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Differences between two extremes worry a sociologist of social classes and work

Published on 15.11.2021
Tampere University
Professor Emeritus Harri Melin.
Professor of Sociology Harri Melin recently gave a farewell lecture in a seminar organised by the Faculty of Social Sciences. (Photograph: Jonne Renvall)
Harri Melin’s years at Tampere University reflect the structures and changes of society which he has researched as a sociologist and professor of sociology for over 40 years. He has retired from full-time work but continues research. An expert on social classes and working life, Melin is turning his attention to well-being in new comparative research with international colleagues.

“It is premature to talk about the disappearance of the middle class,” Melin comments the title of his farewell lecture Is the middle class disappearing?

In Finland, the middle class has grown steadily since the 1960s as society, the division of labour and the economy have changed.
“Disappearance is not in sight, but the position of all social classes is certainly a contested issue. It is a struggle for pay, benefits, and definitions of identity,” says Professor Emeritus Harri Melin.

Both sociology and the academia look different than in 1974 when Melin first arrived in Tampere as a fresh upper secondary school graduate from the South-Eastern Kymenlaakso region.

Melin is more concerned about the growth of extremes in society. He thinks that polarisation – the division into two sharply contrasting extremes of the social classes – already begun with the 1990s’ recession. The very wealthy and very poor groups have grown even though they are still small surrounding the broad middle class. The problem is that the extremes are isolating themselves from the rest of society in their own circles meaning that the dialogue with the wider society is broken.

Melin recognises the emergence of subcultures of deprivation among the poor.

“Generational poverty, which is a new phenomenon in contemporary Finnish society, is the most dangerous trend. This issue is entirely political. In other words: do we want to break the trend of increased segregation and poverty?” Melin asks.

Classes stem from the economy and culture

In the 1980s, Melin embarked on his research career in the Class Project, a comparative study of the class structure, led by Raimo Blom.

The sociology of class has traditionally focused on labour as a key arena for struggles over power and hegemony. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu introduced the concepts of cultural and social capital alongside economic capital, which were adopted into class theory.

“Current class analysis is interested in more than just the economy. Power struggles are taking place in the social and cultural spheres and they play an important role in structuring people’s identity and everyday lives,” Melin explains.

However, as a sociologist, Melin would turn the spotlight back to the economy. At the very least, the economy should not be completely forgotten.

“Globally, the economy has much more weight than ever before. Emerging economies are rapidly becoming wage labour based. In Africa, Asia and South America, new class relations are being constructed,” he says. This means that traditional class analysis with its emphasis on the economy could provide insights into the structural transformation of societies.

The Class Project drew a class picture of Finns in the 1980s

In the Class Project, the postgraduate student was able to work on an equal footing with more experienced colleagues. Melin thinks that his academic teachers Liisa Rantalaiho and Raimo Blom were in the vanguard of European academia because they were thoroughly familiar with scientific debates and the classics of sociology.

“It was a time of tremendous enthusiasm! A time of reading and learning – a time of debate. At the same time, the Class Project provided inspiration because you had to keep learning new things. To be able to present valid arguments, you had to know what you were talking about,” Melin says.

The volume of the Class Project was huge because the data consisted of 1,900 survey answers. According to Melin, the result was a rich and accurate class portrait of Finnish society about which they published articles in Finland and internationally as well as an English-language book. In addition, Vastapaino published a hefty 600-page book, Suomalaiset luokkakuvassa, which became a modern classic.

Because he learned the benefits of collaboration in the Class Project, Melin has been a keen co-publisher throughout his career.

Melin also served as Vice-Rector for Education at the University of Tampere for nine years before the two universities merged.

“That we have a publicly funded education system is one of the absolute strengths of Finnish society as it ensures that young people from diverse social backgrounds have access to university studies,” he says.

When talking about the number of university graduates in society, Melin emphasises the general rising of the educational level.

“Societies are becoming more complex, and we need the expertise of higher education graduates. However, we must also ensure that society has enough skilled workers to do industrial and service jobs,” he says.

According to Melin, the clues that show a worrisome increase in inherited educational levels are bringing dark clouds over the success story of Finnish education.

“As a class researcher, I think that the heredity of education has begun to reassert itself. The middle class is renewing itself through education. Young people from working class backgrounds are less likely to go to university than they were a while ago,” he says.

International comparative research on well-being

In addition to studies on class and social structures, Melin has looked to the east. In 1996, he completed his doctoral dissertation on business leaders in Russia and the Soviet Union.

As a sociologist of work, he is particularly interested in relations of power and authority. As a senior researcher, Melin has been involved in the Duunarit project led by Tiina Saari, which is investigating, among other things, the autonomy of work when instructions are given from the above with a supervisor’s authority.

In his emeritus years, Melin will focus on comparative research on well-being in cooperation with Norwegian and Russian colleagues.
In the Nordic countries, the research focuses on changes in the well-being of comprehensive school students and the changes of Nordic class societies more broadly. With the Russians, he will compare dimensions of well-being and the differences between societies.