July-August 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 6

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The State of Russian Sociology Today

by Mischa Gabowitsch, Princeton University

Compared with Germany, France, or the United States, sociology in Russia is a young discipline: The first dedicated undergraduate departments in sociology were created in 1989, less than two years before the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russian sociology does, however, have a prehistory.

Institutionally, the Russian sociological tradition began abroad, with the foundation of the Russian Higher School of Social Sciences in Paris in 1901 by a diverse group of intellectuals with ties to the political opposition. The discipline struggled to gain legitimacy in the Russian Empire, but the revolutions of 1917 put an end to its development. By the early 1920s, most the founding figures had either died—like Maxim Kovalevsky—or left the country, like Pitirim Sorokin, who was exiled in 1922 and went on to create the sociology department at Harvard. The Bolsheviks considered scientific communism to have made sociology obsolete.

Starting in the late 1950s, attempts to revive the discipline were undertaken in the Soviet Union. The Soviet leadership needed tools to gauge popular opinion and understand changing ethnic vs. Soviet and rural vs. urban identities. It also needed to save face: The Soviet Sociological Association was created in 1957, more than 10 years before the first sociological institute, so Soviet delegates could officially attend ISA congresses. At the same time, a number of "liberal" researchers, usually with a background in philosophy, became interested in the classics of the discipline as well as contemporary sociology in the West.

Sociologists who managed to travel abroad or otherwise establish contacts with Western colleagues were profoundly influenced by the functionalism of Talcott Parsons—who visited the USSR several times—as well as Lazarsfeldian opinion research. Based on such contacts, Andrei Zdravomyslov and Vladimir Yadov created what became known as the Leningrad school of sociology. Even after the creation of sociological institutes at the Academy of Sciences, and although large-scale sociological studies were sometimes carried out by ethnologists and others, the field remained heavily regimented and censored. Igor Kon, a leading sexologist, was perhaps the only author whose work attracted consistent international attention outside the field of Soviet Studies. Much theoretical thinking about Soviet society went on outside the official institutional framework, and indeed outside the discipline.

Post-Soviet Sociology

The liberalization of the late 1980s renewed interest in the scientific study of society. In Moscow, an All-Union Center for the Study of Public Opinion was created by official decree in 1987. Tatiana Zaslavskaia, the founding director, had created a school of economic sociology in Novosibirsk; Boris Grushin, her deputy, had been at the forefront of early Soviet opinion research in the 1960s. Methodologically, they took their cue from Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s German school of opinion research. Iurii Levada, who joined the Institute with his team and soon replaced Zaslavskaia, had led a seminar in social theory since the early 1960s; after a clampdown on his institute in 1969, that seminar became something like an underground circle. The fusion between his team’s particular brand of functionalism, their normative prescriptivism, and almost exclusive reliance on opinion polls, shaped the public face of post-Soviet sociology for years to come. For the media and most non-social scientists, "sociology" has become synonymous with opinion polling.

The most salient fact about post-Soviet sociology—and perhaps Russian academia in general—is its chronic underfunding. Together with very limited geographical mobility, this has led to the emergence of several disconnected networks. Sociologists routinely teach at two or three institutions, with teaching loads of 400 hours a year being common, especially at the junior level. They thus rely either on state salaries and official career mechanisms, dominated by a highly conservative elite based in Moscow, or on Western funding. Even more frequently than in the West, a sociology degree prepares one for a job in marketing or public relations rather than for an academic career.

Moscow State University

What does "conservative" mean in this case? The Faculty of Sociology at Moscow State University, Europe’s largest sociology department in terms of student numbers, is controlled by Dean Vladimir Dobren’kov, an anti-Semite who campaigns against democratic elections and champions an "Orthodox Christian sociology." He has granted degrees and institutional space to extreme-right politicians; to prepare for exams, students are required to study his three-volume textbook, a work mostly plagiarized from other authors. In 2007–08, a group of students staged a revolt against these conditions, but despite massive international resonance, this was soon quelled, and the instigators expelled (see the July/August 2007 Footnotes). Around the same time, Dobren’kov and several colleagues founded a new association called the Union of Sociologists of Russia (SSR in Russian), organized around the idea of patriotism and a positive reassessment of the Soviet past. Dobren’kov’s institutional influence is largely due to his contacts in the Ministry of Education, which wields enormous power in Russia’s state-based education system.

Other Institutions and Research

On the other side of the spectrum are sociologists who remain outside the official system (at the European University at Saint Petersburg, the Center for Independent Social Research, the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, or the Levada Center, which replaced the Center for the Study of Public Opinion after a clampdown in 2003) or at state institutions that rely heavily on contacts with the West (such as the Higher School of Economics the Russian State University for the Humanities, and a few small university-based centers in provincial Russia). They are at their most interesting and productive when they specialize in clearly defined subfields or sets of methods. The lack of large-scale funding forces some institutions to draw on the non-academic community. Thus, the Center for Independent Social Research and Education in Irkutsk trains non-sociologists in ethnographic methods, and the Demos Center in Moscow has used local human rights activists to gather data for nationwide studies. However, the lack of non-project-based funding often means that fascinating and rigorous research projects never translate into publications. As in other East European countries, there has been some debate about Western "colonization," with foreign partners being accused of getting all the credit for joint work. When Russian authors do publish their work, it is often in interdisciplinary or non-academic journals, which are seen as more dynamic and indeed more rigorous than official academic publications. Disciplinary identities are not always clearly defined, and co-operation with anthropologists, historians, economists, and literary scholars is the rule rather than an exception. Additionally, the lack of long-term funding—as well as language skills—means that data-intensive fields and methods, such as historical and comparative sociology or longitudinal studies, are extremely rare.

The state of Russian sociology has itself been an object of much sociological scrutiny, usually with rather pessimistic conclusions. Scholars in their fifties and sixties, such as Iurii Kachanov and Lev Gudkov, have found fault with the discipline, judging it by standards derived from diverse Western models. Younger authors, including Mikhail Sokolov and Alexander Bikbov, have brought network analysis and Bourdieusian field theory to bear on the study of sociology. Through the example of their own work, they prove that professional, rigorous, and internationalized sociological research is possible in Russia. Whether this will translate into the emergence of an organized nationwide sociological community is, however, a problem of funding and institutional design that will take years if not decades to solve. logo

Mischa Gabowitsch is a post-doctoral fellow in the Princeton University Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and lecturer in Princeton’s Department of Sociology. He is also editor-in-chief of Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research, a bilingual peer-reviewed journal published in Saint Petersburg. The first issue, scheduled to appear in July, focuses on the state of Russian sociology in historical and international context, and will be available online at www.soclabo.org.

Submit Ideas for the International Perspectives Column

globeFootnotes invites contributions from knowledgeable non-North American sociologists on the state of the discipline and profession of sociology in countries outside North America for publication in the new occasional column, "International Perspectives." Sociological analyses of significant national events in these countries that would be of interest to North American sociologists are welcome for publication. Original contributions must be in English and no more than 1,100 words. To discuss possible contributions or send material, contact Lee Herring, Associate Editor (herring@asanet.org), or Johanna Olexy, Managing Editor (olexy@asanet.org).


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