Uneasy Questions for Russian Sociology
This year, Russian sociology is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It seems like a good time to reflect on its current situation. On the eve of the Third All-Russia Sociological Congress, the HSE First Deputy Rector, the Department of Economic Sociology Chief Vadim Radaev spoke to us about this event.
— Vadim Valeryievich, what is your personal view on the eve of the Congress?
— As this anniversary approaches, we all recognize that the sociological community's position could be better. Thousands of ad hoc faculties and departments are functioning in our country, each year a number of undergraduate, graduates and doctorate level students go through the viva process. But tutors and teaching standards vary greatly from university to university. Some newly published dissertations are best not to read at all, since one risks indigestion while reading. Very few Russian sociologists are regularly published in international magazines. And many promising young professionals leave sociology completely. It would be rather naive to blame only external factors, such as the lack of state financing.
— What internal problems are most dangerous for Russian sociology from your point of view?
— I'll start with some "superficial" points. Why are those expected to be interested in social theory either not interested in it or their interest is very weak? Here the first annoying obstacle is discovered: social theorizing often looks like digging around in fog with a stick, where some vital social topic the researcher has seen or read about is described simply. And this is worsened by excessive ambition and attempts to make sociology look like a universal theory despite scant methodology and unlimited objects. I have seen students defining the object of their research as "The Russian population" or "Power Relations". It is funny, but students are a mirror where the "grown-up" part of the community is reflected. But this pseudo-theorizing is only part of the common problem. Sometimes we have the opposite problem, with theoretical constructions built by piling up esoteric forms.
— Do you think that some scientists might suppose that they are protecting knowledge from dilatants by heaping up complex theoretical constructions?
— This is a debatable question. Who are those neophytes and ignorant persons we build our defenses against? Are they students or researchers in other social fields interested in sociology? I think social theory must be transparent - i.e. clear enough to be understood by the educated public or at least students.
I don't mean our theories must be primitive since "saintly simplicity" doesn't really help us in this situation. Moreover the content and methodology may be very complex. But if we can not make our thoughts and observations clear to "outsiders" we do not understand what we are speaking about ourselves.
I can suggest writing books on sociology for school-children as a test for researchers` ability to make things clear.
— What should be done by sociologists to become more understandable?
— To become understandable to the wider populace we should start with understanding each other, with clarifying the foundations of our theories. The first thing we should begin with is some basic definitions.
— But sociology is a multi - paradigmal science, so there can not be common basic notions...
— I have to agree with this partially. But in this case let us differentiate between the sociological approaches more clearly and to stress each time the methodological positions for some factual analysis without pretending it is universal. So a sociologist will be able to say "taking some approach, a social institute is..." Do many people do that at the moment?
— And then, should we, probably, start building a new "grand theory"?
— Many colleagues have adopted this idea and are looking for a new Marx (Weber, Parsons or Luman - depending on the choice). But I think most of them will agree that their time has passed. Sociology is too varied to believe in unification and common methodological implementation.
— So, will each practitioner follow his own way?
— This is the current situation. Everybody follows his own way ignoring the others. And the different professional backgrounds of Russian sociologists works replicates this (some of us came from philosophy, some from economics and some from historical science). I think the key project for us today is to build methodological bridges (conventional links, interfaces whatever you want to call them).
— And how can these methodological bridges be built?
— First of all, the axiomatic base should be defined. It is a strange fact but there is no consensus among sociologists on this "simple" point. I think that even the problem itself is not appreciated.
— Really, the notion of axioms in sociology sounds strange.
— I think axioms are not only possible, but necessary. But they should be built inside each particular approach (social cultural approach, social nets approach and so on). This will be the foundation for adherents to rely on it and for adversaries to criticize and to take apart.
— But if the axiomatic base can not be defined?
— Then it is silently driven to the sphere of research problems and hypotheses. And more than just saying that social nets (or institutes, or culture) are important and building really problematic hypotheses, we begin to prove that social nets (institutes, culture) are truly important -in any sphere. Research does not solve problems but becomes the justification for a chosen approach.
— But the gap between methodological approaches and the lack of an axiomatic base is not the only sociology problem in Russia.
— A serious gap between theory and empirics also exists. Our students and post-graduates can serve as an example: one chapter for theoretical study, another - for empirical study, with no connection between them being discovered.
— Probably, the problem is not just with the gap between theory and empirical studies but also with sociologists who are not qualified in data analysis?
— Of course. We can humorously claim that in a debate between the followers of Weber and Sorokin, whoever has more knowledge of SPSS and statistics, wins. But nothing to say when the MSU at the 2007 State Exam in sociology contemporary theory finished by Parsons, with quantitative methods being out of concern at all?
It is important thing to understand that this is not the problem of the studying procedure at some particular faculty. Those able to teach sociologists quantitative methods are in short supply. There are many brilliant mathematicians and statisticians who do not understand sociology and many sociologists who do not understand data analysis methods.
