Raj Kollmorgen

Transformation theory and socio-economic change in Central and Eastern Europe. A conceptual framework


A comprehensive presentation of the main characteristics and findings of a „transformation theory“ with respect to post-communist socio-economic changes in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) might seem easier than the task really is. On the one hand, the notion „transformation“ does not represent the only conceptual term in the field as the competitive notions „transition“ and „reform“ demonstrate. This is a hint at the contested subject as well as the alternative basic theoretical assumptions and competing theoretical currents.[1] On the other hand, the general possibility of a transformation theory and, assumed that there is such a possibility, its type and range keep a field of intensive debate. Against this background, it is impossible to offer here either an overview of „the analytical paradigm of transformation theory“ or a description of the state of the art in the post-communist transformation studies.[2] This article tries rather to deliver a sketch of a particular theoretical position on the subject of transformation. This position is a sociological one, and more concrete: a position of a historical-sociological theory of societal transformations. Even under this limitation, the following theoretical considerations must confine themselves to the outline of a conceptual framework.

It starts with the definition of societal transformations (1.) and goes on with the discussion of focal points and theoretical-methodological tools of the approach (2.). Then some concrete contributions of the approach for the analysis of CEE with respect to the socio-economic processes and problems will be presented (3.). The last part (4.) deals briefly with the question, whether we need a distinguished theory of post-communist capitalism.

Societal transformations – what does it mean?

The notion „transformation“ owes its rise the political and social ruptures in CEE after 1989 and normally refers – often without any further adjective – to the post-communist social changes in this region. From a historical-sociological perspective, I plead for an extension of the frame of reference. In my view, societal transformations represent a specific type of social change that should be grasped as an alternative way of formational change compared with the „classical“ forms like the formation of modern democratic and capitalist societies in the north-western hemisphere over last three hundred years. The first historical and to some extent paradigmatic case of societal transformations was the so-called „Meiji-Restoration“ in Japan (1867-1912). Later, many other attempts under different conditions and with plural directions of system change followed. Three distinct waves and four types of societal transformations can be differentiated: „post-feudalist transformations“ (1867 until the first decades of the 20th century), „state-socialist transformations“ and „post-colonial transformations“ (after the WWII up to the 1970s) as well as „post-socialist transformations (after 1988/89) (cf. Kollmorgen 2006).

Related to the „traditional“ mode of formational change, societal transformations are characterized[3]:

  • By the attempt of a radical, systemically controlled and “staged” (or performed) social change that includes all levels and all spheres of the social. The central goal of this project is an accelerated modernization allowing catching up with the leading nations in the world-society or: leaving the status as (semi-)peripheral society and becoming part of the centre in the world-system – or at least: in the regional system.
  • By specific new elite’s capacities of control and steering. In sharp struggles against the old regime, the elites depend on secular social movements and rest upon bureaucratic institutions in controlling the system change.
  • By new elite’s clear orientation in models of successful and hegemonic modern societies in the world-system wherein imported or borrowed institutions of different national systems are mixed with each other and re-combined with elements of the old order.
  • By the idea of „institutions first“ (W. Merkel). It means that basic institutions are implemented by the elites and are to be subsequently interiorized by the mass.
  • By (up to now) the core unit of the nation state. That does not exclude the integration of societal transformations in regional and/or global hegemonic projects of change or domination.

Further, societal transformations possess specific process structures with own temporalities. Important elements are (a) the dilemmas of simultaneity. These dilemmas refer to the complexity and the attempt of radical, holistic and fastest possible social change the transformations aim at. This idea to change all levels and all relevant spheres (from economy over legislation and polity up to arts and science) at once with the „old“, i.e. given, individuals in a complete „new“, i.e. radically modernized, way must generate dilemmatic situations of action with specific (unintended) consequences.

(b) One important process form of overcoming or better dealing with these dilemmas is a politico-societal cycle with an approximate duration of 4 up to 7 years.[4] Each of them contains specific socio-political ideologies, programs, strategies and tools developed by the ruling (factions of) elites at that time. They respond to the particular set of problems the (political) society is confronted with. The respective solutions as well as the problems left over or being newly emerged within one cycle lead to (maybe: critical) processes of exhaustion of the given programmes and tools, the exchange of government or elites, and with new ones, to the beginning of a next cycle. Under democratic conditions, these cycles largely converge with (national) election cycles.

(c) The politico-societal cycles are embedded in an overarching three-period structure of transformations.[5] It entails (1) the period of breakthrough or the change of power (usually taking few months or even only weeks); (2) the period of institutionalization of the new order (a process that regularly spans over some years)[6], and (3) the period of (re-)structuring. The latter takes at least three, but can also take up to five decades (35-55 years). The decisive reason for this long time-period of (re-)structuring is the need for infrastructural, socio-structural and socio-cultural embedding of the new order, or with other words: It needs this time-period for the long-term processes of materialization as well as culturalization of the formally implemented new institutions. Historical experiences teach us that this process requires two changes of generations.[7]

Finally, although societal transformations start as projects of a planned, modelled and controlled holistic change, the results after two or five decades disclosure that the real processes always exceed this character of a projected change – by unrecognized conditions, spontaneous re-combinations, shifting targets, unintended consequences, etc. Thus, the results diverge substantially from the early projects and never end up in real „copies“ of the selected models. This difference includes the possibility of failure, and many historical as well as current transformational projects demonstrate the probability of failing. Yet, even successful transformations always reach over pure catching-up modernizations and result in specific modernities (cf. the paradigmatic Japanese case).

