Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Graham Crow and Tony Rees (1999) '"Winners" and "Losers" in Social Transformations'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <>

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Received: 11/12/98      Accepted: 23/03/99      Published: 31/3/99


The language of 'winners' and 'losers' is frequently deployed in the discussion of social transformations, but such analyses are less straightforward than they seem. Disagreements exist about which groups might reasonably be designated as 'winners' and 'losers', what the criteria are for identifying a gain or a loss, what time frames are appropriate for the calculation of gains and losses, and what sort of relationship exists between 'winners' and 'losers'. We argue that the language of 'winners' and 'losers' carries with it the danger of oversimplification of lines of social cleavage, particularly because of the difficulties to which it gives rise concerning the position of intermediate groups. Secondly, we suggest that it is crucial to set out the criteria by which gains and losses are to be identified if the designation of 'winners' and 'losers' is to be at all viable as an analytical framework. Thirdly, we argue that it is important to distinguish between short-term fluctuations and longer-term trends in the analysis of changing patterns of distribution. And fourthly we argue that judgements about the nature of the relation between 'winners' and 'losers' need to be made explicit. Monitoring the uneven effects of social transformations is a central task of contemporary sociology, and it is important that the analytical framework provided by the language of 'winners' and 'losers' is employed carefully in order to be able to capture the full complexity of these processes.

Losers; Social Transformations; Winners


Recent sociological literature emphasises that understanding social transformations remains one of the discipline's central tasks. Walby's (1997) analysis of changing gender relations in Western societies, Giddens's (1992, 1994) treatises on the impact of globalization, Pierson's (1991) discussion of welfare state trajectories, Bryant and Mokrzycki's (1994) study of the transition from communism in the societies of East-Central Europe, and Latouche's (1993) critique of global 'development' provide five diverse illustrations of how contemporary social changes have been approached as transformations.

Of course, 'transformation' is a strong word. Conservative thinkers have long deployed what Hirschman terms the argument from futility: that 'in one way or another any alleged change is, was, or will be largely surface, facade, cosmetic, hence illusory, as the 'deep' structures of society remain wholly untouched' (Hirschman, 1991: p.43). De Tocqueville (1955) used this argument to great effect with regard to what most of his contemporaries viewed as the most cataclysmic upheaval imaginable, the French revolution. The revisionists have also been at work with what Polanyi (1957) described as The Great Transformation. Hatcher, for example, notes 'the remorseless downgrading of the revolutionary aspects of the industrial revolution which has taken place in recent decades' (Hatcher, 1998: p. 96). Doubtless, given an appropriate lapse of time, most or all of the major social changes referred to above will be accorded the same treatment.

Whether or not the view is taken that current changes constitute transformations on a par with the rise of modernity, the need to monitor the trajectories of contemporary societies remains. This is partly because the recent record on prediction is not good, most obviously in the failure of sociologists and other commentators to anticipate correctly the collapse of Eastern European state socialism. It is therefore important to develop perspectives which have the capacity to chart accurately the changes which are underway. This entails the reassessment of many of the assumptions which underlie current sociological thinking in this area.

Our purpose in this paper is to contribute to these reassessments through an examination of the issues raised by the representation of social transformations as processes which have 'winners' and 'losers'. Crow (1997: pp.171-2) has shown how analyses are frequently framed in this way. It is, for example, one of Latouche's purposes to challenge 'the myth of a world of winners' by highlighting 'the scandal of the losers' (Latouche, 1993: pp. 52, 78). Therborn (1995, p.300) has suggested that in post-communist Eastern Europe by 1994 'losers' from the transition outnumbered 'winners' in all countries except the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Some commentators see current trends in different parts of the world working to deepen inherited patterns of inequality, thereby confirming classic models of social polarization in which the advantages of the better off and the disadvantages of the worse off become progressively reinforced, but alternative perspectives suggest otherwise. Albrow argues that global forces are challenging the hegemonic position previously enjoyed by 'those white adult middle-class males who could claim citizenship of a wealthy state' (Albrow, 1996: p. 201), citing the women's movement as one such force. Naturally, to challenge is not to be guaranteed a successful outcome, and Walby notes that while patterns of gender inequality have undoubtedly changed, they have done so 'in complex ways, not simply for better or worse' (Walby, 1997: p. 1). Discussion in terms of 'winners' and 'losers' quickly generates a host of questions which deserve close scrutiny.

Of these questions, we identify four that stand out if the 'winners' and 'losers' framework is to be usefully employed and developed. These are: How are 'winners' and 'losers' to be identified? What are the criteria which enable judgements to be made as to what constitutes a gain and what a loss? What are the most suitable time dimensions for such assessments? Do particular implications follow from the terminology currently favoured, and, if so, what are they? In the sections which follow we discuss each of these questions in turn, utilizing historical and comparative data as appropriate. However, most of our examples are taken from the literature on the five areas of contemporary large-scale social change referred to at the beginning of this paper: the shifting patterns of gender roles and relationships, economic restructuring in capitalist societies, the remodelling of welfare states, the transition to post-communism, and development as a global process. We conclude by considering the implications of these discussions for wider theoretical debates in sociology and its neighbouring disciplines.

Who are 'Winners' and 'Losers'?

