Sociology and totalitarian regimes

The discipline of sociology in Russia/the Soviet Union has faced problems over the decades:

Totalitarian regimes have a conflicted relationship with sociology. On the one hand, they have no elections or free media from which to learn about the public mood, so they need sociologists even more than democratic governments do. On the other hand, their fear of information is directly proportional to their need for it. They fear that sociologists, if allowed to work freely, will obtain knowledge about the vulnerabilities of the regime. An ideal totalitarian regime would find a way to obtain sociological data without the sociologists.

This push-pull relationship with sociology kept playing out throughout the Soviet period. For decades, sociology was effectively a banned discipline. Even Karl Marx, in official Soviet scholarship, was stripped of his sociological credentials, retaining the title only of “founder of scientific communism, teacher and leader of the international proletariat.” But starting in the 1950s, a little bit of sociology was allowed, under the auspices of philosophy — Marxist philosophy, of course…

The Levada Center retained its reputation as the most reliable source on Russian public opinion. Even federal ministries occasionally commissioned surveys from it. Sometimes the results of those differed little or not at all from those produced by the Kremlin-controlled pollsters.

But the Levada sociologists could not be controlled by the Kremlin, and that sealed their fate. In the end, the Kremlin’s fear of information became stronger than the desire to know, just as Mr. Gudkov knew it would.

This piece focus on one issue sociologists face within totalitarian regimes: dictators tend to want to control what information is available while sociologists generally want to make information available. Knowledge is power and those who try to subvert the official information stream are punished.

There is also at least one other issue regarding such information: what purpose should it serve? Do sociologists living in these conditions support or endorse the totalitarian actions? If so, are there justifiable reasons for doing so? Generally, sociology has thrived in places with more democratic governments and the discipline of sociology in the United States has shied away from ideas of fascism and totalitarianism, partly on the conservative end of the spectrum. (I’m sure there is work about this; the 1960s was an interesting point for sociology as prior to this, the discipline had some prominent conservative theorists.)

This could lead to an interesting question: is the practice of sociology generally limited to liberal democracies? In other words, it may only be possible under certain societal conditions and may not have emerged as it did without the changes to the nation-state and the start of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment in Europe.

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