Corona in a comparative perspective – will it help ‘restore justice’ in Russia, or show the weaknesses of its incoherent state?

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Civil defence placard in a public building.

Okay, so I had the choice when Covid really started kicking off, of being in Russia, Denmark or the UK. I already had a ticket to the UK, so I went there. But it got me thinking a little about comparisons through the lens of the everyday – yeah, you knew it would!

Apologies if, at some point in the future you’re reading this and thinking it’s in bad taste as survivors huddle round a fire in a post-apocalyptic landscape and someone decides to hand crank up the intertubes. Also apologies for the lumpier than usual writing.

So, what’s clear so far is that Britain is a mess in terms of state capacity for dealing with a major crisis, but also a mess in that there is no herd immunity to panic. Bear with me. I’m not of course talking about bio-immunity. I’m talking about the mythic ‘Blitz’ spirit. First of all, the stoic Blitz spirit myth is unhelpful for many reasons: the UK had an Empire, had the US to its flank, had years to prepare for war etc. Mainly though, it’s unhelpful because there wasn’t so much real social solidarity and grass-roots organisation in WWII. What the UK did have was massive and effective state machinery. That machine, well-oiled and relatively successful in socialising (bridling?) capitalism to non-market ends, was the most effective mobiliser and allocator of scarce resources in modern history.

Now, mobilisation and organisation that’s blind to other interests is usually used to describe the USSR war effort. However, what’s more important here is the long-term effect of the trauma of WWII for Russians, and equally, the continuation of ‘wartime’ elements of lived experience after 1945 in Russia.  So one thing that connects this crisis with my research interests is a ‘cosmology of provisioning’. This is the idea that memories abide of ways of being resourceful and resilient in the face of want – witness the culture of pickling and jamming in Eastern Europe generally (there’s even a verbal construction in Russian to describe the physical process of conserving produce at home: «закрывать или закатывать банки» – link from ‘Kapusta TV’!). But it also relates to practical skills of daily living that clearly many have lost – witness the anecdote from the US of a run on pancake mix while eggs and flour were untouched. I’ve seen panic buying in Russia before (the salt and sugar panics from around 15 years ago). So while Russia is certainly prone to conspiracy theories and the virus of rumour, there are socio-cultural elements of making-do and putting-up-with-little that might put them in better stead.

Another topic is what I call the culture of medicalisation in Russia. It’s an irony that the cultural hypochondria, or obsession with avoiding ailments and pursuit of self-treatment (for ailments that British people just put up with) could actually be a helpful thing in Russia. For various reasons, people are much more aware of disease in Russia as an enemy of bodily well-being in a way that seems obsessive to a British person (but not other Europeans or Americans perhaps). Comparing how many people consider having a thermometer essential equipment for their home ‘aptechka’ (note the origin of the Russian word for ‘medicine cabinet’) could be an interesting indicator.

The link here is the Soviet heritage of the scientific approach to disease and the underlying assumption that many barriers to modernisation were rooted in the genetic weakness of the population. Indeed the extreme ‘sensitivity’ in Russia towards ‘infection’ could be a good thing with a potentially higher ‘lay’ understanding of the need for hygiene and quarantine.  Of course, at the same time there is a very healthy (in both senses) folk medicine tradition that shows no signs of abating. The scientism, in a positive sense, behind even everyday practices is a long-standing referent, as Galina Orlova has noted [same article in Russian]. And in general we could point to a more ‘holistic’ understanding of disease causes and treatment in Russian historically.

And that’s not to mention the remnants of civic defence culture that remain – visible in every village administration or public building in the form of posters. Really the question here is, are the well funded and equipped security services able to ‘think’ in terms of civil defence, or are they too preoccupied with a mindset of punishing wrong-doers? Ironically there’s more signs in the UK that the extremely depleted thin blue line can do little more than stigmatise and bully those breaking quarantine, rather than switch to civil defence.  As Vanessa Pupavac notes in response to the UK police ‘shaming’, lessons from studying authoritarian regimes are that ‘overly-heavy handed interpretation of measures in a situation encourages more flouting of measures and the corrosion of adherence, esp. over time, than if reasonable compliance was fostered allowing citizens to make sensible judgement calls.’

Key here is self-organisation and grass roots initiatives. I’m really impressed with what’s happening both in the UK and Russia, with immediate organisation through social media of support and protection for the most vulnerable. Social media is a boon here, but of course many older people don’t have smart phones or internet. In both countries I see examples of self-organised local pooling of human resources to find the vulnerable people and offer support. Here in the UK in my household we phone an elderly widower every day and bring him groceries – observing a safe distance. I know of similar, well organised things in Russia – micro acts of care or ‘quiet activism’, see in particular the work of Kye Askins and  Laura Pottinger.

