Latvian intercultural prejudices and stereotypes: study results explained

Take note – story published 3 years ago

LSM reported earlier about a study on intercultural stereotypes and prejudices in Latvia. In an interview wih LSM's Russian-language service, one of the study's authors, Mārtiņš Kaprāns, explained what some of the results suggest.

The study, titled “Intercultural stereotypes and prejudices in Latvian society” asked 1,009 people to evaluate thirteen groups within society, defined by ethnic, geographic, racial or religious characteristics. The groups were Latvians, Russians, Ukrainians, Swedes, Americans, Jewish people, Uzbeks, Chinese, Indians, Roma, Africans, and Muslims.

University of Latvia Philosophy and Sociology Institute lead researcher, doctor of communications sciences, Mārtiņš Kaprāns, spoke to interpreting the results of the study.

What was unexpected for you personally in the results of the study?

A surprise may come when something contradicts the dominating views in your “bubble.” For example, in my “bubble” on Twitter, there are mostly people with liberal beliefs, and it is easy to see opinions that most or a significant part of Latvian society is racist by nature. If we assume that racism is a fundamental problem for Latvian society, it should be reflected in the answers to many of the questions we asked. But [in the study results] it doesn't show up.

Yes, there is always a question of the so-called spiral of silence: often people tend to obey prevailing views and hide their true attitude. It can't be ruled out. But we also tested certain prejudices, compared this data differently – and did not find a dominant group that could be defined as racist or cultural-chauvinistic. In society, such an ideological position is in the minority.

The statement that “representatives of some racial or ethnic groups are simply born less intelligent than others” is agreed with by one in three Latvians and one in four Russian-speaking persons. It's not a majority, of course, but it's not a trifle either.

Of course. I don't want to say there are no problems in this. There is such a group, and rather ethnocentric. But the question is about innate intelligence. In this case, it is important to interpret it. We, the three authors of the study, had great discussions about it. Quick reaction – it's racism! But our survey didn't ask whether respondents thought they [themselves] were at the top or bottom of this hierarchy. So we cannot quickly conclude that those who have agreed automatically consider themselves superior than other races or groups.

There is a difference whether you agree with certain beliefs or hate a certain race. Here I rather think that racism, the definition of which has been adopted in American social sciences, it is more skin-color-oriented. In Europe, particularly in France, other ethnocultural groups may often be considered race.

If someone says Latvians (or Russians) “are born less intelligent” then aren't they racist in the extended sense of that term?

Yes, there is already a context, a specific group to which this [statement] applies. But we didn't ask so specifically. Perhaps we would have had problems with “institutions” – it could have turned into an incitement to racial hatred, right? But general questions … For example, the classical subject of sociology – if asked abstractly, would you be ready to kill someone? Has there ever been such a desire? SKDS has asked it. It tests the level of aggression in society. But when you ask if you'd be willing to kill your neighbor who lives next to you, it's another thing.

We ask in general, not about a particular nation or group. The results of these two examples would be significantly different in general and specific terms, which is absolutely clear. Only on the basis of the first question are we talking carefully about sources of racist thinking. It has the potential of racism. These people are willing to accept such attitudes to other groups. We can only say that there is a greater likelihood that racism can also be expressed in action, including in how other groups are perceived.

Nor can it be said that the other two-thirds, who disagreed with this statement of innate mind ability, will necessarily be non-racist oriented.

Do you have versions why there are more Latvians (32%) in favor of this opinion than Russians (26%)?

This difference, six percentage points, is statistically irrelevant. It is close to the statistical error. Elsewhere, however, the difference between Latvians and Russians is more significant. It is in the context of general ethnocentrism. For example, the Latvian segment of [respondents] has a much more pronounced distancing from a different cultural and linguistic area and environment. In a narrower sense, also from other races.

The social theory says that, because the group is more internally closed than other groups, the more likely it will try to compare itself with others, including creating negative notions about others. It is obvious that Latvian identity is significantly more closed. With clearer separation lines, borders than Russian-speaking population. As you've seen, including the anti-Muslim Russians, attitudes are more open and more positive. And with regard to Jews, too, they make less difference.