The most established sociological mode of analysis which identifies 'winners' and 'losers' operates with social class categories. Westergaard's (1995) question 'Who gets what?' is answered in such terms, and his argument that developments in contemporary capitalist societies constitute 'the hardening of class inequality' is one which has been made familiar by numerous studies of social polarization in the final quarter of the twentieth century (see, e.g. Townsend 1993; Townsend et al 1987). Commenting on the very different circumstances of the Green Revolution in Malaysia, Scott (1985) similarly employs a social class framework to analyse the effects of rural transformation in dividing the population into 'winners' and 'losers'. And Ferge's (1993) provisional assessment of 'winners' and 'losers' following the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe found at least some grounds for approaching the issue in class terms, since workers were prominent among those bearing the brunt of the processes which unfolded after 1989, while owners and managers took the lion's share of the benefits of change.

It is instructive to note, however, that in none of these cases is the deployment of social class analysis straightforward. Westergaard is aware that 'the drastic widening of income inequalities over the past fifteen years or so' (Westergaard, 1995: p. 133) in Britain is readily identifiable as a growing gap between 'rich' and 'poor', but that it is more difficult to demonstrate that this is the outcome of class-based processes. The familiar problem of available data having been collected without sociological class categories in mind is manageable to the extent that widening inequalities were evident even in 'the broad and crude categories of manual and non-manual work distinguished in the summary official statistics' (Westergaard,1995: p.136). But just as arguments couched in terms of rising prosperity for the 'average' household of Britain need to be treated with caution on the grounds that 'Averages mislead when the variations around them are very wide and skew' (Westergaard, 1995: p. 132), the same can be said for broad class categories within which there has been diversity of experience.

More than one dimension of social class fragmentation can be identified. Market-led changes in income distribution patterns may have pushed generally in the direction of social class polarization, but the picture is complicated by public policy shifts relating to taxes and welfare benefits. In the ten years to 1989, Westergaard reports, 'single people living on their own sustained a mean loss; there was, on balance, neither gain nor loss for pensioners relying mainly or exclusively on state support, or for unemployed couples without children; and while a majority of other households did gain something, this was little except for those high up the income ladder' (Westergaard, 1995: p. 133). In sum, Westergaard's analysis shows that changes in the distribution of income in contemporary Britain continue to have a class character, but that the identification of whole classes as 'winners' or 'losers' misrepresents a complex situation. This observation can be related to C. Harris's study of economic restructuring which found some workers comfortable and others deprived according to whether or not they had been successful in securing alternative employment following redundancy. A third group of workers could be identified, those whose pattern of intermittent employment separated by periods of unemployment was best described as 'chequered'. Such 'chequeredness' is on one hand 'a form of market success' but on the other, 'at the level of personal experience, akin to failure' (Harris, 1987: p. 192). The 'chequered' post-redundancy fortunes of many respondents made it impossible to draw a sharp distinction between 'winners' and 'losers'.

In a similar way, Scott's use of social class to interpret the processes of change in rural Malaysia commences by noting that the story is a more complicated one than the 'rich' being 'winners' and the 'poor' correspondingly 'losers'. Perceptions among local people that 'The rich get richer and the poor get poorer' (Scott 1985: p. 155) run parallel to perceptions of inequality in Britain in the 1980's (Rentoul 1987), but there are also echoes of Townsend et al's finding that 'Within poor households some groups have lost more than others' (Townsend et al 1987, p. 34). Scott acknowledges the pitfalls of what he calls 'class-ifying' (Scott 1985: p. 138) in two important respects. One point is that classes do not fall neatly into either 'winners' or 'losers'. It is possible to identify 'winners' and 'losers' as 'large-scale cultivators (whether owners or tenants) on the one hand and smaller-scale cultivators together with landless laborers on the other', but this is not an exhaustive list, since 'In between lies a strata [sic] of modest farmers whose gains and losses are roughly offsetting' (Scott 1985: p. 154). The other point is that class cleavages exist alongside non-class divisions of which people are also very conscious: 'Factions, neighborhoods, and kinship ties, to mention only a few, create their own fracture lines, which do not often coincide neatly with class' (Scott 1985: p. 140). Class-based perspectives are by no means the only ones available.

Scott's work has been criticised for its neglect of gender issues, which have come to the fore in development studies in recent years. Elson offers an insight into the reasons behind this earlier neglect through her observation that 'What perhaps is unique about male bias is that those who are disadvantaged by it live daily in intimate personal relationships with those who are advantaged by it' (Elson 1995a: p. 6). In other words, the assumption that household resources are shared evenly between male and female members needs to be questioned, since there is mounting evidence to the contrary both in the 'third world' (Dwyer and Bruce 1988) and in more 'developed' societies (Delphy and Leonard 1992). Similarly, Ferge (1993) speculates that women are disproportionately represented among the groups of East European workers who have lost out under post-communism, a suggestion supported by Slater's observation that 'women are the social group most affected by unemployment in present-day Russia' (Slater 1995: p. 77).

