Tag Archives: Foucault

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.

Extraction, Erasure and excremental excess (My ASEEES 2019)


This will be a mainly descriptive post about a panel I attended at ASEEES 2019 (the US Russian Studies biggest conference), in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to act as Chair and Discussant on a panel about Extraction and Erasure in Post-socialist spaces.

Artan Hoxha from Pittsburgh gave an evocative talk about a terra incognito – an area of South Albanian swamp that slowly was transformed over the course of the later 20th century by the Albanian state to become a sugar producing area. When it was rapidly abandoned after communism, Artan was mostly interested in applying the term heterotopia to the processes this landscape was subjected to, including the placing at the centre of this wilderness another wilderness – a secret forest grove used only by the communist elite for pheasant shooting and invisible on the maps. Heterotopia was  useful to Artan because it shows how a noplace becomes subject to mapping by the state; how closed systems are ‘opened’ up; and how inequalities hidden in societies are revealed through uses of space – how different economic systems produce different types of exclusion and inclusion. Heterotopia is a mastering concept, but a loose one.  He draws on a reading of Foucault where heterotopias are ‘real places that manifest imagined realities’ and on De Cauter, who sees heterotopias as spaces that ‘convey and enact the contradictions of the society that has produced them is unable to solve’. One comment I made as discussant was how striking was the absence of people themselves from the story of this place and a lack of emic terms to describe their experience of change. Artan is completing a PhD on this topic and so I eagerly await the other chapters of this project. One potential point of intersection with other work done on comparable projects was the concept of hauntology, which I’ve sketched out elsewhere. I also need to cross-check how his approach squares with the recent work of Verónica Gago, who makes use of heterotopia to think about the meaning of counterfeiting of clothes and consumption in street markets (linked to what she calls ‘neoliberalism from below).

Natalia Koulinka from UoC Santa Cruz, using mainly newspaper sources, provided a really interesting account of two strikes among Soviet miners in 1989 and 1991. She aimed to show how their demands fundamentally changed between the two sets of strike actions to move from narrow demands to more political ones as they sided by 1991 with Yeltsin. For me this showed an interesting paradox. Workers inadvertently opened themselves up to an emergent neoliberal system by embracing piecework – i.e. to be paid for according to productivity results and market prices of coal. Of course this was because they rightly surmised that they were very underpaid. However, as a result, they ended up proposing their bodies as ‘private property’, believing that the market would allow worker control as a solution to inefficiency – a kind of neoliberal autonomism! – a propertizing of the self that meant that when domestic coal lost its value, they to were devalued – despite a parallel call for collective ownership of the mines. Their calls for greater wage differentials reminded me of the ‘inadvertent’ neoliberals argument put forward by Olga Shevchenko in a very different context of post-socialism. Like other postsocialist selves, they embrace an idealism about marketized reform (efficiency of the market, just reward for work). Natalia’s paper is important because she shows how it was not just liberal intellectuals who were ‘guilty’ of this.

This insight potentially linked the papers in this panel. I was much reminded of Aronoff and Kubik’s book chapter criticising Sztompka’s notion of ‘civilizational incompetence’. Katja Perat’s paper that followed Natalia’s, focussed on how Central European intellectuals end up ‘sacrificing critical thinking’ due to their eagerness to claim their Westernness in the face of the ‘civilizational’ threat of communism. Katja’s reading of intellectuals’ Hapsburg nostalgia, in her view, allows later 20th century history to ‘carry all the blame’ for CEE ills. With obvious implications in the politics of the region today.

It was very striking how Natalia ended with a personal note – that as a former citizen of the USSR she had never imagined how any Marxian framing might be relevant to historical scholarship. In fact for most of her adult life she had strongly believed that Marxism could be no more than crude propaganda in service to the state. Her paper reminds us that the work of self-reflection is still ongoing among intellectuals about their idealisation of non-communist systems and anti-communist modes of thought because of an understandable personal allergic reaction to actually-existing socialism.

The final speaker, Katja Perat from Washington U in St Louis, did a switcheroo on me – changing her paper from one of which she dwelt on the demonization of communism among CEE intellectuals, to a more focussed reading on the meaning of the toilet bowl in the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera! In the first paper she criticized Kundera’s proposal that CEE had been kidnapped by communism – and the interpretation of it as a tragedy of the later 20th century. In this newer paper, Katja employed Žižek to explore the khazi as a space of revelation, inspection and revolutionary expulsion. The bog symbolises class vertigo under communism – the emptiness below us and that we are destined to fall. This complitshitfest (®) was a wonderful end to our panel, but my scrappy notes illustrate how difficult it is for a chair/discussant to follow a read-out paper without prior access to the written version. And this despite my enthusiasm for excreta-examining and scatological scholarship. If I was to give Katja advice it would be to look at what Georges Bataille [opens as a pdf] has to say about excess/excreta (sfw) and maybe bring in Mary Douglas on matter out of place…

I may come back to my (largely positive) ASEEES experience in a subsequent post. There were plenty of interesting papers, and it was an important event for moving forward with a collaborative project on Russian Urban Activism, led by Regina Smyth and involving Andrei Semenov, Perm State University.