We have it all, but do we have anything? Further confirmation of the lamentable state of Russian Sociology (August 20, 2012)

Victor Vakhshtayn, Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences

My article “On the lamentable state of post-Soviet Sociology” published in Global Dialogue 2.3 is a short excerpt from a broader research project on the cognitive styles of sociological explanations. The question I’m particularly interested in is “Why certain sociological narratives are so viable and lasting even if explanations they provide are so poor and tautological?” Present-day Russian (or it might be better to say “Post-Soviet”) sociology is an instant source and inexhaustible supply of such everlasting narratives. In my paper “Beyond Post-Soviet Sociology: Paradoxes and Tautologies” (2009) I tried to show what are the points of convergence between two politically opposed Post-Soviet rhetorics: anti-Soviet (paradoxical) and neo-Soviet (tautological), what particular cognitive operators are used in such explanations – operators of distinction, relevance attribution, description and causal reduction. The reaction of colleagues was immediate and eloquent. I was accused of:

  • postmodernism
  • hidden institutional and political engagement
  • disciplinary treason
  • escalation of generational conflicts
  • self-isolation in an ivory tower of pure theory
  • ungrounded claim for a meta-position of external observer.

The last obloquy was probably the prevailing one. Professor A. Chepurenko has expressed it in strikingly clear fashion: “[It is] the position of Superman dominating the anthill of anthropomorphous sociologists.” In the same article he carries on sarcastically: “encapsulated, deluded and misled … the man in the street has lost the very idea of social processes in the global world” and our mission as sociologists is to enlighten that anthropomorphous character.

I find these polemics with Professor A. Chepurenko (along with Professor V. Yadov, Professor A. Gofman, Professor L. Gudkov, Professor N. Pokrovsky and Professor M. Chernysh) quite fruitful. Some epistemological questions concerning the current state of sociological reflexivity and perspectives of Sociological Enlightenment can be productively reconsidered within their approach.

However, the criticism of Professors Zh. Toschenko and N. Romanovsky expressed in their article “On the Real State of Sociology in Russia: Opposing Vakhshtayn’s Polemics” (Global Dialogue 2.5) is of another kind. First of all, it’s not criticism at all. The basic rhetoric of their article is quite affirmative: “Yes, we have!” We have departments of sociology. We have graduates. We have journals. We have researchers and, even, backwoods researchers. We have data. And, last but not least, we have big names (for example, Professor Zh. Toschenko used his own name). I can’t agree more! Toschenko and Romanovskiy are completely right. They have it all. And we have nothing to argue about here. The only question left unanswered is this: If we have it all, and much more than that, why do we still have post-Soviet sociology and not an internationally recognized (in its content, not just institutionally) Russian one?

It reminds me of a very popular song by Yuri Vizbor which included this line: “But we are making rockets, and we dammed the Yenisey River, and we are ahead of the entire planet in the sphere of ballet.” Answering question why post-Soviet sociological discourses oscillate between paradoxes and tautologies, anti-Soviet and neo-Soviet rhetoric, my colleagues reply: “But we are making graduates, and we have our journal, and we are ahead of the entire planet in terms of the geographical spread.” Unfortunately social science is about producing ideas. Not graduates. Not journals. Not even data…

Global Express, Russia

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