COMMUNIST AND POSTCOMMUNIST STUDIES
PHENOMENOLOGY & SOCIAL THEORY
I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech with versatile interests in political economy, communist and post-communist studies, and social theory, all fields in which I have researched, published, and teach. My current research focuses on the political economy of development and technology transfer, phenomenology and interpretive social science, and the social bases of the global diffusion of computing technology. My previously published work examines the political economy of postcommunst transitions, the macrosocial dynamics of economic crises, and the sociology of states and empires.
At Virginia Tech I am also affiliated with the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT), and Center for European Union, Transatlantic, and Trans-European Space Studies (CEUTTSS) – A Jean Monnet Center of Excellence.
I run a blog called Indications on Substack.
Ph.D., Sociology, University of Michigan
MA, Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University
BA, Political Science (honors), Hunter College
Globalization Under and After Socialism:
The Evolution of Transnational Capital in Central and Eastern Europe
The post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe have gone from being among the world's most closed, autarkic economies to being some of the most export-oriented and globally integrated. While previous accounts have attributed this shift to post-1989 market reform policies, Besnik Pula sees the root causes differently. Reaching deeper into the region's history and comparatively examining its long-run industrial development, he locates critical junctures that forced the hands of Central and Eastern European elites and made them look at options beyond the domestic economy and the socialist bloc.
In the 1970s, Central and Eastern European socialist leaders intensified engagements with the capitalist West in order to expand access to markets, technology, and capital. This shift began to challenge the Stalinist developmental model in favor of exports and transnational integration. A new reliance on exports launched the integration of Eastern European industry into value chains that cut across the East-West political divide. After 1989, these chains proved to be critical gateways to foreign direct investment and circuits of global capitalism. This book enriches our understanding of a regional shift that began well before the fall of the wall, while also explaining the distinct international roles that Central and Eastern European states have assumed in the globalized twenty-first century.
Stanford University Press, 2018.
"Besnik Pula takes another brick off the massive wall of myths surrounding Central and Eastern Europe by kicking off the pedestal the widely shared view that this region's experience with central planning was autarchic and that industrialization was a pure liability for their turn to capitalism. Instead, Pula's superbly well-researched book shows how the socialist states' rich and complex trade, technological, and institutional interactions with the capitalist West's value and supply chains paved the way for their emergence after 1989 as some of the world's most transnationally integrated economies. This is empirically nuanced, theoretically astute, and context sensitive social science at its best."
—Cornel Ban, City, University of London
"This book offers an excellent, well-researched, and highly original analysis. Pula's sophisticated and persuasive argument provides a valuable corrective to studies that overlook or overemphasize the role of socialist legacies in shaping economic reform in Central and Eastern Europe."
—Rudra Sil, University of Pennsylvania
"Abundant with quantitative macroeconomic comparative-historical data, nuanced with numerous qualitative interviews, and addressing some tough issues with answers based on an intimate knowledge of the region and its history, and above all challenging long-held faulty assumptions of the nature and dynamics of socialist states, this book deserves the careful attention of those who are interested in the study of globalization and the evolution of transnational capital in Central and Eastern Europe."–Berch Berberoglu, Social Forces
"Pula offers an original interpretation of economic development both under and after socialism that deserves to be widely read."
—Erik Jones, Survival
"The historical and comparative arguments in this book are very detailed and bolstered by a variety of data tables, graphs, and occasionally regression analyses. ... [T]here are several lessons that should interest even those social scientists not particularly well-versed in post-socialist transformations. The first has already been mentioned: the paradox that those countries most eager to embrace globalization were not necessarily the ones most likely to benefit from it."
–John L. Campbell, Slavic Review
"To be sure, what Pula endeavored to accomplish is enormous and an enormously difficult task. Ultimately, I suggest we appreciate it as an invitation to a more agency- and practice centered economic history, one that starts to give Eastern Europe its due in shaping global economic outcomes."
–Zsuzsa Gille, Contemporary Sociology
A collection of my research articles, papers, and other work.
