Tag Archives: Bourdieu

Covid and ‘lay normativity’

medrabotnik slays the covid beast

spotted on a Moscow wall – the medrabotnik slays the covid beast

A major problem in my writing about Russia is trying to communicate the idea of ordinary Russian people as politically sophisticated. Related to that is the attempt to show that most people are more sensitively reflexive to the meaning of language than we give credit for. If given the chance, people show an understanding of the framing of the political – albeit this is almost always dependent on their preconceptions and more or less consistent ideas about the world.

I’ve tried to do that in writing about the Ukraine conflict, and more recently in writing (an unpublished article) about homophobia. The point is not to romanticise what the sociologist Andrew Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’. When I talk to people about Ukraine and about homophobia they more often than not take up the framings presented to them by the media, and in turn the Russian political elite. However, they very quickly move beyond these impoverished framings, and often end up endorsing far more ‘contingent’ (it depends) and often sociological perspectives (that things have complex causes and that judgement might be reserved).

This post is prompted by what Covid shows about the mismatch between what elites expect of most people – based on those elites’ internalisation of narrow and stunted ideas about rational actions of others. This happens because they themselves are (often) utility maximisers, instrumentalist in their dealings with most others, focused on gain and loss materially in their choices, lacking empathy or a wider ‘sociological imagination’ about the places they live. I know people will object to this, but I like to call this ‘living neoliberalism’.

Covid illustrates how elites and particularly their courtier journalists are usually behind the curve and not ahead of it. Thus with typical hubris, we see it too right now in the UK with the ‘lag’ in the response of journalists – cocooned in their WhatApp bubbles. The majority of people self-isolated here before the government advised them too and despite the media/govt attempts to frame the social response to the virus as ‘keep calm and carry on’, otherwise known as ‘let the old and weak die to save our inequitable way of life’.

Now my thinking is focused on the UK because that’s where I’m currently stuck. But this all reminded me of how much I was struck with Andrew Sayer’s work when I first encountered it and how much – in one way or another – it has stuck with me. Sayer is interested in rescuing Bourdieu – allowing for the ‘habitus’ to generate action – particularly for the most insulted an injured in society. Sayer draws attention to how sociology seems to ‘deny the life of the mind in working class’ people. He tries to strike a balance between resistance and compliance by using the term ‘longing’. In doing this he starts developing the idea of lay normativity as a set of discriminative values people have about flourishing and suffering – in a ‘practically-adequate way’. From there he talks about ‘ethical dispositions’ and their potential for activation. I would say we see this quite significantly with a disease mainly affecting the weak and vulnerable – that pretty quickly the balanced favoured a general recognition that one’s own needs were outweighed by the needs of others – however grudgingly and difficult this was to bear (and only made possible thanks to belated financial concessions by a callous government).

What I like about the potential of ‘lay normativity’ is that it both allows for a rationality that escapes rational interest calculations of ‘homo economicus’, AND allows for the kind of ‘moral economy’ approach now current in anthropology that sees people as more than individuals – caught up, for better or worse in chains of sociality as ethical beings. For Sayer this is a double-layered form of interpreting the world – both ‘sociological’ – looking for structural causes, but tempered by normative ethical reasonings that cannot be reduced to habitual action or internalisation of discourses. It’s focused on emancipatory potential within ourselves for sure, but what else should sociology be ‘for’? Sayer comes back at the end of his book to the question of ‘whose normativity’, acknowledging that ethics can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. His attempt around this is to focus on the issues of suffering and flourishing – and that the Foucauldian ‘everything is dangerous’ response to the social is a misguided evasion of the inevitable need for the normative.  He also builds on Nancy Fraser’s perspective that equality means not just redistribution but also recognition as social participants. A lot of the pot banging going on at the moment (the local public vocal displays of support for healthcare workers) reflects a wish for lay normativity to be heard – it’s not just performative virtue.

Anyway, to bring this back to Russia, I just want to share a few of the ways I’ve been influenced by these ideas in my writing. I’m writing about suffering and recognition at the moment for my future book, but now I’ll look back to ways I’ve developed these ideas:

Most recently on homophobia [draft article] I found it useful to problematize a view that homophobia is weaponized in a ‘culture war’ against the West by drawing on how fear of difference reveals more about social trauma, the distrust and loss of the social state and attitudes about ‘moral education’, as it does about the successful inculcation of the idea of the ‘decadent west’.

When I wrote about the meaning of working-class craft in Russia I was very influenced by the idea of recognition and practices involving shared values which escape, more or less, the circuits of commodification, consumption and value  as wage-labour. Here I also used Sayer to prompt me to explore Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘virtue ethics’ – I still think anthropology is really missing a connection to this.

Around the same time I wrote about ‘lay reasoning’ in relation to memory of the socialist past – to show that people had significant mnemonic resources that were not constrained to ‘public memory’ of socialism (good or bad), nor were they nostalgic in the restorative or reflective senses popularised via Boym. They were however, morally normative in that they often activated political thoughts about social justice.

Finally in my book from 2016 I revisited some of the memory materials to explore how those activated reasonings about loss and trauma from the transition period play out – in practical but ethically based actions to further the ideas of autonomy and recognition – if only in the socially local.

Serving not the prince, but the people. Roundtable reflections on Russian fieldwork Part 2.


Photo by Lina Yatsen on Unsplash.