Both UK and Russian healthcare systems have been decimated by a fetish of ‘leanness’ and cut-to-the-bone medical capacity. Unlike Germany, which looks like being the most successful European society in dealing with the immediate crisis. Similarly, the fiscal policy response in UK and Russia is belated and inadequate, though in Russia especially it looks like a massive policy failure so far. It’s been extremely stingy and tardy: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2020/03/26/bankrolling-russia-s-relief-program and also accompanied with what can only described as sneaky measures (tax on ‘high’ levels of savings described as a ‘restoration of justice’ by Putin) to claw back more money the state doesn’t know what to do with. https://mbk-news.appspot.com/byvaet/vosstanovlenie-spravedlivosti/. The point is that the authorities once again have sent an incoherent message and accompanied it with contradictory measures.

Literally the first discussion of measures I saw on Russian TV, albeit a week ago, was a talking head on RBK predicting that it would be a terrible mistake to raid the massive currency reserves or undertake fiscal measures (because of the effect on the rouble and the depletion of firepower to protect it). The new tax on savings (see MBK link above), while affecting only a few people, has panicked people with much smaller deposits. This morning I got a message from a very calm and collected friend (see end of the post), who had withdrawn all his savings from Sberbank and gone to hole up in his village house. Now RBK is hinting at bank problems. Others I spoke to were disgusted, but not surprised, that the government has no plan to support incomes for those furloughed, unlike in many other European countries.

While there will be profiteering by sociopaths, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/world/europe/uk-coronavirus-tests-profiteering.html [paywall] the virus provides an important opportunity to ‘illustrates the centrality of care to social life and the limits of contemporary capitalism’s capacity to enable it’, regardless of what society one lives in. There are signs that society is not completely atomised with half a million people volunteering in serve to the caring state in the UK https://www.goodsamapp.org/NHS. In Moscow vulnerable people can phone to get medicines delivered, but of course, that’s Moscow, not the rest of Russia. It’s unlikely that bodies like the All-Russia People’s Front can really compare in capacity, and capacity to inspire mobilization, with the NHS (the link shows how many cases  they’ve helped among senior citizens and people with reduced mobility during the coronavirus pandemic – it’s tiny). There’s more encouraging news in this article about St Petersburg.

I think the final words should go to Russians themselves. Here are two reactions from today:

“You know, I’m not a fan of the authorities. No. But I wouldn’t just say that they are in a panic or are late. Rather, they are frozen in the headlights in the face of this non-trivial task that is not embedded in their algorithm programs. In Putin’s speech there’s not a single military metaphor, there’s a domestic tone and there’s a general lack of mobilization – just holidays, financial holidays and a few new taxes. Perhaps the refusal to mobilize and use military metaphors, so routine for our country, is a transition to a state of emergency?…” [Muscovite women in 40s]

“So far, it’s only the beginning, all the most interesting will be from Monday. Sentiment in society is not great. The worst thing is that it’s not very clear, is it all for real or is it a bluff. Small and medium-sized businesses will definitely be killed … A doctor I know said that it will be like in Italy, but in 2-3 weeks. Bu the main thing is there’s no leadership, no support – neither in terms of money or getting the healthservice ready. My father is in hospital now with underlying conditions and the doctors have no masks.

… People will continue to take money from accounts, banks can collapse. Gref this morning sent letters to everyone but it’s too late to say ‘chill’…. I advised everyone to take all my money from even Sberbank. There are rumours that cash circulation will be limted, that they will forbid withdrawals from ATMs.  Also that currency exchanges will be closed.” [Man in Kaluga region in 40s]

Addendum:

I’ve just been sent this report from PONARS [pdf opens in a new window] on the way the virus is being tackled in different post-Soviet states. It nicely underlines my idea about an incoherent state response on the part of Russia.

‘Declasse’ foreignness? Roundtable reflections on Russian fieldwork. Part 3

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I’d like to be more than a ‘visitor’ to my fieldsite.

Here’s the last part of my personal reflections on the questions put to the roundtable on fieldwork at IGITI.

— «Нероссийские» и «российские» работы о России, основанные на полевой работе: в чем их сильные и слабые стороны, ограничения? Чему можно учиться у других исследователей?

[- “Non-Russian” and “Russian” works on Russia based on field work: what are their strengths and weaknesses, limitations? What can you learn from other researchers?]

This is a question where really I don’t feel qualified to make a clear judgement as my knowledge is lacking. Certainly the ‘best’ of both worlds for me reflects my disciplinary background – where there is deep ethnographic diving AND good contextual and cultural knowledge. What’s interesting is that sometimes both these are lacking in BOTH ‘natives’ and ‘foreign’ researchers. Again I’d like to return to the value of ‘observation’ as much as ‘interview-transcribe-interpret-report’. As Whyte and Whyte in 1984 wrote: ‘Observation guides us to some of the important questions we want to ask the respondent, and interviewing helps us to interpret the significance of what we are observing.’ While the interview remains at the heart of ethnographic research we should remember that it’s an artificial environment.

