Category Archives: Academia

Academics and public communication. A May Day demonstration


Following on from my post where I thought aloud about monograph planning, I thought I’d write a little about communicating research to a public, or ‘lay’ audience. I personally find this difficult and frustrating at the best of times.

A case in point: I was asked a series of questions about Russian working class, etc., for a Russian newspaper interview to be published for May Day (the full text is at the end of this blogpost). The process of answering highlighted a lot of questions about the what, how and why of ‘public engagement’ or ‘dissemination’ of research and complex academic ideas, data and so on. For simplicity I’ll call this mode ‘engagement‘.

  1. In engagement, do you follow the lead of the interlocutor, or do you do what seasoned politicians and media-trained practitioners do – have a single simple point that you support with evidence and hammer home? I.e. how do you manage framing, which, if you have any experience in this kind of thing is often the most uncomfortable part of the exchange?
  2. To what degree do you compromise on conveying both complexity and ambiguity? Think about it, in a media or face-to-face conversation, without preparation, how would you feel about explaining the meaning of ‘habitus’ and its place within your research or within social sciences more generally?
  3. What about the problem that what you say will be interpreted as not ‘objectively scientific’? How do you balance that common (and mistaken) lay expectation – that academics are scientistic operators, with the necessity to explain clearly that science is unavoidably ideological and that this is even a ‘good thing’ to be upfront about?
  4. How do you talk about data, without dumbing down? How do you talk about uncertainty? How do you communicate the difference between inductive and deductive approaches? How, for ethnographers, do you give voice and not perform symbolic violence on your research interlocutors in what is normally a very short exchange?

These are just a few issues that come to mind. I certainly had cause to reflect on them before, during and after the interview in question.

If you have time to read the interview, here’s some of the thinking that went into my choices of what to say:

  1. (reactive-proactive?) I trust the interviewer to lead me. But at points I depart from her ‘script’ of questions. I don’t try to be a one-trick pony, as one sees in the media every day. I’m not good at that. I want to perform some complexity – intentionally. I want to shift the frame a little, both stylistically, but also politically. I combatively at times draw attention to the problem of media framing.
  2. (complexity/ambiguity) I try to summarize aspects of my work; I even draw attention to ‘technical’ terms while trying to introduce the idea of ambiguity by using (overusing) inverted commas, almost as a form of metadiscourse. I think you inevitably take risks in simplifying historical, political, social context. This is what I’m usually criticized for. Can you see the Bourdieu and Foucault there? I don’t see the value in calling out their names, but maybe I should?
  3. (so-called objectivity) I think I take risks with that in this piece in that I openly take a Marxian position and call back to it throughout. However, I shy away from pushing to obvious conclusions concerning Russia, and avoid some political issues. There remains the problem (?) of my own constriction within a ‘realist’ social science frame.
  4. (granularity, voice, methodological foregrounding) As an ethnographer, I struggle with this. The interview is barely 1600 words. How do I give voice, detail, without coming across as an ‘anecdator’? This for me is really the main thing – and what remains unsuccessful in this exchange – the absence of voice on the part of the people I do research on.

Am I successful? You can be the judge of that. Things that bug me: The difficulty of speaking ‘quietly’ while maintaining ‘authority’? Not possible. This requires magical academic charisma and cultural capital accumulated over time. This links to the next issue: I don’t feel confident in leading with my ‘unique contribution to science’. I talk around my own concepts, but they take a back seat. Is this good or bad? Style – I was told that this interview is ‘accessible’, but I’m unhappy that it’s still asking too much of the audience, just in terms of departing stylistically from everyday language. Again this is a question about frame and expectations of discourse.

My colleague who read this interview made an interesting set of comments (critiques, really) – ‘Why do we generalise so much with journalists? These are very good phrases, and very correct, but they don’t really reflect how you work, and what all this means to you. There is not a single detail, but zooming in is the most beautiful thing in the ethnographic game. The operation of the zoom lens should not affect the complexity or simplicity of the message. Regardless of the increasing requirements for more instrumental handling of material.

Here’s the interview, shortly to be published in «Реальное время». I will post a better link at a later stage.

Here’s the link:

Почему Россия, ее общественный строй и в частности жизнь рабочего класса представляют ваш научный интерес?

