Social and Behavioral Research in Russia Research Paper

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The state of social science is an indicator of the way a nation views, comprehends, and reflects itself. The development of Russian social thought has been continuously deformed by the strict political censorship of different regimes that were able to sever its natural links with the evolving civil society institutions and to enforce protracted periods of academic stalemate. Though it is never possible to suffocate human creativity, originality, and ingenuity, it was possible to trim social science into an awkward but handy configuration by molding its infrastructure and by cutting the requisite feedback communication. The cost of this authoritarian control is a distorted decision-making structure, an extensive type of economic modernization in a largely unstructured, neotraditionalist society doomed to resolve most of its conflicts through discredited, inefficient, yet inevitable state intervention. As the former KGB chief Juri Andropov admitted when he became head of the state: ‘We do not know the society we live in.’

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Incidentally, in the same year (1983), only 99 empirical social surveys were completed in a country with a population of 283 million. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the infrastructure of social and behavioral science became spatially dissected along the formerly unimportant state and regional borders. This discontinuity affected the life of the academic community, its research cooperation, the mainstream methodology, and the general perception of reality. More significant was the temporal shift of social gears. The ‘frozen’ nation with a stagnant social structure suddenly melted down and found itself in a state of unpredictable flux. After a decade of social transformation and market transition, Russian social science faces a challenge of hitherto unstudied empirical disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields, as well as an opportunity for detached comprehension of the overlooked retrospective social realities. Hence comes an objective integrative role for the social science institutions and structures, which they seem now more fit to play, but whether or not that role will be accepted by the power, the market, and society still remains to be seen.

1. The Rise And Fall Of Social Science Instrumentalization

Many observers note structural, institutional, and research similarities in Western and Eastern European phases of development. However striking they may seem in the past decades, similar trends in the social sciences had been caused by quite different reasons. Their roots go deep into the past. Authoritarian attempts to instrumentalize relations with social thought had started in the age of Enlightenment when, trying to improve her international reputation, Catherine the Great took credit for the first publication of the complete works of Voltaire and awarded a fellowship to Diderot. Her subordinates followed suit by masquerading dire reality behind the faked facades of Potyomkine ‘villages’ and claiming that every Russian peasant household was getting a hen in their weekly ration. Utopian social experiments in ‘forming a new man’ also started at that time. But for authoritarian power, encapsulated in a steel frame of ossified bureaucracy, censorship and loyalty were the prime tools of public control and the works of Auguste Comte remained banned until 1889 for ideological reasons. Because it was less strictly controlled, fiction thus gained prominence and acquired a formative role as a reflexive tool of the society. Literature, including F. Dostoyevsky’s social and L. Tolstoy’s moral writing, became a major source of social thought. This explains an exaggerated and lasting public enchantment with the scientifically versed dogmatic prescriptions that were vested with magic power to reshape life along doctrinal lines.

This was precisely what Bolshevik leaders wanted from the social sciences and by the mid-1920s, when revolutionary aspirations petered away, they had gradually usurped this tool, banning the positivist paradigm as well as most Marxist thinking and promoting one of the Marxian strands of thought to the position of the ‘only true and all encompassing’ social teaching. Russian educational, institutional, and research infrastructures had been trimmed correspondingly as the new doctrine passed itself off as the ultimate solution that could countenance no tolerance of other schools of thought either inside or outside the country. Even the term ‘social sciences’ fell under suspicion and was replaced by ‘societal sciences.’

Sociologists Pitirim Sorokin and Nikolai Berdyaev, together with several hundred other social scientists and thinkers of international renown were expelled from the country. In 1917 St. Petersburg University was closed. After that, no access to the empirical and theoretical work of preceding decades was possible, though university professors continued to share their knowledge with the new generation of students and thus were able to maintain traditionally high standards of education. This dramatic break with the international and indigenous research traditions in the social sciences greatly narrowed their evolving infrastructure. It was soon to be replaced by a new one that was held to be ‘socialist in essence and national in form,’ and that, in due course, was able to integrate and unify social knowledge (and dogmas) articulation, research, and dissemination across 15 nation states and subsequently in most of Eastern Europe.

For five decades, humanities and the social sciences were divided into the good (Soviet) and bad (bourgeois) traditions. Many disciplines (including sociology, psychoanalysis, genetics, and later cybernetics) were ostracized and banned for three decades until the thaw of the mid-1950s. The unveiled humanitarian story of Russian spiritual resistance bears the names of hundreds of reputed scholars who risked their lives and perished in the Gulag because they dared to think and write in ways that were no longer allowed.

