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.

Where is the best place to live in Russia? A city in Siberia

I’ve tracked some of the best American places to live but what is the equivalent in Russia? A booming oil city in Siberia:

Siberia’s booming oil capital Tyumen has been named Russia’s best city for quality of living. A study, conducted by sociology experts from the Russian Government’s Financial University, ranked the city ahead of the likes of Moscow and St Petersburg.

Founded in 1586 and located on the Tura River, the experts studied parameters including the standards of medical care, access to education, wealth, and life expectancy. Whether people felt satisfied with their own lives was taken into account, along with aspects such as whether they were happy with the quality of roads and their own salaries…

The authors of the new survey wrote: ‘When we analysed the data, it showed people’s satisfaction with life is mostly affected by how good communal housing services in the cities are and how well they manage properties in terms of maintenance and repair, as well as how well developed the city is in general, their level of incomes and the work of health care institutions…

Tyumen was the first ever Russian settlement in Siberia and was founded to support the eastward expansion. Over the centuries it has progressed from a small village located on important trade routes, to a military settlement, and now a large industrial city and vital business centre.

The Tyumen Oblast is a vast oil-rich region stretching from Kazakhstan to the Arctic Ocean and it is home to a number of major Russian companies.

There are three universities and the city is a popular tourist destination, particularly for German visitors.

While this description is suspiciously similar to the Wikipedia entry on Tyumen, I’ve never heard of this city of over 581,000. I saw the headline involved the word Siberia and didn’t imagine this kind of vibrant city. Granted, this is located in the southwestern part of Siberia – not as far away from western Siberia as is much of Siberia. But, oil money can apparently do wonders for quality of life in Siberia…

Putin claims actions in Crimera based on sociological polls

Did sociology surveys provide cover for Vladimir Putin to incorporate Crimea? Here is one source:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the final decision on the inclusion of Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia was made in regards to a sociological poll conducted in Crimea.

And another source:

“Russia did not prepare to incorporate Crimea, the decision on the republic’s accession to Russia was made only after data were received about the mood of local residents”, President Vladimir Putin said at a meeting with activists of the All-Russian People’s Front on Thursday…

The Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol, a city with a special status on the Crimean Peninsula, where most residents are Russians, signed reunification deals with Russia on March 18 after a referendum two days earlier in which an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

While the international community is not likely to accept this reasoning, it does highlight an interesting issue: what happens when surveys show that people in one country would prefer to be in another? What then happens to national boundaries if there is strong public opinion to leave the current country? Perhaps the big difference here is that the people of Crimea didn’t revolt against Ukraine and seek to join Russia; Putin stepped in and pushed for this. But, there are likely lots of people groups in the world who might prefer to have their own country or to leave their current nation.

Another question might be regarding how this survey was conducted. I vaguely remember hearing similar figures that many in eastern Ukraine consider themselves to be Russian rather than Ukrainian while figures in the western side of the country were nearly opposite. How good are these sociological results?

Crimean crisis for cartographers: is it part of Ukraine or Russia?

Maps today are updated often so Russia’s actions in Crimea have left cartographers with a decision to make:

Online mapping tools from Google and Bing, as well as Mapquest, all list Crimea as a part of Ukraine. Wikipedia’s community is embroiled in a fierce debate over whether or not to recognize Russia’s annexation of the region.

National Geographic still has not yet reached a decision on the matter, and is waiting for annexation to be formally approved. They said in a statement:

Most political boundaries depicted in our maps and atlases are stable and uncontested. Those that are disputed receive special treatment and are shaded gray as “Areas of Special Status,” with accompanying explanatory text.

In the case of Crimea, if it is formally annexed by Russia, it would be shaded gray and its administrative center, Simferopol’, would be designated by a special symbol. When a region is contested, it is our policy to reflect that status in our maps. This does not suggest recognition of the legitimacy of the situation.

Rand McNally, on the other hand, takes its mapping data from the State Department, and so will leave its data as it currently stands. It could be a long time before the U.S. formally recognizes Russia’s takeover.

It sounds like this comes down to: (1) which authority each cartographer relies on plus (2) the perceived legitimacy of Russia’s actions. While maps may simply reflect these political realities, they also have the potential to shape current and future perceptions of the area.

If only we could go back to the good old days (20 years ago?) where it took some time for maps to be updated. As a kid, I loved maps and I remember the shift in the early 1990s to a fragmented Yugoslavia (the National Geographic Geography Bee seemed to like focusing on this rapidly changing region as well) as well as emerging post-Soviet states. It takes some time for all these maps to be updated, from online sources to printed atlases to school textbooks and maps that hang on classroom walls. Cartographers in the past might have had more time to wait out a situation like this to see what happens while today people want the newest information now.

Russia, a country where drivers need a dashboard camera

Wired explains why many Russian drivers have a dashboard camera – and no, it isn’t just to capture images of meteors.

The sheer size of the country, combined with lax — and often corrupt — law enforcement, and a legal system that rarely favors first-hand accounts of traffic collisions has made dash cams all but a requirement for motorists.

