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


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.

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