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How to Study Russia from a Sociological Perspective

Levan Tarkhnishvili | Academic Essay | 2021


Before discussing the main topic of this essay, it is important to understand exactly what sociology studies and how. To do this, we must first go over the main purpose of science in general. The understanding of science as a term is not universal - for some science is knowledge, for others - research. The essence of science and methodology are often confused. However, all theorists and practitioners agree that the ultimate goal of science is to “establish proven knowledge". Such knowledge allows us to explain facts, make predictions, and understand empirical phenomena that are of interest to us."[1]In other words, the goal of Science is to create knowledge that can be tested and proven through scientific studies and another essential factor is that a different scientist can also carry out the same study in similar circumstances and obtain the same result. In this regard, science is different from religion, because the knowledge created by the latter is based on faith and ultimately it can't be tested by any method.

The main components of science are:

● Explanation

● Prognosis

● Understanding[2]

Let us briefly review each of them.


There are two methods of scientific explanation:

Deductive - According to this method, any event can be explained by general law. It requires (a) universal generalization, (b) conditions under which the generalization is true, (c) explanation of the event and (d) observance of the rules of formal logic.[3]One clear example is the explanation of the vertical movement of any object on Earth through Newton's law of gravitation or the explanation of the movement of an object submerged in liquid by Archimedes' law.

Inductive / Probabilistic - Not all scientific explanations are based on the universal laws of nature. This is especially true for social sciences. In this case, an inductive or probabilistic explanation is used. Universal laws are replaced by experience gained through practical research and observation. For example, if experience shows that the coming to power of parties of a certain ideology leads to an increase in government spending, an increase in taxes, and bureaucracy, then after the arrival of a party of a similar ideology in country X, we can assume that we will deal with a similar scenario. Of course, the probability of mistakes is higher during a probabilistic explanation than in the deductive explanation, due to the simple reason that, contrary to the universal laws of nature, the social environment and the experience derived from it undergo certain changes.


As we have mentioned many times, one of the main tasks of science is to make predictions based on existing data and conditions. If we know that X causes Y then in the case of the appearance of the first we can assume that sooner or later the second will appear. Prediction can be made within both deductive and probabilistic explanations. In the case of the first, if the above-mentioned conditions are given, then the prediction is foolproof or in other words, an object on earth that has no support will inevitably fall. When we use the second method of explanation for events, the probability of making a correct prediction is relatively small. If we continue our example, the economic situation in country X may be so bad that, contrary to the prediction, despite the ideology and desire of the ruling party, it will be forced to decrease, not increase the size of the bureaucracy, taxes, and government spending.


There are two types of scientific understanding:

● The "Werstehem tradition" or empathic understanding - according to him natural science is more reliable and stable than social sciences, and therefore we must study them using a different methodology from natural sciences.

● Predictive Understanding - According to predictive understanding, in the social sciences as well as in the natural sciences, the scientist develops objective knowledge. Subsequently, the social sciences and the natural sciences can use the same methods. In other words, the practical knowledge and experience accumulated over the years in the social sciences, based on certain assumptions and generalizations, provide theories that can work just as well as universal laws. However, unlike universal laws, social theories, based on new knowledge and experience, require constant testing and updating.

Sociological research methods

After discussing the aims and role of science, it is beneficial to briefly recall the methods of social research, the role of methodology in the development of science, and the code of ethics and threats, in particular the researcher's commitment to the respondent, the client, and society.

It is well known that sociological studies are widely used in many fields. Some examples:

● Politics;

● State management;

● Business;

● Management in general;

● Applied Research:

o Informal relationships in formal organizations;

o Factors contributing to the spread of corruption;

o Causes of poverty;

o Consumer surveys.

I will briefly go over the methods used to conduct research.

● Quantitative method

o Mass poll

o Secondary statistical analysis

o Content analysis

● Qualitative method

o In-depth interview

o Focus group

o Observation

o Desk research

o Content analysis

o Monographic research

One study can involve a combination of several methods. No matter what method we use, the main drive is the methodology. The methodology is a system of precise rules and procedures on which the research is based. Additionally, they are taken into account when the results of the research and science are assessed. This system is modifiable and the rules and procedures are constantly changing and in need of improvement.

