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Regular version of the site

‘Conducting Comparative Research Requires One to Leave a Comfortable Environment’

Students of the international Master’s programme in Comparative Social Research, which opened in 2014, spent their first semester studying at the Moscow campus of the Higher School of Economics; the second semester was spent in St. Petersburg. Another six months will be devoted to study abroad. Mobility in the educational process is an important principle of the programme that allows future sociologists to better understand social reality. The English-language programme turned out to of interest not only to Russian students, but also to graduates of prestigious foreign universities.

The idea to create an English-language programme was started by Eduard Ponarin and Tanya Karabchuk, heads of the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research. While the laboratory is engaged mainly in quantitative methods, the Master's programme involves the study of quantitative and qualitative methods of social analysis.

As for qualitative analysis, Lili di Puppo, Rafael Mrowczynski, Sarah Busse Spencer, and Chares Demetriou help students master discursive and gender analysis, narrative interview techniques, and ethnomethodology. There are also researchers who mainly specialize in quantitative methods. Ben Lind, Kyungmin Baek, Eduard Ponarin, Boris Sokolov and Veronika Kostenko offer classes that teach students to work professionally with different types of data and statistics software (SPSS, STATA and R), as well as develop social network analysis, multilevel modelling, Bayesian statistics, and more.

‘Although the economic opportunities in Moscow are actually quite big for those with degrees in sociology, political science, and economics – for example, a lot of these students from sociology go into banking quite easily – we focus our students on an academic career,’ said Christopher Swader, director of the programme. ‘Our goal is to show them how to combine different empirical methods and theoretical knowledge in scientific research.’

The programme takes place in several cities. Students spend the first semester in Moscow and the second in St. Petersburg. The third semester is spent studying abroad. This gives students an opportunity to learn from Russian and international experts in two cities. In Moscow, for example, there are very strong theoretical courses, while in St. Petersburg, emphasis is placed on the methodological component of the programme.

‘The basis of social research is comparison so it’s hard for people to see things in compare if they are not leaving their comfortable environment,’ says Swader. ‘When students study in several places, they have the opportunity to assess the social environment in different cities and countries and the specific nature of teaching at various universities. That is why we welcome students’ desire to go through training at foreign partner universities, including the University of Michigan, University of Bremen, Jacobs University Bremen, Free University of Berlin, EUROLAB in Cologne, Charles University in Prague, the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Institute for Future Studies in Stockholm, and others. The basic idea is to make them sensitive toward differences in social context.’

A highly qualified teaching staff, strong theoretical school, incentives to continue studying in PhD programmes at European partner universities or in HSE’s advanced postgraduate programme all make the programme attractive for foreign students. This year, five of the seventeen students in the programme come from outside Russia. Some of them already have experience studying in Russia.

The programme is open to students who previously specialized in other humanities fields, philosophy, political science, economics, psychology, anthropology, etc. In addition, students are able to attend classes in other Master's programmes at HSE. For example, there are general elective courses in the Political Analysis and Public Policy programme that allow students to gain knowledge that goes beyond their area of specialization.

Students in the programme decide for themselves where they want to continue to study, depending on their research interests and thesis topics. While studying abroad, they write a draft of their paper and prepare a research project that they defend before an audience after their return to HSE. During the last semester, students write a thesis under the guidance of their academic supervisor.

‘We encourage students to conduct research work, but at the beginning of the programme it’s too early to choose and nail down a theme. We want students to choose their own topic and advisors. We give them a little bit more time. We hope that this process helps them to make the research more their own,’ explains Swader. ‘The advantage of the programme is that we not only teach students the quantitative and qualitative methods, but also teach them how to combine these methods in the research process. We have students who are engaged in theoretical work, but we also have those who are interested in the main applied areas of sociology. A holistic approach to learning allows students to achieve success in all areas.’


Olga Tomilova, HSE graduate and student in the programme

I came to the programme captivated by the opportunity to study on different HSE campuses and at other universities, as well as to get to know different teachers and researchers. I like studying in English in an international environment – during the third year of my undergraduate studies I spent six months at Kookmin University in Seoul. As an undergraduate (I graduated from Sociology at HSE), my research interests revolved around political sociology – protest movements in Russia and other countries. My priorities are different now; I am planning to study gender sociology and sociology of the family. I am very grateful to the organizers of the programme for the freedom and the time that they give us to determine exactly what we want to study. I have great expectations for the beginning of the semester in St. Petersburg where I hope to find an academic adviser. Regarding my training next year, I will consider several universities in Toronto that are major centres for gender research.


Jacqueline Phillips, graduate of Salem College (North Carolina, USA)

I learned about HSE and the Masters in Comparative Social Research when I read an interview with one of the professors that was posted on the HSE blog. This programme has incorporated the best of both worlds. While intense theoretical discussion is popular in US sociology, Russian academia prides itself on research. At HSE, I have already written many theoretical papers, but also worked in the SPSS, Atlas.ti, and R software packages.

Lyudmila Mezentseva, HSE news service   

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