Friday, January 27, 2006

Social networks and reputation in Russia

People interested in social networks and reputation systems ought to come here. Everything seems to get done by virtue of knowing somebody who knows somebody. We got into the opera at a reasonable price because it was arranged by Katya, who told us to meet Grigori at the door, who got us in at the native rate for a small surcharge (he either works at the theater, or knows someone there). Katya is a hub -- she runs the office of the company we work with, is in charge of sheparding foreigners around and much else. She carries three cell phones for her own use and has a bunch more she hands out to her charges, so she can tell them that Sergei will pick you up at 10 and deliver you to Alexi, etc. Sergei has been driving us around, at one point we had to decide whether it was safe to leave a couple of laptop cases with him. Turns out it is, because he gets lots of work from Katya and has a good reputation and it would be silly for him to jeopardize this healthy business relationship (another driver the company used didn't get the system and was summarily disconected from the network).

An American who lives here got laughed at by the Russians when he went to get his car inspected -- turns out that everybody else knows somebody whose cousin runs an auto shop and will sign the papers for you sight unseed, for a small fee.

It's pretty clear this elaborate informal network evolved so that people could operate a real economy while the official one choked on its own bureaucracy and corruption. This two-layer approach seems to have persisted past the fall of communism. I wonder if it impedes or helps the development of a full-blown capitalist economy. Or which is better. The favor-network sounds kind of nice, but is prone to corruption of its own and can shade off into organized crime, which is also plentiful here.

My seatmate on the flight here was reading a thick Max Weber book (in German). I vaguely recall that one of Weber's theses was that modern societies evolved away from this kind of informal network into more formalized, rationalized, bureaucratic structures. Given the history of such structures here, it's not surprising people prefer a more underground approach.


goatchowder said...

Well there's a long history of this-- people oppressed by or disenfranchised by the official system set up their own social networks exactly like the ones you are finding in Russia. I've had extensive personal experience with both the Sicilian and Jewish versions of these networks here in the USA.

But really any group that has either had to live in diaspora and/or under long occupation creates this kind of social network; it's a matter of survival, and the cultural ties it creates survive long after the oppression is gone and assimilation into the "official" system has taken place.

Satoro Falta said...

Since I got some Russian friends in London I start asking myself why we have so much in common. Your post must be the answer. I am Brazilian.