Monthly Archives: March 2020

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.