Tag Archives: anthropology

On the state of Russian anthropology and qualitative sociology

Street library, at a Kaluga bus station.

Jeanne Kormina wrote in March 2022 about how Russia’s invasion has forced anthropologists to rethink their work. Firstly, because the war makes sympathetic understanding of informants’ worldviews untenable. Secondly, because in Kormina’s view Russian anthropology has been politically apathetic – by which she means studies preferred to focus on what was reassuringly metropolitan and liberal in Russia.

When I read Kormina’s piece I identified strongly with her comment about the ‘class-squeamishness’ of scholars working on Russia. I’ve written about that many times on this blog and in my work. Many times in academic contexts I have been asked how I can study ‘monstrously alien people’, as Kormina puts it.

However, no sooner had I positively commented on Kormina’s piece, Sam Greene rightly took me to task. In his view, the problem is not a lack of social research that reflects the diversity of Russian society. Instead, Sam argued that there’s a gap between what is read and what is written; there has been plenty of qualitative sociological and anthro work well beyond Moscow and the middle class. Instead, Sam argued that there isn’t enough theorization that usefully incorporates non-elite people.  Tomila Lankina and Maria Sidorkina also had some things to say on these points. Tomila said that survey research has become the go to way of studying #Russia because of supposed “rigour”, but that surveys are more problematic than ever. Maria commented that the problem is that not enough Russian elites read this research and thus change the way they address/talk to people in the general public.

If you don’t know Sam’s work, you should check it out, including the up-coming re-publication in paperback of his book with Graeme Robertson. Their work on social conformity and agreeableness is very relevant to understanding pro-war sentiment now. It also points to how quickly things might change.  

Sam posted links to various recent publications; let’s review some of them.

First up is the Russian sociology journal Laboratorium. This journal is in good health, publishing many local researchers who employ qualitative methods like interviews and ethnography. Articles are in Russian with an extended summary in English, or vice versa.

A recent issue of Laboratorium is of interest to me because it was co-edited by Elena Bogdanova, the author of a recent book on complaint letters. Bogdanova and Olga Brednikova present seven pieces on neighbourness and civic action in contemporary Russia. The works feature research from beyond Moscow and St Petersburg and draw on/build on a variety of sociological theories.

Karine Clément, it’s fair to say, has been at the forefront of politically-engaged sociology about Russia. In the last years she’s published a lot on urban grassroots movements in Russia. She’s critiqued the idea of an ‘authoritarian personality’ among Russians and offered insights into the locally-rooted and everyday forms of civicness based on her reading of French pragmatic sociology. This has the potential to bring into dialogue different approaches – social psychology, political culture, and the phenomenological. Directly and indirectly the influence of Clément and others can be seen in the research agendas of two important young Russian sociologists Anna Zhelnina and Oleg Zhuravlev and their collaborators. Clément’s work is particularly important to me because she focuses on contexts of transformative experience that turn ordinary people into political subjects. She’s interested in how ordinary people learn, interact and invest themselves emotionally in civic and political causes.  Charles Tilly meets Goffman meets Thévenot.

Some other very recent pieces were pointed out by Sam. I just highlight two of them that were particularly interesting to me:

The Post-Soviet City as a Communal Apartment: Spatialized Belonging in Ulan-Ude by Kristina Jonutytė (2021) in Nationalities Papers. Extract:

“contentions over the city indeed seem to occur prominently in spatial forms such as sacred spaces, memorial statues, and public celebrations, and also discoursively in the city’s promotional materials and publications, as I outlined above. However, although the shifting political and cultural landscape likely played a part in the recent urban changes, I argue below that the seeming contestations should not be read as direct confrontations – or, as Breslavsky (2012a, 313] put it not as an “ethno-political” project – but should instead be seen in the local field of ideas and practices of coexistence.”

Perceptions of governance: state and non-state governance in the North Caucasus by Sasha Klyachkina (2021) in Post-Soviet Affairs. Extract:

“Using original interviews and household survey data collected over nine months of fieldwork, this article offers a nuanced and empirically driven comparative account of how governance works in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. Mitigating between accounts of a hegemonic state that has saturated public space and strong non-state actors that consistently organize parallel systems of governance, I demonstrate that residents identify a role for both state and ostensibly non-state authorities in governance…Following Ostrom’s (2010) call to examine the “wide diversity of institutional arrangements that humans craft to govern” at multiple scales, it highlights two main contributions. First, the paper demonstrates the need to interrogate the relationships between authorities when making inferences about governance rather than grouping them into dichotomous “state” and “non-state” categories. Second, the three cases demonstrate that conclusions about who governs and how are likely to be highly dependent on the domains of governance selected.”

Sam’s other comments were that “the problem, of course, is that most of this kind of stuff never makes it to Western journals, because it’s qualitative – and quantitative studies (despite attempts at representativeness) do tend to over-estimate the role of ‘elite’ constituencies. But that’s not because people aren’t doing the work. They are. It’s just that too few people outside Russia are reading it, and that the polisci establishment even in Russia is broadly not reading it.”

Does war mean making the case that – survey work aside – small-scale sociological work is more important than ever? Yes, it does. The kind of sociology that Clément proposes is useful because it helps understand that the politics of Russia – both ‘monstrous’ and mundane, find their origin in personal responses to, and forms of coping with, the big and imposing structures of society. These associated traumas and tragedies, resentments and revelations via a process of alignment with elite political expediency can crystalize into the forms we see before us today – among them, radicalized bitterness searching for political representation.