Что привело меня к изучению российских трудящихся, так это понимание того, сколь сильно ими пренебрегают. Да, в 1990-х годах проводились масштабные исследования забастовок шахтеров, едва не пошатнувших правление Ельцина. Однако уже в конце десятилетия утвердилась точка зрения на замирание  сопротивления как главное правило  трудовой жизни в России, где одним из результатов посткоммунистического транзита стало появление пассивного, безропотного и забитого (рабочего) класса. Все как-то быстро решили, что рабочие как класс сломлены и маргинализированы. Я же хотел показать и доказать, что это – грубая ошибка. Рабочие, каким бы содержанием мы не наполняли эту социальную категорию, важны в любой экономике – даже в той, что пытается перейти в постиндустриальную эпоху. Вирус Covid, если, конечно, он что-то нам показывает, показывает, насколько мы зависимы от тех, кто работает с материей и производит реальные вещи.

Вторая причина, по которой я взялся изучать собственно рабочий класс, заключалась в его статусе жертвы. Наряду с женщинами «синие воротнички» –  рабочие – стали главными неудачниками постсоветского транзита, проигравшими на переходе от коммунизма к капитализму. Но опять же, не собираясь довольствоваться этим ярлыком, я хотел говорить с так называемыми «обычными людьми» и, тем самым, вернуть им голос – показать, что они были и остаются гибкими, находчивыми и рефлексивными и в первое постсоветское десятилетие, и в современных обстоятельствах.

Это отсутствие голоса не в последнюю очередь связано со стремлением средств массовой информации и академического дискурса игнорировать трудящихся современной России или демонизировать их. Посмотрите, как либералы обвиняют «простых людей» в проблемах и бедах страны. Посмотрите, на каком языке они говорят об этих «простых людях». Здесь и сейчас важно задуматься о классовом расизме, существующем и воспроизводящемся повсеместно – не только в России. Конечно, у этой разновидности расизма есть и оборотная сторона – то, как некоторые политики используют рабочих и  манипулируют ими ради политического капитала. Перейти от обсуждения классового неравенства к классовому расизму означает признать, что на основе классовых предубеждений представители одной социальной группы определяет другую группу как антропологически отличную, низшую и вызывающую отвращение. Когда одни люди в России называют других «быдлом», в основе чаще всего лежит классовый расизм.

Что произошло с рабочим классом во время перехода от советского к постсоветскому периоду в России? Как изменился статус рабочих, условия их жизни и деятельности?

Я буду говорить о социальном контракте. В период  позднего социализма он играл важную роль, хоть и не мог обеспечить настоящего процветания. Скажем,  социальный контракт давал значительные льготы работникам в таких ключевых секторах, как «оборонка». Несмотря на то, что зарплата оставалась стабильно  низкой, работники этой и других отраслей имели доступ к патерналистской форме так называемой «социальной зарплаты» – детским садам, профилакториям, столовым и, до некоторой степени условно, к жилью. Меня интересуют рациональные основания в оценке обычными людьми социализма как периода, который был не хуже, а в некоторых отношениях лучше современности. При этом я имею в виду не ностальгические чувства, но сложные  и разнообразные политики оценки относительной ценности эпохи и общественного устройства. Субъективное чувство собственного достоинства и то, как человека воспринимает остальная часть общества, я рассматриваю как часть этого процесса.

Несмотря на многие негативные стороны жизни в СССР, можно утверждать, что там и тогда рабочие обладали большей структурной властью, чем сегодня. Скажем, если рабочему не нравились условия труда, он мог поменять место работы. Он мог не бояться потерять работу в случае снижения результативности. В конце концов, он мог искать защиту у бригады и трудового коллектива от произвола начальства. В каком-то смысле эхо былой структурной власти эпохи позднего социализма – вот то, что сейчас меня занимает. Когда я говорю о структурной власти, то имею в виду ресурс, которым располагают работники, занимая то или иное место в системе экономики. О том, что квалифицированные российские рабочие все еще обладают структурной властью и при том большей структурной властью, чем на Западе, свидетельствует высокая текучесть кадров. Если вы не боитесь менять работу, значит, рассчитываете, что найдется другая.