Theories of societal transformations: focal points and theoretical-methodological tools

It is impossible here to discuss deeper the general problem what minimal standards and appropriate principles of social theories are. Concerning the problem of theories of transformation I share neither the wide-spread view that such a theory is as impossible as needless nor that it can only be constructed in form of a middle-range-theory (as R.K. Merton proposed it). On the contrary, I see not only the possibility, but also the necessity of theories of transformation moving on the societal level and entailing potentially all historical waves and contemporary cases of this type of social change. Such theory-building is not restricted to the post-communist epoch and space. It aims at a general theory of societal transformation. Although I do not know any „mature“ sociological theory of societal transformation, I identify lots of contributions to such a type of transformation theory elaborated in the last decades, partly with different goals and notional conceptualizations.[8]

What could be described as focal points and corresponding theoretical-methodological tools for a theory of transformation?

(1) Societies in flux: In general, societal transformations represent a social practice implying the liquefaction of the social. Thus, process analyses must be the central programmatic orientation. Also the awareness is needed that thus „the normal methods“ of social sciences largely fail (O´Donnell/Schmitter 1986). Due to the destabilization or suspension of the previous relations between structural conditions, actions and expectable results, and the long-term creation and formation of (radically) new frames of action, classical logics and methods of empirical research (such as conclusions from structure variables to action patterns or prognoses as trend extrapolations) must miscarry. Compared with these, unbiased methods like grounded theory (Strauss/Corbin 1998) or tools like (historical) case studies, event analyses on life courses (Mayer 1990) and other longitudinal instruments as well as biographical or ethnographic methods (e.g. Hann 2002) prove to be more appropriate.

(2) The centrality of actors and institutions as well as the attempts to control or steer the radical change of society: If one accepts the politically projected character of societal transformations and the crucial role of macro- and mezzo-actors in (trans-)forming formal actor-institution-complexes by borrowing or transferring from hegemonic „model“-societies and re-combining them with remnants of the old order, it is conclusive that any transformation theory must focus on these processes including their historical, structural, socio-cultural as well as world-societal conditionalities. From the theoretical-methodological perspective, this core of transformation studies requires:

(a)    An action, actor and agency theory that is open for changing relations of all elements within the „logics of action“ and emphasizes aspects of „contradictions“, „social becoming“ or „creative action“ (e.g. the fundamental works by Giddens 1984; Sztompka 1991; Joas 1996 or Elster 2007).

(b)   A particular focus on actor-institution relations and processes of institutional steering accentuating the mechanisms of institution and policy transfer, diffusion and processes of lesson drawing – or expressed in a broader sense: phenomena of individual and collective social learning.[9]

(c)    A specific interest in new elites on the macro- and mezzo-level in all spheres of the society including problems of „transnational leadership“ (see e.g. Eyal/Szelényi/Townsley 2000; Grancelli 2002; Kubik 2003).

(d)   Linked with the latter, the discussion of power relations in their material and not last: symbolic or discursive dimension within all the processes and relations mentioned before (for exemplary studies in the post-communist context see: Bönker/Müller/Pickel 2002a; Jacoby 2002; Kennedy 2002; Kubik 2003).

(3) The complex dimensionality and contextuality of societal transformations: Theories of transformation on the level of theories of society are aware of the dimensional and aspective complexity of this type of social change. Although it is possible to build middle-range theories of transformation dealing with partial processes like the political transition or the economic transformation, any of such attempts is condemned to failure without explicit and intensive regard to the holistic or total character of the societal transformation as well as the specific contexts the concrete transformation takes place. One might exemplarily refer to the discussion on the economic transformation in post-communist societies.

All approaches of neo-classical economics which so far have dealt with the economic reform in post-communist societies already demonstrated - with their notion of „reform“ - that they misunderstood the objective and temporal scope of change. Most of these approaches tend to handle the project as a universal and technocratic one. This universal-technocratic model implied three assumptions. First, the goal of implementing a capitalist „market society“ after the market-radical paradigm is an objective one and, hence, can and must be pursued by the new political elites, if the transformation should succeed. Second, the actor capacities for implementing those basic actor-institution complexes are given always and everywhere. Thus, it is never a question of ability but of will and decision-making. Third, the outcome of such a reform results basically from the political decision-making and steering. If one further takes into account that these reform approaches saw the necessity to „eradicate“ the communist past linked with the expectation that then – after a short and hard period of „transition“ (the notorious „valley of tears“) – a flourished capitalist market will emerge more or less autogenously, it becomes understandable, why we find all the well-known universal market-radical big-bang strategies with their technocratic reform sequences and the assumption that the reform will be completed in about ten years in the respective papers and textbooks (for early approaches: Fisher/Gelb 1991; Sachs 1994; Balcerowicz 1996). Albeit some of these reform approaches and programmes showed the ability to „lesson learning“ and, hence, partly revised their reductionist theoretical models, important blank positions remain. They include the adherence to universalism, the ongoing undercomplexity in analyzing the transformation as well as certain misconceptualizations of actors and institutions.[10]

From the theoretical-methodological point of view, the shortcomings of neo-classical and neo-liberal approaches on economic reforms demonstrate what is required instead. It is impossible here to develop systematically the necessary dimensions and contexts. Alternatively, I must point to the previous remarks and a schematic overview provided in table 1 (for detailed discussions cf. Kollmorgen 2006; Spreckelsen/Kollmorgen 2010).

