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Research field 2: Mobility(s) and Inequality(s)

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One of the restrictions imposed by European governments to combat the Covid-19 pandemic in spring 2020 was the closure of national borders. This measure dramatically demonstrated the importance of intra-European mobility and just how closely it is linked to inequality within Europe. Hundreds of thousands of labor migrants from Eastern and Southeast Europe were stuck at borders on their hasty return; German asparagus farmers feared for their harvest because Polish and Ukrainian harvesters could no longer enter Germany, Austria organized special trains for caregivers from Romania, and workers from Bulgaria and Romania became infected with Covid-19 while working in German slaughterhouses. The public suddenly became aware that entire occupations depended on the willingness of people from Eastern and Southeast Europe to work for low wages and under difficult working conditions—an experience the population had already had in the 1960s with what were known as gastarbeiter or guest workers. The connections between migration and inequality are manifold and develop along different dimensions. Some structures of inequality and patterns of migration prove persistent, while others can change rapidly, especially in response to political regime change. Here, too, the duality of continuity and discontinuity emerges.

This web of relationships is subsumed under the concept of mobility, a concept that contains multiple meanings encompassing both spatial migration (in the sense of a change of residence) and changes of socioeconomic status within a society. The phenomenon of immobility, which is often neglected by migration research, must also be taken into account. Both spatial and social mobility are closely related to structures and practices of inequality, indeed they are mutually constitutive. Thus, this research field combines the study of internal and international migration, its causes and effects on migrants, their families, and communities, as well as on the broader contexts of origin and reception, with the analysis of determinants of social inequality. These are manifest, for example, in poverty, discrimination, and gender labor market inequalities. We also address the question of how these phenomena are perceived, interpreted, and politicized by social actors, and what visions of in/equality policymakers and societal actors articulate.

On the one hand, this approach aims to decenter the research—and public debate—on migration by looking at it through the prism of social inequality and bringing in the perspective of emigration societies. The public debate is mainly interested in immigration and integration, neglecting the other "end" of the migration process—but for many societies of Eastern and Southeast Europe, out-migration is socially a much more important process than immigration. Thus, research from the perspective of "peripheral spaces" can make a valuable contribution to the understanding of regional inequalities and their historical development. At the same time, this research field opens up new perspectives on the development of inequality in Eastern and Southeast Europe, from the nineteenth century to this day, and on differences within the region. Eastern and Southeast Europe represents a truly unique region in this respect: in terms of inequality, the state socialist societies were among the most (economically) egalitarian in the world (albeit at the price of legal inefficiency and a significant lack of freedom); today some of the most unequal societies in Europe can be found in the postsocialist world, while some of these countries still have relatively little income inequality. How do we explain such a dramatic change and the different paths within the region?

From a historical point of view, we seek to analyze linkages between mobility and inequality and their transformation into political upheavals in a broad temporal perspective. From a macro perspective, it can be postulated that more than a century of intensive (labor) migration from East to West as well as massive internal migration reproduced rather than overcame unequal relations between economic cores and peripheries. We are particularly interested in the changes in the primary factors producing social inequality and shaping (social) mobility, such as property regimes, ethnic or religious affiliation, gender differences, and spatial settlement patterns. The development of these factors is a key indicator of the nature of social transformation. Another issue of vital importance for historical analysis is political regimes of inequality (and equality), for instance in terms of legislation, economic and social policies, access to political resources, conceptualizations of citizenship, social imaginaries, and ideological visions. We are also keen to explore how, in specific situations, different actors perceived, described, interpreted, and justified mobility and inequality—i.e., what framing they used. This opens the research field to approaches from the fields of Cultural Studies and Communication Studies.

From the perspective of economics, this research field addresses several subfields, such as labor economics and the economics of the public sector, development economics and comparative economics, as well as economic history. The focus here is on inequalities in income, wealth, life chances, and ultimately health at the national, regional, and household levels, and how these interact with mobility. With this in mind, we study internal and international mobility, trade, environmental challenges, and changes in the welfare state from the perspective of these inequalities. The aim is to disentangle the causes of inequalities and to understand their consequences for the economy, society, and politics in Eastern and Southeast Europe from a comparative perspective. Unique data sets, such as employment data from Russian industrial enterprises since the 1990s or data on migration movements in Central Asia and the former Yugoslavia, produce innovative research questions in the field of labor market and migration research.

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