Essay: Estonian society divided between drivers and inhibitors of change

Peeter Vihalemm.
Peeter Vihalemm. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

A recently published representative study of the Estonian society shows that global technological and cultural change, the migration wave, and the rise of violence and terrorism are deepening the contradictions between different social groups, writes Peeter Vihalemm, professor emeritus of media studies at the University of Tartu.

According to the theory of Karl Polanyi, the Hungarian social philosopher, each great social transformation that tears through the fabric of everyday life indispensably causes a “double movement of changes”. A portion of the population supports change and fast developments, while the others are against them.

Some people are willing to go along with or even initiate fast changes and then be the first ones to enjoy the early fruits of these changes. The other social stream, with oppositional direction of movement, reflects the experiences of those for whom the privileges have not materialized or who have even suffered loss because of the increased pressure from the fast-changing society. These people try to slow down the speed or sometimes divert the process, in order to preserve the dominion of those structures and communities that stand against the change in the route of an existing order.

According to the results of the “Me. The world. The media” study, such double movement, the confrontation of the “accelerators and decelerators” of social time, perceived time, is really characteristic of the last decade in Estonia.

As Karl Polanyi pointed out, in the double movement, the state cannot subject these opposing processes to political uniformity, or, in other words, “design” society from the top down.

Instead, the core function of the state should be to balance society in the midst of these cross-effects. Democratic politics is able to alleviate the contradictions, helping the people who have been hurt by changes or who perceive the risks to be too high to raise their voice and participate equally in the search for a new balance. 

From the point of view of society’s progress, it can be seen as a positive re-alignment.  However, the situation may also be somewhat different. In particular, the state can be wary of positively affecting the society, and thus let the opposite processes stay unbalanced. In this case, the state can enhance polarization and increase unsolved tensions, which may halt progress, or reverse it. We have experienced more than enough of such politics in the past.

Opposing forces

One of the key conclusions that can be drawn from the study is that the differentiation of social groups in Estonia has substantially deepened. Such opposition of different types of agencies or active forces can be clearly seen as influencing the development of society, as discussed by Polanyi.

At the same time, the research indicates that the values, mental structures, and identities of people in Estonia seem to converge into a relatively consistent pattern. This pattern to a certain extent distinguishes and at times even puts into opposition the life-worlds of the people and groups who can be seen as the drivers or inhibitors of change (for example, people who feel insecure or frustrated about any shift or change).

Therefore, the results of the study show a certain polarization in society. Since the Estonian society is divided by language (Estonian and Russian), but also by a variety of life experiences, socio-economic and other positions, the above-mentioned mental and agency-related structures illuminate different means of personal fulfilment and coping with social acceleration and its impact on everyday life. 

Besides different ethnic groups, the study also demonstrates further variabilities in age groups and gender distribution, but also in groups of people who live in larger cities (like Tallinn or Tartu) and small towns or other places in Estonia. The results of the survey show that different social groups have quite different opinions of and attitudes towards the government and structural change, and also that their possibilities and preconditions for dealing with and going along with the rapid developments vary a lot.

Although the great social crisis that began in the 1990s and is considered the transition period, and which involved an unseen socio-economic stratification, is slowly starting to ease due to the advances in general well-being, new conflicts and oppositions have emerged as a result of global technological and cultural change, but also due to the migration waves, as well as the intensification of terrorism and violence. 

Are we heading towards decline and destruction?

In view of the above, the main question for the Estonian society is going to be: How are people with different backgrounds, especially in terms of age, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, able to cope with changes and uncertainty? On the one hand, the study shows an activation of people in the Estonian society who want to protect traditional values, to reinforce old, familiar structures and relationships. On the other hand, new patterns of agency are increasingly visible as well, preferred by individuals and social groups who aim their activities towards greater freedom and diversity, instead of the reinforcement of old powers. Accustomed institutional frames that correspond to vertical power relationships do not often satisfy people with a global and cosmopolitan orientation and a highly mobile lifestyle, who perceive them as a restriction. They prefer a world based on horizontal relationships, a world that is mutually tolerant and open to change. 

In conclusion, it was observed in this thorough study covering the period from 2002 to 2014 that the differences described and discussed above penetrate all aspects and areas of life, concerning people’s participation in civic activities, politics, and culture, their everyday consumption practices, social relationships and interactions, professional life, media usage, and so on. Every reader of the recently published book can find his or her position in those patterns, as well as predict where the Estonian society as a whole is headed.

The crucial question, however, for Estonia as well as all of today’s Europe, is actually quite complex: Can we use the new technological advances and potential as a tool to positively transform society, or will the future be full of decline and destruction?

Me. The world. The media / Estonian Society in the Accelerating Time

The book “Estonian Society in the Accelerating Time” is based on the research project “Me. The world. The media” by sociologists and media researchers at the University of Tartu, and offers a thorough insight into Estonian society and how it has changed over more than the last decade. Many aspects of our life are under observation, starting from general values and attitudes toward change, up to healthy consumption habits and the use of social media.

Instead of the problems of post-communist developments, the theoretical framework of the analysis is the “acceleration of social time”, characteristic of the late modern era, as well as the ways people find to cope with globalization and the information and technology-saturated environment of present days.

For the book – which contains over 800 pages with 159 tables and 166 figures – five waves of survey data collection were conducted all over Estonia in 2002, 2005, 2011 and 2014.

Peeter Vihalemm, Marju Lauristin, Veronika Kalmus and Triin Vihalemm (eds): “Estonian Society in the Accelerating Time. Results of the "Me. The world. The media" study (2002 – 2014)" (The University of Tartu Press, 813 pages)

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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