The previous post began my reflections about this rountable I attended last week at IGITI in Moscow. Круглый стол «Полевые исследования России: своя/другая страна»

Now I continue some relatively rough-and-ready thoughts.

— Как воспринимается исследователь и исследование в поле, как происходит вход в поле (и выход из него)? Какие возникают трудности и как они решаются?

[- How is the researcher and research perceived in the field, how does the entry into the field (and exit from it) take place? What difficulties arise and how are they solved?]

For me this question revolves around building trust and overcoming two problems – particularly important for foreigners. These are typified by two reactions foreigners get when they initiate contact with field interlocutors. 1. ‘Why would you study us? There must be an ulterior motive’. And, 2. ‘Ohh, foreigner, I’m wary of saying anything that might be construed as politically critical of my own country’.

Solutions. 1. Long term rapport building, holding oneself back from ‘mining’ for specific, quick and dirty insights at the expense of really inhabiting the world. Developing a public language of research ‘worth’ – ‘This is important to the wider community/world because by talking to you we can better understand X’. But, at the same time, paradoxically, it might be apposite to not hold oneself back and to sometimes ‘display’ and ‘perform’ one’s ideological basis for doing the research – especially if you think it’s neglected, etc. The paradox is that the two approaches are somewhat opposed, but then they ‘aim at’ the same thing – persuading one’s interlocutors of the worth of their input.

Solutions 2. For me the only solution to this is like the purloined letter holder in Poe – have the letter (the political context) on full display but to ignore it. Eventually (and it took 8 years for me) some interlocutors start to point to the letter you are holding – they start to get surprised themselves that you’re not mentioning it. Perhaps the elephant in the room is a better metaphor. But I like the idea that the political implications of your research being understated, ‘hidden’ in plain sight even, but the point being that you don’t mention them, merely let the interlocutors initiate any political talk.
— Как на выбор темы и на фокус исследования влияет собственный бэкграунд, характеристики и опыт исследователя?

[- How do the background, characteristics and experience of the researcher affect the choice of the topic and the focus of the study ?]

Rather than focus on the problems of bias, and of reading too much of the Russian context through the concerns of the origin country of the researcher, here I think I’d make a pretty obvious comment that hunches and life experience are actually a great way to build up a scholarly justification for the relevance of studying something. I use this example a lot but I have a lot of time for scholars like Simon Charlesworth who come to research through their own experience of, for example dispossession and despair, but also anger and thirst for sharing this neglected life experience with others. However, of course this does depend on being well versed enough in two levels of scholarship – the general field studies that relate to your object of interest and at least a few conceptualisations that pre-exist. We had this argument in the roundtable itself between people taking extreme positions that one should know ‘everything’ about the topic in advance that exists in scholarship and journalism, and the other, that one should go into the field ‘cold’. I don’t agree with either…
— Какие теоретические рамки и концепты используются в исследованиях? Требует ли местная реальность местных концептуальных подходов или для её осмысления достаточно общепринятых зарубежных подходов?

[- What theoretical framework and concepts are used in research? Does the local reality require local conceptual approaches or is it enough to use generally accepted foreign approaches to understand it?]

Again this question highlights for me some of the dirty secrets of ethnography and anthropology more widely – the re-packaging of ‘emic’ concepts in a way to make them sexy and accessible in the global core. Inevitable perhaps, but at risk of doing symbolic violence at the very least, and at worst, downright misleading to a scholars’ audience. In particular, I think something of relevance to a Russian audience is the overtheoreticisation of empirical research as a problem. There’s a very big ‘philosophical’ baggage in Russian-focussed anthropology that I think is easy to overlook.

So while some scholars feel they need to ‘justify’ their research based on very complex thinking from philosophy, often ‘classical’ texts, equally there’s something of a neglect of some of the ‘obvious’ but important social theorists who surely have much to say today – Foucault and Bourdieu. Perhaps we are living through a time where fashion is changing, but not for the better. I mention these two, not because I think they are the ‘most’ relevant to someone doing social research in Russia (though they probably are!), but because time and again I feel resistance among some people to engaging with these thinkers over less obvious (and perhaps sexier or exotic choice).

Perhaps this is one point where an outsider perspective is useful, and of course I would say that the Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition in thinking might be useful to this. This is why I like what’s going on in critical geography at the moment – which of course is largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. It’s not a de-theoreticizing movement, but a grounding, critical perspective that takes ‘big theory’ hats – like geopolitics, and turns them inside out. By doing that it sees if they still ‘fit’ the head when emptied of the normative and hegemonic. So from geopolitics such scholars move to ‘anti-geopolitics’ in order to look at grassroots practices – ‘in the streets, in homes, in jungles,’ ‘off the page’, as Koopman calls it (2011).


She gives a nice example of an analysis of blogs out of Baghdad as an example of this – (Gregory 2004). But basically the idea is to problematize how ‘elites write space’ and to ‘see’ how geopolitics is peopled and how people have agency. The point of bringing up this example is that it is theoretically, or rather conceptually rich, without being obfuscatorily obsessed with theory. At the same time, these scholars emphasise how science cannot and should not be divorced from ideals of solidarity and collaborative theorising with the oppressed. Serving not the ‘prince’, but the people. This is of course not a new argument, but I think it again underlines how ‘extractive’ sociologists and anthropologists are in reality and how they are often in denial about this.