Conference Groundhog Day – Russian self-stigmatisation and more public opinion problems

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‘Hey that coffee is for the whole conference panel!’

This post is ‘inspired’ by the Groundhog Day I experience when visiting international conferences. On the one hand we have intellectuals focusing on elite discourses and the exaggeration of their effects – a depressing fact that tends to trammel the terms of the debate (and the views of anyone listening) on what is happening in Russia. Carine Clement put this well when she similarly lamented:  “a conference where a small group of intellectuals [discuss] the “people” without ever mentioning any empirical arguments other than the speeches of leaders and/or intellectual elites.”

On the other hand we have the problem of ‘self-orientalisation’ (the very topic of my own paper at the conference) writ large in the presentations of respected Russian contributors. Recently, my own experience of the uncanny was a panel which looked like one of the outstanding events of the conference, devoted to language, society and state discourses. This is something of a churlish post and therefore I’m not going to name the conference or presenters. Of course it would be easy to work it out.  Call me a ‘sub-blogger’ if you like, but my motives are partly ethical. I went to this panel because I respect the work of both the scholars concerned and the main discussant. Their work elsewhere is really good (perhaps there’s a lesson here about presenting only your best stuff to international colleagues).

One participant presented a polished paper investigating whether the ‘rally round the flag’ effect in Russia was sustainable. The presenter argued that it was possible to ‘move’ opinion  by presenting information on how sanctions negatively or positively affected the economy and asking people about ‘preferences’ between Great Power status and economic well-being (can you see the parallels with Brexit yet?).

I understand that experimental survey design is really exciting to political scientists (yes, you can read sarcasm). However, the methodological assumptions of the entire thing are a bit obscure, like when somebody combines steak with ice cream on the basis that steaks are good, ice creams are good, let’s eat them together. For a start the ‘rally round the flag’ and preferences things seem so crude and, well, artificially distant from how (most) human beings really think. (This is what relates this post to the idea of nuance and context being lost when we talk about measuring public opinion on artificially ‘curated’ topics – the point of my last post). For example, sensible (real, non-neoclassical) people might understand the Keynesian nature of the military industrial complex and that it is not necessarily a trade-off between it and the rest of the economy. I.e. butter might be dependent on guns. In addition, this might be true not just in the underdeveloped rest but also in the ‘cradle of civilisation’, see Cypher, 2015: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01603477.2015.1076704

The paper argues that Russians increasingly favour ‘butter’ over ‘guns’ under economic distress. And here is the novelty of the study –  it tries to causally grasp this question. But there is a reason that others do not attempt this kind of tweezing of causality, because circumstantial evidence cannot really be translated into anything meaningful other than a lot of variables. This leads to bigger standard deviation, smaller significance level, small explanatory power. Not only that, but what are the confounders? Everything I guess is a ‘lurking variable’ here. What if any observed changes in the experimental group were not due to the intervention but were merely a Hawthorne bias? I think this is really an underappreciated issue in survey-based research generally in Russia – even that which is supposedly ‘anonymous’. What the Hawthorne effect means, is that people modify their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed – and not just in terms of the immediate context of the poll. There’s an even more mundane objection: that people’s ‘immediate’ response to a bad or good news story tells us little or nothing about their deeper or more enduring political ‘preferences’, if they have them at all.

We also are presented with a black box of the execution of the study – nothing on completion rates of the survey (similar criticisms of the big opinion pollers I discussed in the previous post). After the attrition rate are the groups still representative? Was a little bit of imputation involved maybe? If so, did it remain under 10%? In what sense was the study ‘representative of the Russian population’ when it was performed in white-collar offices in Moscow? The answers are not marginal to the research question. How did the study avoid the cart and horse problem of questionnaire design? ‘Could it be that the methodological standards are much lower in Polsci than in sociology, let alone epidemiology or medicine?’ mused my colleague (whom I thank for his help in thinking through these issues).

For a long time when I first got exposed to quantitative papers in social science, I felt some awe in front of these wizards of the regression. Especially when I was usually next up to present my extreme qual musings on what Russians ‘really thought’ based on ‘conversations’ (participant observation) with around 50 research participants. ‘Your ‘n’ was what? 52?…. ok….’ Or this priceless comments from a dear colleague with significant interdisciplinary experience and sensitivity: ‘So your research is like a form of journalism, right?’