The prohibited, neglected, and suppressed works on a broad range of social science disciplines were rediscovered and made public only in the Gorbachev era. The dramatic change of focus came from the very top and (contrary to the reformist choice made by the Chinese Communist leadership) was well intended rather than well calculated. It had been based on a rather naive assumption that the easing of stringent controls would by itself recuperate the USSR and get it into a common European home. Official Soviet social science had no experience to draw on to predict the effects of transformation on such a grand scale. The impact of the staggering institutional deficiency on the transition had not been anticipated. Though the breaks in tradition could not be recuperated by retrospective publication and bold analogies, the impact of these powerful flashbacks on the society was enormous. Blank pages of national history rediscovered by glasnost actually took the entrenched communist moral stands together with the ideologically ossified social institutions off ground and paved a way to the final collapse of socialism.

The instrumental rationale and the general limitations of the social sciences through more than half of the twentieth century were shaped by the supra-nationstate building imperatives and by combat lessons of the two world wars. The Russian Revolution and a devastating civil war had bred a belief in the universal efficiency of the command decision-making system. Totalitarian over-centralization became the most potent tool of governance. The flamboyant behavioral research and social engineering of the early revolutionary years, which ranged from mass blood transfusion to Freudian reactology, were discarded when it became apparent that mere state violence could effectively drain rural resources for accelerated industrialization and militarization. Regular political surveys and extensive social monitoring became the prerogative of the secret police, the territorial party committees, and the state statistical institutions. Most of the social and statistical information had been strictly classified, including the notorious erasure of the complete 1937 All-Union census data. After the reinstitutionalization of sociology in the 1960s and of political science in the 1970s, all politically sensitive academic research was also classified.

In the environment of strict party and KGB institutional control, the only viable dimension of the social sciences infrastructure became predominantly internal. The institutional and administrative traditions of academic-scientific culture depended on such matters as maintaining high academic standards of excellence and disciplinary innovation, principled integrity, nonparticipation in politics. At various times this implied a need for mimicry and a lot of dual thinking, but even with all the lip service to the obligatory official doctrinal tenets, the key elements for professional standards in the social sciences largely remained intact. This may be illustrated by the Academy of Sciences’ blunt refusal to remove its academic title from the exiled academician A. Sakharov in spite of the Politburo’s stringent demand. In a similar way it declined proposals to establish an academic institute of scientific communism though this dubious social discipline (with corresponding university chairs throughout the country) had been a standard element in higher education since 1963. These distinctions explain a considerable degree of diversity and dissent in social science’s orientations under the Communist regime even within a constrained research configuration.

The multi-tiered infrastructure of the social (societal) sciences constructed in the Soviet Union had been conceived as the most monumental in institutional, spatial, and mass ideological coverage. Its configuration in scope and priorities resembled an inverted pyramid resting on a narrow base of academic research. Academic units had no educational obligations and were more important as institutes dominating in applied and fundamental research. They were relatively independent and had strong institutional linkages with their branches in Siberia, the Urals, and the Far East, as well as with the 15 national academies of science. Two other academies (medicine and pedagogy) oriented toward practical needs had several applied research institutes in public health, demography, and secondary education.

The higher education system, including the university social sciences, had greater regional coverage and was oriented to ideological, knowledge base, and secondary analysis areas of social study conducted mostly in universally spread professorial chairs of Marxism–Leninism or scientific communism and atheism. Several universities had faculties, departments, or laboratories that were science-driven and provided some opportunities for problem-solving work to the graduate and postgraduate students. But both academic and university studies aspiring for an academic qualification, apart from the public defense in corresponding disciplinary councils, had to pass through the rigid screening procedure of the All-Union Attestation Committee.

Over that layer was a plethora of specialized organizational applied research scientific entities that provided special professional services. Set up by various ministries or the state planning committee, they covered themes ranging from cinematography and art criticism to urban planning and healthy food production and to social aspects of military service and combat operations. They would also be loosely related to the extra-university government-directed network of territorial social data monitoring institutions with statistical-quantitative orientation. Overlapping and unnecessary duplication was a specific feature of the party-state system.

Relevant social data collected in every territorial unit would also get to the parallel network of the party committees that could overrule governmental plans and, through obkoms, reported directly to the Central Party Committee. The party network designed to boost growth, very soon turned into an institutionalized social impediment to change and development. The greater the discrepancy between normative prescriptions and real life situations, the greater was the need for social indoctrination that, in principle, had to cover the entire adult population of the country. This task was vested in vocational ‘institutes’ of Marxism– Leninism and in the regular political information gatherings held at all enterprises that were controlled by party committees. A more varied repertoire of social subjects was presented by the lecturers of the All-Union ‘Knowledge’ society that had its branches in every town.

