Tag Archives: incoherent state

On foreign and native modes of fieldwork in Russia: postpositivism, interpretivism and extractivist field research. Part 1.


I was invited to take part in a roundtable on fieldwork bringing together ‘foreign’ researchers working on Russia with ‘native’ ones. Here are some of my notes. I’ve split them into three parts and here is the answer to the first question (that we agreed on beforehand).

Какие существуют принятые способы и стандарты полевой работы в вашей дисциплине? Каковы типичные сочетания методов, использование каких методов проблематично?

[What are the accepted methods and standards of field work in your discipline? What are the typical combinations of methods; which methods are problematic?]

I’m interested particularly in the degree of acceptance of interpretive methods beyond their ‘origin’ in anthropological social constructivism, phenomenology and hermeneutics. To what degree does a very open commitment to post-positivism find fertile ground or, indeed, resistance, in Russian research environments where fieldwork is a key method. And I think this is equally relevant to Russia/non-Russian universities because of the ‘colonisation’ by both humanities and social sciences of ethnography in recent years. My own experience, in a political science department for 10 years, allowed me a very small glimpse into the world of political ethnography and organisational studies, as one example of this. And one small set of literatures that I got exposed to was concerning the interpretive turn in political science associated with Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea  – a ‘new’ commitment to ethnography by political scientists and those looking at studying international relations, and organisational and policy studies.

For more on this see this piece on the isolation – ten years ago – of polsci people doing interpretive ethnography. https://sci-hub.se/https://www.jstor.org/stable/40927048

[It’s a paper on the ‘perestroika movement in polsci’. – a call for a more pluralist approach to political science. Even though I’m guessing that many people are not so interested in ‘hegemonic’ research design based on experimental modelling as in Polsci, the implications of the movement are relevant to all disciplines in making us think about ‘methods hegemony’ in our own disciplinary corners. We also need to be aware of how methodological expectations can be used to discipline ‘unruly’ scholars (for example, accusing them of being less productive because of their ethnographic methods). It does strike me that this struggle in US Polsci may have some relevance to those contexts in Russia where there is a strong positivist tradition in social research.]

However, at this point I should raise my main misgiving about the interpretive methodology, as understood by some political scientists and not only them. There’s a danger here that ‘interpretation’ can be just a repackaging of discourse analysis and can draw scholars further away from the fieldwork of moments and of presence, just as they feel more confident about entering it. It’s more of a hunch than anything, but I do see a lot of scholars figuratively sigh with relief in their early writing and research when they fall back into a very close analysis of speech – really getting into the coding of words of interlocutors and not paying enough attention to the ‘bigger picture’ of their ethnographic interaction. This also relates to the ‘time’ in the field – and I know this is a difficult issue due to funding and commitments. However, perhaps a dirty secret of the new wave of ethnographies is how thin (some of them) really are – both temporally, spatially and, dare I say it, empathetically. I don’t want to single out any of the ‘new’ adopters of ethnography – like political science. In fact I think this ‘dirty secret’ of superficial and rather ‘extractive’ ethnography is just as true of some ‘traditional’ anthropologists.

So what I’m saying is that the varieties of ‘content analysis’ are never enough and can even be a dangerous trap – substituting ‘text’ or ‘textuality’ of lived experience, for embodiment, and even, objective observation (e.g. these people sell mushrooms because of poverty), and subjective observations from the field ‘these people like living here because it seems like a relatively pleasant part of town regardless of what they say about it’. This brings to the fore the researcher in something of a more honest way, I think, whereas discourse analysis can, in the wrong hands, become a rather ‘dishonest’ research practice that hides a multitude of sins – like the ‘extractivist’ mode of fieldwork.

[the point above echoes a point Bourdieu makes about the distinction between linguistic and social dimensions of ‘text’ – see Judith Butler ‘Performativity’s Social Magic’. At the same time he is aware of the problem of subjectivism – that ethnographic practice can ‘forget’ that it doesn’t inhabit the social practices it reveals and so also neglects that it is a translation. Butler also timely reminds us that the linguistic and the social dimensions of habitus can’t really be separated, contra Bourdieu. I guess one thing to take away from this debate is the degree to which our research practices are ‘practical mimesis’ of others’ research. What are the doxa we write in and to?]