The changes taking place in former communist societies have generated other groups of 'losers' besides members of the working class and women. According to Ferge, 'The losers are of many types' (Ferge 1993: p. 283); life chances are patterned by social class and gender, and also by age, household type, geographical location and ethnicity, with young people and pensioners, families with children, rural dwellers and gypsies and other ethnic minorities being most vulnerable. Considerations such as these have led Offe to argue that the concept of social class is of limited use in the analysis of who is gaining and who is losing from post-communist transformations. In East European societies, although it is true that 'virtually all individuals are exposed to the turbulences caused by the transition', it is also the case that 'social positions and the life chances attached to them are not easily typified, since all kinds of individual attributes can make a decisive difference as to whether a person ends up as a clear winner or an unequivocal loser in the transition' (Offe 1996a: p. 242). Further, Offe suggests 'actual losers and actual winners tend to have little in common in terms of a shared "independent variable," such as location within the system of the division of labor; hence they will tend to relate to each other as might passengers traveling on the same bus, rather than as members of the same class' (Offe 1996a: pp. 242-3).

In the latest work on Eastern Europe to which Offe has contributed it is non-class cleavages which are taken to predominate in the transition to post-communist societies (Elster et al 1998, p. 247), although the historical uniqueness of the social transformation underway there makes generalisation hazardous. Elster and his colleagues acknowledge this when they point out that socio-economic cleavages have figured more prominently in processes of democratisation in other parts of the world such as Latin America (Elster 1998: p. 248). Nevertheless, the non-class divisions which have been a significant feature of recent change in Eastern Europe do have several parallels elsewhere. Popple and Kirby (1997), for example, have posited a link between shifting patterns of 'winners' and 'losers' among young people in the European Union and the rise of nationalism, ethnic consciousness and racism among the latter. If Popple and Kirby (1997) and Scott (1985) are correct in arguing that nostalgia among the 'losers' for an idealised past feeds current discontents, this merely compounds the difficulties of specifying the defining characteristics of 'winners' and 'losers'. To conclude that social class cannot provide the analytical framework for identifying 'winners' and 'losers' which earlier generations of sociologists thought it would still leaves questions unresolved about possible alternatives.

Analysis framed in terms of social class fails to capture the finer details of changing patterns of distribution. The addition of non-class variables such as gender, age, ethnicity and household type has the potential to add greater subtlety, but the benefits which this brings have to be balanced against the danger of becoming enmeshed in detail and losing sight of broad patterns. Offe's arguments about the significance of individual differences among people living in post-communist societies do not rule out the possibility of all generalisation. Thus, Harloe can report that 'Ex-members of the nomenclatura, the managers of (former) state enterprises, and those who were successful in the second or black economies of the former socialist societies.... are likely to be among the beneficiaries, while others who lack their opportunities and connections lose out' (Harloe 1996: pp. 7-8). In much the same way, differences between individuals' experiences of widening inequalities in contemporary capitalist societies do not exclude the conceptualization of social polarization as a general trend in which what happens to an individual is open to predictions made in terms of probabilities.

Indeed, writers on globalization have been at pains to draw attention to the ways in which patterns of 'winners' and 'losers' can be identified on a global scale. These may involve transnational classes (Sklair 1995), or nations or even blocs of nations, for example when the broad contrast between the North and the South of the global system is invoked (Kennedy 1993: chapter 10). It is even possible for virtually the whole of the world's population to be regarded as 'losers': George has written about the debt crisis that 'Although people in the South are far more grievously affected by debt than those in the North, in both cases a tiny minority benefits while the overwhelming majority pays' (Kennedy 1993, p.xviii). George (1993) argues that we are all harmed (albeit unwittingly) by the environmental destruction, drug trafficking and political instability which stem from Third World debt. In highlighting this she reminds us that the question of who gains and who loses cannot be answered without attention first being directed at the question of what constitutes a gain or a loss.

What is it that is Being 'Won' and 'Lost'?

There are several ways in which the question of what is gained by the 'winners' and lost by the 'losers' may be approached. Some of the starkest expressions of social polarization are those in which diverging patterns of income are charted, on both national and international levels. Data of comparable reliability relating to wealth are less readily available, but changing patterns of wealth ownership provide another basis on which to approach the identification of 'winners' and 'losers'. Other economic variables such as unemployment rates also figure in what Ferge refers to as 'trends in material gains and losses' (Ferge 1993: p.274) which she contrasts with less tangible political phenomena. Speaking of the latter in the context of post-communism she remarks that 'In many respects, everybody has gained. On the individual level, the civil and political rights, the new freedoms of association, of thought, of press and so forth profit everybody' (Ferge 1993, p.272). George's (1993) demonstration of the social costs of the debt crisis provides a different illustration of how there are non-material as well as material costs and benefits of change to consider. In practice, the material/non-material distinction may prove difficult to sustain (for example when dealing with risk and uncertainty), but the point that it is necessary to go beyond market-based balance sheets is not in doubt.

