The self-production of norms : the queues in soviet Russia

Jacques Coenen-Huther, “informal Production standards : the queues in soviet Russia” , Revue française de sociologie, 1992, n° 2, pp. 213-232.

Jacques Coenen-Huther proposes in this article a study of standards of conduct governing the queues in Moscow. At the outset of this research, there is a chance event in a queue. The situation of the initial interaction that triggers the investigation process on the standards – takes place in a grocery store, multi-spoke as it is to be found in the various districts of Moscow.

The retail procedure, which is still the most common in the State stores is a complex one to grasp for a Westerner. It is first of all the tail radius to be able to place an order. Then, it is the queue to the cashier to pay for the items ordered. After that, we go back to ray to take delivery in exchange of the receipt. One reaches thus very quickly a overall wait time of a half-hour to a single article of common consumption.

Novice in the matter, the author joins a queue in which the average growth allows to hope for a waiting time not exceeding thirty or forty minutes. But, come mid – term, he seems to understand that an error of maneuver, it will impose a new detour by the fund. He realizes that he does not have the correct ticket, leaves the line, and joined to that which is formed in front of the cashier in question, fulfills the formality requirements and is ready to resume his wait at the starting line. The person who followed him immediately in the first queue then makes a sign to come to reoccupy its original place, in front of her. Person makes an objection. The gain of time is considerable; the author is very grateful to its benefactor. But it seems indifferent…

Back in the family of muscovite that hosts it, he recounted the episode to his guests, who had warned against the harshness of morals muscovites and inform them of the kindness that he considers to have benefited in unexpected ways. But the narrative leaves them visibly perplexed. “Why was it nice?”, will they ask, and add : “sometimes, in fact, that it falls on the nice people in the queues. But this was not nice, it was only normal. It was your right to take up your place in the queue. It is the contrary which would not have been correct : that you deny this right!”. Their opinion seemed to be firm on this point. It was confirmed by the other people to whom the author made the same story. The divergence of appreciation about the kindness of the person who signs to him to re-enter the queue to the place that he had occupied previously, this minor event was an inconsistency from the point of view of its expectations. They had prepared the author to the muflerie, and he had found the courtesy.

Standards of behaviour in a queue of soviet

Everyone needs to fully visualize the person above and the person who follows it. Once the rank is established by confirmation of the person above, the person who follows, or both at the same time, one is free to absent himself a moment to tend to other responsibilities. To obtain recognition of his right, we will apply preferably to the following person : the one whose rank would be threatened by the insertion in the file an item not authorized. However, if it is in the last position at the time where one wants to be absent, we will seek the recognition of the person above. Thus, each member of the queue can acquire a certain responsibility to one or two other people. He may be called to confirm their right to re-enter the queue with their rank initial after a lapse of waiting more or less prolonged.

“One realizes, in the context of the soviet, the queue is not a simple system of interdependence, namely a situation of interaction without relations of roles, as can be the queue in front of a cinema in paris evoked by Raymond Boudon. In this case only defined the roles of the cashier and the spectator. Spectators who are queuing are not incurred each vis-à-vis others in the relations of roles; they form a system of interaction. In the soviet case, each member of the queue is the object of expectations of specific roles. There is the role of “the person above”, authorized to be absent, and that of “the person who follows”, called to confirm the right to re-enter the queue. There are expectations of roles general. Each member of the queue can be called to testify. As each one strives to remember that it is, for example, “behind the woman in the blue coat,” or “in front of the man in the raincoat grey”. It is not only to ensure its own position, but to fulfill its duties in respect of the collective emerge that are members of the queue. Be unable to provide this type of information would not be like the others. “

This analysis of the queue in a food store, where the wait lasts forty minutes, takes on a meaning more strong, when it comes to study, always in the situation of soviet queues are much much longer. “As soon as one deviates from the trivial to the queue of short or medium duration, the self-organization goes well beyond the rules governing conduct in a situation of interaction immediate. There are choices, sometimes the election of a leader, building a list, written draft of collective strategies. Thus it is, for example, buying tickets for international rail, often involving several days of waiting. “For example, to get to Warsaw by train, the sale of tickets begins thirty days before the date of departure. The number of tickets is limited, and the lovers are many, all the more that the provincials should come to buy them to Moscow to have a reasonable chance of obtaining them. The queue scared last several days, it is then that the organization of the queue is a significant interest. Indeed, in order not to lose its place in the queue and to continue to go about her other occupations ? In front of each wicket, the crowd gradually became a group is organized. Informal leaders emerge, written lists which guarantee the place of each in the queue are established. Everyone is regularly present but is absent to conduct in parallel with other activities. The various queues are reduced sometimes to stakes and then stretch again.

“The need to settle in for the duration, and the absence of regulatory interventions on the supply side as a cause of community-of-interest at least partially transforms the queue into a functional system “. This quasi-organic appears more clearly still in the files for a very long time – two to three months – that form in front of some embassies. The issue often of great importance, as it may be, to obtain documents of emigration, requires the production of standards. Here again, the crowd initially unorganized and in a situation of competitive interaction leaders will emerge and rules of conduct. The continuity of the line must be provided day and night. Posts with blankets, thermoses and food in the permit. The length of the tail ceases to be spectacular, but the occupation-organized places is testimony to the commitment of the actors. In the context of the soviet, the queue is not a simple system of interdependence. It is on the contrary a functional system, based on relationships of roles involving norms of behavior precise enough. There are therefore informal production standards.

From a western point of view, the queue is a synonym of inefficiency, in Russia, the waiting time is not a problem. The queue is an integral part of the distribution system of the soviet type in which it symbolizes the inefficiency, rigidity, bureaucracy and inability to adapt to the needs of consumers. The situations that underlie the analysis were experienced in the mode of participant observation, and made the subject of interviews repeated with local interlocutors, during a stay of four weeks in Moscow from mid-may to mid-June 1991.

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