Political ethnography and Russian studies in a time of conflict

[condensed version of an article published in Post-Soviet Affairs]

Original article link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1060586X.2022.2151275

What has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed about the state of Russian social science? Could scholars have better predicted – if not the regime’s decisions, then society’s likely responses? My argument is that while the war has significant implications for all disciplines and methods, the positive outcome for scholarship would be to use it to reflect on making new connections between researchers and ways of thinking about “entering the field.” I will focus only on useful exchanges between anthropology and political science, which have not had much impact on Russian studies.

Political ethnography, or an interpretive political science of Russia, is not just “ground-level techniques of data-gathering,” but a sensibility that considers “insider meanings and complex contextuality” (Schatz 2009, 316). The methodological shock may be the greatest: to the blunt and epistemologically unsatisfactory nature of a key instrument – survey methods. To put it mildly, surveying as a preferred entry-point to data collection – along with secondary analysis of publicly available datasets – has crowded out other approaches, even as more interpretive methods have become more widespread in political studies more generally. Polls – far from being a describing reality – are a “performative activity that uses representations strategically for the restructuring of the social field” (Yudin 2020, 5). The attention to polls indicating high levels of support leads to Western coverage of “bad and compliant Russians,” which in turn leads to a self-fulfilling prophesy of what I’ve called “defensive consolidation” – in contrast to “rally-round-the-flag” effects. As reliable and unfiltered access becomes a fraught issue, whether to survey responders, focus groups, or elite actors, the war presents scholars with an opportunity to reflect on questions of what data collection means, and on better communication between quantitative and qualitative scholars. Similarly, it forces us to confront the extractive and colonial nature of knowledge production; the war reveals how social science has always relied on, but not really acknowledged, the labor of native scholars, but can no longer ignore indigenously produced work, particularly qualitative research.

Rosenfeld (2023), comments that response rates to Levada have not changed since the war began. She cites Shen and Truex (2021), who examine non-response rates to sensitive questions transnationally and observe that authoritarian systems do not necessarily differ in response rate from democratic states. However, using the Levada data Rosenfeld refers to – the only publicly available data we have in Russia – response rates are only around 20–30%. Indeed, a recent report by Levada on survey methods during the war is itself a reactive publication, produced precisely because of widespread dissatisfaction with transparency in Russian polling, and the close relationship of most pollsters, even Levada, to the authorities. The point is that the war allows us to spotlight what have always been issues of representativeness and validity – the stubbornly low response rate: between 20% and 30% (a falling trend since the war began); that a significant majority refuse to participate (60%) in polls; that younger women are much more likely to refuse participation; and that nearly half of contacts would not even answer a poll about trust in the president prior to the war (Agapeeva and Volkov 2022). One could go on and examine the closed ecosystem of polling and academic survey administration and how it perpetuates a lack of transparency. Pollsters in Russia admit to tailoring results to client expectations (including, in academic contexts “data cleaning,” inconsistencies in panel composition). These issues are compounded by the dangers of organizational incest: all the big survey outfits contract out their work to a small set of field researchers whose field practices are open to criticism. Sub-subcontracting in data gathering for academic research whereby a commissioning academic takes on trust the collection and processing of raw data via an intermediary who in turn contracts out the work is a situation open to abuse and fakery for material gain.

The point of immersive “life-worlds” or “culturalist” approaches and methods is not to downplay or avoid theorization or generalization between cases, but instead anchor them to social reality. Can phenomena such as decisions to start aggressive wars and broad societal acquiescence to such decisions be explained by theories that are universally applicable? Are the mechanisms of consent and accommodation of a society to a ruling group possible to uncover using universal models of human behavior such as rational choice? These are the epistemological and ontological dimensions of studying Russia now that divide many political scientists from anthropologists. A version of this divide was described by Aronoff, Myron and Kubik (2013) in their call for a “convergent approach” between the two disciplines. Using the example of Homo Sovieticus, they demonstrated the value of ethnography to verify, or in their case reject, assumptions that sometimes guide entire research projects in political studies.

In justifying political ethnography, they drew attention to the need to balance materialist institutional perspectives with symbolic-cultural approaches – something that looks highly relevant to the current conjuncture. If politics is partly locally produced, requiring attention to concrete details of interaction, then political scientists, particularly positivist-oriented ones, should become “hungry” for more ethnography (Aronoff, Myron and Kubik 2013, 25) to triangulate their data. Process tracing – itself a positivist methodology – via long-term observation and immersion need not exclude the search for correlation; interpretation need not deny social modeling that accepts the existence of objective social facts. Ethnography is well suited as a bedfellow to game theory approaches, and the study of power and questions of structure and agency, but this requires political scientists to recalibrate some of their assumptions about the interplay between formal social structures and informal social organization (Aronoff, Myron and Kubik 2013, 33).

A sociological and anthropological imagination worth its name draws on the founding principles of embeddedness of observer and observation, but is not just “ground-level techniques of data-gathering,” but a sensibility that considers “insider meanings and complex contextuality” (Schatz 2009, 316). War and autocracy, along with the disturbing calls to “cancel” Russia, only intensify the need for the ethnographic study of her politics to avoid the simplistic condensation of polling artefacts we see translated into dangerous public discourse in the West about what Russians think about the war, Putin, and Russia’s place in the world.

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