In class-divided societies, large-scale patterns of change may be approached through examination of what Runciman refers to as social mobility's 'Ups and downs' (Runciman 1998: chapter 8). Where available statistics show rates of upward mobility exceeding those of downward mobility it might be reasoned that transformations such as industrialization or economic restructuring generate more 'winners' than 'losers', but the situation is considerably more complicated than this implies. The argument has been made that upward social mobility brings an improved standard of living only at the cost of personal unhappiness arising from individuals finding themselves in unfamiliar and alienating surroundings. Runciman is sceptical of this view, arguing that 'such evidence as there is indicates that upward mobility is a gratifying rather than disorienting experience' (Runciman 1998: p.175). Of course, much depends here on what precisely is understood by the term, but it is far from clear that upward mobility is experienced as the unambiguous gain which Runciman suggests. Indeed, James has recently remarked that 'Relative Deprivation studies have shown many times that improvements in conditions (such as pay or promotion prospects) may actually increase dissatisfaction', using the point to support his more general argument that 'we may feel like losers even if we are winners' (James 1998: pp. 44, 69). There is an irony here in that Runciman (1972) himself has written on the concept of 'relative deprivation', but while the two authors may disagree on the interpretation of available data, they are agreed that much hinges on the points of comparison adopted.

James and Runciman also concur in the view that analyses should pay attention to states of mind or feeling, assessed with reference to degrees of 'happiness' or 'satisfaction'. This involves a shift in the terms of the discussion, from such things as income, wealth, pollution or rights, which can at least with some precision be identified, measured and assigned by social or natural scientists or lawyers, to more subjective considerations. Two possibilities arise here. The first is that the estimations and expectations of the outside experts may not coincide with those of the people directly experiencing the changes in question. This issue is at the heart of what Inglehart describes as the cultural transformation in which people's growing attachment to 'Postmaterialist values' which 'give higher priority to the quality of life than to economic growth' (Inglehart 1997: p. 325). This has been given appropriate acknowledgement only reluctantly and belatedly.

The second possibility is that those experiencing the presumed gain or loss may disagree among themselves about which of these it is. Partners in intimate relationships, for instance, may rate very differently a work promotion for one of them which will necessitate geographical migration. Hochschild's (1990) study of two-career parents draws on examples such as this to argue that upward mobility may require a speeding-up of people's family and work lives, about which partners' feelings varied. Improved standards of living could not compensate for the resentment found by Hochschild among the women who were first and foremost conscious of the uneven impact on them and their husbands of upward mobility.

The belated inclusion of women in the previously male-focused domain of social mobility research has revealed just how gender-specific patterns of social mobility are (Payne and Abbott 1990). In McDowell's view, the growth of women's paid employment has brought some benefits but she stresses that these have to be weighed against the costs. On the positive side, 'entry into waged work brings increased self-respect for most women, some greater degree of control over economic resources and may reduce subordination in the home', but in other ways women's employment may be considered to have reinforced traditional gender relations, to the extent that it is women who 'are shouldering a disproportionate share of the cost of economic restructuring' (McDowell 1992: p. 188). Part of the reasoning behind this conclusion is that, in the absence of publicly-provided child-care support, women who take up paid employment are not necessarily able to relinquish domestic responsibilities and may as a result find themselves working longer hours in total than they were previously.

This leads on to the point that it is important to distinguish between goods and services delivered and consumed privately and those provided collectively by agencies of the State. In this context, Townsend observes that the picture of gains and losses in 1980's Britain looks very different when it is remembered that 'the poor have experienced more loss than the rich of free goods and services' (Townsend 1993, p. 223), by which he means free health service treatment, school meals and housing subsidies. Edgell and Duke (1991) make a similar comment about the uneven impact of public expenditure cuts, which were more likely to have adverse effects on workers than on other social classes, and on households with children and pensioners than on other household types.

This may be a fair summary of the net impact of attempts to stem the growth in public expenditure during the 1980's, but it is clearly not the whole story. The case against universal benefits and subsidies has always been that they spread the available resources very thinly, and are not sufficiently 'targeted' on the poor. Such arguments have considerable intuitive appeal. Furthermore, Le Grand (1982) famously demonstrated that many services in kind benefitted the comfortably off rather than the less or least well to do, higher education and transport subsidies being especially regressive.

The case against increasing means-tests, on the other hand, is chiefly that they may arouse or exacerbate feelings of shame or stigma, undermine work incentives through 'poverty traps', penalise savings, and encourage fraud. In other words, they have a negative impact on valued attributes like self-respect, self-improvement and honesty, and such considerations may be more important than any balance sheet of material gains and losses. However, the latter may also enter the picture, because of the old adage that services for the poor are likely to be poor services. Goodin and Le Grand, for example, argue that the middle classes 'will defend those parts of the welfare state from which they see themselves as benefitting or likely to benefit, while supporting reductions in those parts from which they do not' (Goodin and Le Grand 1987: p.203). For this reason, they seek ways of harnessing what they call the 'beneficial involvement' of the 'non poor' to the interests of the less fortunate, which entails at the same time avoiding a situation in which the middle classes appropriate the best public services on offer.

Not dissimilar arguments may be applied to the (actually fairly modest) growth in private sector social services, such as health insurance and medical treatment. On the face of it, the erection of new private hospitals adds to the total stock of health-care facilities, which should relieve some pressures on the National Health Service (and indeed increasingly provides beds which are occupied by NHS patients under contract). However, with the partial withdrawal of the better off from the NHS, the spectre of the dual standard of service looms: Higgins's (1988: ch.5) analysis of the growth of private medicine argues that while private patients may emerge among the 'winners' of these developments, NHS patients ought to be counted among the 'losers', indirectly if not directly.