HUMAN STUDIES (2022)
What are social objects and what makes them different from other realms of scientifically studied reality? How can sociology theoretically account for the relationship between objects of social reality such as norms and social structures, and their existence as objects of experience for living human actors? Contemporary sociology is characterized by a fundamental dissensus with regard to this question. Ironically, this is the very problem Alfred Schutz tackled in his phenomenological critique of Max Weber’s sociological theory. As Schutz demonstrated nearly a century ago, phenomenology’s egological method is indispensable to a non-reductionist theory of intersubjectivity, namely, one that does full justice to embodied conscious life while demonstrating the relative independence of the intersubjective (social) sphere. In the process, Schutz’s mundane phenomenology results not only in a thorough rejection of all kinds of philosophical solipsism but also warns of the dangers, one that Husserl himself succumbed to, of granting collective structures transcendental status. Through a critical reading of Schutz’s early theory in the Phenomenology of the Social World, alongside key texts by Husserl, this paper shows the continued relevance of Schutz’s phenomenological theory of intersubjectivity to serve both as ontological grounding of “the social” and a method for investigating and describing concrete social objects in their transformation into theoretico-analytical objects amenable to empirical observation.
Phenomenology has played an important role in the development of sociological theory. While modern phenomenology’s origins lie in the seminal work of Edmund Husserl, the perspective has, however, never operated as a unified school or system of thought. This article reviews three major traditions of phenomenology: phenomenology as existential philosophy, phenomenology as hermeneutics of being, and social phenomenology. It contrasts the largely extraneous influence of the first two phenomenological traditions on social theorizing with the more intrinsic relationship between social phenomenology and the development of sociological theory in the USA. Then, the article discusses the latter relationship in the context of the intellectual role of the transmitter of the social phenomenological tradition to the USA, Alfred Schutz. In spite of its historical importance, in contemporary social theory, phenomenology is described at best as marginal and at worst as irrelevant and outdated. The article highlights the costs of phenomenology’s exclusion by engaging in a counter-reading of Schutz against canonical representations of his work. There is a continued relevance for social phenomenology to social and cultural theorizing that grounds its objects in the phenomenal and reflexive encounter with the life world.
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SOCIAL RESEARCH METHODOLOGY (2020)
Comparative and case study researchers have responded to critiques of their methods by developing formal procedures to validate theoretical claims through set theoretical logics of causal conditions. This ‘logico-formalist turn’ has involved the stricter application of the schemas of set theory and the philosophy of logic to raise validation standards of theoretical and causal claims in comparative historical research. This paper critiques these solutions from a critical realist standpoint. It argues that the cost of such a defense has been the retention of positivist assumptions of causal inference and the downplaying of the importance of interpretive and theory-building work in comparative and case study research. By contrast, critical realism’s process of retroduction sees causal analysis not as proceeding inductively from empirical observation to causal proposition, but rather points out the constant epistemic shift from the level of empirical observation to that of the theoretical description of intransitive causal powers. The paper highlights the ways in which the meta-theoretical perspective of critical realism makes possible a full break with both positivism and the implicit empiricism of the logico-formalist turn.
GOVERNMENT & OPPOSITION (2020)
Defying predictions of radical liberalization, labour market institutions in post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe are characterized by relatively protective employment legislation, sometimes combined with collective bargaining rights. However, not all protective employment regimes survived political attack by neoliberal reformers. Existing theories in comparative political economy suggest that employment regimes reflect the relative political power of producer groups. Others have suggested that in Central and Eastern Europe the content of labour market reform was determined by the coercive influence of transnational actors. Through a comparative analysis of labour market reform in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia, this article finds that trade unions played a key role in early institutional settlements over labour markets. However, in Romania and Slovakia, these institutional settlements were subsequently undermined by attacks by ideologically motivated domestic elites in episodes of disembedded politics. The article develops the concept of disembedded politics and demonstrates its importance in post-socialist institutional change.