(4) Modes of transformation and transformation paths: Apart the general distinction of types of transformation with respect to the formational starting point as well as the target envisaged (like post-feudalist vs. post-communist transformations), the (re-)construction of modes of transformation and transformation paths represent one of the crucial goals a theory of transformation aims at.

Table 1: Levels, contexts, logics and forms of societal transformation

Source: Own overview partly based on a conceptual idea by Ekiert/Hanson 2003a: 20 (tabl. 1.1.).

The mode of transformation refers, on the one hand to the concrete national, international and world-societal contexts of the transformation. On the other hand, it implies the decisive factors and factor combinations propelling and controlling the (institutional) change. The mode reflects not only the type, strength and actor composition of the old regime, but contains also the key transitional actors, their embeddedness and their main strategies in the process of transformation as well as the forms the process of transition take. It reflects the decisive political, social and maybe socio-cultural conflict lines. Further, the mode informs about the (most) important resources and media of social integration facing the strategies and conflicts. Obviously, the mode represents a kind of synthetic notion combining many factors and factor constellations, for instance allochthon vs. autochthon institution transfer, revolutionary vs. negotiated transition process, or nationalistic vs. welfare-based social integration, so that it is impossible to combine the factors into one term. Furthermore, the mode may and often will change in the long-term process of transformation. While the process of a breakthrough could show the mode of revolution, the second time-period of institutionalization may be determined by a negotiated modus or vice versa. Similarly, the main strategy can change from a rather smooth to a radical type, etc.

This is a hint at the second goal and – at the same time – theoretical-methodological tool, the reconstruction of path-formation. Here the process orientation in the perspective of the longe durée is decisive. The concept of path-formation links two sets of intertwined mechanisms. The first one is represented by path-generation. The key assumption here is that with the processes of a breakthrough and the radical change of basic actor-institution-complexes (like capitalism or representative democracy), a new path is founded. The concrete direction and shape of the new path emerging in this time-period is, on the one hand, highly contingent. Because of the „revolutionary“ suspension of the old power structures, traditional relationships and convictions, the path-emergence rests upon the actual distribution of power among the key actors, their concrete goals, programmes, and decision-makings as well as particular constellations of co-operation and conflict on the national and international level (cf. O´Donnell/Schmitter 1986; Karl/Schmitter 1991). Basic formal rules and actor-institution-complexes established this way (like constitutional reforms, the implementation of a new governmental system or rules of property redistribution) are able to determine the further societal development fundamentally and for a long(er) time.

On the other hand, and coming to the mechanism set of path-dependency, nothing social emerges ex nihilo. There is no such a thing like a „clean slate“ or a „great leap“ in the meaning of leaving the past behind. Any transformation, even the most radical one, is above all a re-combination of old and old with new elements of the social encompassing material (like goods and living standard, infrastructure or plants, but also the physical existence of humans), formal and informal institutional settings (like basic administrative structures and legal regulations, social safety nets, or patterns of the family division of labour) as well as symbolic orders (e.g. cognitive maps, patterns of interpretation and evaluation, or ideas of a good life) (cf. Grabher/Stark 1997; Stark/Bruszt 1998, Ekiert/Hanson 2003b). These inevitable references and re-combinations functioning with mechanisms like „institutional layering“ (e.g. in ongoing reforms of the welfare policy), „increasing returns“ or „lock-ins“ (e.g. in the diffusion of innovative technological and socio-economic settings) are responsible for a double path-dependency in societal transformations.[11] The first one is related to the history of the society in the longue durée reaching back to the decades or even centuries before the transformation started. The turmoil in the transition period ruptures to a certain extent the power of history because the autochthonous material and symbolic traditions play a minor role compared with the actual future-oriented actions (based on hegemonic models of modernity) and the concrete power constellations. But the dependencies from the long-term history and multiple contexts in making a new history (cf. tab. 1) regain their power proportionally with the duration of the transformation. This is the result of the necessity to re-embed and re-connect actions and individuals as well as re-structure materially and symbolically the entire society.[12] Simultaneously, a second – but only analytically separable – path-dependency is formed by the impacts of the transitional rupture itself, i.e. the consequences of the path-generation. Altogether, it is a highly complex and dialectical process of path-formation including long-term dependencies, the short-term path-generation and successive path-reformations during the transformational period of structuring.[13]

Few contemporary examples of post-89 social change might be helpful to understand the different mechanisms. Albania (1991/92-1994/95) and Russia (1991-1992) are convincing cases for attempts of breaking the power of history and the „illusory feeling of free hands“ (J. Staniszkis 1999) on the side of new elites holding the political power for a short period. Both cases (Albania after 1995/97, Russia since 1993) also demonstrate which way history and spatial contexts re-unfold their power in shaping the reform or transformation paths. Further, the Polish case (1988-1995) disclosure the contingencies of the transition period and the role historical characters (like L. Walesa) can play as well as the Czech transformation show which way early (neo-)liberal ideologies (1989-1994/95) have been repressed and replaced by politico- and socio-economic models referring to rather social-democratic and conservative Habsburg traditions in capital-labour relations and the welfare state.