The thrust of these and other studies is that narrow concentration on changes in the standard of living of different groups overlooks other factors which are also important in the analysis of people's quality of life. In assessments of disabled people's changing position, for example, importance is attached to individual welfare benefit levels and wider social provision, but consideration needs to go beyond this. Gains and losses brought by changes are now assessed by 'the degree of autonomy and choice of disabled people' (Barton 1996: p. 12) which they allow, an agenda which is as much about countering 'oppression' as it is about movements in the material standard of living.

A similar point may be made if the focus shifts somewhat, from 'opportunity' in the sense of autonomy to 'opportunity' in the sense of expectations engendered over long periods of time. Ferge has noted how assessment of the impact of changes in post-communist societies is concerned not only with 'real income' but also with '"existential" security' (Ferge 1993: p. 281), given that a key element of the transition has been the loss of certainty about welfare provision previously guaranteed by the State. The most vulnerable groups in these societies 'live in continuous uncertainty about their future' (Ferge 1993: p. 280). Previous norms relating to standards of living and quality of life are no longer guaranteed, and against this background the most literal sense of 'life chances' emerges as relevant in the calculation of the transition's 'winners' and 'losers'.

Life expectancy has fallen dramatically in several post-communist societies, with men figuring more prominently than women in this respect (Deacon 1997). Commenting on this trend in Russia, Standing suggests that it is plausible to suppose 'that the economic, social and psychological shocks of the restructuring have precipitated a profound and widespread sense of insecurity, reflecting an inability to adjust to what are totally new and difficult circumstances' (Standing 1996: p. 250, emphasis in original).

The growth of insecurity also features in accounts of other social transformations such as those which identify the emergence of 'risk society', but it is instructive that the phenomenon is not necessarily treated as negative. According to Beck, 'insecurities are growing in all regions of social life', but his perspective is that 'There are always losers, but also winners, from risks' (Beck 1992: p. 227, emphases in original). Recognition that modernization disguised rather than eliminated risks leads Beck to the conclusion that consciousness of risks may be preferable to self-deluding denial of their existence, and in this way a social transformation which heightens people's sense of insecurity may open up more viable futures than continued attachment to what he calls 'the megalomania of the industrial era' (Beck 1997: p. 168). Put another way, it is inappropriate to base assessments of who benefits and who loses from changes where the social arrangements being left behind were unsustainable. Evidence that life expectancy was falling in the final years of the Soviet Union as well as in Russia subsequently (Doyal and Gough 1991; Standing 1996) illustrates the point that models of social transformation face difficulties not just in identifying what is gained and lost and by whom, but also in developing appropriate time frameworks for the analysis of these changes.

When is a Benefit and when is a Loss?

In approaching the 1989 and 1991 revolutions which saw post-communist regimes replace communist ones in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, it is necessary to resist the temptation to employ a simple before/after framework to analyse the impact of the change. Indeed, many post-communist phenomena may be interpreted as continuing legacies of the communist era. Thus while post-communist Russia has witnessed falling life expectancy, the trend towards shorter life expectancy actually began over two decades before the 1991 revolution (Doyal and Gough 1991, p. 284). A related observation underlies Funk's argument that it is inaccurate to treat 1989 as 'the transition year for women in state socialism, when restrictions on abortion were first proposed, women first removed from employment, and an anti-feminist discourse introduced', since 'much of this began long before' (Funk 1993: p. 4). The general point which such examples illustrate is that the 'losers' of one era may cannot be presumed to have been 'winners' in earlier time periods.

In the extreme, certain groups of people may consistently lose out from prevailing social arrangements while others consistently benefit. Ferge uses the term 'eternal losers' (Ferge 1993: p. 283) to describe those people whose families of origin were deprived in pre-communist societies, who remained on the periphery during the communist period, and who as a result do not have the wherewithal to prosper in post-communist conditions. Thus in countries such as Hungary, 'Some of the most deprived groups of the pre-war system hardly profited at all from the last 40 years and now they are among the largest losers' (Ferge 1993: p. 285). At the other end of the socio-economic scale the reproduction of advantage is equally striking: 'one has the greatest likelihood of becoming a winner to-day if one or one's family had been a winner under the previous system, or the one preceding that' (Ferge 1993: p. 280). Ferge is aware that the reproduction of advantage and disadvantage is not straightforward, however. Transformations on the scale of the move to post-communism will inevitably involve temporary as well as long-term alterations to people's circumstances, and so short-term fluctuations need to be distinguished from longer-term trajectories.

Yet disentangling longer-term trends from short-term variations is no easy matter. Offe describes the patterns determining upward and downward mobility in post-communist societies as 'complex and opaque', hinging amongst other things on 'having the right past, knowing the right people, speaking the right languages, living in the right place, belonging to the right age and gender category, and working in the right sector'. The 'accidental' nature of many of these factors makes it difficult to predict with any confidence 'who is going to win, and who to lose' (Offe 1996b: p. 242), and it is not surprising that there is volatility in people's perceptions of whether they are better or worse off now compared to their situation during the communist period (Therborn 1995). This phenomenon is also likely to be influenced by the selectivity of people's memories, which may produce one-sided and romanticised images of the past.