Другие формы власти рабочего класса, согласно социологу Эрику Олину Райту, представляют собой власть объединений, действующих в политической сфере, или коллективные организации рабочих. Эта власть существует в таких хорошо распознаваемых формах, как профсоюзы и партии, но она же может включать разнообразные рабочие советы или формы ведомственного представительства. Несколько упрощая, скажу, что даже в условиях нынешней атомизации российского общества будет полезно изучить способность отдельных лиц и организаций отстаивать классовые интересы, пусть и не вполне отчетливые.

Что представляет собой российский рабочий класс в наши дни? Кто становится рабочим? Каков их финансовый уровень? Какова их жизненная философия? Как изменилась корпоративная культура на предприятиях? Как изменились семейные отношения рабочих, какова роль женщины в семье рабочих?  Каково отношение широкого общества к рабочим?

Здесь я хочу отойти от традиционного понимания рабочего класса, в самом деле несколько устаревшего. Есть веские причины для того, чтобы расширить само понятие, охватывая и включая в число рабочих всех тех, кто полагается на заработную плату и не имеет других активов, кроме собственной рабочей силы. Конечно, у этого пост-марксистского подхода есть свои слабые места, но он позволяет обратить внимание на значимые тенденции, наблюдаемые сегодня и в России, и на Западе. Разрушение среднего класса в Европе и США означает, что опыт многих так называемых «белых воротничков» становится все более похож на эксплуатацию рабочих, описанную классиками. На это также указывают интенсификация работы, повышение контроля и ужесточение трудовой дисциплины.

Что касается опыта российских рабочих, то мое исследование о монопрофильных городах показывает, насколько изменилась корпоративная культура – возросли и требования работников к работодателю, и степень их эксплуатации корпорацией. Как это ни парадоксально, даже в этих процессах можно усмотреть связь с советским наследием.  Хорошие трудовые отношения в России по-прежнему характеризуются честной формой патернализма, когда работники знают, что им не только платят достаточно, но и удовлетворяют их более субъективные потребности (иногда в весьма прозаических вещах – таких, как уровень обслуживания и стоимость комплексного обеда в заводской столовой).

Что касается и другой части вашего вопроса, то хороший работодатель должен признать, что запрос на гендерное равенство никуда не исчезнет. Хорошо, когда женщины осваивают рабочие роли, прежде им ограниченно доступные. А вот представления о том, что российские рабочие как-то консервативны и видят в роли кормильцев исключительно мужчин, очень и очень устарели. Упорствуя в воспроизводстве стереотипов о консерватизме или даже авторитаризме рабочих,  воспетом социологами, часть российского общества и средства массовой информации  политически запаздывают и культурно отстают. Я вижу в этом проблему.

Насколько социалистическое прошлое сегодня влияет на Россию?

Полагаю, я уже ответил. Но подытожу. Я думаю, что социалистическое прошлое все меньше и меньше влияет на Россию. Но это влияние все еще можно разглядеть в отдельных нюансах и деталях, обнаруживаемых во всех закоулках общества. В случае рабочих это выражается в озабоченности условиями труда и цеховыми отношениями, в интересе к социальной заработной платой, в заботе о достоинстве человека труда. Но, сказанное не означает, что мизерная зарплата не остается главной проблемой рабочего человека эпохи постсоциализма. В этом отношении сегодняшняя Россия мало чем отличается от СССР. Рабочим не платят столько, сколько они «стоят».

По вашим наблюдениям, какие общественные проблемы выявил коронавирус, время карантина в России?

Вирус лишний раз заставляет признать, что работники недооценены и многие получают мизерное жалованье. Он обнажает разрыв между теми, кто может позволить себе сидеть дома, и работниками основных производств, которые сейчас находятся на переднем крае и подвергаются риску – врачами, таксистами,  продавцами супермаркетов, пищевиками и т.д. Это представители едва ли не  самых низко оплачиваемых профессий в современной России. Тем же, кто временно потерял возможность зарабатывать, вирус показывает, каким образом современный капитализм создает массу исключительно уязвимых людей – работников, которые, несмотря на свой усердный труд, не имеют ни активов, ни сбережений, на которые можно было бы рассчитывать в период кризиса. Наконец, вирус обещает, что самые уязвимые слои трудящихся могут надолго лишиться работы. Это означает, что баланс между капиталом и трудом должен измениться в самом ближайшем будущем. В противном случае «глобальный Север», частью которого является сегодня Россия, вскоре станет похож на «глобальный Юг».