(5) The cross-disciplinary, comparative and combining design of theories of transformation: Facing the focal points and theoretical-methodological tools discussed hitherto it becomes obvious that there cannot be any single discipline, theoretical current or approach being able to encompass the complex subject. Thus, sociological theories of transformation are reliant upon cross-disciplinary co-operation and analyses and strive for a combining theoretical design integrating macro- and micro-approaches as well as transition and path-dependency studies or ethnographic not less than rational-choice based institutionalist investigations. Furthermore, comparative studies of contemporary as well as historical cases of societal transformations prove to be one of the most relevant means in elaborating appropriate analytical tools and theoretical models.

Transformation theory: contributions for the analysis of post-communist societies and their socio-economic change

Beside the already undertaken applications or at least illustrations, three remarks and brief discussions of important contributions of the transformation theory should be highlighted: (1) inside and outside post-communist transformations, (2) basic characteristics of post-communist transformations, and (3) problems of the dilemmas of simultaneity and the best strategy of socio-economic change.

Inside and outside the post-communist transformation

Applying the general conceptualization the first conclusion is that not all post-communist countries in CEE and Central Asia meet the conditions of a societal transformation. If we reconsider the processes e.g. in Moldavia, Belarus or Armenia, the substantial deviations are obvious. Here not even the goal of changes does follow the ideal-typical notion let alone the „tools“ of transformation. But also the cases of Ukraine and Russia rather appear as hybrid forms of social change combining features of societal transformations with attempts of (radical) reform from above under conditions of surviving elites, absent social mass movements and weak or even failed stateness. This notional expulsion must not mean the neglect of those cases from transformation studies. On the contrary, it is required to integrate them not only in order to have comparative „material“ at hand, but above all: because of the possibility of changing paths in the future (see Ukraine after 2004). Therefore, the further observation and analysis in the context of transformation studies represent a necessity.

One important consequences of this case classification is the change of criteria of success and failure. Already from a „pure“ analytical point of view, it does not make sense to evaluate countries like Kazakhstan, Albania, Belarus or Russia with the same criteria or indices, which have been developed for and applied to societies like Poland, East Germany or Slovenia. But almost all indices of scientific projects (cf. the „Bertelsmann Transformation Index“ [BTI] of the Bertelsmann Foundation) as well as transnational economic organizations (like the EBRD transition indicators) work with such sort of universal tools reflecting this way their neo-classical or other universalistic backgrounds and, moreover, the power of hegemonic ideologies.[14] Beside the problem of hegemonic discourses, the application of such criteria have at least two socio-practical impacts: On the one hand, they may rather help to paralyze the key political actors facing the sheer impossibility of achieving high scores due to the legacies and contexts these transformation societies are trapped in. On the other hand, and more important, those criteria catalogues and reform agendas are able to guide the actors in a fallacious direction. So, one of the central reform elements, the withdrawal of the state had to have disastrous impacts in cases like Russia or Albania. Here, the socio-economic role of the communist state was even more important than in Central Europe. Simultaneously, the state of stateness in these countries at the beginning of the reform attempts could only be labelled as „dysfunctional“ – due to its general weakness, fragmentation and wide-spread corruption on all levels.[15]

Basic characteristics of post-communist transformations

Coming back to the countries in Central Europe for which the concept „societal transformation“ can undoubtedly be applied to, a quick run through the key elements results in the following determinations[16]:

(1) The goal of transformation that should be achieved was, on the one hand, overcoming the communist rule, the command economy and the ideologies and cultures of state-socialism; on the other hand and positively, obtaining the reality of the Western modernity of the late 1980s („the return to Europe“). Yet, the concrete models of the democratic welfare capitalism differed from each other reaching from rather liberal over conservative up to social-democratic varieties.

(2) The new political elites stemmed from the citizens' movement, in most cases under partial integration of reform-communist elite factions, farmers' parties, and newly or re-established national-conservative groups, which could rest upon a (largely) functioning statist and economic bureaucracy.

(3) The new basic institutions and actor-institution-complexes in almost all spheres of the society were selectively borrowed from several western societies (above all: from Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States, but also from Scandinavian countries) and have been re-combined with remnants of their own past. The parliamentary systems in Poland or Hungary as well as the education and welfare systems in the Czech Republic show impressively this character of the processes. With the beginning of the (formal) accession process to the European Union (2000-2004/2007), institutional adaptations and transfers of the EU-law and regulations (aquis communautaire) including the monitoring processes by the EU-commission became a key element in the further structuring processes in Central Europe (cf. Kutter/Trappmann 2006; Spreckelsen/Kollmorgen 2010).

(4) Concerning the dilemmas of simultaneity the early discussion concentrates on mutual obstructions of democratization and capitalist transformations. The main thesis said that without democratization and a new state-elite there is no chance for real economic reforms, but with democratization, it is very likely that due to the “valley of tears” strict reform elites will be quickly voted out (Elster 1990; Offe 1991, Przeworski 1991). C. Offe extended the dilemma to a trilemmatic situation reflecting the deep problems of state-building in many reform societies facing the open questions of minorities, collective identities, and territorial borders (Offe 1991).