I’ll highlight quickly some of the advantages and disadvantages of foreigner research as I see them:

Laura Adams noted that the mascot status of foreigners can aid access but can impede honesty and lead to conflict. https://sci-hub.se/10.1177/089124199129023479

Foreignness draws attention to the ‘value’ of subjects (hey we are worth studying and we’ll tell you about ourselves) but can conversely lead to conflict and break down in trust – as one anthropologist recently told me, ‘The locals couldn’t believe that a US professor would be interested. Throughout the research I felt I was not trusted enough’. The same researcher also commented on work done with indigenous people – how this provoked conflict with ‘Russians’ who felt neglected by the angle of the researcher that was addressed to ‘indigenous’ non-Russian ethnics.

From my own perspective I’d like to highlight the advantages of being an outsider in aiding the shedding of ‘class’ baggage. It’s sometimes easier for a foreigner to adopt a declasse position, for want of a better word, in entering the field. Whereas I think for some Russian researchers, because of their own privileged class positioning that might be more challenging and require rather unnatural poses that would then backfire. As one of our participants said at the roundtable – she found herself having to ‘choose her vocabulary from an unfamiliar set of expressions’. Now for me, this immediately evokes an idea that what we are talking about is class, though I know that some of my Muscovite hosts would resist this reading.

However, I’m also willing to accept that my idea about foreigners being able to shed their class positioning (in the eyes of the beholders) is perhaps wishful thinking on my part and only based on my own experience. When I presented this idea, one very experienced researcher who is himself from a working-class background had a different interpretation. He said that the foreigner entering the field would be interpreted according to a set of ‘weirdo’ categories that pre-exist among the working-class people at the factory I was studying. Thus I, as researcher would be ascribed one of a set of existing ‘oddball’ categories and accepted as such. Class would have less to do with it. Or, in his opinion, class is relegated, but it’s significance not avoided.

I don’t really have a neat tying up of this discussion, beyond what I’ve already said, in that I think perhaps one of the ‘problems’ in ‘native fieldwork’ is an allergic reaction to ‘class’ as a frame of reference in thinking about fieldwork and the types of fieldwork places. This was only underlined by some of the reactions I got from the roundtable and the subsequent Labour Studies school I attended.

In place of a conclusion I can refer Russian speakers to the [paywalled] interview I conducted for the online Republic media outlet. It was a bit of a rushed affair and some of my answers are rather ill-considered or undeveloped. The translation too is a little rough and ready. The reactions in the comments speak for themselves about general attitudes towards class, Marxian-influenced research agendas, and also the foreign researcher. E.g. ‘Republic, зачем опять левацкое дерьмо?’ and ‘Стандартный для западного обществоведения, в массе – розового или красного, ритуальный язык.’

 

 

 

Serving not the prince, but the people. Roundtable reflections on Russian fieldwork Part 2.

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Photo by Lina Yatsen on Unsplash.

The previous post began my reflections about this rountable I attended last week at IGITI in Moscow. Круглый стол «Полевые исследования России: своя/другая страна»

Now I continue some relatively rough-and-ready thoughts.

— Как воспринимается исследователь и исследование в поле, как происходит вход в поле (и выход из него)? Какие возникают трудности и как они решаются?

[- How is the researcher and research perceived in the field, how does the entry into the field (and exit from it) take place? What difficulties arise and how are they solved?]

For me this question revolves around building trust and overcoming two problems – particularly important for foreigners. These are typified by two reactions foreigners get when they initiate contact with field interlocutors. 1. ‘Why would you study us? There must be an ulterior motive’. And, 2. ‘Ohh, foreigner, I’m wary of saying anything that might be construed as politically critical of my own country’.

Solutions. 1. Long term rapport building, holding oneself back from ‘mining’ for specific, quick and dirty insights at the expense of really inhabiting the world. Developing a public language of research ‘worth’ – ‘This is important to the wider community/world because by talking to you we can better understand X’. But, at the same time, paradoxically, it might be apposite to not hold oneself back and to sometimes ‘display’ and ‘perform’ one’s ideological basis for doing the research – especially if you think it’s neglected, etc. The paradox is that the two approaches are somewhat opposed, but then they ‘aim at’ the same thing – persuading one’s interlocutors of the worth of their input.

Solutions 2. For me the only solution to this is like the purloined letter holder in Poe – have the letter (the political context) on full display but to ignore it. Eventually (and it took 8 years for me) some interlocutors start to point to the letter you are holding – they start to get surprised themselves that you’re not mentioning it. Perhaps the elephant in the room is a better metaphor. But I like the idea that the political implications of your research being understated, ‘hidden’ in plain sight even, but the point being that you don’t mention them, merely let the interlocutors initiate any political talk.
— Как на выбор темы и на фокус исследования влияет собственный бэкграунд, характеристики и опыт исследователя?

[- How do the background, characteristics and experience of the researcher affect the choice of the topic and the focus of the study ?]

