Marija Norkūnaitė: Dissertation Grant Report on State-Society Relations

Jul 1, 2023

AABS is pleased to recognize Marija Norkūnaitė for the completion of the grant associated with her dissertation “(Re-)Claiming the Social Contract: State-Society Relations in Three Former Socialist Towns in the Baltics,” for which she received the AABS Dissertation Grant in the 2021-2022 cycle.

A close-up shot of a woman wearing a scarf

©Marija Norkūnaitė, 2023

Marija Norkūnaitė is a doctoral student in Area Studies (Russia and East Europe) at Wolfson College, at the University of Oxford, where she studies as an ESRC “Grand Union” Doctoral Training Partnership scholar. Her doctoral research looks at changing understandings and relationships between people and the state in former socialist industrial regions in the Baltics, and her broader research interests include statehood, statecraft, the social contract, citizenship, tax, and ethnographic methods. Prior to starting her doctoral studies, Norkūnaitė was awarded an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Oxford (2016-2018, Distinction) and a BA in Political Science from Vilnius University (2012-2016, Cum Laude). She is also currently involved in the knowledge exchange project “Tax, Society, and People,” which aims to introduce anthropological concepts on tax and taxation into citizenship education.

 

The Impact of an Award: Report from Marija Norkūnaitė

After the completion of her dissertation, Marija Norkūnaitė submitted a reflection to AABS.
We thank her for her permission to publish her thoughts, which have been lightly edited.

 

In 2021, I was awarded an AABS Dissertation Grant to finalise my DPhil (PhD) thesis at the University of Oxford, supervised by Dr Nicolette Makovicky and Professor Dace Dzenovska. My thesis is a comparative ethnographic study of the social contract between the state and society as imagined and lived by the residents of three former socialist industrial towns in the Baltics: Visaginas in Lithuania, Daugavpils in Latvia, and Sillamӓe in Estonia.

When I first embarked on this research, I was interested in how the predominantly Russian-speaking residents of these towns perceive and come into relationship with the state in Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia. It did not take me long to realise that my interlocutors had a very clearly expressed contractarian way of thinking about their relationship to the state. The way the residents of Visaginas, Daugavpils, and Sillamӓe spoke of their role and responsibilities towards the state and each other, as well as the obligations of the state towards them often sounded like a “contract,” or at least an expectation of or desire for one.

In my thesis, I argue that for my interlocutors in Visaginas, Daugavpils, and Sillamӓe, the social contract offered an ideal of an equal, fair, reciprocal, and perceivably apolitical relationship with the state that they yearned for yet often felt the lack of. I also show how the language of the social contract allowed my mainly Russianspeaking interlocutors to try and claim (full) membership in the national Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian collectives as good, deserving, and loyal state subjects. My thesis aims to ethnographically unpack the social contract that the predominantly Russian-speaking residents of Visaginas, Daugavpils, and Sillamӓe desired, the social contract in Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia as they saw it, and the perceived gap between the two.

A woman in a black coat stands against a flat, snowy background

Marija Norkūnaitė during fieldwork in Estonia

A woman standing in front of an old academic building

Marija Norkūnaitė at the University of Oxford

The first few years of my studies at the University of Oxford were funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the “Grand Union” Doctoral Training Partnership. My initial funding came to an end during my third year towards the end of 2020. This was in the midst of a global pandemic that brought great physical and financial curtailments as well as immense psychological stress. Therefore, receiving the AABS Dissertation Grant was of significant importance: the AABS grant allowed me to alleviate part of the financial costs of studying and living in Oxford, which is one of the most expensive cities in the United Kingdom, and focus on writing up my dissertation. AABS thus provided me with invaluable assistance in this pivotal stage of my DPhil studies.

An integral part of any research is presenting one’s findings at different academic conferences. The AABS Dissertation Grant allowed me to present papers based on my doctoral research at two major conferences in my field. At the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK’s (ASA) 2021 conference I presented a paper on studying Russian-speaking communities in the Baltics. This provided me with an opportunity to formulate my initial thoughts on the subject that later became one of the main arguments in my thesis. More precisely, my thesis argues for an analysis that moves beyond ethnicity and cultural and symbolic forms of belonging, and emphasises the Russian-speaking residents’ ideas of the social contract and concerns over statecraft, which have received less attention in the literature so far. At the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF) 15th Congress, I presented a paper that dealt with the topic of tax (non-)compliance in the former socialist towns in the Baltics. I received valuable feedback, which allowed me to significantly improve my paper. The ideas presented in the paper also became essential parts of two ethnographic chapters of my thesis. After the SIEF conference, I became a member of the Anthropology of Tax Network, which brings together scholars studying taxation in different parts of the world. I contribute to the network by offering a perspective from the Baltic States.

Finally, receiving the AABS Dissertation Grant not only provided me with financial assistance when I needed it the most, but the AABS support was also an endorsement of my research and myself as a young scholar coming from and studying the Baltics, which is very important to me. It also allowed me to feel part of a bigger scholarly community. Having submitted my dissertation in April 2023, I am now waiting for my viva, or thesis defence, and putting together ideas for my following project. In the future, I hope to turn my thesis into a book as well as some of the separate chapters into independent articles. I am immensely grateful to AABS for helping me get here.

– Marija Norkūnaitė, 2023

Marija Norkūnaitė

What is the Dissertation Grant?

AABS Dissertation Grants for Graduate Students are grants of up to $4,000 to support doctoral dissertation research and write-up in any field of Baltic Studies. Funds may be used for travel to research site, equipment, duplication or other needs as specified. Proposals are evaluated according to the scholarly potential of the applicant, and the quality and scholarly importance of the proposed work, especially to the development of Baltic Studies.

The application deadline for academic year 2023-2024 was February 1, 2023. Applications were evaluated by the AABS 2023–2024 Grants Committee consisting of AABS VP for Professional Development Dr. Kaarel Piirimäe, AABS President Dr. Dovilė Budrytė, and AABS Director-at-Large Dr. Daunis Auers. Award notifications were made in April 2023.

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