Как вы оцениваете реакцию россиян на условия кризиса и карантина? Какие практики из социалистического прошлого срабатывают сегодня (гражданская оборона, методы самоорганизации, инициативы, а также заготовки, заговоры, слухи и прочее)?

Не так давно в своем блоге, который веду на странице, я опубликовал пост, где сравниваю Россию с Великобританией. Темами для размышлений исследователя-блогера стали культурная память о гражданской обороне, существующая в России и сильно недооцениваемая ее обитателями, и настрой россиян, куда более коллективный, чем у многих на Западе. Я не исключаю, что в России люди лучше подготовлены к рациональному пониманию необходимость карантина, поддержке уязвимых слоев населения и преодолению собственных эгоистичных побуждений. Вот вам пример из британской жизни. Сегодня я был в супермаркете. Мало кто из посетителей был в масках и перчатках или же соблюдал социальную дистанцию. Особо упорствовали в карантинном безрассудстве пенсионеры. Когда же сотрудники супермаркета указали им на это, они дали понять, что не понимают последствий своих действий или не желают о них задумываться.

Как вы оцениваете реакцию российских властей на коронавирус? На ваш взгляд, инструменты капитализма или социализма показывают себя лучше всего в таких условиях?

Что до реакции российской власти, то, на мой взгляд, она не лучше и не хуже, чем ответ на пандемию правительств США или Великобритании. В странах, где хорошо финансируют здравоохранение, надежны процедуры тестирования и отлажена работа государственной машины, показатели смертности и госпитализации значительно ниже. Великобритания – очень плохой пример с циничным правительством, которое уже 10 лет не только плохо финансирует здравоохранение, но и активно подрывает его, чтобы обманом обеспечить поддержку его приватизации. Теперь мы пожинаем плоды. Из-за того, что у нас есть несамостоятельные средства массовой информации, тесно связанные с правительством и обслуживающие его, боюсь, люди так и не поймут, кто виноват во многих смертях от вируса в Англии, которых можно было бы избежать. Таким образом, вопрос не столько в социализме или капитализме, сколько в потенциале и компетенции конкретного государства. Но, и капитализм, конечно, остается частью проблемы. Об этом позволяет судить пример США с его гипер-маркетизированной системой здравоохранения и гигантским неравенством в отношении здоровья. Эта страна располагает самыми передовыми медицинскими учреждениями и технологиями в мире, и, тем не менее, она, вероятно, будет иметь наибольшее число смертей на душу населения. Экономические системы, которые ставят прибыль превыше человека, ответят на ваш вопрос лучше, чем я.



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


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.

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.’




On intellectual journeys without destinations in Russian studies


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

  • 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.

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


‘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:

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?’


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



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.


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.

On the hegemony of the marketized university and the anglocentric view of knowledge production

Uppsala Lecture Hall

Lecture hall in the illustrious Uppsala Universitetshuset, next to what is thought to be the oldest university building in Scandinavia: the Gustavianum

It’s cold and dark (and that’s just inside the academy). And this post kinda reflects that January feeling of doom.

This piece in Aeon by David Labaree, ‘Gold among the dross’, has much to offer in helping non-insiders understand US academia, and the perverse incentives pertaining to an academic job more generally (that academics are driven less by fear and greed and more by ‘token’ marks of ‘glory’). But it raises more questions than it answers when it comes to comparing the merits of the US (and similar UK) system and other ways of organising universities.

And that’s to ignore what in my view is the untenable, but widespread view, that scholarship is an ‘internal good‘ a lá Alisdair MacIntyre. (An ‘internal good’ is the result of a practice within an ‘institution’ – i.e. where there are understood rules of the game – where that practice is undertaken according to a moral principle of excellence. One pursues excellence for its own sake – hence being ‘internal’ to that practice).

I’ve been thinking about the ‘internal good’ element of certain social practices for a long time, particularly via Russell Keat’s interpretations of MacIntyre’s ideas. In my research, I examined how Russian blue-collar workers engaged in DIY activities in ‘competition’ with each other for ‘sport’. The internal good is ‘expert’ peer recognition of the skill and excellence performed in constructing DIY-decorative-but-useful domestic pieces, such as fish tanks and metal furniture. Crucially, there is no ‘prize’ beyond that recognition, in marked contrast to how an academic career operates. (actually there’s a bit of a wobble here in defining the ‘good’ as it could be seen as both/either the value in the practice itself ‘means’, rather than ‘ends’, or/and the peer recognition in a community of practitioners – Keat does address this problem in his reading of MacIntyre).