The methodology of social sciences is  slowly evolving. This process - the continuous exchange of ideas, information,  criticism - makes it possible to develop appropriate methods and technologies.  Thყe methodology determines how we proceed, using logic, from empirical  observation and inquiry to the conclusion. A researcher cannot claim  objectivity until other scholars have substantiated his arguments. The basis  for this is transparent methodology. The main function of the methodology is  to facilitate communication between researchers who share or want to share  experiences. The rules of accessible and public methodology create a framework  for cooperation and constructive criticism.[4]

The ethical part of social research is also noteworthy here. Social research studies citizens who participate in research through goodwill. Therefore, the rights of the citizen must be protected; The results of the study have a significant impact on public life and the subsequent formation of opinion. Therefore, the possibility of manipulating research results should be ruled out. The purpose of the Code of Ethics is to raise the public prestige of social studies, to strengthen confidence in this type of activity, and to create favorable conditions for its conduct.

The success of social research depends on the public's attitude towards the researchers, the respondent's trust in the interviewer and the research organization, their belief that the research is being conducted in good faith, objectively, to serve the public interest, and that the respondents' confidentiality is protected. [5]

The Code of Ethics includes obligations to three groups. In particular:

● Respondent

o Confidentiality

o Informed consent

● Client

Ethics requirements are broader in nature than administrative and legal documents, so codes of ethics regulate areas that remain outside the contract;

● Society

The information which should be made available to the public at the time of the publication of the report following the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research (ESOMAR) standard:

o Which organization carried out the study

o Survey methodology

o Sample size

o Sample representativeness

o Survey dates

o The type of questions asked (open or closed) and their exact wording;[6]

We needed this introduction and review to better understand the problems while studying Russia - to understand where we are, we need to know where we come from and what we are learning. For the same reason let us briefly touch upon the history of the development of social sciences in Russia.

Development of Sociology in Russia

Sociology in Tsarist Russia

The development of the social sciences in Tsarist Russia began in the late nineteenth century and went through a mixed path. The first phase was in the timeframe of 1860s-90s and, like in the West, was marked by the dominance of positivist ideas. Russian philosophers and sociologists viewed positivism as an attempt to form a new science about society, which would use the methods of natural sciences. During the same period, revolutionary ideas were gaining popularity among Russian scientists.[7]

During the second stage, the latter was strengthened and resembled the so-called. "Narodnik" movement. The same period is associated with the first wave of harassment of sociologists by the state. According to the sociologist of the time Maxim Kovalevsky, everyone who entered the country through the border, was asked the same question by the Gendarmerie "Do you have sociology books? You know they are banned in Russia. "[8]

Institutional development began in the last years of Tsarist Russia - in 1916 the Sociological Society and the Institute of Sociology were established, classic and new works were translated and published, and a scientific journal was published.

In general, sociology in Tsarist Russia was unilaterally developed, specifically:

► Empirical studies were not developed

► Historical and theoretical sociology, sociology of law, and sociology of social problems were quite developed. These were the circumstances under which the Sovietization of Sociology happened.

Sociology in the Soviet Union

There are many myths about the strength of the Soviet science and education system that, to put it mildly, do not correspond to reality. However, sociology and social sciences are not part of these myths, due to state harassment, censorship, and isolation from the ongoing processes in the world, social sciences were even more significantly behind in development compared to other sciences.

Sociology, in general, went through several stages in the Soviet Union:

● Short Period of Inertia - Comparative Freedom: In 1918, a decree was issued regarding the Socialist Academy of Social Sciences, to support the development of empirical research and sociology in general. More specifically, "a series of sociological studies should have been organized" because it "was one of the most important and urgent matters." However, it should be noted that from the beginning the Bolsheviks viewed research only from a Marxist point of view.

