‘A Politician Is Someone to Study, Not a Client’
Alexey Zakharov, Associate Professor in the department of Advanced Mathematics in the HSE Faculty of Economics, is a member of the Committee of the European Political Science Association - a professional community of specialists who apply a variety of different methods in their analysis of the field as it is understood today.
David Soskice, Dennis Muller and Ray Duch are among the well known European academics who set up the association in 2010. Although the Association is very new, it has already held two major conferences, in 2010 in Dublin and in 2011 in Berlin, with hundreds of papers presented by specialists from the USA and Europe. Alexey Zakharov was invited to be on the Committee to represent Eastern Europe where quantitative methods of research are still on the margins of interest of the political science community.
The Committee is starting a journal “Political Science Research and Methods” to publish papers on political sciences or combining economics and sociology which use empirical or formal methods of analysis. They plan to publish two editions in 2013, three in 2014 and four in 2015.
Alexey Zakharov answered some of our questions;
— What is your area of research interests in political sciences?
— Primarily I’m interested in people’s political behaviour, but it’s hard for me to classify my work as exclusively political science. I study society so sociology, political science and economics are all at play here. I’m working on a project connected with modelling the behaviour of politicians during election campaigns. At the moment (with some fellow academics at Exeter University) we are running a laboratory experiment about people’s behaviour when they have to make decisions to choose an election campaign.
Last year I took part in the field work of “Citizen Observer”, a civil society project which alongside the significant social results produced material for our research too. During the December 2011 elections, at about 150 randomly chosen polling stations, volunteer observers came along and, as it turned out, their presence had a significant effect on the election results. This allowed us to evaluate both the true outcome of the parliamentary elections in Moscow and the effectiveness of the observers in battling against vote-rigging. An article on the results of that research has been accepted for publication by “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” magazine.
I’m also working on a number of projects with the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research at the HSE in St Petersburg. We are studying the relationship between economic wellbeing and the promises politicians make during election campaigns. In theory, if the living standard rises, the emphasis of a political campaign will move away from questions of material comfort to human rights, protecting the environment, etc., and this is shown to be true in the data.
I spend a large part of my time working with the HSE International Laboratory for Decision Choice and Analysis which is a great place for bright students and colleagues to exercise their talent for problem solving
— Judging by the kind of projects you are involved in, it seems that there is a growing interest in Russia in studying political processes using quantitative methods, is that right?
— Russia, like other countries in economic transition allows researchers to observe meaningful social and political occurrences which just don’t arise in countries with more stable institutional relations and structures. So I think that research in transition countries has greater potential to bring up discoveries and ideas. But you don’t get new ideas every day, they are born out of discussions with colleagues in a busy research environment, essential for intellectual questioning. That is why I think organising the seminar “Political Economics” was an important step. We often have foreign speakers, leading specialists in the field, coming to give lectures. But I can’t say that there is a lot of interest among Russian political scientists in using quantitative methods for political analysis at the moment. For many years, we’ve had very few strong “convertible” research schools in the social sciences. Our political science community is still in the early stages although there are a number of centres where there has been stable growth in interest in the field and HSE is certainly one of them.
— Do you give yourself research projects that have a practical application? In general, is there a practical value to the work you do?
— From conversations with my colleagues I gather that political consulting and academic research are two different and only slightly connecting worlds. The contribution of modern academic thought so far has little impact on what politicians say and do. Our job is to analyse and uncover patterns and trends. For us, politicians are not clients but objects of study. One of my colleagues has an excellent metaphor to describe the relationship between an academic researcher and someone who is actively involved in political processes. “A businessman for a scientist is like a bear for a biologist. There are some things a bear can do that a biologist can’t but the biologist knows about the bear’s behaviour patterns.”
Unfortunately, people here still prefer to think that quantitative methods can’t be used in political science research. But when I say the opposite, I often hear an entirely emotional negative response. People take my suggestions as an assault on everything they know to be true. But I’m sure that there will come a time when the academics using quantitative methods of analysis in their research will reach critical mass and determine the face of Russian political science in the near future.