The difficulty which people living through social transformations have in arriving at a balanced perspective on events surrounding them has led N. Harris to claim that 'we can always perceive the losses in what is declining, rarely the gains in what is rising' (Harris, 1987: p. 202). The revival of pro-communist feeling in several post-communist societies is more readily understandable when it is recognised that economic reforms have led to declining living standards for the majority of the population, at least 'in the short term' (Elster et al 1998: p. 293). Ironically, the argument that temporary upheaval is a necessary cost of the introduction of market forces into formerly planned economies before leading on to longer-term prosperity carries echoes of legitimations of economic policies under communism. Doubts about change justified by promises of improvement at some unspecified date in the future had become widespread by the later years of the communist regimes. Typically, by the time of Gorbachev's perestroika the inhabitants of the Soviet city of Magnitogorsk 'suspected they had much more to lose than to gain from change' (Kotkin 1992: p. 156). Kotkin suggests that any commitment to the reform process which existed at this time was driven more than anything else by conviction that things could not continue as they were.

Other social transformations besides the transition to post-communism have been understood to produce conditions in which people who experience short-term loss do not necessarily perceive of themselves as 'losers' in the longer-term. In the transition to post-industrial capitalist societies, Esping-Andersen has suggested that the least attractive employment involves unskilled service sector work which is performed by individuals who quite quickly move on. He describes it as 'a stop-gap for those with education or for those who return to the family. Only a minority will usually remain unskilled service workers for long' (Esping-Andersen 1993: p. 235). On this basis he sees no necessary reason for post-Fordist labour market conditions to generate the classic pattern of class polarization. A similar conclusion can be drawn from Offe's observation that age is a crucial variable influencing an individual's fortunes in the labour market of disorganized capitalism. The divergence of the positions of middle-aged (male) employees on the one hand and young and older workers on the other means that 'there is diversity within the working class, opening up a gap between "winners" and "losers"' (Offe 1985: p. 159, emphasis in original) which has the effect of undermining collective solidarity. In the more individualized culture of disorganized capitalism, many among those in poor work (particularly young men) can aspire to go on to become 'winners', and will not necessarily act upon their current position.

A similar point can be made about movements into and out of poverty over relatively short periods (what economists and statisticians call 'churning'). Longitudinal research shows that there are many such movements. In Jarvis and Jenkins's (1997) study, only about one in twenty respondents had a low income in all the four years surveyed. There was, it should be noted, not much long distance change, since most of the households moved from one income decile or quintile to the adjacent one and then quite frequently back again. Nevertheless, the possibility of future mobility out of poverty may well inhibit the development of collective responses.

Perceptions of who stands to gain and who to lose from the processes of industrialization and development are also influenced by the time perspective adopted. An extensive literature has highlighted the general tendency for outcomes to be biased in favour of men rather than women although, as Pearson (1992) points out, these processes have gone through several distinct phases, each of which has had distinctive implications for gender relations. Recent years have seen the effects of structural adjustment policies loom large in many poorer countries, and Elson notes that some commentators have identified a relative improvement in women's position as a result of these changes. Women may experience greater involvement in paid employment as 'gaining personal independence and reducing reliance on men' (Elson 1995b: p. 247), even though the work is undertaken out of economic necessity. At the same time, Elson describes other studies which 'speak of women's stress, tension, anxiety, anguish and despair, as they act as the shock absorbers in the process of development' (Elson 1995b, p. 249), and she concludes that women's disadvantage has changed its form but not disappeared. Messkoub's comment that 'Both sexes have to work harder outside the home to make ends meet, but women have to work harder at home as well' (Messkoub 1992: p. 189) implies that while men as well as women may be considered 'losers' as a result of structural adjustment, women's loss is the greater. Where the situation involves falling living standards (as it does in many poorer countries) it also illustrates the point that one group's loss is not necessarily another's gain.

How are 'Winners' and 'Losers' Related to each other?

In addition to debates about who has gained and lost in social transformations, what has been gained and lost, and what time frames are most appropriate for the analysis of these changes, there are also important differences of opinion about how 'winners' and 'losers' relate to each other. It is, of course, possible to imagine social changes from which everybody benefits, but the historical record teaches us to be wary of such claims when they are promulgated by interested parties. Commenting on the role of the farmers who introduced 'improvements' during the agricultural revolution in England, Moore remarks that 'like all modern revolutionaries, the rural capitalist justified the misery he caused by appealing to the benefits he created for society at the same time that he made immense personal gains' (Moore 1967: p. 23). A similar scepticism underlies Latouche's doubts about 'the belief that we can all win together' which he refers to as 'a dogma' and a 'fairytale' (Latouche 1993: pp. 55, 52). In Latouche's view, the proposition that a competitive global economy contains harmonious interests is sustainable only if certain rather fanciful assumptions are made about how economic and political mechanisms operate.