JOURNAL FOR THE THEORY OF SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR (2020)
Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus relies heavily on insights from phenomenology, yet his theoretical effort falls short of existing phenomenological solutions to the problems of cognition, agency, and reflexivity in social action. These shortcomings are evident in the analytical and descriptive failures of the concept of habitus documented by critics. Turning to the work of Alfred Schutz, this paper offers his concept of pragma, meaning context, and theory of relevances as an alternative way to describe the embodied and temporal nature of social action and accounting for social determinations. The paper further parses out key differences between Schutz's social phenomenological understanding of embodied action and Bourdieu's habitus, including differences in understanding schemas of standardization and their relation with objectivities of the social world. The paper ends with a call for a critical reassessment of Schutz's social phenomenology, with potentially wide ranging implications not only for understandings of agency, but also of meaning and the constitution of objectivities of the social world, as well the underlying interpretive method of social science.
NEW POLITICAL ECONOMY (2018)
The prevailing transitions literature suggests that dynamic firms in postsocialist economies are the result of macroinstitutional reforms leading to the making of markets. This article builds on work in comparative political economy and economic sociology to show that the degree of competitive behaviour of postsocialist firms is determined not by the existence of general market institutions alone but by the kinds of organisational allies firms possess and the kinds of markets they compete in. Using firm survey data across 28 postsocialist economies, the article examines the determinants of competitive restructuring by firms, including product innovation, standards upgrade, financial transparency, and investments in research and development. The article confirms insights from comparative political economy which suggest that dynamic enterprise sectors emerge when governance is effective. However, at the firm level, the article finds that transnational ties and supportive policy environments are most significant in the making of dynamic postsocialist enterprises. The article also highlights important regional variation in firm behaviour and discusses the relationship between institutional frameworks, organisational embeddedness, and firm restructuring in postsocialist economies.
JOURNAL OF EAST-WEST BUSINESS (2017)
After widespread privatization in the 1990s, the early 2000s witnessed the reemergence and consolidation of state owned industries in the postsocialist states of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). To counter views that state owned industries have largely disappeared from postsocialist CEE due to extensive privatization, the paper demonstrates the continued economic significance of state owned industries across the region. The paper then offers a typology of state-firm relations and highlights differences in empirical cases of large state-owned firms that have emerged in the region, distinguishing between market-oriented and politicized firms. Finally, the paper develops a comparative, macro-level processual analysis accounting for the institutional and political factors that explain why some postsocialist states have developed state-owned industries that operate successfully in competitive markets while others have developed highly politicized state-controlled firm. It finds that political factors are what chiefly account for the emergence of successful state sectors in the region.
OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES (2017) (with Yannis Stivachtis)
Historical Sociology (HS) is a subfield of sociology studying the structures and processes that have shaped important features of the modern world, including the development of the rational bureaucratic state, the emergence of capitalism, international institutions and trade, transnational forces, revolutions, and warfare. HS differs from other approaches in sociology given its distinction between routine social activities and transformative moments that fundamentally reshape social structures and institutions. Within international relations, the relevance of history in the field’s study has been highly disputed. In fact, mainstream international relations (IR)—Neorealism and Liberalism—has downplayed the importance of history. Nevertheless, World History (WH) and HS have exercised a significant degree of influence over certain theoretical approaches to the study of international relations. The history of HS can be traced back to the Enlightenment period and the belief that it was possible to improve the human condition by unmaking and remaking human institutions. HS was then taken up by a second wave of historical sociologists who were asking questions about political power and the state, paving the way for greater engagement between IR and sociology. Third wave HS, meanwhile, emerged from a questioning of received theoretical paradigms, and was thus characterized by theoretical and methodological revisions, but only minor and incremental changes to the research agenda of second wave Historical Sociology.
HISTORICAL MATERIALISM (2015)
Through an historical analysis of the transnational practices of economists during the Cold War, Johanna Bockman rejects the narrative that the revolutions of 1989 represented the victory of ‘Western economics’, and especially neoliberalism, over ‘East-European socialism’. Rather, Bockman shows that the space of exchange, as well as policy experimentation in socialist states such as Yugoslavia and Hungary, led to the articulation of alternative, decentralised, ‘market socialisms’ from the 1950s up until the 1980s. Instead of operating within separate and incommensurable paradigms of ‘capitalist’ and ‘socialist’ economics, Bockman shows how neoclassical theory and its long tradition of comparing distinct economic systems became the central episteme allowing for the transnational exchange of ideas between economists of both the East and the West. This review-essay evaluates the book’s central claims but argues that the book stands on weaker ground when arguing that a reformed socialism was a viable option in Eastern Europe after 1989.