Thinking about academic institutions in this way, many, even within universities subscribe to a view of the ‘nobility’ of intellectual work they do in a way that recalls the idea of MacIntyrian practices and goods. Perhaps because I’m not quite smart enough, I’ve always found it very surprising that smart people could think this way. I can’t quite disassociate this belief with other ‘hegemonic’ yet flawed ideas. And not least this is because of the deep and pervasive anti-intellectualism I perceive that underpins so much academic practice (actually that’s the initial bee I had in my bonnet, but will have to wait for another time).

To be fair to Labaree, he argues that academics are motivated more by ‘fame’ than intellectual curiosity or the belief in furthering understanding. What I think he underplays is that the very pursuit of academic prestige is inseparable from other motivation such as vanity, greed, or fear. Possibly all of them at the same time!

His topline argument (in favour of US system) is this: ‘Maybe it’s worth tolerating the gross inefficiency of a university system that is charging off in all directions, with each institution trying to advance itself in competition with the others. The result is a system that is the envy of the world, a world where higher education is normally framed as a pure state function under the direct control of the state education ministry.’

I can’t help but reflect on this in comparison with my own institution in Scandinavia, which more or less is described using Labaree’s phrase: ‘under direct control of the state education ministry’. The author assumes that where there are purer market incentives, like in the US, then entrepreneurial academics lead to the best outcomes (albeit with a lot of waste).

Leaving aside whether this it is really true that market incentives rule, I think it underplays how different (and diverse) non-US contexts are. This in turn illuminates the problem with the piece’s argument: that the ‘market’ is best (of all possible worlds) even if it is wasteful and pernicious in large part. My main problem then with the piece is another kind of hegemonic logic – almost a self-congratulatory social darwinism. A good reposte to this sort of thing was recently published by some Finns who reflected on the experience of publishing with British colleagues. They found their findings were relegated somewhat upon publishing as less relevant. They framed their argument in this way: “Drawing on Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) political theory of discourse, we argue that institutions of academic publishing are constantly reproduced through hegemonic practices that serve to maintain and reinforce core-periphery relations.”

Perhaps the hegemony of the “university-as-market” idea is just one of a number of Anglophone-world assumptions. Another might be that ‘tenure’ in Europe works like in the US and I think inattentive readers of the Aeon piece might also make that assumption (because the piece begins by talking about endowed chairs). A fundamental difference is that ‘tenure’ in the non-US is largely linked to the institution’s, or ministry’s evaluation of the utility of the subject taught (not researched) by the academic in question. Thus in some places even ‘full’ professors can lose their jobs (as they have done even in the UK in less research-active universities).

Overall though, I think the Aeon article (and those who share its sunny perspective, particularly within academia itself) wilfully ignores the hidden ‘network’ of clientalism and patronage. Especially when Labaree resorts to statements like this: ‘As a grad student, you need to write your way to an academic job.’ Hmmm, can we really say that’s true, now or in any period? This is not a market based on merit. This is, like so much of the global moment, about hidden cartels, backhanders and networks of ingratiation (not grace) and favour.


Also, is it really true, as Labaree states based on a previous study, that Liberal Arts (economics) academics only publish 5 peer-reviewed article in their entire careers? (Is this a misrepresentation because they’re more likely to publish books and chapters?) And then there’s this: “lowest end of this top sliver of US universities has faculty who are publishing less than one article every five years. The other 80 per cent are presumably publishing even more rarely than this.” Perhaps I’m only surprised because I know little of the US system.

If that’s the case then what’s interesting is now metric-led requirements have invaded even less research-intensive universities in Europe in comparison to the Liberal Arts system in the US. Or is this just an artefact of the huge number of small LA institutions in the US and the vast majority of state unis in Europe that have to show ‘value for money’ in research? It’s ironic that many of my UK colleagues think that I have fewer research pressures in Denmark than under the REF regime in the UK, and largely that is true. However, if looked at purely through the lens of ‘quantity’, a Danish academic in Humanities or Social Sciences is expected to produce two ‘higher-tier’ outputs a year, which is more than the average a UK academic is likely to produce for consideration in the REF cycle. And this is in an institutional environment where research time (whether as annual number of hours or as a percentage of time) is not officially counted. Food for thought. Or, perhaps I should add the disclaimer: ‘just sayin’’.