Latouche's case for seeing the relationship between 'winners' and 'losers' as being like that between players participating in a zero-sum game rests, as he acknowledges, on the inclusion of positional goods in the analysis. As he says, 'in a game, what counts in the end is not the final result in absolute numerical terms so much as the placing.... in the development game in the grand society, the greatest number do lose relatively', even if it is the case that 'everyone can win something in terms of absolute magnitudes' (Latouche 1993: p. 80, emphases in original). In practice even the modest goal of rising absolute incomes for everyone has not been achieved, since a 'Fourth World' of 'total losers' has arisen, characterised by 'radical exclusion'. In contrast to the situation in the poor countries of the world, the rich countries enjoy a situation in which 'nearly everyone wins to some degree' while elsewhere, 'In the variety of intermediate situations, some win a great deal and a great many win very little' (Latouche 1993: p.80). Latouche's identification of the 'winners' and 'losers' of the development process as groups which are necessarily linked through their participation in a zero-sum game fits into the tradition of development theories which emphasise the systematic and interconnected nature of the global economy, while it also has affinities with approaches to other problems which have game-like characteristics.

Latouche's analysis suggests that greater subtlety is needed than that contained in the stark opposition of 'winners' and 'losers'. While people whose position is deteriorating in an absolute sense (the 'total losers') are at the bottom of the heap, there exist several intermediate situations between them and those at the apex of the distributional pyramid who are incontrovertibly 'winners'. In addition, these intermediate situations will have a different character according to whether the general trend of people's fortunes is rising or falling. In post-Mao China, for example, economic reforms have ushered in growing prosperity which has meant that 'most people have gained something though they may have gained less than someone else' (White 1993: p.217). As White notes, it is politically as well as economically significant that 'the impact of the reforms has a "positive-sum" character' (White 1993: p. 217), even though discontent was far from being restricted to the minority groups who had been adversely affected by the introduction of market forces. Situations in which everyone has the potential to improve their situation contrast sharply with those in which the sum total of benefits is contracting rather than expanding. In the latter situation the rational course of action may be for people to minimise their vulnerability to losses rather than following the strategy of maximising gains.

Such a contrast lies at the heart of Beck's (1992) views on the transformation brought about by the emergence of 'risk society'. In his summary of Beck's argument, Offe highlights the changed rules which the shift entails: 'We no longer live in a class society but in a risk society.... the "game" of accumulation and "exploitation" that pits capital against labor - a game which shows a positive sum in the form of a "growing pie" - has been replaced by a negative-sum game of "collective self-injury"' (Offe 1996a: p. 33). Beck uses the formula 'poverty is hierarchic, smog is democratic' (Beck 1992: p. 36) to express the point that members of risk society do not relate to each other in the way that classes do, like competitive game players. As was noted earlier, his claim that people have come to be motivated less by 'merely additive growth' (Beck 1997: p. 1) and influenced more by anxiety over risks necessarily leads on to the issue of how far it is appropriate to extend the calculus of what is treated as a gain or a loss. This is no small problem, since the more extensive the list of things taken into consideration is, the more difficult it is to devise a common standard on a which a balance sheet can be constructed. Goods with a monetary value and the risk of environmental change are not easily compared since 'Rewards and probabilities are not the same kinds of things', as Collins (1994: p. 155) has observed in relation to the difficulties encountered by rational choice theorists in this broad area. As a result, Beck's ideas stand as a warning to those who anticipate finding an unambiguous distinction between 'winners' and 'losers' in the contemporary world.

Even where a clear-cut basis on which to judge people's respective positions and interests can be identified in order to distinguish between 'winners' and 'losers', such frameworks cannot be relied upon to provide guides to the actions that people take. In his study of the development of socialist movements in capitalist societies, Przeworski concluded that political behaviour at key moments was not governed by participants calmly weighing up the costs and rewards of different courses of action. Rather he found that 'any analysis based upon rational calculations of expected benefits is of limited value in moments of crisis' (Przeworski 1986: p. 197). Another illustration of people's actions not being determined by the rational pursuit of interests is provided by White's analysis of post-Mao China, in which the politics of envy figure. In the explanation of political behaviour, 'objective economic indices may be of less relevance than the facts that many Chinese perceive that the reforms have brought greater inequalities and that these perceptions have given rise to social hostilities and conflict. In China this is known as the "red-eye disease" (hongyanbing), in other words social envy' (White 1993: p. 204, emphasis in original). Interestingly, envy as a spur to action has come to figure prominently in the work of rational choice theorists such as Elster, who comments that 'where people are motivated by envy, spite and jealousy, they have an incentive to reduce other people's welfare' (Elster 1989: p. 59). Where there is no direct gain to themselves from doing this, the situation has the characteristics of a negative-sum game.

The use of the language of 'winners' and 'losers' may itself be considered to have some influence on how social transformations unfold, since 'winner'/'loser' contrasts (and their synonyms) are by no means neutral expressions. Examples of such value-laden language are provided by Castells' argument that globalization creates 'a sharp divide between valuable and non-valuable people and locales' (Castells 1998: p. 161), Wallace's view that changing labour market conditions for young people led to polarization between 'swimmers' and 'sinkers' (Wallace 1987: p. 140), and Pahl's distinction between 'work-rich households' and 'work-starved households' (Pahl 1988: p. 603) which he regards the economic restructuring of capitalist societies as having generated. And just as Latouche flags up his standpoint by referring to the situation of development's 'losers' as a 'scandal' (Latouche 1993: p. 78), so too does Hochschild reveal her position in calling working mothers the 'primary victims' (Hochschild 1990: p. 9) of the speeding up of work and family life. Language of this sort has the capacity to suggest that there is a moral as well as a material side to the relationship between 'winners' and 'losers', and in the light of this the decision to deploy such language cannot be regarded as innocent.


