Favors and "normal heroes": The case of postsocialist higher education

Caroline Humphrey


This paper reconsiders the expression “economy of favors” that became popular in the literature about postsocialist societies as shorthand for a variety of illicit practices such as bribery, kickbacks, nepotism, etc. It argues that favors can be singled out and considered in their own right from an anthropological point of view. Favors are carried out in economies that are mainly conducted in other ways—ways that are not favors at all. The paper suggests, based on materials from Russia and Mongolia, that favors are different from transactional exchanges. They are defined by their quality of gratuitousness and by the fact that they require the recipients to be personally chosen. Because neither of these are features of market economic practice, favors tend to be described in the literature as informal, corrupt, etc., but the suggestion here is that favors persist because they enable actors to enhance a sense of self-worth within relevant social circles; they are sources of esteem for “normal heroes” in such life-worlds. Analyzing favors in the sphere of higher education, the paper also suggests that practical operation of favors in an increasingly commercialized and power-differentiated environment is also helpful for understanding how social networks are formed.



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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau2.2.003