(Aside ends)

Okay, let me get back to the essence of my gripe. Articles of this type ignore the broader question of power. In my (humanities/social science restricted, though diverse) experience of academia, the pursuit of power (institutional, financial, situational) motivates many (tenured or middle- to high-ranking academics). I would not put the ‘practice’ of the pursuit of knowledge even in the top three motivations. Autonomy in work, financial security, sure. Name whatever you like as a third.

Of course, personally I am bound to argue that I am ‘not like that’. I.e. driven more by the intellectual ‘practice’ that results in ‘internal goods’ – recognition of a contribution to knowledge, some new, some old, some wrong, some right (after all, only in the long term is it possible to say with any certainty). But it’s not for me to judge myself. What I will say, and what motivated this post, is the long-term observation that one meets few people so lacking in intellectual curiosity as career academics. And this is not just a question of overspecialisation – as is sometimes argued. Many are disturbingly uninformed not only about the world ‘ in general’ and even basic social facts, but also about related disciplines that should have purchase on their thinking. (One colleague often points out that this is generally not so much the case in the former Eastern Bloc where the idea of the rounded intellectual worker remains). And this is despite the language of ‘interdisciplinarity’ gaining ground if not substantive meaningfulness. Then there are the snake-oil scholars, the empty echo equation solvers (where social or humanist knowledge is divorced from the world, is it knowledge?), not to mention the types one finds in all organisations – office-holders.

This brings us back to the ‘institutional design’ of universities. No one should be under the illusion that they actively foster ‘internal goods’ such as the pursuit and peer-recognition of intellectual excellence (MacIntyre scholars here may say I stretch the meaning of internal goods too far, but the point should be clear). These are at best happy coincidences and thanks to the minority – those naïve souls, often never getting tenure or even institutional recognition. While you may say this is too pessimistic I would argue that only by acknowledging this can we start to change it. All the more so because, As Keat observes:

“internal goods, are not only virtue- (or morality-) dependent; they also depend on institutions, and hence on the use of external goods such as money, status and power. [… ] External goods must serve the integrity of practices and their internal goods; internal goods must not be subordinated to external goods, but the latter to the former.”

Of course my criticism of marketised hegemony in the university is nothing new. Keat references Jerome Revetz’s work from the early 1970s. His Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems examined issues of the ‘industrialization’ of science and the need to reinvigorate the idea of ‘critical science’. The risk with increasing specialisation in science is of course the difficulty in detecting in a timely manner various kinds of ‘degeneration’, or shoddy science. We can see this at the root of the mistargeted ‘grievance studies hoax’. (See my brief response to this weasel defence of the bad faith fraud) By all accounts, fake science and flawed science is fundamentally the problem in much heftier disciplines than gender studies and queer theory (where all the fraudsters have uncovered is weak peer review and the failure to call out poor argumentation). As Craig Pirrong points out, the reproducibility crisis in psychological research is acute (50 percent of psychological studies being non-replicable). And most involve relatively simple experiments.

As Revetz might argue, the ‘cleaning up’ and outright falsification of data is partly the result of a relentless focus on entrepreneurial science, “where a scientist becomes more concerned with research grants and power than with the quality of his scientific research”.[2] The wiki for Revetz’s book continues in MacIntyrian fashion: “The need for ‘good morale’, i.e. for an ethos of science upheld by a community of peers is mentioned in relation to the danger that such an ethos may not survive ‘industrialized science’.”

To ground this in reality I offer my example of Russian working-class men making fish tanks. They were pursuing ‘internal goods’ – the recognition of excellence in practice. These practices were wholly divorced from power, money or fame (beyond the institution of the practice – their social circle of confreres). By contrast, the university sees internal goods (the production of knowledge) subordinated to more ‘worldly’ ones. This isn’t any answer to the problem, just a call to think more about how one’s own research (in places as distant as former Soviet factories) can inform an understanding of the institutional world that academics inhabit.