Rather than focus on the problems of bias, and of reading too much of the Russian context through the concerns of the origin country of the researcher, here I think I’d make a pretty obvious comment that hunches and life experience are actually a great way to build up a scholarly justification for the relevance of studying something. I use this example a lot but I have a lot of time for scholars like Simon Charlesworth who come to research through their own experience of, for example dispossession and despair, but also anger and thirst for sharing this neglected life experience with others. However, of course this does depend on being well versed enough in two levels of scholarship – the general field studies that relate to your object of interest and at least a few conceptualisations that pre-exist. We had this argument in the roundtable itself between people taking extreme positions that one should know ‘everything’ about the topic in advance that exists in scholarship and journalism, and the other, that one should go into the field ‘cold’. I don’t agree with either…
— Какие теоретические рамки и концепты используются в исследованиях? Требует ли местная реальность местных концептуальных подходов или для её осмысления достаточно общепринятых зарубежных подходов?

[- What theoretical framework and concepts are used in research? Does the local reality require local conceptual approaches or is it enough to use generally accepted foreign approaches to understand it?]

Again this question highlights for me some of the dirty secrets of ethnography and anthropology more widely – the re-packaging of ‘emic’ concepts in a way to make them sexy and accessible in the global core. Inevitable perhaps, but at risk of doing symbolic violence at the very least, and at worst, downright misleading to a scholars’ audience. In particular, I think something of relevance to a Russian audience is the overtheoreticisation of empirical research as a problem. There’s a very big ‘philosophical’ baggage in Russian-focussed anthropology that I think is easy to overlook.

So while some scholars feel they need to ‘justify’ their research based on very complex thinking from philosophy, often ‘classical’ texts, equally there’s something of a neglect of some of the ‘obvious’ but important social theorists who surely have much to say today – Foucault and Bourdieu. Perhaps we are living through a time where fashion is changing, but not for the better. I mention these two, not because I think they are the ‘most’ relevant to someone doing social research in Russia (though they probably are!), but because time and again I feel resistance among some people to engaging with these thinkers over less obvious (and perhaps sexier or exotic choice).

Perhaps this is one point where an outsider perspective is useful, and of course I would say that the Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition in thinking might be useful to this. This is why I like what’s going on in critical geography at the moment – which of course is largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. It’s not a de-theoreticizing movement, but a grounding, critical perspective that takes ‘big theory’ hats – like geopolitics, and turns them inside out. By doing that it sees if they still ‘fit’ the head when emptied of the normative and hegemonic. So from geopolitics such scholars move to ‘anti-geopolitics’ in order to look at grassroots practices – ‘in the streets, in homes, in jungles,’ ‘off the page’, as Koopman calls it (2011).

https://sci-hub.se/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2011.01.007

She gives a nice example of an analysis of blogs out of Baghdad as an example of this – (Gregory 2004). But basically the idea is to problematize how ‘elites write space’ and to ‘see’ how geopolitics is peopled and how people have agency. The point of bringing up this example is that it is theoretically, or rather conceptually rich, without being obfuscatorily obsessed with theory. At the same time, these scholars emphasise how science cannot and should not be divorced from ideals of solidarity and collaborative theorising with the oppressed. Serving not the ‘prince’, but the people. This is of course not a new argument, but I think it again underlines how ‘extractive’ sociologists and anthropologists are in reality and how they are often in denial about this.

On foreign and native modes of fieldwork in Russia: postpositivism, interpretivism and extractivist field research. Part 1.

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I was invited to take part in a roundtable on fieldwork bringing together ‘foreign’ researchers working on Russia with ‘native’ ones. Here are some of my notes. I’ve split them into three parts and here is the answer to the first question (that we agreed on beforehand).

Какие существуют принятые способы и стандарты полевой работы в вашей дисциплине? Каковы типичные сочетания методов, использование каких методов проблематично?

[What are the accepted methods and standards of field work in your discipline? What are the typical combinations of methods; which methods are problematic?]

I’m interested particularly in the degree of acceptance of interpretive methods beyond their ‘origin’ in anthropological social constructivism, phenomenology and hermeneutics. To what degree does a very open commitment to post-positivism find fertile ground or, indeed, resistance, in Russian research environments where fieldwork is a key method. And I think this is equally relevant to Russia/non-Russian universities because of the ‘colonisation’ by both humanities and social sciences of ethnography in recent years. My own experience, in a political science department for 10 years, allowed me a very small glimpse into the world of political ethnography and organisational studies, as one example of this. And one small set of literatures that I got exposed to was concerning the interpretive turn in political science associated with Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea  – a ‘new’ commitment to ethnography by political scientists and those looking at studying international relations, and organisational and policy studies.

For more on this see this piece on the isolation – ten years ago – of polsci people doing interpretive ethnography. https://sci-hub.se/https://www.jstor.org/stable/40927048

[It’s a paper on the ‘perestroika movement in polsci’. – a call for a more pluralist approach to political science. Even though I’m guessing that many people are not so interested in ‘hegemonic’ research design based on experimental modelling as in Polsci, the implications of the movement are relevant to all disciplines in making us think about ‘methods hegemony’ in our own disciplinary corners. We also need to be aware of how methodological expectations can be used to discipline ‘unruly’ scholars (for example, accusing them of being less productive because of their ethnographic methods). It does strike me that this struggle in US Polsci may have some relevance to those contexts in Russia where there is a strong positivist tradition in social research.]