I'd like to float a "rebellious" thought: we might soon have to invite our compatriots from American universities (data analysis is also often taught badly in European Universities).
— But what about internal integration within the professional community?
— Weak internal ties among the professional community are mentioned comprehensively. By this, I mean not only listening to each other at the conferences and reading published articles and books. Indeed, the professional community must be more transparent, both internally and externally.
— But what do you mean about ‘internal openness'?
— When mentioning this problem, some uneasy questions must be . Why it is so difficult to find Russian universities` full curricula on their web-pages? We receive the answer that our colleagues are trying to prevent research innovations being stolen. Let`s oppose this statement. The main cause, I believe, is that some programs are based on literature published at least 20 years ago and adopted to the scant resources of local libraries, but other programs appear to be copied. At the HSE, for example, all curricula are accessible via the webpage. It is convenient for students. But at the same time it is a professional measure that allows our colleagues to visit our Webpage and provide constructive criticism.
— But are there precedents for these curricula to be copied?
— Yes, some cases. But we don't oppose this, lets allow it. Why are all theses (not only the author's abstracts, but the whole essays) not available on the webpages?
— Possibly, because of the concern of copying?
— But this problem can be solved in a simple way. "Antiplagiarism system" developers have already signed an agreement with the Higher Commission for Certification. All published dissertations can be included easily into their data-base and a test will take less than a minute. Are we afraid to reduce the number of candidates and doctors?
Next point: why it is so difficult to find information on tutors with the list of their publications on the Webpages of the departments. Is it a top secret issue? It might become clear that there are problems with the publications: some do not have any at all and some are published in publications that are impossible to find through a respectable library index.
These problems can be settled. Technical obstacles are to be overcome: The internet is accessible for all and it takes senior course student less than a day to set up a new Web page.
— But what about external openness?
— We have some ambitious ideas, and internal openness among the Russian sociological community is only the first step. We must be closer to the international community. It is possible, of course, to suppose that we have already reached the international level. But nobody knows it. Here we meet communication problems (in English) and problems with the translation of our activities. We are speaking about real international curricula in English and other languages for foreign students studying on joint programs or receiving our diplomas. This task, of course, demands more concentrated efforts.
— People might beconcerned about our patriotic feelings and closer integration to the Western community
— If we are concerned by Russian sociology development and its place amongst the international professional community, first of all we must move from primitive local theories to the detailed studies of world experience that are essential for international academic communities. But at the same time we have to avoid idolizing western theories. They must be implemented effectively without worship ordirect copying.
— Is it possible to speak about the professional community of sociologists in Russia?
— There are many active professionals and professional groups in the regions of Russia. But taking into consideration that on the whole, resources (both financial and professional) are concentrated in the major cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg serve as a guideline for the professional community's general state and its internal climate. Unfortunately, it is the central part of Russia where sociological community appears to be dispersed considerably. And it is not only matter of the paradigm. One more aspect must be mentioned - organizational structure. Sacred speeches on the integrity of the science disguised the separation of the Russian sociological community into 4-5 associations, i.e. communities for group interests and local ambitions who oppose each other (as it became clear during the preparations for the All - Russia Congress in 2008). The Russian Sociology Society is restricted as "one of" and the chiefs of the Society have adopted it easily.
— But the contradictions mentioned above are not the only concerns, are they?
— Absolutely. One more aspect is connected not only with sociology and covers the more fundamental issues tapping into development prospects. Sociology is divided into three branches - educational practice, fundamental science, and applied researches. They are isolated from each other. Universities are involved in educational programs practice, academic institutes are carrying out research activities, and small and wide ranging companies are implementing practical projects. There are occasional cases of interaction but they are very much the exception. As a result sociology is divided into specialized structures which activities are disguised from the community for commercial reasons or an unwillingness to enter into dialogue.
— But how can we escape from this?
— There two ways at least. The first is building an organisation which could be a testing area for innovations contributing to practice integration, i.e. interchangeable interaction of tutors and practical professionals where tutors are involved into research and professionals are integrated into applied projects.
In the capital and the regions, leading universities could function as the interface unit between these two areas. But innovative strategies and more complicated strategies of development are needed. Basic University principles adopted by Gumbolt have been changing. For long-term success, a contemporary university must be a multifunctional structure transparent to the professional community and non-scientific society. Such a structure must search for the relevant ties between research and the educational system, fundamental theory and market analysis, consulting and social policy.
One leading university is unwilling to take this route. That's why another branch of development leads to mild net partnership implementation (including educational, research, and applied units) that can originate from the bottom, i.e. from horizontal ties. And Munroe leadership can be achieved through effective system of integral ties based on real mutual activity, not just formal agreements on cooperation.
Helen Novikova, the HSE News service.