● Repressions and Practical Prohibition: Even the period of relative freedom was short-lived, and in 1922 a group of leading sociologists was expelled from the country. Soon sociology was declared a pseudo-science and was virtually banned altogether. Repressions began - the remaining scholars were shot and their books banned, practical research (of all kinds) banned, and official statistics kept secret. All theoretical work began, relied on, and ended with historical materialism. It should be noted that during this period the world began to develop quantitative research. The boom in quantitative research was led by the development of the advertising market and consequently marketing and the geography of universal elections. It turned out that qualitative research could not meet new challenges, and it was these developments that became the starting point for the development of quantitative research. There were no elections, no marketing, and no advertising in the Soviet Union. Also, a wave of research contributed to the development of new theories and currents. Soviet scientists were isolated from this process.

● Comparative Freedom (1965-72): Nikita Khrushchev's "warm" period was followed by positive changes in science. As the historian of sociological development Schlapentokh writes, 1965-72 was the golden age of Soviet sociology. It initiated creative and important research in labor sociology, youth research, public opinion, and mass media, family sociology, leisure, industrial sociology, political institutions, individual development, and more. The study of Western sociological theories began, the border was opened for elected people. Textbooks and books started being translated and published. However, some ideological limitations still existed.

● Mild Repressions: This period of liberalism also ended soon and mild repressions began. 1972 The heads of leading institutions (Levada, Ramantsev) were removed and replaced by ideologically credible candidates. The "Purge of Western Ideologies" campaign was launched.

● "Perestroika": New changes began together with the Perestroika period in 1987 when the party recognized that sociology was an important discipline. The Institute of Sociology was established, empirical research was started, and independent, commercial centers were established. Ideological censorship was removed. However, the relationship between sociologists and rulers remained problematic. Mikhail Gorbachev did not need the advice of sociologists, did not keep up with their work, and did not believe in them. More often than not, they took opposite steps from the advice given by sociologists. At the same time, neither the sociologists were ready to take responsibility for real-life situations and the new social reality of the country. They lacked courage, theoretical knowledge, and experience in empirical research. They could not establish a connection between their meager theoretical foundations and reality. The maximum of their abilities was criticizing and pointing out what should not be done. In contrast, former scientific communism lecturers and professors proclaimed themselves as sociologists, theologians, and political scientists and turned to nationalism and religious radicalism.

In summary, it can be said that the social and intellectual condition of Soviet sociology was very fragile. It depended entirely on the goodwill and official ideology of the party. As a result of this policy, most of the well-known and leading scientists were forced to leave scientific institutes. In general, the intellectual and theoretical level of Soviet sociology, with a few exceptions, remained very low due to political pressure and isolation from the Western world. Relative freedom was given to social psychologists, anthropologists, and historians. Most of the studies were conducted at the micro-level and concerned individual factories and mills, without any theoretical basis. Most of the publications were devoted to socialist reality. Social theories were divided into historical materialism and scientific communism. Every attempt to connect reality, research, and theory was punished.[9]This was the stage at which sociology met independent Russia.

Sociology in the Russian Federation

In the Russian Federation, the 90s are considered to be a period of the active development of sociology - the creation of a new institute of sociology, the expansion of empirical research, the formation of a research market, the increase in the number of independent commercial centers. Russian scientists became involved in the world scientific movement and international projects. Professional associations and centers were established. Foreign donors and customers came into the country. However, the uncoordinated and chaotic actions of scientists, practitioners, and decision-makers remained a problem.