However, at this point I should raise my main misgiving about the interpretive methodology, as understood by some political scientists and not only them. There’s a danger here that ‘interpretation’ can be just a repackaging of discourse analysis and can draw scholars further away from the fieldwork of moments and of presence, just as they feel more confident about entering it. It’s more of a hunch than anything, but I do see a lot of scholars figuratively sigh with relief in their early writing and research when they fall back into a very close analysis of speech – really getting into the coding of words of interlocutors and not paying enough attention to the ‘bigger picture’ of their ethnographic interaction. This also relates to the ‘time’ in the field – and I know this is a difficult issue due to funding and commitments. However, perhaps a dirty secret of the new wave of ethnographies is how thin (some of them) really are – both temporally, spatially and, dare I say it, empathetically. I don’t want to single out any of the ‘new’ adopters of ethnography – like political science. In fact I think this ‘dirty secret’ of superficial and rather ‘extractive’ ethnography is just as true of some ‘traditional’ anthropologists.

So what I’m saying is that the varieties of ‘content analysis’ are never enough and can even be a dangerous trap – substituting ‘text’ or ‘textuality’ of lived experience, for embodiment, and even, objective observation (e.g. these people sell mushrooms because of poverty), and subjective observations from the field ‘these people like living here because it seems like a relatively pleasant part of town regardless of what they say about it’. This brings to the fore the researcher in something of a more honest way, I think, whereas discourse analysis can, in the wrong hands, become a rather ‘dishonest’ research practice that hides a multitude of sins – like the ‘extractivist’ mode of fieldwork.

[the point above echoes a point Bourdieu makes about the distinction between linguistic and social dimensions of ‘text’ – see Judith Butler ‘Performativity’s Social Magic’. At the same time he is aware of the problem of subjectivism – that ethnographic practice can ‘forget’ that it doesn’t inhabit the social practices it reveals and so also neglects that it is a translation. Butler also timely reminds us that the linguistic and the social dimensions of habitus can’t really be separated, contra Bourdieu. I guess one thing to take away from this debate is the degree to which our research practices are ‘practical mimesis’ of others’ research. What are the doxa we write in and to?]

From here there’s a point I’d like to make a point about the value of participant observation (PO), which I see less as a commitment by fieldworkers (for structural and economic reasons as much as desire), and this is something true both of Russia and non-Russia work. It seems to me that all over the world there’s a great moment now for PO – whether in NGOs, bureaucracies, activist groupings, but, to give an example in the urban activism book I’m editing, any PO is really buried, when it needn’t be. I’d also argue that to really understand today’s Russian state – it’s ‘incoherence’ as I like to call it, we desperately need more organisational ethnographies from within, and that’s something foreigner researchers in Russia certainly can’t do.

On intellectual journeys without destinations in Russian studies

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Some flats in Russia. Image by Natalya Letunova @naletu

I gave a talk at NYU Jordan Center just now, and they decided to get their money’s worth by asking me to do an interview. I hate these kind of things, as I’m a not a great ‘on-my-feet’ thinker, so I prepared a written reflection on the questions they pre-sent me. I think they are quite a fun exercise for any researcher to undertake as a way of pausing to reflect on their own practice.

Here are the questions and some of my answers. I’m not going to link to the actual interview and I hope this doesn’t come across as too self-indulgent.

  • Can you briefly describe your current research, and describe how you initially became interested in it?

My research on ordinary people and the everyday looks quite weird on the surface. My background was in literature and philosophy, not sociology or anthropology. However, a lot of my PhD study focussed on a particular ‘naturalistic’ and ethnographic form of fiction writing in the late USSR. One of the aims of that writing was to uncover a hidden reality – a ‘warts and all’ look at the dirty underbelly of urban working-class life. Most importantly though, it was also ‘sociological’ writing in the sense that it looked at things like work-relations, the black market, criminal violence, ‘organic intellectuals’, etc, – mostly taboo social ‘problems’ that mainstream literature couldn’t touch, and which dissident literature wasn’t interested in. Most importantly, this literature was interested in the ‘voices’ of the voiceless.  So in a sense I was primed by my literature study to then transfer that interest into the social science domain.  I was also primed in that I spent a time living in Russia in the 90s before my PhD, and it was striking to me when I entered traditional Russian studies faculties, how few scholars were interested in the ‘everyday life’ of people in Russia.

  • What is the major conclusion of your research to date?

It’s worth paying attention to the small things – research is increasingly beholden to media interests in Russia – which are about ‘big’ things like authoritarianism, corruption, kleptocracy, state violence, nationalism, but all these things are ‘generated’ or ‘play out’ in ordinary everyday contexts.