The above discussion of the literature on 'winners' and 'losers' reveals the many-sided character of the distributional dimensions of social transformations. It suggests, too, that not all social change constitutes a transformation, as (for example) the recent history of welfare states demonstrates. Even though welfare state restructuring has undoubtedly had 'winners' and 'losers', Glennerster and Hills correctly observe that 'reports of the death of the welfare state have, like Mark Twain's, been greatly exaggerated' (Glennerster and Hills 1998: p. 1). Esping-Andersen's assessment of the situation is that various pressures for change are building up, but that public support for a qualitative shift will come about only if 'A positive-sum welfare state strategy' (Esping-Andersen 1996: p. 261) in which gains outweigh losses can be articulated, marketed and implemented. Put another way, welfare state change fundamental enough to constitute a transformation is unlikely whenever and while 'one person's gain is another's loss' (Esping-Andersen 1996: p. 257). It may be judged more unlikely still where 'a majority of the voters stand to lose more than they would gain by additional redistribution' (Inglehart, 1997: p. 258), that is to say where 'winners' constitute only a minority.

Debates about welfare state trajectories highlight a further feature of the analysis of social transformations, namely the need for clarity about what it is that is being transformed. Such arguments frequently turn out to involve ideas about the transformation of citizens as well as of the structures within which they operate. Different patterns of distribution are necessarily linked to different conceptions of citizenship, as Lister (1997) demonstrates regarding the variety of social policy arrangements in which gender inequalities are more or less prominent. Just as shifting welfare state arrangements affect whom individuals have the potential to become, so it is also true to say of the shifting patterns of gender roles and relationships, of economic restructuring in capitalist societies, of the transition to post-communism, and of development as a global process, that transformations involve changes in (and to) people as well as to structures.

In this context, Offe's comments on what he calls 'the political economy of patience' are most revealing. The various social transformations which make up 'modernization' are more likely to succeed where individuals take a long-term perspective, in which they are 'ready to muster a large measure of patience, confidence and trust. ... They must quickly adapt themselves to the new circumstances and then be ready to wait for a long time for the fruits of this adaptation' (Offe 1996b: p. 45). Put simply, they are required to believe that short-term losses will be more than offset by gains to be made in the longer term. Offe is sceptical about the prospects for such 'virtuous' behaviour developing, particularly in former-communist societies where past and present experiences do not predispose individuals to exhibit 'tolerance of highly unequal distribution patterns' (Offe 1996b: p. 46). Gray's survey of the social transformations underway in former-communist societies and elsewhere in the contemporary world is broadly in line with this conclusion: political stability is threatened by 'the large and widening economic inequalities' (Gray 1998: p. 16) currently being ushered in by globalization.

The political significance of changing patterns of distribution reinforces the case for being careful when employing the language of 'winners' and 'losers'. We have argued above that to talk in these terms should not exclude recognition of the various intermediate groups whose position is somewhere between outright 'winners' and 'losers'. Secondly, we argue that identification of 'winners' and 'losers' requires specification of what items are being gained or lost, since these are rarely restricted to things assigned monetary values and have the potential to extend far beyond them. Thirdly, those adopting this framework of analysis need to acknowledge that people's fortunes frequently change over time and thus should allow for individual and group movement between the two camps. Fourthly, it has been our purpose to argue that 'winners' and 'losers' are not necessarily related to each other in the way that players in a zero-sum game are. Total gains and losses do not have to offset each other, even though the language of 'losers' (or, more emotively, 'victims') can convey the impression that corresponding advantages are being accrued by the 'other lot'. The use of a term like 'victims' should also remind us that identification of the guilty and the innocent is often far from clear-cut. The Serbs have borne the brunt of international displeasure in the imbroglio of the former Yugoslavia, but they were undoubtedly victims when they were forced to leave the homes they had occupied for hundreds of years in their enclave of Knin in Croatia. More generally, successful nationalisms frequently expend the sympathy they have amassed in the wider world on persecuting their national minorities.

Taking care when analysing social transformations (and other, lesser processes of social change) by no means rules out employing the language of 'winners' and 'losers'. Indeed, it has been the thrust of our argument that the study of 'winners' and 'losers' is at once challenging and illuminating. The adoption of such analyses situates the sociologists using them in several respects. To begin with, users of the 'winners' and 'losers' framework are concerned to highlight the lesson of generations of sociological research that the benefits brought by social change are rarely, if ever, cost free. In related fashion, the deployment of such a framework flags up a recognition that studying social change is necessarily linked to moral and political questions rather than being a purely descriptive exercise. And, finally, to talk in terms of 'winners' and 'losers' is to make the point that social change does not unfold effortlessly, but is, rather, the result of contested processes, the outcomes of which are far from predetermined. Gray's observation that globalization is a process 'whose outcome we can know in advance' (Gray 1998: p. 16, emphasis in original) means neither that losers are compelled to accept such a fate, nor that winners must inevitably ram home their victory.


We would like to thank the journal's anonymous referees for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


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