The well-intended ad hoc communist social discretion was practiced as a main form of institutionalized ‘scientific’ social practice till the early 1960s. By that time, over 100 million peasants had moved out of decaying rural areas and, when extensive exploitation of mass enthusiasm in plowing the virgin lands failed to yield the expected results, the need for a reform finally became apparent to some key decision makers. Externally, the interventionist support of national-liberation movements, the Cuban missile crisis, and growing displeasures in Eastern Europe also spelled out the need for something institutionally more reliable than pure rhetoric and virgin historical materialism. Its proponents in the academy were greatly impressed by the scope and range of coverage of foreign studies at the Amsterdam Sociological Congress (August 1956) and an interdisciplinary social study of technical progress had been started on the UNESCO initiative. The Soviet Sociological Association was established in June 1958—a decision driven more by a desire to put on a better international face rather than by internal necessity. The positive element here was not only an exposure to the international social research agenda but legalization of contacts with foreign, at that time particularly Polish, scholars.

Yet it took the social sciences another decade before there was an institutional breakthrough. The Institute for Concrete Social Research (ICSR RAS) was finally set within the Academy of Sciences in 1968. It launched three major research projects on social structure and social planning, on the management of social processes, and on the history of sociology. Within the first year of its work, 20 social surveys had been made for the Central Committee of the SPSU. But with the military incursion in Czechoslovakia political winds again went in the wrong direction. Economic reforms were curbed and social changes came to a stalemate. The flood of foreign (in Russian translation) and local social science publications turned into a tiny trickle. Ideological blinders were imposed on all social publications including the only academic journal, Sociological Research set up in 1974. Institutional constraints once again had turned social studies into the stale waters. In 1972 and in 1976 the staff of the ICSR RAS had been ostracized and the new period of stateimposed stagnation lasted at least until 1988. Reading between the lines had been the favourite pastime of the academic community and innovative research would appear only on the periphery of the social sciences’ institutional mainstream.

2. New Perspectives

The collapse of socialism liberated the party-state nomenclatura from any social responsibility and during the Yeltsin era much of the democratic reform effort was compromised. In contrast to the ‘old deal’ pressures, the institutional structure of the social sciences remains largely unattended, and though its financing still remains below subsistence level, it has gained momentum for development and an impetus for institutional change. 1991 was pivotal in this respect. The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) reclaimed its status lost in the 1930s. The Institute of Sociology ( split up and the Institute for Social and Political Studies (www. was formed in Moscow, while the Sociological Institute RAS remains in St. Petersburg. All these institutes together with the other academic research units and related professional associations are subordinated to the RAS branch on philosophy, sociology, psychology, and law. The Institute for Scientific Information in Social Sciences, as well as fundamental science libraries, currently enjoys a special status within the academy.

Other branches in the social sciences include history (institutes of oriental studies, archaeology, culturology, general and Russian history, ethnology and anthropology, history of material culture, military history); economics (institutes of economy, national economic forecasting, market problems, economic problems of the transition, socioeconomic problems of employment, and the Central Economic Statistical Institute); world economy and international relations (institutes of peace, of USA and Canada, of Africa, of Europe, of Latin America, of comparative politology and workers movement, and of world economy and international relations). The next three branches include the literature and language branch (institutes of world literature, Russian literature, Russian language, linguistics, language research, history of arts, problems of architecture, and urban construction); oceanology, atmosphere physics, and geography (institutes of geography, global climate and ecology, water resources, lake research, etc.); and the physiology branch (institutes of man, of human brain, physiology, evolutional physiology and biochemistry, higher nervous activity and neurophysiology, of medical and biological studies, etc.) This incomplete list is intended just to outline the continuity of the maintained range of publicly financed academic research activities throughout the painful transition period.

With the democratic changes, foreign donor foundations have moved in and academic grants were offered to various projects in the national social sciences. Focused on pivotal issues, these grants provided an alternative infrastructure that helped to invigorate research and exchange programs, to write the new textbooks, and to disseminate these publications in the provinces. George Soros was the first and the most effective in these promotional and support activities, starting with his ‘cultural initiative,’ later transformed into the ‘open society institute’ and with the Research Support Scheme that promotes cross-cultural academic cooperation. His efforts were followed by a number of Western private philanthropic institutions like Carnegie, MacArthur, and the Ford foundations. Two newly established indigenous funds RFFI and RGNF (the Russian Fund for Fundamental Research and the Russian State Scientific Fund) are also active in this market. Thus, a competitive wedge has been established in social science activities.

