The term “anthropology” conjures up the image of seeking “forgotten” tribes and the scientists who attempt to examine the former’s culture, rites and ways of living. A natural question concerns the connection between anthropology and the parts of Europe that shifted away from socialism and adopted modern capitalist systems just two decades ago? To be more precise, anthropology focuses on understanding defining characteristics of people, how they behave and/or why are there variations and differences among different groups of humans (etc.).
There is however, a (relatively) new branch of science called social anthropology, which examines how contemporary peoples behave in social groups. Scholars of social anthropology investigate the social organisation of a given society, as well as the changes that occur within it, and how are they connected to economics, culture and politics.
In the tenth volume of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) series entitled Postsocialist Europe: Anthropological Perspectives from Home by László Kürti and Peter Skalník (eds), authors coming from eight Central European counties comprehensively investigate the unfolding changes to their societies. This part of Europe is in the midst of rapid transformation; integrating with Western Europe. The main question proposed in the book is whether the label of “post-socialism” is legitimate or not?
In the introductory chapter, the editors note additional issues inspirations behind the development of the book such as the ambition to look at the selected societies “from inside” as the clear majority of investigations into this thematic have been undertaken by predominately Western scholars or scholars comfortable in Western discourses. Indeed, Skalnik goes so far as to suggest that it may be even seen as ‘an imposition from the West in the postcommunist world.’
Developing a “home perspectives,” however may not only produce deeper insights into the communities under investigation, such an approach is also replete with some important pitfalls into which scholars may fall including: superficiality, the underestimation of comprehension of “others,” or over-emphasising the concept of culture. Most importantly, it is difficult for authors’ to disentanglement themselves from their local community.
Despite such challenges, the book’s contributors (Bitusikova, Buchowski, Cervinkova, Ciubrinkas, Giordano, Kostialova, Kubica, Kurti, Nagy, Mursic, Skalnik, Stoiciu and Uherek) successfully overcome such obstacles and deliver an insightful and scientifically objective work.
Together, these authors convincingly demonstrate that despite the continued (relatively) state-control of scholarship in the region it is possible to conduct successful fieldwork and produce meaningful analyses. This collection of scholars attempted to examine behaviours and actions which have largely been omitted from the wider scope of anthropology. Their aim was not however to create another “school” but rather to ‘deepen appreciation for the range of specifities and diversities’ (p. 21) available to them in two dimensions: scientific and those of “insiders.” They observe the achievements of their Western colleagues but do not simply mirror them; they attempt to blend more canonical approaches with the “fresh air” of a uniquely Central European approach to the subject.
The book is not infused with the idea of “homo sovieticus” or “post- homo sovieticus” – a category of people with a specific mindset, allegedly created by the communist governments. Instead, one of the key additives, and novel contributions of the book, is its understanding and presentation of changing gender relations, and roles, after the collapse of the previous, more monolithic models and its development within the new political and economic settings of the post-Cold War period.
This examination ranges from gauging the adaptation of Czech soldiers facing NATO structures, through to the situation facing women, artists and homeless to approaches to agricultural policy, global and local entrepreneurship and gay and lesbian movements. The result of the multifaceted investigation is that the audience gains important insights into very lively communities which are evolving to shape the new, modern look of the nations.
Importantly, the book does not attempt to impose any particular point of view, though it does stress the importance of often intangible social and cultural consequences of the examined cases. The “common thread” of this book may be described as a reflection upon the given Central European societies, where they “come” after the changes and how much they differ in the path from socialism to market capitalism. These do not only concern changes to economics and ownership but mostly changes to ways of thinking. What was somehow suppressed or deliberately kept out of the public domain during the past half-century is in the process of unveiling.
Of equal importance in the process of determining the shape of Central European communities is gauging the impacts of European integration, in the form of the grand European Union project. As Kürti and Skalnik observe
at the moment one of the most serious challenges seems to be the ideological divides separating more advanced countries (…), from those joining in 2004 and, further, from those who are still awaiting membership (p. 3).
Reference to processes of globalisation and “orientalism” (understood in terms of Said’s work) are also explored. Political culture plays an important role in the investigations as well as economic, cultural and sociological factors. They are all taken into account implying that the authors are not solely fixated on anthropological analyses, which could be hampering for the overall objectives of the book. In this manner readers are treated to a fuller image of the communities and a deeper understanding of post-communist societies and their role in the current European settings than most other accounts of the same phenomenon.
The concluding chapter is undertaken by Giorano, an Italian scholar who does not simply summarise the achievements of the contributors but places the book in the wider spectrum of human thought and history. He recalls the role of Volksgeist, the spirit of a nation in anthropological studies. He points out that ‘paradoxically, the single regimes of the Soviet bloc, ostensibly internationalist but actually nationalist’ (p.296) never fully accepted the rhetoric of supposed brotherhood. This and other paradoxes created a need to ‘confront the new paradigms’ (p.295). He sees the role of researchers as far-reaching within the still transitional phase.
The formal, scientific style of writing, combined with the academic skills of the writers has elevated this book’s interest base beyond the narrow scholars and practitioners’ categories to include the interested public as well. Concepts are clearly defined and convincing; ideas are developed in a manner which is easy to follow and well researched and includes many primary sources (interviews with members of a given local community). However, the “hard data” is also present in form of well thought-out tables and charts which assist in understanding the economic background of a given situation. In some works visual material is also present. The attention to detail makes a positive impression and helps with the general readability of the book. From an editorial perspective the book is very well organised: topics are well defined and clearly presented and logically selected while the detailed notes on contributors brings readers closer to this ‘small yet authoritative group of scholars’ (p. 295).
As with any book review, the double edged question of whether the book accomplished its goals and whether more work is needed on the topic, produces an echoed ‘Yes.’ This book may be a pioneering endeavour, not only in the study of anthropological changes in the heart of Europe, but also for Central European socio-anthropological research. It is nearly impossible to compare this to other books in this field as it is truly an innovative work and acts as a source of inspiration for additional research and the deepening of discussion on existing materials.