  • What’s one thing you’ve learned that surprised you?

How politically conscious and sophisticated and nuanced ordinary people are – an insight for political research generally and for Russia in particular. Of course, only a person working in the media or academia or policy community would make this elementary mistake.

  • How has feedback helped shape your research?

Feedback from as many disciplinary perspectives as possible, from Working-class Studies (which is located more in literature and cultural studies) on rustbelts in USA, but also feedback from people who work on postsocialist spaces but who are firmly situated in Critical Geography. It’s more important to me to get exposed to different literatures than to look for people to comment specifically on technical things like writing.  On the other hand, the more I write for academic journals, the more I doubt my ability and willingness to adhere to the sometimes rigid and narrow interpretations of what a good journal article is. So increasingly I value peer-review feedback – even when it is negative, as it forces me to think not just about academic writing, but about epistemology. What is ‘valued’ as knowledge in the academy is undergoing quite rapid change.

  • How do you make your work relevant?

This is always a loaded question because relevance is in the eye of the beholder. I think it’s a mistake for anyone but the most mainstream scholar to look at the ‘news agenda’, instead I think you need to identify communities of scholars. But of course as my work is about contemporary Russian society it’s a given that I should look at what the media is saying and what’s happening in politics. There is certainly something powerful in the trick of presenting what perhaps looks like a very ‘ivory tower’ argument, but then finding something very concrete in the media that proves your point.

  • How do you keep your personal bias out of your work?

Bias is inevitable – it can’t be avoided and anyone who says so doesn’t fully understand the history and the philosophy of science. Instead, you should try to be in touch with your biases and indeed they can intuitively lead you to some interesting places. Everyone believes that something about their research is ‘true’ – but all those truths are ideologically nested. Science should be more of a story about why you think it’s true. In a scholarly process, the body of knowledge you produce should somehow feel like it belongs to you. It’s more a process of being aware of what your own ideological positioning is, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Thomas Basbøll recently wrote that the purpose of academic writing is to ‘share our reasons for believing things, so that others may understand us or challenge us as they will.’ See https://blog.cbs.dk/inframethodology/?p=2841

  • What is your favorite aspect of your research

I enjoy all the things in my research. One of them is the feeling of learning more from people, even though I know the people in my research for more than 20 years. Coming back to them and not trying to be too clever in asking them about relevant things to my research – Being too obvious or direct often doesn’t work. For example, for this talk I just did at the Jordan Center, I went back to someone and felt like asking, ‘how are people resisting the state now, given these big political changes in the last 2 years? How are they talking about the constitution?’ This is a recipe for disaster! I would not have got any ‘good’ answers. Instead, we just fell into a conversation about cars, about utility bills, about the lack of jobs. And hey presto, a while later (that’s why patience is a good thing) I learn that a friend of mine had just ‘swapped’ out his car engine for a more powerful one and illegally neglected to update this vehicle passport registration! A big tax saving and an example of ‘ordinary resistance’ to the state.

  • Can you describe some of your experiences conducting research in Russia?

I just finished reading Kristen Ghodsee’s short book of reflections on her fieldwork in Bulgaria. She has some amazing and shocking stories – even the non-fictional ones are unbelievable! I have of course been in a lot of scrapes because of the kind of fieldwork I do. Like the time I helped a random guy on the street who was so drunk he couldn’t work out how to use the push-button ignition on his fancy new automatic car (most people are used to stick-shifts – as am I). After looking under the bonnet (hood) of the car, trying various things, I finally worked out that the car needed to be in ‘drive’ for the push button to work. He was so grateful. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was that he was the brother of the leader of a local criminal group – who insisted on providing me with some rather ‘extended’ hospitality in the next town. Another ‘experience’ is ‘by chance’ getting the opportunity to work in an underground (illegal) factory for a short time.

However, the most abiding ‘experience’ that I think is important is ‘aimlessly waiting’. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that the current moment is not relevant – waiting in a park for someone to come home from work to deliver their acquaintance subsidised medicine. The whole concept of ‘meta-occupational community’ that I develop comes from there. Listening endlessly to a person talk about their former life in Turkmenia and how they don’t feel Russian. I thought it was irrelevant, but it helped me later understand their personal philosophy of post-materialism due to this traumatic experience of leaving everything behind in Turkmenia. Another example is the revelatory feeling on going beyond the immediate field – being reluctant to go to Moscow with my small town interlocutors, but then realising when I actually go there that I would learn a whole lot about coercion, grief, exploitation, and local patriotism.

How to structure academic books (monographs): a dilemma

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I’d like to share a banal but important insight about writing books. However you structure your academic book, someone isn’t going to like it (the structure, and probably the contents too). This has struck me quite a bit recently as I plan my third book, and as I regularly read and review others’ manuscripts.

I don’t think we are honest enough about this. And the more I read and think about this, the more I think we need to challenge existing assumptions, models and ‘logics’ of what a scholarly monograph looks like.

