Narrative Structures of “Escape”: Progressive Narrative and Cultural Structures of Upward Mobility at an Elite Russian University

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Dmitry Kurakin
Tamara Kusimova


Recently, cultural underpinnings of social mobility have received increased attention in scholarly literature. As educational systems and social policies partly level the playing field for educational and career opportunities, it is becoming increasingly important for the less privileged to recognize these opportunities, evaluate their benefits, and take advantage of them. This study examines the narrative structures that organize the experience of people participating in rapid upward mobility. The study focused on a group of participants in one of Russia’s leading universities’ affirmative action program and, through 22 semistructured in-depth biographical interviews, examined the characteristics of their motivation, aspirations, imagination, action, and choice strategies. As we shifted to the next level of generalization, we established how these elements comprise larger-scale narrative structures of organizing experience. The findings revealed significant differences with the patterns seen in many Western studies of the cultural underpinnings of inequality that highlight the critical role of “class trauma” in how young people from unprivileged families frame their life paths. The study employed the conceptual opposition of progressive vs. tragic narrative types proposed by Jeffrey Alexander and found that these structures organize experiences, practical evaluations, judgments, and decisions in fundamentally different ways. Our results show that, contrary to the patterns known from the studies conducted in the United States and some other Western countries, the progressive narrative predominates in the group studied in Russia. In addition, the main characteristics of the organization of the experience of upward mobility related to enrollment in an elite university have been identified, which generally fit into the cultural scheme of the “escape”—a break with the cultural and moral reference systems of the social environment that the study respondents have left. The moral dimension of the problem is particularly noteworthy: respondents generally evaluated their experiences of upward mobility positively, not in pragmatic terms, as might be expected, but in moral terms.

Article in Russian


Culture, Inequality, Upward Mobility, Narrative, Progressive Narrative, Tragic Narrative, Morality, Emotions, Trauma, Narrative Identity

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