(5) Regarding the period structure of transformations a rough assessment identifies for CE a transition period from 1989/90 to 1993/94 and a period of structuring that will last until 2020/2030.[17] Insofar it must be partly kept open, whether even the „model cases“ of post-communist transformations hitherto (like Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech republic or the Baltic states) will successfully go on in the coming years and decades. Not only the socio-political distortions in Hungary in the last two years, but also the economic crisis in the Czech Republic in 1997/98 as well as the impacts of the current global economic crisis (2009/2010) in the entire region give a first hint at certain long-term fragilities and open questions the transformation societies envisage.

Dilemmas of simultaneity and the search for the best strategy of socio-economic change

As already mentioned, prominent transformation researcher (like J. Elster, C. Offe or A. Przeworski) identified dilemmas of simultaneity, wherein the dilemma between a radical democratization and a radical economic transformation towards capitalism seemed to be the most relevant ones. This thesis was harshly contradicted by the neo-classical economists (like Fisher/Gelb, J. Sachs or L. Balcerowicz). They were convinced that there is no dilemma. With a radical break with the communist past including the full disempowerment of the old cadres and the strict application of the big-bang strategy, democracy and capitalism will quickly reinforce each other. The faction of the sociologically informed transformation researchers kept sceptical positions and discussed different appropriate strategies with the addendum that the dilemmatic situation itself is inevitable and will lead to peculiar courses of the societal transformations in CEE.

After fifteen years, the controversy substantially altered. While the neo-classical approach holds on to its basic theses and feels confirmed by the real courses of „economic reforms“ (for many contributions: Åsslund 2007: 40-44; Havrylyshyn 2006), voices are growing among the sociologically informed transformation researchers that the dilemma may really have not existed and the relation between the emerging capitalism and the establishment of representative democracy must be revisited and perhaps fundamentally reformulated (cf. Beyer 2008: 92; Merkel 2010: 325, 434; Wiesenthal 2010).

Looking, on the one hand, at the Central European societies and especially at the model cases of Poland and the Baltic states with their success in the last years and, on the other hand, at the transformational „losers“ of the first decade from Russia up to Bulgaria or Romania or even Moldavia, it could indeed seem as if the shock therapy and with it the consequent simultaneous implementation of democracy and capitalist markets would not only be possible, but represents the secret of a success.

Although I share the conviction that we need a revision of the dilemma theorem and the problems of strategy formation, I deny the requirement of rejecting the entire theorem and see the risk of a (new) simplification of the transformation processes.

My reassessment starts with two observations: Firstly, many of the early prognoses of the dilemma theorem became true. In all Central European cases (above all: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary or the Baltic states), we could observe the phenomenon of voting-out governments after introducing the first hard reform steps accompanied with the deep economic crisis. In many cases, stop-and-go politics and little politico-societal cycles in coping with this and further fundamental problems of transformation were the result.

Secondly, regardless of whether new governments and power blocs tended to a (often rather: hidden) continuation of the reform strategy applied before or not, almost all reform governments used the general “tool-kit“ in coping with overcomplex situations transformation politics are confronted with: dividing tasks, postponing reform steps, putting particular measurements aside, delegating responsibility, and generating material and symbolic compensations. In a more concrete sense and with respect to the socio-economic sphere, the key elements of the transformation strategy were partial liberalization and de-regulation (e.g. of prices or the foreign trade), the partition of privatization (e.g. the postponement of privatizing the big state-owned enterprises), or maintaining the level of public welfare expenditures as well as deferring essential reforms of the state-socialist welfare system until the end of the 1990s (on the welfare politics cf. Kovacs 2003; Cerami/Vanhuysse 2009; Kollmorgen 2009).

If one considers further the phenomena of rather discursive radical economic reforms in order to ensure the ongoing material and symbolic support by the transnational agencies (like IMF or EBRD) and western governments, the deficits in democratizing the society as well as the changes of government bringing post- and reform-communist parties in power[18], and not last: the vast processes of generating and restructuring political capitalism[19], all alleged cases of the big-bang strategy have exposed in the first decade, the thesis that there were any cases of a pure „shock therapy“ in economy and polity with its textbook results must be considered as falsified (cf. Müller 1996; Bönker/Müller/Pickel 2002a; Lane/Maynt 2007; Bohle/Greskovits 2007).

What we find instead in the socio-economic transformations in Central Europe are always mixtures or better: pragmatic (re-)combinations of the textbook models and strategies – changing over time and differing with respect to the concrete socio-economic area (like privatization vs. industrial policy vs. public welfare reform). Moreover, if we reconsider the concrete paths in Central Europe we can even find a sort of strategy convergence – from both sides. While the Czech Republic under V. Klaus started with the programme of a „market economy sans phrase“ and shifted to a well-tempered emergence of a „Europeanized“ partly neo-corporatist, partly social-democratic „market economy“ with few neo-liberal elements, the Hungarian case demonstrated at the same time a somehow reversal course by a successive accentuation of neo-liberal elements – largely regardless of which political party dominated the government. The approach towards Bulgaria and Romania must appear much more impressive because of their rather chaotic reform attempts in the first half of the 1990s. Of course, this assertion of re-combinations and mutual convergences does not deny substantial differences in the concrete and long-term strategy building as a comparison of the Baltic states (above all: Estonia) with the Visegrad states reveals (cf. ibid.). But and again, these different dominances do not contradict the main thesis put forward here, i.e. that there is no single case in Central Europe (and in the entire CEE region) that might be justifiably denoted as „shock therapeutic socio-economic transformation“. Certain forms of gradualism were and will be inevitable. The general reason for this reality consists of the complex dilemmatic challenges (cf. 2./3.) and the communist past the societies in transformation were confronted with. The concrete reform design and the real history of the socio-economic transformations pursued over the last twenty years have been caused by the strategic choices of the responsible politico-economic actors and the concrete contexts of their actions – but: these choices were themselves depended from the long-term national, regional and world-societal contexts. Insofar, politics of socio-economic transformation does matter – not within a vacuum, but rather embedded in and dependent from a complex socio-historical matter (cf. my elucidations of path-formation above).