All finished books contain the ghosts – often suppressed – of other pathways towards presentation of the same, ‘raw’ data or ideas. This post will be a little thinking aloud particularly about ‘philosophical’ decisions I’m having to make now right now. These are less about structure – although that can’t be separated out, and more about ethos, voice, fine-grain v. broad-brush, and the positioning of the author.

Fundamentally, based on my previous publishing experience – which is quite varied, the questions come down to the following:

  1. How to move past the ‘easy’ option that makes books resemble traditional PhD dissertations?
  2. How to provide enough ‘context’ (history/politics, whatever) without sacrificing ‘working’ – i.e. empirically fine-grained data that really show you know your material?
  3. What to do with the imperative to ‘speak’ to a group of peers – whether that’s a discipline or something else, without falling into the trap of a rather dense, sometimes isolated piece of ‘theory diving’ that few will want to read?

From these three we could break it down further into any number of subsections. Here are a few that are bugging me right now.

On structure (points 1 and 2). A major problem is how to introduce a place and a group of key informants. It is possible to do this in a stand-alone chapter. It’s also possible to have a stand-alone theory chapter, or even a ‘here’s all the politics and history of the fieldsite’ chapter. I know some people can pull this off and this is often what happens as a PhD is turned into a book. However, ‘the theory dump’ is often a tell-tale sign of a weak, uncoordinated monograph – i.e. a sign that not enough time and effort has been taken in moving from PhD to book. I think in field-work based social science monographs writers should really be looking to ways to avoid all of the above ‘easy’ options.

On the other hand, the lack of an upfront theory presentation raises the problem I encountered in my last book – readers criticising it for being undertheorised. One usual solution is to have a kind of 3-step presentation – and that ‘three-step’ is itself embedded within a number of empirical chapters. It goes: Empirics, plus Theory, plus ‘Here’s how my empirics move theory on’. Or a variation on that ordering. Other approaches can be novel. I’m struck in re-reading Alice Mah’s book Industrial Ruination, how she presents three case studies and then three thematic chapters. Mah is also striking for her relatively light theorising approach – some will like it, others not. I cite Mah here as an example of a field-work generating, post-PhD career monograph.

Anyway, this post was part inspired by my planning a new monograph with the structure of the previous one in mind. At the same time, each time I read a monograph I can’t help but see it as a potential template. A case in point was recently re-reading Simon Charlesworth’s A phenomenology of working class experience, which was published 20 years ago and appears to be based on a PhD. There’s clearly a lot to learn from Charlesworth given his book has nearly 800 citations (5 times more than Mah for what is a much more difficult and narrower book in a less cited discipline, albeit published more than ten years earlier). I’m very sympathetic to various choices he makes about voice, structure, and the weaving of theory and empirics. At the same time, you can see traces of the imposition of a PhD-like structure that are less successful. In fact, I suspect that Charlesworth would agree that he is most successful where he resists the ‘right way’ of doing a PhD thesis-book project.

Let me leave you with a few examples from Charlesworth on the hard choices of monograph-crafting.

Charlesworth rejects a true sociological scene-setting chapter. He does this with a justification: ‘the demographic and statistical account separates the phenomena recorded from people’s experience of them. In itself it tells us nothing of the impact of these phenomena upon what people think or feel.’ (he’s talking about the decline of the North of England and austerity politics). He goes on to argue that a ‘landscape’ framing is inappropriate because the academic spectator is divorced from a position within the world. ‘This stance is characteristic of anthropologists who […] seek to relate to the particularities of place through the medium of representation’. Another way of putting this is that it’s like thinking about a place you know intimately but confining yourself to explaining it only by recourse to symbols on a map.  – ‘a familiarity born of preconstructured social knowledge’, as Charlesworth concludes.

While his first chapter is largely devoted to laying out theory, Charlesworth subverts a number of expectations – all of them on purpose: he provides very very long quotes from theorists including within empirical chapters. He partially inserts himself in the text and also in footnotes as a kind of commentator on method and style. He tries, not totally successfully, to mimic his research people’s way of talking in textual form in his quotes (which are also very long in places).  He wilfully ignores various relevant currents in contemporary sociology (he even has a footnote that engages in metacommentary of the criticism his MS got because of this). Some reviews of his book were very hostile. Others understood that the form, content and style of the book were themselves political interventions in academic writing.

This narrowing of dialogue is quite interesting in the context of the perennial problem I started this post with: ‘Who do you want to talk to through this book?’ Charlesworth seems to answer this by wilfully framing to exclude debates he clearly sees as not useful. Similarly, the book is theoretically and empirically repetitive in a way that’s intentional – provocative. I’m not saying I’ll do any of these things in my new book. But certainly subversions of convention are something I’m thinking more and more about.

Extraction, Erasure and excremental excess (My ASEEES 2019)

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This will be a mainly descriptive post about a panel I attended at ASEEES 2019 (the US Russian Studies biggest conference), in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to act as Chair and Discussant on a panel about Extraction and Erasure in Post-socialist spaces.