So the most phobia toward the Russians will be in that town or village where there are no Russians at all?

Of course! And this is seen in our surveys: in the most Latvian regions – Vidzeme and Kurzeme – the sense of cultural difference is more pronounced. But in Rīga and Latgale, more Latvians have friends and acquaintances who are Russian, people are less looking at [this difference]. The multicultural environment in which you live reduces your prejudices – it is the “contact hypothesis”. According to that, if you're in contact with the other group every day, it reduces your prejudices. Indeed, in recent years, there have been a great deal of convincing studies in different countries, which conclude that this relationship does not always occur automatically. However, in our case, the contact hypothesis works.

Moreover, the biggest prejudices are against groups that are hardly confronted by the people of Latvia, such as Africans, Muslims …

It's a classic!

… and against historical minorities, the Roma.

It's a different story already. These prejudices have other sources, they are historically inherited, through generations. I suppose your parents in Latvia didn't have an idea of Muslims at all. But Roma, or gypsies – by the way, several said in the survey that they prefer the name “gypsies” – a historical community in Latvia, especially in Kurzeme. And there were positive and not very positive ideas about this community. And it formed not through the media, as about Muslims, but through contacts, for example.

We did not note this in the study, but many sociologists say that it is not true that negative stereotypes are always unfounded. The fact that the Roma in Latvia are a marginalized and socially deviant group is a fact. It “restores” existing negative stereotypes, which can also have objective reasons. For example, if you look at crime statistics in Riga, it can show up in a larger proportion than it should be.

You write that there are no major problems between Latvians and Russians, despite a different understanding of history and language policy.

Integration policy is complicated by a divided historical memory, a fundamentally different civil policy orientation, and perhaps a fundamentally different understanding of what Latvia should be like as a national state, bilingual or monolingual, and so on. But these polarizing issues of society in some surprising way don't convert into a mutually negative attitude toward one another. For example, we don't see it in [Latvian and Russian] notions about how different we are in cultural terms, or in the emotional attitude toward each other.

Our thesis is that the ideological conflict, which is in historical consciousness and geopolitical orientation, is just one part of the picture.

The second dimension: emotional and cultural coexistence, how we perceive each other, and this conflict is disappearing. It really isn't there. The question arises – how is it possible?

If you look at many other societies, where there are representatives of different cultures, it tends to be that way. People may have ideologically conflicting positions, but society can stand together if these groups accept each other culturally and emotionally. Here we use the concept of “banal integration” by Indra Ekmanis, who studied in Daugavpils and Riga. A man from Ķengarags and I, meeting with Maxima or Rimi, will not grab each other's throat, although we may have a different understanding of the situation in Donbass. We're buying oranges together or something. It's “banal integration”, it's above ideologically conflicting positions. Moreover, it is important to understand that conflicting positions do not go anywhere. They exist side by side.

Political polarization and social proximity – they stand together. This situation can be called “inclusive alienation”. We include each other, but we are also alienating – in a political sense.

Are you not surprised that according to your “emotional thermometer”, only one percent of Russians have negative attitude towards Latvians, but the negative attitude of the Latvians towards the Russians is much higher – 11%?

It's not a surprise to me. The fact that Russians or Russian-speaking people are more open and more emotionally “accepting” than Latvians, was also seen earlier in other studies. This can be explained by the fact that the Russians mainly live in an ethnically mixed environment, while Latvians are more homogenous. I am sure that if you look at where these 11% of Latvians live – it will be mostly Vidzeme or Kurzeme.

The text of your study states: "Unlike Western European countries, the Baltic and Central European countries have small communities of young immigrants against which prejudices might be directed. Instead, prejudiced attitudes, if any, are expressed in relations with national minorities, including historical minorities. This is due to the fact that the democratic movements of these countries in the late 20th century founded their new identity in ethnocultural nationalism, which also influenced perceptions of ethnic minorities and still influences their perceptions of the symbolic borders of the nation." So, on the one hand, National Awakening for Latvians is one of the sacred events of the XX century. But on the other hand, the misshapen forms of nationalism - are they  part of “The Echo of Awakening”?

