Tag Archives: Clement

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.

Challenging the view that Russians are ‘passive’.

uncollected rubbish

uncollected rubbish from a designated municipal site.


In a previous post I talked about the phrase: ‘people are Russia’s replacement oil’ as representing a new extractive shift to harvesting economic rents in more intensively from ordinary people. In this post I want to talk about liberal pundits’ interpretation of this turn of events. A much truncated version of what I wrote below was part of a short piece for Ridl.io

But before that just a quick recap on the reality of ‘making ends meet’ for many Russians that I talked about previously. Ordinary people are suffering from a decade-long decline in their living standards putting them in a position of extreme want. Published average incomes may look survivable, but the reality is that, like in other unequal countries, such statistics are misleading not least because of the distorting effect of a small number of very high incomes. In 2018 average gross wages were 40000 rubles a month or $560. Whether this figure is fiddled or not, in any case it ignores the large effect of lower informal (undeclared) incomes, and the imbalance between big city state company employment and the rest.  Independent polling indicates that the ‘real’ average pay was less than 20000 rubles ($305). $300 is not even a subsistence wage. Even adding to it a lower secondary wage, a family is left virtually nothing for clothing, medicines, travel or spending on children. When trying to measure relative poverty a robust measure is how much a family spends on food and other essentials. The open acknowledgement of the extreme poverty in which many Russians life can be seen in political events like the strange passing of a law allowing Russians to collect fallen trees, ‘for their own needs’.

Influential independent political observers like Valerii Solovei and Vladislav Inozemtsev draw pessimistic conclusions about the ‘extractive turn’. Mostly they view their fellow citizens as passive and lacking any agency, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary – the massive informal economy that sustains livelihoods and habitability above the bare subsistence level and is seriously disruptive to the state. Solovei paints a vivid picture of Russians as passive sponges to be wrung dry in any way possible by an emboldened state – where can people hide from taxes on fuel and cigarettes? (I guess you can anticipate my answer to him – in both cases it’s in the interstices of the informal economy). To be fair to him, he at least strikes a warning note: history shows that eventually people get fed up and social strife is the result. However, his remedy is predictably unimaginative, a bourgeois democratic revolution (without any messy involvement of ordinary people) such as what ‘could have been’ in 2011-12. But how realistic is political change without the engagement of people beyond metropolises? And how would a bourgeois democracy he envisage address the enormous structural inequalities and imbalances Russia faces? Doesn’t this approach just reproduce a ‘two Russias’ perspective so criticized by other observers such as Ilya Matveev? We can see traces of this stigmatizing perspective everywhere: the assumption that a ‘lack of culture’ or an ‘authoritarian personality’ prevents the ‘other’ Russians from seeing the light. On the latter, Carine Clement has recently taken this idea to task. In particular, she rejects the ‘mythical apoliticism of Russians’ and asks the question – if Russians’ ‘authoritarian’ thinking includes a strong element of critique of the existing social order, then to what degree is it really authoritarian?

Inozemstev’s approach is more interesting. He starts with the notion of popular disenchantment and elite indifference, but then links this to a more general pessimism.  Noting that the ‘new oil’ trope indicates people have awareness of how costly the elites are to them he despairs that ‘the authorities realise quite how broken the Russian population’s willingness to resist really is, from mass protests to even small-scale acts of dissent.’ Does this view make the mistake that only ‘open’ protest is a mark of resistance? Elsewhere Inozemstev actually hints at what is in plain sight: the informal economy as a bulwark against complete penury for many. He notes that even the Russian government openly acknowledges that 38 million people’s work and income is opaque at best to the state. I agree with him that most Russians want to hold down a legitimate employment in the formal economy. However, given such pessimism, even this is increasingly questioned by some of the already most vulnerable. The qualifying period for an old age pension will soon increase from 6 to 15 years, the social rights that accrue to a formally employed person are losing their value due to the erosion of the health system in general.  All in all Inozemstev proposes some incremental reforms that can be characterised as too little too late (tax free allowances on low incomes, assistance schemes like food stamps), which are regressive (increasing VAT) or even defeatist (corruption should be limited to the resource sector). Overall it looks like a kind a pale Fabianism with little scope for taking root.

In his latest piece Inozemstev is closer to some of the points I make in my previous post – detailing what the increasing in indirect taxation will mean to ordinary people – a real rise of around 10% in petrol costs and the real fall in incomes since 2008. Interestingly, given the ongoing ‘rubbish disposal’ protests, he points to the very large increase in household bills for waste disposal. This increase – a doubling has not gone unnoticed by ordinary people and they are up in arms about it – especially in places like the town I study which has been repeatedly the victim of fly-tipping of Moscow rubbish and which recently saw its head of the council’s environmental services jailed for taking bribes to allow such tipping.

Ekaterina Shulman uses the questionable assumptions and methodology of the World Values Survey data to address the topic of ‘turning the screws’ on ordinary people. She first argues that a shift in Russian values from ‘superatomisation’ characteristic of the 1990s to ‘conservative’ is somewhat positive as it facilitates collective action and sociality. A notable effect is the strengthening of weak ties and broadening of the scale of interpersonal trust especially among the young and dynamic. On the other hand, she sees in Russia the continuing legacy of totalitarianism: ‘secular, atomised society’ that produces the lonely distrustful individual with atrophied social skills.  Homo soveticus is very much still with us in her view. Consequently, she greets the shift in public opinion from ‘political security’ to ‘social security’ with some surprise (in reality this aspect of public opinion has always been there).

The beef I have with approaches like these is that the ordinary Russians who daily make decisions about how to live are presented as an undifferentiated mass – suffering from ‘learned helplessness’ (a phrase used by Ekaterina Shulman but also by Carine Clement) or as an unruly source of social unrest – the word ‘revolt’ (bunt) is reserved for them. At worst this ‘by-the-numbers’ approach gives the impression that ‘we’, the addressed middle-class audience of these pundits, should fear the ‘other’ Russia.  Solutions presented ring hollow – they are either a form of gradualism or legalism (vote, even if the field is rigged; use your right to agitate against a bad candidate; if only we just adhered to the Constitution; wait for those nostalgic old people to die). In my final post on this topic, I’ll make use of James Scott’s ideas of infrapolitics to talk more about everyday forms of resistance to the extractive turn.