Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Postsoviet psychographics

Ukrainian politician and entrepreneur Gennady Balashov proposed a classification of contemporary Russians and Ukrainians. It draws a curious parallel to VALS in the U.S.

The article in Russian on Abbreviated synopsis with my comments in italics:

Humps. People who walk around all bent, like unhappy question marks, awaiting the verdict of bosses or fate. To them, a long queue is merely part of life. They’re always bent, in factories, mines, on the street, in offices, for pay or free of charge. They don’t lose their bend when they become businesspeople or government officials in cushy chairs; not even when they get rich. Their motto: “The most important thing is to work a lot, to do everything correctly, to do what is required, and society will reward you.” They want little and get little.

Nearest VALS equivalents: Believers (16% of U.S. pop., “respect rules and trust authority figures; enjoy settled, comfortable, predictable existence; socialize within family and established groups; politically conservative; reasonably well informed; motivated by ideals”) and Survivors (14%, “limited interests and activities; prime concerns are safety and security; burdened with health problems; conservative and traditional; rely on organized religion”, the oldest VALS group, median age 61). However, Humps cannot really be described as well-informed, and they are not as religious as Survivors.

Aquarium Fish. People who found themselves at the right place at the right time—or think they have. They are proud of their bosses, workplaces, neighbourhoods, vacation spots. They give the impression of that mythical middle class of happy and confident people. Like fish in an aquarium, they are varied and snappily dressed—the silly decorations of their offices. Office workers who believe in the prosperity of their companies without understanding what they really do; officials who believe that their departments are eternal; young adults with silver spoons who believe in their successful parents. Devout believers—just not in god. Have trouble feeding themselves when their deity bites the dust.

Nearest VALS equivalents: Experiencers (12%, “like the new, offbeat, and risky; like exercise, socializing, sports, and outdoors; concerned about image; unconforming, but admire wealth, power, and fame; politically apathetic”). It seems that this group is a lot more prevalent in Russia, where it has become stereotypical and has been lampooned in popular music, than in the U.S. Some of them, especially the ones just entering the workforce, don’t make a lot of money, but that’s a passing phase. VALS does not admit of this latter group in the U.S.; the low-resource group for “people motivated by self-expression” is Makers (13%, “enjoy outdoors; prefer ‘hands on’ activities; spend leisure with family and close friends; avoid joining organizations except unions; distrust politicians, foreigners, and big business”). They exist in the postsoviet world, especially in the biggest cities, but they’re a completely separate group.

Adventurers. People of uncertain profession and occupation who believe solely in themselves. Self-reliant, enterprising and arrogant. Often get into trouble, lose everything or suddenly get wealthy, terrifying both Humps and Aquarium Fish. The Fish, however, sometimes get to feed on an Adventurer (in the bust part of his lifecycle); so do the Alligators (see below). Adventurers believe in no-one and in nothing; their motto is “I do what I want”. Particularly prominent in the postsoviet world since they were legalized at the end of the 1980s and basically took over the entire economy. Any entrepreneurship in Russia and Ukraine is by definition extreme and they are the people to take it on. 

Nearest VALS equivalents: Strivers (13%, “narrow interests, easily bored, somewhat isolated, look to peer group for motivation and approval, unconcerned about health and nutrition, politically apathetic”) and Achievers (13%, “lives center on career and family, have formal social relations, avoid excess change or stimulation, may emphasize work at the expense of recreation, politically conservative”). Both are “motivated by achievement”, Strivers with low resources and Achievers with high. But the comparison doesn’t work. Adventurers look to no-one for approval, don’t care about formal social relations unless necessary, change and stimulation is what they’re all about, and they despise establishment politicians even as they use them for commercial purposes. Perhaps most importantly, the Adventurer typically flits between various levels of resources, whereas VALS, although describing the supposedly upward-mobility-friendly U.S., doesn’t admit of the mere possibility of this.

Alligators. Insatiable monsters who often eat Adventurers and are eaten by them. Serve as deities to vast clouds of Aquarium Fish who ride them like remoras. Own whole factories and offices full of Humps. They grow to tremendous sizes, controlling entire sectors of the economy or very large conglomerates. And they are always hungry. In their offices, they have jars of nuts and cookies, coffee and tea, and they never stop munching (while usually not offering any to the visitor). They crawl only before even larger Gators. Everyone else they eat.

Nearest VALS equivalents: None; focused on marketing, VALS does not have a category for the admittedly tiny population of Rockefellers. The remaining two high-resource categories are Innovators (8%) and Thinkers (11%), which is where Bill Gates and Warren Buffett would presumably go. It’s not that Alligators are much more numerous in Russia, but rather than they control a lot more, and that’s what makes them important to describe.

Of course, Innovators and Thinkers are very prominent in Russia and Ukraine—they are the intelligentsia and a chunk of the rest. Balashov is one of them. 

Post-Soviet people change cohorts with great difficulty or not at all. By a heroic exertion of will, Humps can straighten up, either graduating to be worry-free Aquarium Fishes or to go crazy and become Adventurers. Change is even less likely for the Fish, as their brains can’t do much more than open their mouths to eat the food that someone gives them. Adventurers almost never become Fish or Alligators, but if beaten down to the point at which they lose their taste for freedom, they sometimes become business-Humps. Alligators cannot become anything else at all: if they lose their feeding environment, they will simply die. That is why they desperately cling and claw to their high-placed seats, abase themselves before senior Gators, and buy their places in society. These are usually the children of Soviet high officials; some are accidental financial anomalies of the 1990s.

Change is difficult for all of them because it involves risk: a Hump must start reflecting on himself, a Fish must stop believing, an Adventurer must step on the brakes in time, and an Alligator must stop eating.

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