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ERC Story - Can 'public' mean different things in different countries?

During the 20th century, the experiences of post-communist states in Central and Eastern Europe were very different from those of much of Western Europe. Have these different experiences fostered different attitudes when it comes to public space, and 'public goods' like health care, education or the environment? Dr Natalia Letki of the University of Warsaw in Poland is using an ERC Starting Grant to carry out an ambitious multi-disciplinary study of attitudes and behaviour regarding 'public goods’ across this region – drawing on political science, sociology, economics and even psychology.
ERC Story - Can 'public' mean different things in different countries?
"The full-scale public opinion survey we are conducting is probably the biggest such in-depth cross-national study based in and run from Central and Eastern Europe", says Dr Letki of her PGPE project. "We are carrying out fieldwork in 14 post-communist countries: 11 EU Member States – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia and three non-EU members – Moldova, Serbia and Ukraine."

Dr Letki, an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Sociology at Warsaw University, hopes this project will help us arrive at a better understanding of how citizens and governments of these transition countries can work together towards a greater social, political, economic and environmental sustainability.

The temptation to free ride

"When it comes to goods that cannot easily exclude people – such as defence or access to public education system – there is an incentive to free ride," she explains. "The legacy of communism, when people were intentionally set apart by the state, further contributed to their reluctance to cooperate with each other. The study will look at people’s experiences and perceptions of public goods through their interactions with public institutions and agencies, and with other citizens. We will also consider people’s attitudes to 'green issues' or their 'sustainable' behaviour towards what we call 'common pool resources' such as the environment."

Different experiences, different attitudes

"We expect to see different attitudes in Eastern Europe," she says. "The retrenchment of the welfare state in Western Europe was gradual – but in Eastern Europe the changes that occurred in the 1990s were radical and rapid: state services were withdrawn very rapidly."

"Many people feel they are treated unfairly by the state, so they don’t want to contribute to it anymore. Macroeconomic circumstances are not easy to change, but we know that people’s feelings about the quality of institutions they deal with on a daily basis often matter more than what they actually receive in services," she explains. "Even when it comes to relations between citizens, the quality of exchange is also important – it’s not just tit for tat but whether there is a sense of community and shared purpose."

For example, she says, "based on Western experience, we had devoted a lot of energy to finding sophisticated ways of asking about sensitive topics and behaviour, such as tax avoidance. But the early results show that in Eastern Europe you can be open, ask a straight question, and people will answer it – an indication that in post-Communist countries people don't see this behaviour as harming other citizens." The project will combine these subjective measures with structural indicators – including institutional design, social changes, political and economic reforms, and historical legacies – to try to understand attitudes to, for instance, paying taxes or law-abiding behaviour.

"We have a very multi-disciplinary international advisory board in this project. This helps us to bridge different (or similar) explanations from different disciplines running from sociology, economics, political sciences and psychology," Dr Letki comments.

"The ERC grant is brilliant," she says. "We need the kind of generous funding that the ERC provides to conduct such a full-scale survey. In our case, we will be interviewing 1500 people in each of the 14 countries covered. This extraordinary data set will allow us to analyse the effects of varying qualities of social institutions."

The grant has allowed Dr Letki to hire polling companies and put together a team of two postdoc researchers and two research assistants to work on the project. While it is still in its early days in the other countries — the fieldwork is already almost finished in Poland.

"This is the adventure of my life," she says. "I am the first researcher in Poland to win an ERC Starting Grant in social sciences and the university has been very helpful in supporting me. For scientists in the early stages of their career – this is a truly unique opportunity."
- Source: Dr Natalia Letki
- Project coordinator: Institute of Sociology (IS), University of Warsaw, Poland
- Project title: Public goods through private eyes. Exploring citizens’ attitudes to public goods and the state in Central Eastern Europe’
- Project acronym: PGPE
- University of Warsaw website
- FP7 funding programme (ERC call):Starting Grant 2009
- EC funding:EUR 1 750 000

- Project duration: 3 years

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