Category Archives: Academia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

(Aside)

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.