Artan Hoxha from Pittsburgh gave an evocative talk about a terra incognito – an area of South Albanian swamp that slowly was transformed over the course of the later 20th century by the Albanian state to become a sugar producing area. When it was rapidly abandoned after communism, Artan was mostly interested in applying the term heterotopia to the processes this landscape was subjected to, including the placing at the centre of this wilderness another wilderness – a secret forest grove used only by the communist elite for pheasant shooting and invisible on the maps. Heterotopia was  useful to Artan because it shows how a noplace becomes subject to mapping by the state; how closed systems are ‘opened’ up; and how inequalities hidden in societies are revealed through uses of space – how different economic systems produce different types of exclusion and inclusion. Heterotopia is a mastering concept, but a loose one.  He draws on a reading of Foucault where heterotopias are ‘real places that manifest imagined realities’ and on De Cauter, who sees heterotopias as spaces that ‘convey and enact the contradictions of the society that has produced them is unable to solve’. One comment I made as discussant was how striking was the absence of people themselves from the story of this place and a lack of emic terms to describe their experience of change. Artan is completing a PhD on this topic and so I eagerly await the other chapters of this project. One potential point of intersection with other work done on comparable projects was the concept of hauntology, which I’ve sketched out elsewhere. I also need to cross-check how his approach squares with the recent work of Verónica Gago, who makes use of heterotopia to think about the meaning of counterfeiting of clothes and consumption in street markets (linked to what she calls ‘neoliberalism from below).

Natalia Koulinka from UoC Santa Cruz, using mainly newspaper sources, provided a really interesting account of two strikes among Soviet miners in 1989 and 1991. She aimed to show how their demands fundamentally changed between the two sets of strike actions to move from narrow demands to more political ones as they sided by 1991 with Yeltsin. For me this showed an interesting paradox. Workers inadvertently opened themselves up to an emergent neoliberal system by embracing piecework – i.e. to be paid for according to productivity results and market prices of coal. Of course this was because they rightly surmised that they were very underpaid. However, as a result, they ended up proposing their bodies as ‘private property’, believing that the market would allow worker control as a solution to inefficiency – a kind of neoliberal autonomism! – a propertizing of the self that meant that when domestic coal lost its value, they to were devalued – despite a parallel call for collective ownership of the mines. Their calls for greater wage differentials reminded me of the ‘inadvertent’ neoliberals argument put forward by Olga Shevchenko in a very different context of post-socialism. Like other postsocialist selves, they embrace an idealism about marketized reform (efficiency of the market, just reward for work). Natalia’s paper is important because she shows how it was not just liberal intellectuals who were ‘guilty’ of this.

This insight potentially linked the papers in this panel. I was much reminded of Aronoff and Kubik’s book chapter criticising Sztompka’s notion of ‘civilizational incompetence’. Katja Perat’s paper that followed Natalia’s, focussed on how Central European intellectuals end up ‘sacrificing critical thinking’ due to their eagerness to claim their Westernness in the face of the ‘civilizational’ threat of communism. Katja’s reading of intellectuals’ Hapsburg nostalgia, in her view, allows later 20th century history to ‘carry all the blame’ for CEE ills. With obvious implications in the politics of the region today.

It was very striking how Natalia ended with a personal note – that as a former citizen of the USSR she had never imagined how any Marxian framing might be relevant to historical scholarship. In fact for most of her adult life she had strongly believed that Marxism could be no more than crude propaganda in service to the state. Her paper reminds us that the work of self-reflection is still ongoing among intellectuals about their idealisation of non-communist systems and anti-communist modes of thought because of an understandable personal allergic reaction to actually-existing socialism.

The final speaker, Katja Perat from Washington U in St Louis, did a switcheroo on me – changing her paper from one of which she dwelt on the demonization of communism among CEE intellectuals, to a more focussed reading on the meaning of the toilet bowl in the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera! In the first paper she criticized Kundera’s proposal that CEE had been kidnapped by communism – and the interpretation of it as a tragedy of the later 20th century. In this newer paper, Katja employed Žižek to explore the khazi as a space of revelation, inspection and revolutionary expulsion. The bog symbolises class vertigo under communism – the emptiness below us and that we are destined to fall. This complitshitfest (®) was a wonderful end to our panel, but my scrappy notes illustrate how difficult it is for a chair/discussant to follow a read-out paper without prior access to the written version. And this despite my enthusiasm for excreta-examining and scatological scholarship. If I was to give Katja advice it would be to look at what Georges Bataille [opens as a pdf] has to say about excess/excreta (sfw) and maybe bring in Mary Douglas on matter out of place…

I may come back to my (largely positive) ASEEES experience in a subsequent post. There were plenty of interesting papers, and it was an important event for moving forward with a collaborative project on Russian Urban Activism, led by Regina Smyth and involving Andrei Semenov, Perm State University.