From here there’s a point I’d like to make a point about the value of participant observation (PO), which I see less as a commitment by fieldworkers (for structural and economic reasons as much as desire), and this is something true both of Russia and non-Russia work. It seems to me that all over the world there’s a great moment now for PO – whether in NGOs, bureaucracies, activist groupings, but, to give an example in the urban activism book I’m editing, any PO is really buried, when it needn’t be. I’d also argue that to really understand today’s Russian state – it’s ‘incoherence’ as I like to call it, we desperately need more organisational ethnographies from within, and that’s something foreigner researchers in Russia certainly can’t do.

What’s Driving Russia? Fools and Bad Roads?

2017-08-07 18.47.26a

Low-speed prang in the village. Much shouting ensues.

Let’s talk about Russian roads and drivers! No really! Attentive readers may note I wrote about the experience of driving in an earlier post.

That post was related to a chapter in my book about men and cars in Russia and a subsequent article related to it. There was a wonderful tension in some friendships between those that bought ‘bangers’ – oldish Russian Lada cars, and those that took credit out to buy (usually secondhand imports of) German marques, SUVs, etc. Each ‘wore’ their purchase like a badge of honour. For me, car ownership was symbolic of men’s approach to their class positioning and their conscious and unconscious attitude towards the ‘brave new world’ of work. Some were ‘happy’ with the low pay, slower paced, yet dangerous and dirty work in old workshops – firing bricks, making lime, extruding plastic. They ‘nursed’ their old bangers like invalid wives – with affection. Others ‘risked’ the new factories, particularly the higher-paid work in places like Samsung’s monitor assembly. Risky because the work is hard, demeaning, demanding in terms of what academics call ‘biopolitics’ – one has to ‘perform’ being a good worker – turn up neat and visibly sober. Kow-tow to the lower middle-managers. For me this is one meaning of ‘neoliberalism’ in the working-class Russian context (the intrusion of the market into spaces where it was previously absent or moderated by other imperatives). [I know some people object to people bandying around the term ‘neoliberalism’. Case in point. In a recent article, an editor asked me to define what I meant by neoliberalism: for my longer answer, see the footnote on p. 13.]

But talking in general about Russian roads and driving is a really tricky, as indicated by a recent exchange on Twitter. I had mentioned that increasingly punitive traffic laws were designed not to increase safety, but to raise revenue. A point that is often made the world over, not only about Russia. However, as a twitterer pointed out to me, anything that does improve safety has got to be positive, right?

This got me thinking about an ethnographic dilemma that I’ve been trying to solve in a piece I’m writing for publication at the moment. It boils down to this: How, when writing about places that from time immemorial have been presented as somehow backward, lacking ‘culture’, or just plain unpleasant environments, do scholars avoid contributing to those one-sided perspectives?

And this goes for ‘roads’ and ‘road culture’ too. Russians are guilty of this – the famous Gogol aphorism: ‘Fools and Bad Road’. His summary of what was wrong with nineteenth-century Russia is as true today. By any measure, Russia is an outlier in terms of road deaths in highly industrialised countries. 53 deaths per 100,000 vehicles in 2013. Canada is around 9 / 100,000. (The UK is 5, but it too is an outlier – in the other direction).

In the article I’m presently writing, I try (and probably fail) to balance a perspective that says, yes, Russian roads are objectively unsafe (poor design, maintenance, climatic factors), and Russian driving culture is poor because of the way that many drivers did not meaningfully ‘learn’ to drive or ‘pass’ a test. Alcohol use, poor car maintenance and safety are also important. Another truism is the risk-taking culture that is prevalent, especially among men. (I don’t think age is a factor here, some of the craziest are older blokes).

However, these culturally essentialist ‘explanations’ of risk-taking (pofigism), and aversion to rules, are too easy (some would even call them forms of Orientalism). ‘Culture’ is a small part of the problem, in reality. Much more important is a state that does little or nothing to improve safety, and safety culture. Even more significantly, through its daily and longer-term policies, pronouncements and even small actions (like tinkering with the status and rules about what Road Police can do), the state and its representatives show that they values human life so little. Indeed, a great article on this topic (victim blaming) from nearly ten years ago calls this a kind of ‘misdirection’ by an incompetent, uncaring elite.

Such articles, such as this similar one from the Economist, suggest a technocratic/technological fix. As an American journalist put it in 2012: ‘roads reflect a government’s ability to project power and to harness bureaucracy for the common good’. But what if the state has no, or at least a very incoherent conception, of the ‘common good’? Effectively, the common good in Russia is ‘delegated’ to atomised individuals, or only occasionally tolerated NGOs and grassroots organisations. This informal mode of delegated governance is something I’m thinking about a lot at the moment and the ‘incoherent state’ is my working definition of this, but I’d like to improve on it.

