Shades of Czech society uncovered by new survey

'Forty-Seven Shades of Czech Society', photo: archive of Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

The Czech Institute of Sociology has recently published results of a survey, which look at how Czechs spend their daily lives. It focuses on such topics as housing choices, inequalities, education, and the labour market. One of the authors of this long-term household survey is an Irish sociologist Pat Lyons, who has been based in the Czech Republic for more than a decade. I met him to discuss the first outcomes of the project, but I first asked him about a book he published along with his colleagues at the end of last year, called Forty-Seven Shades of Czech Society:

Pat Lyons,  photo: archive of Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences
“The title of the book was chosen deliberately to capture people’s interest and also to illustrate that the success of that book was due in part to social reasons. And the original reason why it became very successful was just people telling each other that it was an interesting book.

“Not many people understood that this was actually the real origin of the book. They probably though it was just down to marketing by a large publishing company.

“So that’s the sort of inspiration: Why is a book like that which many people consider to be not such a great one spectacularly successful across many different countries? In a way social sciences are devoted to answering such questions: why are some things popular when many experts agree that they shouldn’t be?”

Why only 47 shades and not 50?

“It was difficult to find enough people to write chapters and secondly there was a very tight time constraint. The book started in February and was finished during the summer. And also I didn't want to have a title that was exactly the same as the original. I should also say there will be an English language version hopefully towards the end of the year.”

What was the trigger for writing the book and who is it intended for?

“The book forms part of a larger project analysing dynamics of change in Czech society. In other words, there is a larger survey called the Czech household panel survey and the goal of the book was simply to describe to people who might participate in the project the answers to the questions they would give are used for, and what are social sciences about. So that was the kind of motivation.

“If we were to give this book to the participants in this large survey, which is about 5,000 households with 13,000 people, they would understand why they have to answer lots of questions over two hours on one evening during the summer or autumn.

“Czechs do have quite strong values on particular things but they are also in a sense liberal in allowing for a greater diversity within a society.”

“The other reason was more general: there hasn't been a book like this before, a book about the social sciences portrayed to minimize the use of jargon and numbers and simply explain clearly and succinctly what social scientists actually do.

“I think this is really important because most social scientists are actually paid for essentially by the state and that means by the tax payers. So I think it's important that the tax payers know what we do.”

The book opens up with a question: Are Czech overtly tolerant? Would you say it is something typical for Czech society?

“Externally there is this perception that Czechs are very liberal on all sorts of moral questions, such as divorce, abortion and things like that. What was used in this chapter was an international survey which asked questions about people's attitude towards abortion, homosexuality, gambling and so forth.

“On certain categories Czechs are very tolerant, but this is only part of the story. The other part is that on other things, such as people being unfaithful to their partners in marriage, or gambling, Czech are not so tolerant of that.

“So the kind of picture that is sometimes portrayed internationally, that Czech society is very tolerant, is true to certain extent but it is not a complete picture. Czechs do have quite strong values on particular things but they are also in a sense liberal in allowing for a greater diversity within a society.”

Where does this tolerance come from? What do you think?

“The typical answer that I have heard is somewhat historical. In the past there were lots of wars about religion and other things and also I suppose in the past Czech lands were much more multicultural and perhaps there was a greater understanding that people do have different values and see things differently. In other words, there is a sense of being tolerant of others but at the same time keeping your own values.”

'Forty-Seven Shades of Czech Society',  photo: archive of Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences
Another issue that you focus on is whether a large proportion of Czech really believe that life under Communism was better than it is now…

“In the book the answer is yes. There is a very specific kind of question that had been asked over time to capture this aspect. More generally there is a bigger question about this idea of nostalgia towards Communism.”

“About a year ago there was a youth survey where a third of people between 17 and 20 thought that life before 1989 was better. And some people got quite worried that such a large proportion of young people would believe such a thing.

“The key point here, and this is where social science come in, is to be careful about how to interpret such question. What was the original intention of the question and what was the question that people actually answered.

“It turns out that when people express nostalgia for Communism and the past they are really expressing to some extent dissatisfaction with the present. One way to do this is to say? I prefer the past. And so in that sense care has to be taken with interpreting those kinds of questions.”

You told me that your book is actually part of a larger survey, Dynamics of Change in Czech Society, and you have recently presented data that you have collected over the past year. What is the aim of the survey and what are the main topics that you focus on?

“The survey is a household panel survey, which is a very specific type of research also done in Britain, Germany, the US and Switzerland. The goal is to look at people within their family households to ask them a broad range of questions about family life, work, health, daily activities, attitudes of all kinds.

“It turns out that when people express nostalgia for Communism and the past they are really expressing to some extent dissatisfaction with the present.”

“For example the typical surveys that you would see in a newspaper simply ask one set of questions to a single person once and never again. But in this case we have a group of households, approximately 5,000 and the goal is to interview them repeatedly for four times and to ask them same type of questions to understand how their family changed.

"And because it is done across time, we will know if there was a divorce in the family, what was life before and after the divorce, and get some sense of what is the true impact of such an event in terms of happiness of the people, the wealth of the family and so forth.”

Is there something that you found surprising when analysing the data from the first year?

“One of the innovative parts of the survey is something called a time use, which is a record from each person on how they spent the previous day. The goal is to get a sense of what do people: Does everybody get up at the same time? Do they spend approximately the same time at work each day? Are weekend significantly different from week days?

“One of the key findings from the first year was the differences between men and women and also the differences across age groups. So for instance in terms of work, men generally do more paid work than women, but if you take in account child care or caring for the elderly, then women in fact do much more. And this difference seems to persist across age groups.

“It suggests that even if women are not working full time but work at home they still seem to be doing more. Consequently this means that women have less free time for themselves, on average about 40 minutes per day.”

It is your job to analyse the behaviour of Czech people. So what do you think of them and is there something that you find very specific in their nature?

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
“That’s a difficult question. Sometimes if you look at comments abroad about Czech people, they sometimes say people in metros or trams they look very serious and unhappy. But the truth is that if you ask someone for help, that face changes immediately and they are very helpful. So in that sense it might be one feature of the Czech national character.

“But I think in many other ways the Czechs are very similar to other countries so for example I think that the Czechs and Irish have a very similar kind of humour which tends to be quite dark and ironical.”