The Traumatic Asphyxiation of Public Sociology

April 26 | 2023

Russia is dominated by an authoritarian sociology afflicted with aphonia, aphasia, and public muteness syndrome.

Elena Zdravomyslova

 

Photo: What tactics can sociologists employ when academic freedoms are being curtailed and public sociology is being stifled? Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

 

A New Kind of Precarity

My colleagues (among them Anna Temkina, Mikhail Sokolov, Dmitry Dubrovsky, Irina Meyer, Daria Skibo, Lyubov Borusyak, and Svetlana Yaroshenko) have been trying to comprehend the position of social scientists in Russia under conditions of limited academic freedom. I would like to contribute my own two cents to the discussion.

We are experiencing a new type of precarious employment—professional insecurity in the field of sociology under the developing circumstances. We are trying to assess the consequences of academic repression for scientists who understand the global nature of social knowledge, appreciate the transformative power of free speech, and view critical social sciences as a pillar of civil society.

In addition to my own professional experience, I draw on domestic and international discussions, as well as the results of research, conversations, and interviews with scientists who have made their own contributions to the topic.

This is an opinion paper. The goal is to draw attention to the topic, receive feedback, and build bridges.

 

Reactions to Restricted Freedom

Before discussing the opinions of Russian sociologists, it is important to be able to distinguish between the four modes of sociological analysis. The distinguishing factors are the audience and goals of each branch.

  • Professional sociology involves discourse within the sociological community and determining one’s own academic course of study.
  • Critical sociology analyzes the theoretical and axiological foundations of professional sociology.
  • Policy sociology serves a variety of clients seeking to improve their own performance.
  • Public sociology involves discourse with different sectors, diverse publics, and civil society.

The last category, public sociology, can be further divided into traditional and organic.

  • Traditional public sociology communicates sociological knowledge to the public. Opinion polls are the most striking example of this.
  • Organic public sociology involves engaging in interactions with civil society in ways that raise issues of social justice and inequality.

Different incarnations of sociological knowledge experience repression of social criticism and a lack of academic freedom in different ways.

The consequences of suppression are not obvious in the professional and policy fields. But the collapse of public sociology has a detrimental effect on all other forms of social science.

 

Asphyxiation of Sociology

Public sociology in Russia is enduring a process of traumatic asphyxiation.

In medicine, asphyxiation is a serious pathological condition in which breathing is made difficult or entirely impossible and the living organism is rendered unable to move due to a lack of oxygen, as something is blocking respiration. Asphyxiation is accompanied by aphonia (an absence of voice) and aphasia (an inability to speak). Asphyxiation may lead to paralysis and—if left untreated—death.

Using this metaphor of asphyxiation, I would like to express that under conditions of political repression and academic suppression, public sociology is doomed, and therefore the existence of sociology as a profession is under threat.

Researchers have already used the metaphors of aphonia (Oleg Pachenkov) and aphasia (Sergei Ushakin) to describe the lack of funding for producing sociological knowledge. But their focus was different.

I use the metaphor of sociological asphyxiation as a modern counterpart to the “public muteness syndrome” characteristic of (post-)Soviet social knowledge.

 

1990s: The Heyday of Publicity

In the post-Soviet period, public sociology was often actively promoted in the public arena. (Unfortunately, this sometimes led to the vulgarization of sociological concepts.) Social experts, critics, and analysts noticed. Their media activities began bringing material and symbolic benefits to institutions and professionals.

Sociologists learned to communicate with the media by consciously choosing reliable media intermediaries and gradually overcoming public muteness syndrome. Scientists actively collaborated with civil society.

At the same time, the historical split between loyal and critical sociologists also manifested itself in public sociology. People from different sectors of the politicized sociological field found their own channels of publicity.

 

2000-2010: Shift toward Authoritarian Control

The repressive laws passed in the wake of the massive protests against electoral fraud in 2011-12 took a serious toll on civil society. In particular, the laws prohibiting propaganda of homosexual values (2013) and “On Foreign Agents” (2012) were introduced. This limited the opportunities for sociologists who focused on civil society to conduct their work.

Under these conditions, a number of non-profit organizations (NPOs) chose to liquidate themselves. Some “foreign agents” continued their activities, conducting survival experiments on themselves. In this environment, self-censorship became a common tactic of researchers and experts as they tried to conduct “business as usual” in the new period of precarity.

However, the 2010s marked only the first stage of the “special operations” launched against Russian civil society and the sociologists associated with it.

 

The Early 2020s

COVID-19 has contributed to deepening depoliticization by shifting public attention to health threats. The authorities have given a new legitimacy to policies restricting public gatherings. The role of COVID in preparing for the special military operations in Ukraine and the destruction of civil society has yet to be fully understood.