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Steak AND ice-cream in one paper? Just tell me your attrition rate, ffs!

 

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The following paper on the panel was on propaganda and resorted to a framing now subject to increasing critique – including in this blog. The ‘Soviet person’ was deprived of a ‘restraining notion of culture’ and therefore has (what, still?) not learned the ‘lessons of modernity’. This provides fertile ground for the ‘mythological propaganda language’ of journalists like Dmitry Kiselyov who successfully propagate a kind of T.I.N.A perspective: ‘Progress’ in the form of western-style modernisation is to be feared in all its guises. Society suffers from a kind of ‘moral degradation’. I think, though I’m not sure, that at one point the speaker mentioned the ‘catacomb’ existence of contemporary Russia.

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The discussant (the person supposed to read and respond to the written versions of the papers and tie them together) was critical, drawing attention to the problem of studying public opinion in Russia in the same way it is studied in more pluralist societies. Talking to him afterwards, I mentioned how the whole idea of ‘political preferences’ was so difficult to impute to research participants in these kind of studies. That’s not to say they are unthinkingly loyal or ‘know the script’, on the contrary, it is because they themselves know that ‘preferences’ are less meaningful, so their ‘answers’, are not necessarily very meaningful either.

Similarly, in response to the second paper, the discussant pointed out that it might be more useful to look at the experience of ‘liberal’ journalism compromising with its own principles in the 1990s as the root for a decay in public discourse (it’s only partly relevant here, but it’s worth reading Sean Guillory’s piece on the 1996 re-election of Yeltsin in these terms). The Russian intelligentsia would be as much to blame for the failure to develop a ‘critical’ perspective more generally of how all discourses are political, including their own. He also made some excellent points about the ritualization of media discourse and consumption having more of a religious quality than necessarily indicating the malleability of opinion.

All of which reminded me of a number of things. Firstly, having seen the kind of performance provided by the second speaker I have to admit I was reminded of the idea of the ‘self-hating Jew’. Okay, bear with me, I know this is a much critiqued idea and that it’s not comparable to the situation of Russian intellectuals towards Russianness. However, these kind of approaches do qualify as a form of ‘extreme vilification’ of not only one’s own state and society, but attributing a kind of sustained moral failing to the nation. Is this not also an internalised form (self-stigmatizing) of some Western essentializing ideas about Russia and Russians?

The talk reminds me of the debate on ‘Soviet man’ as a ‘methodologically contestable’ category – that ignores diversity and compresses time. (Sergei Abashin here also makes some great points about areas where it might be worth researching what makes a person ‘Soviet’ – hinting at an approach on embodied experience and the everyday – his words remind me of Mauss on body techniques). Oleg Kharkhordin’s work also came to mind on how ‘Russia lacks a public language’. It’s not that Kharkhordin is wrong, or that our second speaker doesn’t have a point. It’s that so often these perspectives fall into an idealisation of non-Russian models. In turn this has the effect, intentional or not of a totalizing rejection of indigenous possibilities. For example, Kharkhordin proposes adopting parliamentary procedure to promote civil society – as if ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’ were ever practically applied outside a few narrow examples of associational life in the ‘West’. In turn, this reminds me of the way Putnam-inspired approaches fetishize a version of civil society (not even one that really approximates to the ‘real’ US) that sets up a hierarchy of societies – with Russia obviously being ‘backward’.

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In my own contribution to the conference I examined the so-called conservative turn in attitudes and critiqued the idea that the transmission from elite or political entrepreneurs to ordinary people is quite so direct or simple. Using Michael Herzfeld’s idea of ‘cultural intimacy’  (an aspect of ‘social poetics of the nation state’) I try to show that any ‘self-orientalizing’ by ordinary people (‘we’re Orthodox and we’re proud to be intolerant’) serves locally salient political and social purposes that are at variance with the conservative rhetoric from on high. But that paper is a work in progress and a topic for another blog post.

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