A considerable proportion of support funding helped to keep afloat all the Russian academic journals including Sociological Studies (Sotsiologicheskiie is-sledo anija) (, Sociological Journal (, Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology (, and the Social Sciences Journal. This continuity seems important as it helps to maintain high academic standards. More significant, however, is the free market competition among the emerging private publishers. In the 1990s the stock of the available translated literature and publications in the social sciences has grown considerably, giving ample place for the requisite variety of innovation, yet the public libraries frequently can afford neither expensive new books nor subscriptions to the foreign academic periodicals as the traditional state policy of obligatory purchases and hard currency allocations to the libraries has been stopped. An unexpected side effect of the democratic and market changes has been another structural constraint and challenge to the functional foundations of the social sciences: their traditional sphere has been invaded by a range of recently founded self-appointed ‘academies’ that find their rationale mostly in trading their own academic titles to those who crave this special sort of prestige. At the same time, various surrogate subcultures have grown up on the fringes of the academic sphere, offering the public their para-science services. Strategic rethinking of the present truce with various new forms of mass occultism may be one of the institutional tasks for the social sciences in the twenty-first century.

Turning financial constraints into a window of opportunities, a great number of freelance and private research structures came into the emerging market for the social sciences. They now range from the abovementioned panacea institutions to the recently founded social monitoring units (also including the ‘black PR’ foundations for efficient policy) in the President’s administration, to private analytical firms (institutes), and subcontracted focus groups. Some of the new nonacademic structures have NGO status but their activities—that need thoroughly checked documentation—may cover important segments of social life, particularly when they systematically monitor new developments and conduct empiric surveys. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers and the ecological ‘Kedr’ movement are good examples of such organizations. On the contrary, such well-established organizations as trade unions that had infinitely more advantageous institutional resources have failed to maintain their social niche in this time of transition.

Private independent institutions that consistently operate within the domain of academic science started to emerge in the end of 1980s. The oldest of them, the public opinion polling center Vtsiom (http://www. has accumulated in the last decade of the twentieth century a database with over 2,000 polls and, together with the other active monitoring institutions like the Fund for Public Opinion FOM ( and Romir, has gained considerable weight in sociopolitical surveying. Due to decades of political void in Russia, the role of the polling institutes and the media at the beginning of the twenty-first century is more formative than informative. In these circumstances, sociologists are worried that public-opinion polling has been turned into a surrogate instrument for political manipulation. It appears that with the help of social technologies relayed through media channels even political nonentities, like the Edinstvo/Medved party, can win seats at elections after less than six months of campaigning—as evidenced by the last elections for the Duma and the presidency (in 1999 and 2000 respectively). In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the rapidly shifting nexus between the vested interests and social science application will become the most rapidly evolving institutional configuration.

Recent developments in higher education have introduced paid education in both private and state institutions. Major changes in the curriculum have reoriented the students to multiple courses in marketrelated disciplines, yet behavioral and social studies are also gaining prominence. Sociology has replaced Marxism as an obligatory course in university education, with more than 250 new departments established throughout the country. The state standard for sociology currently lists 14 obligatory themes in the history of sociology, 12 in sociology, and 13 themes in the methods of research. Apart from structural educational changes, empirical social studies have become a regular activity in university science, for instance in the Center for Sociological Research MSU ( or in the work of the Sociological Research Center of the Federal Education Ministry ( Many universities are becoming active in their student research and degree exchange programs viewed as a precondition for futher professional training. But, on the whole, the budgetary and structural limitations in the higher education reform leave little place for radical changes in the traditional forms of university research. Such instruments as Internet resources are rapidly forming the most promising base for strengthening student research and university science. The social science infrastructure of today is still not systematically presented on the Internet, but since about 1997 major efforts have been made to form the aggregate professional platforms and networks that would integrate individual and institutional websites.

This may be illustrated by the Psychological Net of Runet (http: // htm); the Organizational Management Consultants Net (; History and computer server (; by the recently established (1999) Russian Sociological Net (RSN) ( which has a database of about 100 research institutions and projects (; by a directory of Russian sociological sites ( that offers an online periodical COSNET.RU (; and by the Russian archive of working documents on economics and sociology (

With the massive growth of computerized information gathering and processing one can anticipate the increasing diversification of services rendered through the traditional social sciences’ infrastructure, by the NGOs, and by the private freelance commercial agencies. Digital forms of cultural representation are offering new vistas that will both preserve and transcend local cultures. It now seems quite apparent that the transnational social change secures the social sciences a place of prominence in this rapidly evolving cross-cultural discourse.


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  2. Osipov G (ed.) 1995 Entsilopedicheskii sotsiologicheskii slovar [Encyclopedic Dictionary of Sociology]. Moscow
  3. State standard on Curriculum for Sociology Gostandart po kursu Cotsiologija Sotsiologicheskije isslredivania 1993. No. 7, pp. 151–4
  4. Sociology from A to Z (http: asch sociology )
  5. Tchernih A I 1998 Stan lenije Rossii Sovetskoi: 20 godi d zerkale sotsiologii. Moscow
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