COMPARATIVE STUDIES IN SOCIETY AND HISTORY (2015)
Why do some states fail to establish the capacity of legal regulation among significant sections of their population, and instead allow alternative norms of social order to take the place of those promoted by the state? Existing models of state building in the sociological literature treat the building of modern bureaucratic authority as a political process in which weak state authority results from a state's inability to defeat rival bases of power. On the other hand, neo-institutionalist theory highlights the significant effects that institutional environments have on organization building, but its elaborations of state building have mainly emphasized processes of the diffusion of world society models as central to the making of the modern nation-state. Both models fail to explain how limitations in new states' capacities to govern populations emerge in cases when states fulfill conditions specified by each model. I use the case of state building in the Albanian highlands to show that jurisdictional struggles and resistance that emerge out of distinct cultures of legality are key to understanding why organizationally capable states may fail to establish durable mechanisms of governance among marginal social groups.
EAST EUROPEAN POLITICS (2014)
This paper examines the varied ways in which the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the eurozone crisis affected the economies of the Balkan “super-periphery”. This paper shows that economic shocks are transmitted differently based on how globalised or dependent the mode of integration of each Balkan state is with the wider European political economy. This paper finds export-dependent and investment-dependent states to have suffered the most as a result of the crisis, while remittance-dependent states such as Kosovo have suffered the impact of secondary consequences of global crisis such as rising global food prices.
POLITICAL POWER AND SOCIAL THEORY (2013)
The seminal literature on state formation proposes a model of "co-opt and expand" to explain the rise of centralized nation-states in modern and early modern Europe. Building on this literature's distinction between direct and indirect rule, other analysts have expanded the scope of this model to explain patterns of state building in the non-Western world, particularly in the construction of centralized authority in postcolonial and postimperial contexts. According to this literature, the failure of central rulers to co-opt local elites has frequently produced weak states lacking capacities of rule in their peripheries. Using archival materials to examine the Albanian state's relatively successful penetration of the country's highland communities during its early decades of national independence, this article suggests that state building can proceed along an alternative path called "co-opt and bind," in which state builders "bind" peasant communal institutions to the institutional idea of the nation-state to legitimize and implement state building goals. The article identifies three mechanisms used by early Albanian state builders to generate legitimacy and institute political order in its remote communities, including disarmament, the institution of new forms of economic dependency, and the invocation of peasant cultural codes of honor. © 2013 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.
THEORY AND SOCIETY (2008)
This article uses the case of Albanian nationalism during the period of Italy’s occupation of Albania (1939–1943) to challenge prevailing conceptions of nationalism that define it primarily as a political doctrine that espouses national self-rule. Using archival research, the article discusses the nationalist discourse of Albania’s pro-Italian political and cultural elites during Italian domination and examines the discursive strategies employed by these elites in reconciling nationalism with foreign domination. Among other techniques, the article shows how both empire and fascism’s claim to universality enabled such reconciliation. More fundamentally, the article shows how nationalism’s historical power does not primarily lie in the enunciation of a political doctrine of national self-rule, but rather its constitution of the “inner” cultural sphere of the nation around the problem of split temporality, in which tradition and modernity co-exist disharmoniously. The resolution of this cultural problem requires the exercise of state power within both the political and cultural realms, a solution that Albanian nationalists saw in empire and fascism.
NATIONALITIES PAPERS (2004)
This article examines the origins of the nonviolent resistance movement in Kosovo in the early 1990s, with the purpose of explaining the dynamics that led to the emergence of the so-called "parallel state" of Kosovo Albanians.
A sample of courses taught.
Global Economy and World Politics
Comparative Political Economy
Origins of the State
Select publications in magazines, blogs and other venues.