Dissertation Abstracts

The Wounds of Post-Socialism: The Political Economy of Mortality and Survival in Deindustrialising Towns in Hungary

Author: Gabor Scheiring, gabor@gaborscheiring.com
Department: Sociology
University: University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Supervisor: Lawrence P. King
Year of completion: 2019
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: privatisation , deindustrialisation , neoliberalism , mortality
Areas of Research: Social Transformations and Sociology of Development , Health , Social Classes and Social Movements


With the rise of anti-liberal political movements in Europe, the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump, the human consequences of global economic transformations have emerged as central political and scientific topics. In countries that have had large manufacturing sectors, there is a growing section of the population that is being left behind. The collapse of “real existing socialism” in Europe is the prime example of such economic transformations. One of the most striking and unexpected implications of this large-scale economic transformation was the fall in life expectancy in some of the former socialist countries during the transition. According to the UNICEF, the increase in mortality in the region over 1990-99 resulted in 3.26 million excess deaths. In my dissertation, I examine the political economy of the post-socialist mortality crisis as experienced in deindustrialising towns in Hungary. I develop and apply a relational political economy of health framework, emphasising the economic institutions of post-socialist dependent capitalism in Hungary, as embedded in the semi-periphery of the global economy, their gendered implications and their cultural construction. I follow a mixed-method strategy combining quantitative and qualitative analyses. I collected data on 550 companies operating in 52 settlements, and detailed time series data on demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the same settlements. Population surveys in these towns collected data on the vital status and other characteristics of survey respondents’ relatives. I demonstrate that severe deindustrialisation is associated with a significantly larger risk of mortality for men between 1989 and 1995. On the other hand, prolonged state ownership is related to a significantly lower risk of death among women, compared to towns dominated by domestic private or towns dominated by foreign investment between 1995 and 2004. The thematic analysis of 82 in-depth interviews reveals that companies are central institutions in the cognitive maps of workers and that the fates of these companies affected the health of workers in multiple ways. In contrast, state involvement was perceived as a cushioning mechanism. The central messages of the dissertation are that severe deindustrialisation was a crucial factor behind the post-socialist mortality crisis for men. At the same time, prolonged state ownership was associated with the protection of life chances for women. The indirect economic benefits of foreign investment do not translate automatically into better health. Rapid economic transformations threaten health; they should be avoided where possible, but if this is not possible, strong safety nets should be in place.