However, things do change for the better, and Russia is quite astounding on this account. Responding to delegation (or abdication of the state’s responsibility), driving standards among new drivers are subjectively better now than ten years ago. It’s unclear whether this is partly because of better ‘testing’ while learners. Very rarely in the last decade have I witnessed drink-driving (I did previously see this quite a lot). Similarly, about 6 years ago drivers started spontaneously using a ‘language’ of courtesy – flashing their hazards when you let them overtake you; people do wear seatbelts and use child-seats. I’ve had trouble getting used to cars stopping for me while I’m waiting to cross a pedestrian zebra crossing. Last time I broke down, a motorist stopped to ask whether he could lend a hand. While I don’t enjoy driving on highways in Russia any more than I did twenty years ago, driving culture has certainly improved a lot.

Why Russia is not a mafia state.


This week in a research event at Aarhus University I was asked to discuss with Lucia Michelutti her work on the mafia-like nexus of business-organised crime-politics in Uttar Pradesh. Her work is really thought-provoking and I recommend you check out her book on Mafia Raj.

Michelutti argues for the use of the term ’bossing’ to describe the partly performative work of criminal dons and wannabee mafiosi in India. This is because of the awkward absence of a word in English to describe the enactment of power: we have ‘to empower’ and ‘overpower’, but not a verb that clearly describes  power as a process. For Michelutti, ‘bossing’ by criminals-cum-politicians involves the mobilisation of performative competencies and which is subject to contestation in an unstable constellation of authority (and which lacks legitimacy), charisma, and local contexts (particularly community problems). The highlights of her talk for me were an elective affinity between delegated governance and organised criminality; starting from the premise of the ‘emic’ grounded use of language – ‘boss’ is the currency of talking about criminal/political entrepreneurs; mafia as a systemic yet amorphous reality, not a discrete organisation in itself.

This set me thinking about the use and abuse of the now common-place ‘Russia as a mafia state’. I was sceptical of Luke Harding’s book when it came out in 2011. Subsequent events have proved him right on some things (and me wrong). However, I still want to object to the looseness of the term ‘mafia’, and how it obscures more than it reveals. Quite reasonably, even ‘ordinary’ readers criticised him for not defining why Russia is a ‘mafia state’ when so many other corrupt, kleptocratic regimes are not. Broadly, Harding uses it to indicate collaboration of security services with organised criminality, to indicate the ‘kick back’ ubiquity of corruption to higher officials, to indicate the willingness of the state to use extortion against foreign states, or to indicate a general prevalence of extortion/protection relationships.

First a caveat: there are strengths to Harding’s book – the perspective of a person who feels the full sun-like gaze of the security services when they are let off the leash to harass a foreigner – see Kelly Hignett’s review here https://www.ceeol.com/search/viewpdf?id=61177. However, let’s not forget that Harding gets off lightly in comparison to many Russian victims of the state’s displeasure. Journalists of course write books and are professional writers. But I can’t be the only person to be disturbed (and of course made envious) by the attention these anecdotal, ultimately piecemeal and largely ‘readers digest’ accounts generate. For a critical review of Harding’s evidence-light work see a review of his book on Trump-Russia collusion by Paul Robinson: https://irrussianality.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/collusion/ . Now, I’m not saying he wasn’t harassed by the FSB, just that in moving from journalistic fluff and anecdote to book-length serious analysis he, and most others, fall short (I haven’t read Galeotti’s latest). Harding at worst gives readers a version of Cold War 2.0 that seriously impedes better understanding of the everyday reality of Russia.

So, some basic problems with the term ‘Mafia’. Mafia implies an overall structuring of all activity towards the end of enriching the boss via captains, and clandestine activity linked to membership of an elect community with elements of charismatic leadership.  Okay, there’s a certain affinity here with descriptions of clientelistic and personalised relations, but why not just use that conceptual toolkit and ditch association with types of charismatic and in-group derived leadership as represented in popular culture by Vito Corleone, Paulie Cicero, or Tony Soprano?