Let us say that, when the Soviet regime collapsed, an ideological vacuum was created, both for Latvians and the Russian-speaking people living here. Latvian people filled this vacuum quickly, including during the Awakening period, mainly with the idea of ethnoculture – that we need to re-establish our own ethnocultural nation, and so on. Then another ideological breeze began, including neo-liberalism. The foundation of the ethnoculture was not so important anymore. But for a part of society, it remained, of course, the ideological basis of solidarity. I was surprised that so few respondents, about a quarter, replied that during the elections, the ethnic aspect is important. Yes, the Latvians agreed with it more than the Russians, but not much more.

Several times a year, in commemorative dates associated with the Holocaust, the Jews of Latvia are called “our own people” in political discourse. Moreover, every fourth Latvian has indicated in the polls that their attitude towards Jews is negative or cold. For the Russians, attitudes are warmer. Where are the reasons?

How many Jews do we officially have in Latvia – four thousand? (according to the latest figures of the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia: 4.4 thousand, according to the population registry – 8.1 thousand) Mostly, they are Russian-speaking. Maybe this was a reason for alienation. And of course some historical stereotypes are added. And the fact that some part of society also has banal anti-Semitism. A Jew is perceived by a Latvian as being more culturally alien than, for example, a Russian.

And they have “too much money” (21% of Latvians and 15% of Russian speakers agreed to the statement proposed in the study).

But it's already a global stereotype that “they govern the world” and they have “a lot of money.” Yes, a consensus has emerged in the political layer, which is as if passing through the burning of the Riga synagogue, or the event in Rumbula on November 30, which has already gained a political dimension. This consensus on past traumatic events is political, but these events have not been identified at the level of society. And I don't know how it will be possible to identify them at all. And I would have no particular illusion that the Russian-speaking people of Latvia do not have anti-Semitism among them.

We've seen in other polls that attitudes are such … quite ambivalent. For example, we had social memory monitoring, we asked if the country needed to do more to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. Most Russian-speaking people thought they did. Most Latvians – they didn't. 

It seems to me to go somewhere, stand somewhere to express your position – it is not too consistent with local traditions.

But on November 18, May 9 — everyone goes somewhere.

To the festival - yes. But on protests, memorials …

But on the day of the commemorations of the victims of deportation – certainly not the way it was in the Awakening, but still many are going. Although I admit it can be associated with a natural sense of cultural differences. Didzis Bērziņš, my colleague at the institute, has studied Jewish themes, and there are several aspects together: cultures, stereotypes … For example, there was an interesting public reaction to our president being partly Jewish.

Who denies the “Jewishness” of his own culture.

Yes, he does not position himself [as Jewish]. But he has been tried to frame as such, including on international media. And the local audience at the Latvian end, not even in purely nationalist circles … There were noticeable flashes of anti-Semitism: a Jew, our president, how can that be! I don't know how the Russian-speaking people were. And that doesn't mean there are views instantly that they “govern the world” and have “a lot of money.” Rather, it is a natural cultural difference: how can another cultural or ethnic group be president, it is such a symbolic position! But that he can be your colleague or the owner of the company - oh, then it's normal.

What seemed strange to me — that the same cool attitude is toward our major strategic partners, Americans. Moreover, 56 out of 100 Latvians and 50 out of 100 Russians are indifferent to them, the indicator is similar. How can it be explained if, in political discourse, Americans are almost the main guarantors of security, the rescuers of Latvia, if Russia suddenly attacks?

Maybe politically Americans are considered partners, but when it comes to the cultural aspect … Last year I saw a survey: with which Latvia should primarily develop closer relations? There was a whole array - Scandinavian countries, Russia, Germany, the Baltic States, America … And as a result of the vote America was at the bottom. Russia was even higher. It can be said that people are more open to their “close geography.” If there had been Belarus in this survey, it would have been more likely than America. Despite the fact that Lukashenko is not being treated particularly positively, Belarusians and Belarus are being treated fairly favorably in Latvia. Geographical proximity – not even a certain culture – has a role to play. It is just as simple.


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