“You can get into your car without your pants on, but never get into a car without a dash cam,” Aleksei Dozorov, a motorists’ rights activist in Russia told Radio Free Europe last year…

Do a search for “Russia dash cam crash” in YouTube — or even better,, the county’s equivalent of Google — and you’ll find thousands of videos showing massive crashes, close calls and attempts at insurance fraud by both other drivers and pedestrians. And Russian drivers are accident prone. With 35,972 road deaths in 2007 (the latest stats available from the World Health Organization), Russia averages 25.2 traffic fatalities per 100,000 people. The U.S., by comparison, had 13.9 road deaths per 100,000 people in the same year, despite having six times more cars.

A combination of inexpensive cameras, flash memory and regulations passed by the Interior Ministry in 2009 that removed any legal hurdles for in-dash cameras has made it easy and cheap for drivers to install the equipment.

The quick sociological take: a particular political and organizational setting leads to an incentive for having one’s own camera to provide evidence in possible accidents. I wonder if there is a segment of Russian law that now is about ensuring the footage of the camera is accurate, not doctored, and trustworthy in court.

The next logical question in my mind then is why don’t more American motorists have such devices? They can’t be that expensive and could be worthwhile in certain situations (although our law enforcement is presumably more trustworthy). At the least, YouTube viewers could benefit.

Claim that Putin plagiarized a sociological monograph disputed by its author

Here is an odd sociological story: ahead of an upcoming election, bloggers accuse Vladimir Putin of plagiarizing a sociological monograph when writing about “ethnic issues” in Russia.

Putin’s article, titled “Russia: The National Question,” was published in the influential daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta” on January 23 and was the second in a series of publications by Putin in the run-up to the March 4 presidential election…

Bloggers, however, allege that approximately one-third of the publication was lifted from a monograph by sociologist Valery Tishkov and two other researchers.

Aleksandr Morozov, editor of “Russky Zhurnal” (Russian Journal), posted the allegations on his blog, generating more than 100 comments and sparking follow-up stories on widely trafficked online news sites like and He spoke to RFE/RL’s Russian Service:

“When I read Putin’s strange article on the national question, I noticed that special terminology was being used that is only used by professional cultural anthropologists — words like ‘socio-cultural code,’ ‘poly-cultural,’ and ‘poly-culturalism.’ There is a standard set of [commonly used] political words such as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘civil nation.’ But [the language of Putin’s article included] some pretty specialized expressions — even though speechwriters usually watch closely to stop scientific jargon from making its way into political statements by politicians of Putin’s level.”

But in comments to RFE/RL, Tishkov, who is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said he was unconvinced that his work had been plagiarized:

“As for [Putin’s use of] ‘poly-culturalism,’ he also got this a little confused. Everything there is a little vague. The article is sort of eclectic; [it is written in a] purely pre-election style…so that it appeals to everyone who is voting. As for those who aren’t voting, what does he say about them? Migrants… and so on — ‘Are they responsible for everything?’ I didn’t write that kind of book. It is different from this article.”

In this day and age, wouldn’t it be fairly easy for people to determine whether Putin truly plagiarized the monograph or not? Perhaps it is not simply a case of cutting and paste text but rather using reworded ideas that seem to come from another source. Using technical terms doesn’t necessarily mean someone is plagiarizing, particularly if that person could have had plenty of speechwriters or experts write the article or help him write it. It would be a different story for a student who had never shown the ability to use such terms before.

I wonder how much sociological work is plagiarized. From my grad school days, I remember one academic talking about work being plagiarized in other countries and the difficulties one might encounter in trying to reprimand the plagiarizer. Does an increased number of  instances of plagiarism reflect positively on the popularity or value of an idea or text?

Using sociological surveys as political weapons

One commentator suggests that sociological surveys were used as political weapons recently in Russia:

Long before the State Duma elections of Dec 4, the ultra-rightist and liberal mass media, collaborating with anti-Russian elements in the West, forecast that the ruling United Russia party would suffer a serious defeat.

They organized all sorts of sociological surveys to support this thoroughly planned campaign and to push their “predictions” on the “crisis” facing Russian leaders and “sharply declining rating” of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. The anti-Putin campaign became really vociferous when the United Russia congress officially and unanimously approved Putin as its nominee for the presidential election in March 2012.

It is true that the election results showed the correlation of political forces and sentiments in Russia, which is experiencing the difficult strategic consequences of the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the impact of the global economic crisis.

I’m less interested in dissecting recent events in Russia (which are very interesting to read about) and more interested in thinking about using sociological findings as political weapons. The argument made here is that these surveys are part of a larger, unfair, ideological campaign waged by pundits and the media. Perhaps more importantly, there is a claim that the surveys were “organized,” suggesting they were only undertaken in order to push a particular viewpoint.

I don’t doubt that sociological findings are used in struggles for power. Indeed, sociologists are not value-neutral as they themselves have their own interests and class position within society. However, I tend to think the primary purpose of sociological data is to explain what is happening in society. If sociological surveys in Russia show dissatisfaction with Putin, is it incorrect to report this? Of course, statistics and facts are open to interpretation and need to be approached carefully.

Where is the line between sociological surveys illuminating social structures, practices, and beliefs and having viewpoints and using sociological data to push these perspectives? Max Weber’s writings on value-neutrality are still useful today as we think about the proper use of sociological data.