The ‘true’ mafia ( of course they cannot be separated from their popular cultural depiction anymore because they in turn are influenced by that depiction) are only ever peripherally ‘political’, as Michelutti, points out (that of course, does not mean that they don’t buy politicians and political leverage). As a classic, yet parasitic ‘other’ to capitalism, mafias can only be defined in opposition to state structures. Most of all this is because they actively choose to occupy niches of criminality and employ physical violence, albeit in a limited way, that challenges the monopoly of violence that the state reserves for itself. Most notably coercion is of a limited nature (there is a ‘civilian’ category, ‘victims’ are mainly from the same ethno-cultural community). Indeed, that ‘anyone’ can fall victim to the rapacious raiding of business by the kleptocratic Russian elites, means that if anything, Mafia is too ‘soft’ a word!

For organised crime, ‘criminality’ is the keyword. But, in the diffuse, corrupt, dysfunctional and contradictory world of the rule and unrule of law in Russia, words like ‘extortion’, ‘bribery’, ‘racketeering’ lose their meaning, because if state actors take assets from you in a way you experience as illegitimate, it is by virtue of their superior command of legal-administrative resources, but most importantly, their ability to make what appears to us as ‘criminal’, merely accumulation according to a logic of nearness to other more powerful state actors plus the superior command of already existing financial resources. (Of course a bit of violence does help here – see the interesting work of Jacob Rigi on the ‘Corrupt State of Exception in Russia’).

Using the mafia label is unhelpful as it conjures for a Western audience an image of a Don, a clear hierarchy of made men, of grifting in secret and in fear of discovery, and of highly ritualised organisation of criminality. All of these things exist within the organised crime world of Russia, sure. But it is a massive stretch to make the leap from Goodfellas to The Kremlin. The ‘mafia-like’ practices of the state are both more organised (and less ‘illegal’) and more chaotic (influenced by political expedient rather than just graft), than that of any organised crime group. Indeed, in contrast even to the Sopranos’ ‘postmodern’ mafia, where charisma and tradition begin to fail to limit conflict or reproduce loyalty, the kleptocratic workings in the Russian state show an absence of a shared normative understandings of power and sovereignty. Despite Kordonsky’s work on ‘kick-back’ culture, there are no ‘made men’, nor is there a shared understanding of timeserving before becoming captain, and there is no honour, no chance of a ‘sit down’, and no percentage kickbacks with any permanence that would allow them to become informal rules governing ‘taxation’ or authority. What there is is an ever changing landscape of potentially equally powerful others, where the ‘rules of the game’ can change more abruptly than in any criminal conspiracy, and where there are also ever-present political, policy and governance goals distracting from – what I admit is the main task – making money.

Then we come to the ‘killing of enemies’ argument that people put forward because of Skripal, or Litvinenko. For the mafia metaphor to have explanatory meaning here it would require the state, security services and organised crime to have clearly demonstrable and densely redundant network characteristics over time. Even if it is shown that the Skripal was targeted because of his knowledge of organised crime in Spain linked to the Russian security services (I think that’s unlikely), a quick glance at the conflicting interests within the elite (and between security agencies), and the infighting of factions even at the highest level, the relative ‘weakness’ of the Presidential Administration to have its orders carried out, shows that such ‘networks’ would break down as soon as they arise, and could only be connections of expediency.

Take the Donbas – more a political project with hot and cold support from Moscow and a way of getting rid of nationalist and violence-orientated entrepreneurs. Most importantly, it is a huge drain on resources which has enriched only a few local players (hence the assassination of the them now). Not the actions of a ‘mafia state’ looking to get resources flowing upward from a ‘take’. The Skripals and Litvinenko before them are evidence of incompetence if nothing else. They remind me more of contexts like organisational rivalry, poor operational control, and opportunism, than methodical revenge. Certainly, the execution of these operations would embarrass any self-respecting professional hit man in the pay of a ‘mafia’.


Tony says: ‘You call that a hit? My ducks could do better’

A British journalist discovered that if he writes critical articles in a semi-authoritarian state, the security services will target him. Sometimes there is a blurry line between activities the security services take against critics of the state and other corrupt activities. Sometimes the security services are not under control of the state, even though there are lots of powerful politicians who have a security services background. Particularly on the last point, it’s been shown by scholars like Bettina Renz that this background is largely irrelevant and to propose a ‘silovik takeover’ is a correlation-causation error.  To end, a similar reminder from Marelle Laruelle on the dangers of rhetorical techniques of facile association. I might come back to this as, in the first place, I started thinking about this topic because I am working towards the idea of the everyday ‘incoherent’ state in Russian, particularly in the workings of the lowest level of street-level bureaucrats.