Since February 24, 2022, the opportunities for safe, public professional expression have been reduced even further. A new series of repressive laws shuts the door on public debate of current social topics and criminalizes critical speech. The law on “fake news,” amendments to the law on foreign agents, and the new legal statuses of “undesirable organization” and “unfriendly country” expand the circle of persecution and undercut efforts to engage in international scientific cooperation.

Under these conditions, public intellectuals can easily be classified as “foreign agents” and join the ranks of the stigmatized. This can happen even to those who demonstrate political apathy and believe in academic neutrality. The number of “foreign agents” grows every week.

In this atmosphere, the familiar political division between loyal and oppositional/critical sociologists is clearly visible. Soon after the start of the war, representatives of both sides expressed their opposing civil opinions: one side in open letters of support for the military operations, the other in anti-war statements.

As a result, many opponents of the special military operations were forced to leave their institutions and/or relocate. But they are the minority.

Most remain at work.

 

What Can Be Done?

What tactics can sociologists employ when academic freedoms are being curtailed and public sociology is being stifled?

 

Business as usual. Most continue to do what they normally do—teach, research, lead. They see no alternative. They consider it their duty to perform their professional activities. Many emphasize:

  • pedagogical responsibility
  • the importance of helping students and colleagues overcome feelings of confusion or frustration
  • the need to preserve institutions and jobs for professionals

 

“Non-toxic” topics. Social researchers believe that many topics are still “non-toxic” and that by turning their professional gaze to safe themes, they can avoid sanctions.

Some believe that it is time for ethnographic descriptions and diaries reporting on the breakdown of different life-worlds. Others turn to historical analysis in search of tools to help make sense of the catastrophic social reality.

 

Fears. At the same time, social scientists in Russia are directly experiencing the social emotion of fear. Many colleagues have already been afflicted. Security is illusory. Sociologists can sense the growing risks. They fear not only for themselves, but also for their loved ones, their students, and their institutions.

These feelings in large part determine the survival tactics used by those in the professional field. Let us describe some of them using the expressions of our colleagues.

 

Six Survival Tactics

Stay and revive allegorical language: turning to doublespeak and quasi-safe topics; searching for loopholes that provide more academic freedom.

Stay and keep your mouth shut: avoiding publicity (from the media) and sequestering yourself in your ivory tower; relying on the argument that you subscribe to the ethos of academic neutrality.

Stay and lie low: staying “under the radar;” leaving the public eye lest the leviathan notice you; hoping it will all blow over soon.

Stay on the Captain’s Bridge: heroically standing your ground, assuming responsibility, first and foremost, for the security of your colleagues and institution while endangering your personal reputation and maneuvering in search of a safe track.

Stay and create safe extraterritorial areas of self-expression: creating alternative, relatively safe platforms for public discussion on social media and in “club” or “workshop” formats, following the script of a tusovka (casual get-together).

Stay and show loyalty to the actions of the authorities: no comment.

 

These are all forced tactics. They are inherently built into the professional and job hierarchy of the disciplinary field. They assume that it is necessary to compromise the professional ethos of the discipline—by scrubbing the field of professional communications, censoring scientific statements, and mutually severing established international ties.

All this has been noted by many commentators.

 

Stay and Leave

However, I would like to offer yet another option: “Stay and leave.”

Many social scientists and their students are hopelessly disillusioned with our discipline. They realize how inextricably linked sociology is with official politics, the extent to which polls (which are considered sociological work) are tools of political manipulation, how dangerous it is to engage in organic public sociology, and how great the costs of combining professional work and critical civic engagement can be.

Fear and hopelessness surrounding the prospects of conducting meaningful professional work in Russia engender alienation, contribute to “discursive paralysis,” and are causing people to leave the profession.

 

* * *

The traumatic asphyxiation of public sociology, which I have attempted to describe here, affects all four modes of sociological analysis. The disciplinary field is dominated by an authoritarian sociology afflicted with aphonia, aphasia, and public muteness syndrome.

Paradoxically, immersion in the dystopian nightmare that is our current social reality has contributed to the quiet growth of professional consciousness. Russian sociologists are forced to think about:

  • the close ties between their work and their moral obligations
  • the contrast between the ethos of the discipline and the way it is actually being practiced
  • the comfort of loyalty and the persecution of colleagues who have dared to make critical public statements.

Reflection on these issues, which could previously have been avoided by adhering to a belief in academic neutrality, is now awakening a professional conscience in members of our community.

 

Elena Zdravomyslova is a distinguished research fellow in the sociology department of the European University at St. Petersburg.

 

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