The science of society is in the very early stages – physics was in that condition 150 years ago. We don’t know how far we can go in making prognoses in social and political processes, but that is what makes our work so interesting.
Interview by Ludmilla Mezentseva, HSE News Service
How can Russia increase its Social Capital?
By Alexey Zakharov
I often hear it said that one of the reasons for the problems in our country is that we don’t have enough “social capital”, in other words, people’s lives are too socially disconnected and Russians are not engaged enough in public and civil activities. Is this true, and if it is, does it have an effect on the economy? Research shows that the answer to both these questions is “yes”, but a high level of civil activism doesn’t always have positive economic consequences.
Most specialists agree that there are at least three contributing factors to the size of social capital;
Firstly, to what extent people are inclined to trust one another. Do you think that you can trust people? The percentage of people giving a positive answer to this question (which comes up in many sociological surveys) is of a size, which with remarkably regularity predicts quality of life, economic development and a lot besides.
Secondly, when we talk about social capital, we also mean the extent to which people observe civil norms, and rules which keep down anti-social behaviour. Would you cross the road when the lights are red, even if you won’t get fined? Do you throw your cigarette butts out of the car window, and what about empty cigarette packets or a beer bottle?
Thirdly is participation in “civil society” – voluntary groups of people who want to solve a common problem (be it spending time together, protecting homeless dogs or monitoring elections).
How big is our countries social capital compared to that of other countries? According to research by World Values Survey, the level of trust between individuals in Russia is around 30%, which is lower than is Germany, the UK and the US (and much lower than in Scandinavian countries) but higher than in some developed and developing countries – France, Greece and Turkey. Russians are less inclined to observe social norms than citizens in most other countries (but not in France or Greece according to one of the evaluations). And in the level of voluntary engagement in civil society we are also lagging behind most other states.
How much does social capital (or rather the different aspects of it) influence a country’s GDP, the quality of governance and other indicators of industrial and economic development? The American economists Philip Keefer and Stephen Knack in their famous work in 1997, “Does Social Capital Have an Economic Payoff? A Cross-Country Investigation” used data from 29 countries with a market economy and showed that between 1980 and 1992, economic growth was greater in countries where trust was higher and citizens tended to observe social norms. The percentage of people engaged in civil society organisations influenced neither economic growth nor levels of investment. More or less the same results have been found in most other surveys: Trust between individuals remains the most reliable forecaster for quality of governance and economic development, it influences for example the average size of companies (in countries with higher levels of trust organisations are bigger). Social norms are the second most influencing factor. Volunteering and belonging to unofficial organisations shows little influence over the economy and institutions.
Why? Not all voluntary organisations are good in terms of the wellbeing of society. If their task is to protect the interests of a small circle of people, then the aims of that organisation might be achieved at the expense of the rest of society. If a civil organisation is doubling up on the functions of government bodies, then it will have a negative effect on the work of those same bodies. However if the aim of the organisation is to get the government bodies to fulfil their obligations properly then it can have a positive effect.
In his subsequent work “Social Capital and the Quality of Government: Evidence from the USA” published in 2002, Stephen Knack showed that the level of good service achieved in the American state administration was influenced directly by the membership in what are called good governance groups – civil society organisations which focus on making sure that government offices do their jobs properly. What is important is not to “change the light bulb in the lobby” but to get the lazy housing manager to do it. Any project set up to develop civil society initiatives (like the “School of Civil Leadership”, which the author is involved in) needs to take this into account.
What practical advice would I give to a patriotic Russian who wants to do what he can to improve life in his country? We should try harder not to deceive people. We should try not to break the law and rules of socially acceptable behaviour. And finally we must demand either individually, or better still as a group, that those in public office do their job properly. Of course, socially speaking, doing the right thing has its price, but if everybody does it, we’ll all be winners.
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