We will have to look at how this is changing now, while we can only outline a trend.

Speaking of collective perception. Friends shared their observation after a trip to Crimea: there, local residents were already talking about the pandemic in the past tense. We discussed the events “before” and “after” the pandemic. What is the current collective view of the pandemic with lifting of restrictive measures?

From what we see, there is no idea that it has already ended. At the same time, there is much less fear of getting infected personally.

By Alexander Artemyev