With the coming to power of Vladimir Putin, like all other fields, social science gradually moved from a period of development to stagnation - expelling foreign foundations and organizations from the country, returning to ideological censorship. According to Mikhail Gorshkov, an academician at the Russian Academy of Sciences, director of the Institute of Sociology, "We are far from" European standards " because there is a constant attempt to make sociology a servant of agencies, politicians, and others. If we take Norway as an example, the government, together with the trade unions, conducts mass surveys every year, based on which the country's development strategy is created and the government's activities are evaluated. In our country, most sociologists are either "locked-in" universities or limited to technical expertise in marketing and advertising. At the same time, professional sociology, with its complex approach and critical attitude towards the government, is often "an uninvited guest" at the table because it is "too clever." In the 90s, even in the early 2000s, sociologists were always speaking from the screen and the pages of newspapers. Their research was in demand and was seriously taken into account in the business circles. The results of these studies formed the basis of federal programs and laws. "And now I can not recall an example when sociologists appeared on live television or from a high tribune. We are no longer called to the State Duma for expertise."[10]

In general, this interview shows the attitude towards sociology and the attitudes of leading Russian sociologists themselves. In 2009, another sociologist, Podwojski, noted that "the status of sociology in modern Russia is very low," neither the public nor political decision-makers know about sociology, and neither care nor trust it.[11]This poses a major problem for both ordering and conducting research (see the section on research ethics above).

In 2012, sociologist Vladimir Vakhshtanyan published an article in which he argued that Russian sociology is in deep crisis and locked in itself. Additionally, in the opinion of Romanovsky and Toshchenko, many uneducated pseudo-sociologists further degrade status and trust in sociology.[12]

Problems in Sociology and Research in Modern Russia

At first glance, the state of sociology and social science in general in modern Russia does not seem to be a problem. Sociology is taught in 124 higher education institutions of Russia:

  • 20,000 students graduate from higher education institutions each year

  •  30 scientific journals are published

  • Up to 100 books and monographs are published annually

  • There are both private and public research centers

  • Scientists participate in international conferences and projects

However, the real situation is not so favorable. The main problems are the same as during the Soviet period, although they have some new features added:

● Theoretical Sociology:

o Ideological isolation from Western science,

o Ideological censorship and brain drain;

● Quantitative

o Does not have a statistically reliable framework,

o The monopoly of money sources,

o The need to divide the selection into clusters and no basis to do so;

o Distrust and lies on the part of the respondents,

o Censorship

● Qualitative

o Inadequate theoretical basis,

o Distrust and insecurity,

o Non-disclosure and total censorship,

o The monopoly of money sources

Another big problem is the self-censorship of researchers. We can cite two examples of self-censorship: The Federal Security Service conducts its research and submits it to the President and the Government. According to one of the employees, the results obtained in these studies "are artificially very frightening. So we take the results of commercial centers, which on the contrary are very positive, we compare our results, we get the arithmetic mean, and so we get a picture that is close to the real results. "[13]

The second example is Mr. Gorshkov's interview, in which he assesses the current situation in Russia: "In terms of the formation of public opinion, the main aspect is not only that Russia " got off its knees "[V.V. Putin's quotation-author emphasis], but is also firmly on her feet and ready to move forward ... I see all of this as a good sign. It is a matter of principle for the rulers not to miss this historic opportunity and to use the support of the people to solve the problems which are in the country. On the other hand, it is a matter of respect and civic responsibility for our sociologists to investigate these processes and warn the government of possible dangers."[14]

Conclusion / possible solution

The following question naturally arises, is it possible for social sciences to study Russia objectively under authoritarian rule? The development of social sciences is directly linked to the political structure and structure of society. An authoritarian political regime hinders the development of the social sciences, and in particular, sociology, if they have a counter ideology to the regime's existence and interests. In such a situation, independent research is impossible and might even be life-threatening. The actual problem here is like the relationship between authoritarian government and independent science, and as we have seen above, this is not just about the Soviet period. In our view, the solution lies in alternative and remote research methods. For example, in the case of Russia the following methods can be used:

► Covert Surveillance Involved - The positive sides are obvious. It is possible to research a way that the researcher does not reveal his / her identity and gradually gains the trust of the local population and interest groups. Also, it allows minimizing possible conflicts with local authorities. However, some problems remain - 1. Alienation of the local population and chronic distrust 2. It is known that any involved surveillance is a long-term and therefore expensive project, 3. It is also known that covert surveillance is always accompanied by the risk of disclosure, which can be dangerous for the researcher. , especially in authoritarian countries, and 4. If the research is conducted by an incoming researcher, the problem of cultural differences always remains.