Nonetheless, facing the social reality of a relative fast and successful simultaneous emergence of capitalism and democracy, as cases like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia or Estonia witness, the dilemma theorem and the early scepticism of sociological transformation researchers require a serious reconsideration. Besides my critical discussion above (on societal transformations and strategy building), the most important revisions presented in the last five years – differentiable in conceptual (1-3) and empirical arguments (4-6) – consist of:

(1)   A reinterpretation of the communist socio-cultural past that indeed do not only function as hindrance, but also as „positive asset“ (e.g. by emphasizing the educational level, work ethic, etc.).

(2)   A revaluation of functioning stateness as one the key agents in connecting the emergence and legitimacy of capitalism and democracy.

(3)   A reconsideration of the “imitative holism”: Its advantage includes broad processes of policy transfer supported by extensive lesson drawing and a fast enhancement of political skills with the reform actors. Further and in this context: The largely positive role of foreign advisers, transnational actors (like EBRD) and above all: the EU-accession procedures played herein (cf. Wiesenthal 2001; 2010: 85-87; Beyer 2008: 81-85).

(4)   Rather empirically, the observation that loser groups of (radical) reforms showed organizational weaknesses so that they did not possess a greater potential to blockade the transformation process.

(5)   This hints at the same time at the insight that limitations of the democratic response (by semi-presidential systems of government or defective democracies) do not support the depth and continuation of socio-economic reforms. Rather, such limitations promote rent-seeking and nomenklatura-capitalism as well as state capture.

(6)   Finally, the legitimacy of the new order has proven stronger and system-oriented than initially thought. The decisive reasons for that have been found with the depth of the state-socialist legitimacy crises, and hence, so-called „honeymoon-effects“ (F. Bönker) towards the new order as well as the (seeming or real) absence of alternatives towards a „return to Europe“, i.e. the western variants of capitalism and democracy (Beyer 2008: 85-88; Wiesenthal 2010: 75-86; cf. Beyer/Wielgohs/Wiesenthal 2001; Müller 2008).

Here is no room to delve into this intensive discussion. But the arguments presented within this controversy make clear that a relative swift and a successful transformation towards capitalism and democracy are highly prerequisite and deserve further investigations. Furthermore, the whole discussion underlines that it must keep a misleading conception to assume there is any universal recipe for strategy building in the post-communist socio-economic reconstruction being valid for Estonia and the Czech Republic not less than for Russia or Moldavia.

Post-communist pathways or: do we need a theory of post-communist capitalism(s)?

Yes, we do. For me, it is obvious that the communist past (itself with different subtypes of communism despite the Soviet empire) as well as the post-communist transformations with their different contexts, programmes, strategies, and outcomes up today have led to the formation of genuine „varieties“, „forms“ or „regimes“ of capitalism (not less, but even more differentiated than the communist regimes).

It seems to me hardly contested that it is possible to distinguish between several sub-types of the post-communist socio-economic systems in CEE. I tend to introduce a matrix with five variants resting upon a combination of typologies developed by the Regulation Theory, the Varieties of Capitalism Approach and the welfare regime research:[20]:

1.      The Baltic states (well advanced transformation, market-liberal political economy and welfare system with certain social-democratic elements, EU-membership)

2.      The Visegrad states (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary – plus Slovenia: well advanced transformation, a mixture of neo-corporatist and social-democratic political economy and welfare system with the inclusion of market-liberal elements, EU-membership)

3.      The Southern European countries (with two sub-groups developed so far: (a) Bulgaria and Romania, (b) the further ex-Yugoslavian states and Albania: advanced/deferred or limited transformations, strong neo-corporatist and partly patrimonial political economies and welfare systems, (a) EU-members and (b) possible future EU-members)

4.      The CIS-9 states (a highly fragmented group including Ukraine and Russia as well as Moldavia and Kazakhstan: limited or discontinued transformations or reforms, mixtures of statist/patrimonial, neo-corporatist and market-liberal elements)

5.      The CIS-3 group (Belarus, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan: non-transformed, partly Soviet-type, partly patrimonial political economies and welfare systems).

6.      Although I cannot discuss deeper here these variants and their characteristics, three final elucidations and comments from the perspective of transformation studies might be suitable.

(a) The emergence, restructuring and possible re-formations of these varieties or different regimes follow the logic that has been presented above under the notion of path-formation. Hence, who talks about post-communist varieties or regimes should take the dynamic and path-(re)forming character into account.