► Cabinet Survey - This method, like any remote method, solves the problem of possible on-site conflicts, pressures, and threats. Besides, the researcher is physically protected. Unlike embedded observations, this method is relatively inexpensive and requires less human resources. Deficiencies, inaccessibility, and unreliability of starting materials remain a problem, although this problem can be solved or minimized by using alternatives, including foreign materials.

► In-depth content analysis of existing texts - this method replicates the advantages of the cabinet research method. Additionally, it provides some objectivity as it is possible to combine governmental and opposition sources and texts, including texts created abroad, in a relatively safe environment. The strength of this method is the possible use and analysis of relatively free social media texts.

► Secondary statistical analysis - this method also replicates the advantages of remote methods and allows the generalization of statistical and quantitative data. Further statistical forecasting and modeling are also possible. The problem is the unreliability of on-site statistics. However, this problem can be solved or minimized [as in the case of content analysis] by using alternatives, including foreign materials.

► Expert examination - this method also allows remote work. For local experts, there is a problem of self-censorship that we discussed above. However, modern technologies allow us to verify with foreign counterparts the data they provide and enrich it.

As we can see, all the methods listed above have their pros and cons. It is possible to reduce the negative side of some, but not of others. With all this in mind, we can say that the best solution is to combine the listed methods. This will allow us to a. Analyze different and alternative sources, b. Check and compare data, c. Enrich qualitative data quantitatively and vice versa, which is also important. This will allow us to work in a safe and secure environment. The exception is involved observation, although it is possible to replace it with the analysis of existing studies and their products, media product, and text analysis. When using these methods, it is important to carefully select and verify sources. We must consider the following:

  • To what extent does the given source answer the research problem?

  • How qualified is the source author?

  • How credible is the study itself (methodology, time relevance, impartiality)?

  • Are there other sources on this issue?

  • In addition to our article, there are some useful links and sources.

Additional: Useful links


[1] Frankfort - Nachimias, C. and Nachimias, D. (2004) Research Methods in the Social Sciences. London: Arnold, p. 30


[3] Ibd

[4] Cohen M. R. and Nagel, E. (1934) An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method. London: G. Routledge & Sons, pp. 395-396

[5] Eric J. Arnould, E. J. (1998) “Ethical Concerns in Participant Observation/Ethnography.” Advances in Consumer Research 25: pp. 72-74

[6] ICC/ESOMAR International Code of Marketing and Social Research Practice. (Accessed 27 January 2021)

[7]ЗБОРОВСКИЙ, Г.Е. (2014) История социологии: классический этап. Екатеринбург. ISBN 978-5-93190-335-4

[8] Российская Газета. (2012) Предел погрешности. Академик РАН Михаил Горшков –о том, чему хочет служить и кому не хочет прислуживать социология. (Accessed 27 January 2021)

[9] Soviet and Post-Soviet Sociology. (Accessed 27 January 2021)

[10] Российская Газета. (2012) Предел погрешности. Академик РАН Михаил Горшков –о том, чему хочет служить и кому не хочет прислуживать социология. (Accessed 27 January 2021)

[11] Podvoiskii, D. G. (2014) "Sociology in Today's Russia. “Random Thoughts". Sociological Research. 48 (6): 60–72. doi:10.2753/SOR1061-0154480605

[12] Vakhshtayn, V. (2012). "The Lamentable State of Post-Soviet Sociology". Global Dialogue. 2 (3)

[13] (2020) What Putin read Vital Policymaking in Russia relies on sociological research conducted by the Secret Service. Here’s how it works. (Accessed 26 January 2021)

[14] Российская Газета. (2012) Предел погрешности. Академик РАН Михаил Горшков –о том, чему хочет служить и кому не хочет прислуживать социология. (Accessed 27 January 2021)

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