(b) At the first sight and reflecting the communist past, the existence and partly dominant role of neo-liberal elements in certain cases might surprise.[21] But if one considers: (1) the liberal and anti-statist attitudes as well as the action and steering capacities of the new elites in Central Europe, (2) the neo-liberal hegemony in the transnational organizations in the early 1990s, and (3) the organizational weakness of the labour-side in all post-communist societies, then the possibility of neo-liberal courses in CE appears much less surprising. Nevertheless, these factors must be supplemented by a fourth one that could be dubbed the „sufficient reason“ for the attractiveness of neo-liberalism. Whereas the model of the „social market economy“ was one of the leading models for reformers before and shortly after 1989, the new elites in the Visegrad and - much more - in the Baltic states recognized that this model may fit to a mature democratic welfare capitalism but not to transformation economies. Their goal, formulated explicitly, was not to catch-up the western societies over the long haul, but to modernize the socio-economic systems in an accelerated way so that they are able to compete successfully with the „old Europe“ or even to pass them as better capitalisms. This way and reflecting the concrete contexts and post-communist constellations, the neo-liberal strategies and institutional implementations have replaced the pattern of a „developmental state“ favoured in the 1960/70s.[22]

(c) The current global crisis and its impacts on CEE raise the question of the stability of path-formation and variety generation hitherto. Albeit phenomena of an economic crises can be observed in all CEE countries including the Visegrad group (with a particular critical situation in Hungary), the Baltic states considered as the most advanced and „progressive“ – the transformation societies seem to experience the sharpest economic decline combined with serious structural problems (above all: Latvia). Both, the decline as well as the structural distortions, have to be linked with the formed market-liberal politico-economic regime. It has become apparent that this regime-type possesses notable advantages under conditions of global prosperity and huge international capital flows. Under conditions of economic downturns and massive capital withdrawals, the model tends to fail. At least, the system as the Estonian case shows impressively exposes the ability of a quick and substantial political respond. Obviously, it is too soon to evaluate finally the chances and risks of the varieties of post-communist capitalism in and after the economic crises. Nonetheless, in my opinion a certain degree of a re-evaluation will be the result. Although, the post-communist paths treaded up to now have been consolidating for ten or even fifteen years, it is not implausible that the impacts of the current crises will lead to more than accidental re-formations in particular cases – maybe in the direction of softening market-liberal elements and strengthening social-democratic or neo-corporatist ones. But the intensification of market-radical courses is also conceivable. The higher degree of openness towards re-formations in CEE compared with western political economies and welfare systems owes to the logics as well as the concrete contexts of the post-communist transformations. So, the relative strong market-liberal elements are not really embedded in the economic and political culture or the social structure. They have been established as a decisive strategic tool within the program of an accelerated modernization under conditions of the hegemony of neo-liberal discourses on the global level. The global as well as the domestic conditions and constellations are altering with the crisis. Time will tell, whether and to what extent the neo-liberal discourses and practices are being substantially undermined. But whatever the actual directions of (possible) re-formations will be, they underline that the post-communist transformations do not represent a historical chapter that can be finally closed.



[1]    This represents a sharp contrast in respect to all other „paradigms“ that this issue of Emecon discusses. Transformation theory is not a „paradigm“. This notion only defines a particular subject of theoretical efforts – and even this subject remains blurry or contested (see 2.).

[2]    Such overviews on transformation theories can be found – for the political science – in Merkel 1994, 2010: 21-127, 488-499; for the sociological debate: Kollmorgen 2010a, cf. Kollmorgen 1996, 2007.

[3]    This is an ideal-typical conceptualization based on broader comparative studies (cf. Kollmorgen 2004, 2006, Spreckelsen/Kollmorgen 2010). Because of the ideal-typical conceptualization, all empirical cases „deviate“ from these characteristics in one respect or another, and we find certain peculiarities referring to the waves and case groups. Furthermore, there is a smooth transition to other forms of societal change. So the national-socialist „transformation“ in Germany after 1933 showed some common features with this ideal-type – but other features are missing. Likewise, the well-known processes of „transitions to democracy“ (e.g. in Spain or countries in Latin America in the 1970s/1980s) share central characteristics, but do not meet all necessary conditions (e.g. the radical transformation of the economic system).

[4]    This as well as the following information on approximate durations of cycles and periods (see [c]) reflects historical experiences and empirical regularities of societal transformations hitherto. They do not intend the formulation of „temporal laws“. The key aspect is the cyclical logic of action and structuration embedded in particular context structures (see 3.) and not the fixation of an abstract time-period.

[5]    In analytical respect, a further period should be added: the pre-transformational period of decline of the old order. The conditions, the length and mode of decline are important factors in shaping the societal transformation, in particular the transition period.

[6]    The periods (1) and (2) can be subsumed under the notion of transition period following the wide-spread use in the political science and the transition literature in particular (cf. Merkel 2010).

[7]    The thesis of a period of (re-)structuring taking 35-55 years or at least two changes of generation corresponds with conceptualizations of the so-called „Kondratieff-cycles“ or „long waves“ in the (socio-)economy of modern societies (cf. Schumpeter 1939; Freeman 1982) as well as generation-centred approaches of social and cultural change (cf. Mannheim 1928; Fietze 2009: 137-178).

[8]    Beside the heritage of the „grand theories“ (from K. Marx, M. Weber, J.A. Schumpeter up to K. Polanyí or N. Elias), transformation theories can profit particularly from the intensive debate on social revolutions (from B. Moore up to T. Skocpol) or „controlled modernizations“ (cf. D. Lerner, W. Rostow or A. Etzioni) that already took place from the late 1960s up to the 1980s. Concerning current contributions cf. the following bibliographical references.

[9]    Appropriate theoretical approaches here are e.g. the „actor centred institutionalism“ (Mayntz/Scharpf 1995) and certain variants of the „historical institutionalism“ (as overview: Thelen 1999). A pioneering study for the Japanese case is E. Westney (1987). Important contributions for the understanding of post-communist societies have been delivered by J. Elster, C. Offe (e.g. Elster et al. 1998, Offe 1991), D. Stark/W. Bruszt (1998) or H. Wiesenthal (2001, 2010) as well as J. Beyer (2006, 2008; Beyer/Wielgohs/Wiesenthal 2001). G. Ekiert/S.E. Hanson (2003b) or H. Kitschelt (2003).

[10] For approaches revising the early positions cf. Havrylyshyn 2006; Åsslund 2007. A critical discussion of the neo-classical and neo-liberal reform agenda and corresponding theoretical approaches can be found in Stiglitz 2002; Bönker/Müller/Pickel 2002b; Hoen 2008. As the last book by Åsslund (2007) disclosures, even current analyses demonstrate what the decisive problems are. He cannot understand why neo-classical approaches were confronted with the accusation of forgetting institutions since all significant authors (like J. Sachs or L. Balcerowicz) emphasized exactly the radical institutional change – from communism to capitalism. But the critics did not mean those „basic formal institutions“ (like the implementation of property rights or liberal foreign trade). They spoke and are speaking about mezzo-level and „informal institutions“ such as the particular formations of entrepreneurship (and the concrete and socio-culturally formed preferences of entrepreneurs), trust or networks among the market participants as well as action capacities of administrations or the functioning of new laws on the local level. Åsslund`s confusion becomes obvious when he simultaneously complains about the absence of a „legal reform“ and „relevant legal theories“ over years (Åsslund 2007: 43, 308).

[11] For intensive discussions of mechanisms of path-dependencies and their problems, see Thelen 1999; Pierson 2004; Beyer 2006; in the context of post-communist transformations: Hausner/Jessop/Nielsen 1995; Stark/Bruszt 1998; Beyer/Wielgohs/Wiesenthal 2001; Ekiert/Hanson 2003b.

[12] I avoid here the use of the well-known notions of (negative) legacies vs. (positive) assets not only because of their (often) dichotomous application but also due to the problem that it always depends on the concrete temporal and spatial context (that may change) what can or must be evaluated as hindrance or advantage in transformation processes.

[13] An alternative conceptualization from the perspective of transition studies was elaborated by Karl/Schmitter under the notion of „structured contingency“ (Karl/Schmitter 1991; cf. Müller 1996).

[14] For detailed information on the BTI, see www.bertelsmann-transformation-index.de/en/bti/; for the EBRD indicators, see EBRD 1999: 22-56.

[15] For the intensive discussion of this problem: Stiglitz 2002; Åsslund 2007; Pickles 2008 and particularly: Poznanski 2002.

[16] Beside the „classical“ Central European countries (from East Germany – as a specific case [cf. Kollmorgen 2010b] – and Poland up to Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia), this case group encompasses the Baltic States as well as some of the Southern European countries (Bulgaria and Romania – but not before mid-1990s).

[17] This proposition implies that the approach of a „transformation theory“ should not be considered as „outmoded“. As all theoretical approaches are challenged to reconsider and revise their theoretical apparatus and empirical base, so the transformation approach. The following discussions try to prove it exemplarily.

[18] Here the polish case is highly impressive, if one think of the politics by L. Walesa and his faction (1989-1995) as well as the success of the post-communists between 1991/1993 and 1997.

[19] Political capitalism would deserve a discussion of its own. It must not be limited to a retrogressive phenomenon and to a problem of unproductive „rent-seeking“ or „making owner of the nomenklatura“ (cf. Hankiss 1990). It encompasses rather structures, procedures and chance events enabling the emergence of capitalism out of the communist past, i.e. under presence of a „political“ command „economy“ as well as absence of capitalists, but also directed to conditions of prosperity within the concrete national and international contexts of the capitalist world-system (cf. Staniszkis 1999; Eyal et al. 2000).

[20] In general, cf. Hall/Soskice 2001; Boyer 2005; Esping-Andersen 1990. For the debate on the post-communist diversity: Lane 2007; Knell/Srholec 2007; Bohle/Greskovits 2007; Hancke/Rhodes/Thatcher 2008: 307ff.; Kollmorgen 2009; Cerami/Vanhuysse 2009 as well as Åsslund 2007: 305 ff..

[21] The neo-liberal elements consist of de-regulated and competition-oriented markets, strict privatization of state-enterprises, supply-side economics (e.g. by low flat income tax rates or even the abolition of profit taxes, etc.), high degree of economic transnationality (e.g. concerning foreign investment and productive property) as well as tendencies in privatizing the public welfare system (like pensions or health services).

[22] In this context, it seems to me highly interesting and should attract further examinations that the cases with the strictest neo-liberal programmes consist of, on the one hand, the most advanced transformation societies with the fastest EU-accession like Estonia, but, on the other hand, the most backward CIS-societies in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan).


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