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Educational Inequality: Studying Country-Specific Solutions to a Global Problem

Educational Inequality: Studying Country-Specific Solutions to a Global Problem

Photo courtesy of Adam Gemar

Educational inequality is a universal problem, but it manifests itself in different countries in different ways. Comparing the issue across different contexts is always interesting—even more so if the person doing the comparing has a diverse set of examples to draw upon. Adam Gemar earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the US before earning his Doctoral degree at Durham University (UK). Now he is a Postdoctoral Fellow at HSE University’s Institute of Education, where he is studying educational inequality in Russia with the Centre for Cultural Sociology. In his interview, he spoke about his research, life in Moscow, and Russian winters.

Adjusting to Life in Moscow

Adam Gemar (USA) is no stranger to world travel. While earning his PhD in the UK, he traveled to Russia as well as almost every Eastern European capital. Then, after graduation, he worked in Beijing for a year. Thanks to his travels, ‘I was familiar enough with this part of the world and I liked it, so that is how I came here,’ he says.

After life in Beijing, adapting to life in Moscow has been easy. ‘I am a bad person to ask about culture shock because I moved around so much,’ he explains. ‘I am pretty adaptable. I would actually say that when I lived in Beijing for a year there, I had bigger culture shock. There I wasn’t being able to walk anywhere without everyone knowing I’m foreign. At least here I do not stick out quite as much. But on the flip side of that, though, it is hard.’

The language still presents occasional barriers, but he can get around. ‘When I first got here, I learned the Cyrillic alphabet, how to read, and basic pronunciation. That really carried me along. Speaking is quite slow, but the reading and general understanding (if I watch hockey game or something, I pick up words here and there) is OK. Speaking-wise I pick up things very slowly from interactions. But getting around and navigating some normal everyday interactions I am OK.’

In other aspects, Moscow feels closer to the rural town where he grew up in the US than the UK ever did. The reason? Real winters.

The winter culture here, which doesn’t exist in UK, in a way makes it feel more like home here. I like all of the winter activities — hockey, sledding, ice skating. And snowstorm doesn’t shoot down the whole country

Studying Sociology of Culture in Russia

Sociology of culture is a fairly new field in Russia. When asked about how he explains what he studies to people who have never heard of the field, Adam replies, ‘I say that I study what people do when they are not at work. At least, that is one aspect of what I study. I also look at what things affect what people do when they are not at work. Social class, which is the big one, or any other area in life. What are the differences that shape what people do in their free time? Another one is how people understand, make sense of, and create meaning to do anything in life. Whether that is choosing a job or choosing a school, I’m interested in how they understand that choice.’

Adam’s earliest research focused on sports as an element of culture and social class. He has also studied religion in the UK and Canada. His current research is more specifically focused on education and occupations.

I am interested in how people think about and negotiate different activities in their free time. Do educated people choose different activities and why? And what are the judgements they are making about different activities?

‘Additionally, how do people’s cultural understandings inform why they choose different educational options, and how does the meaning creation, culture, and educational system form what they choose for an occupation?’

Educational Inequality in Russia

Adam’s primary current project examines educational inequality in Russia. ‘My research focuses on structural and cultural dynamics of inequality in educational and occupation progression, especially school to university and university to work transitions. For this research I use the Trajectories in Educational and Careers (TrEC) data set of our Centre for Cultural Sociology,’ he says.

Looking at education in the context of Russia is particularly exciting, he notes. ‘I think all societies are so interesting, and what makes them interesting is that they are different. It is interesting to compare. And in order to do that properly you have to understand and study multiple societies. I am still learning about Russian society. My intuition of research is still from an Anglo-Saxon society mindset. Most of my work is on UK and Canada.

 I also think Russian history, especially over the last 100 years, actually makes Russian society more interesting than just societies that were congruent over a couple decades. I think from many perspectives Russia is unique and very interesting comparatively, but I also find most societies interesting in their own respects

Russian and American Education: Same Problems, Different Solutions

One observation Adam has made so far is that Russian educational inequality more closely resembles that in the US than in Europe. ‘I think Russia is a lot closer to the US in terms of educational inequality than UK,’ he says. ‘The UK is small, everything is centralized, and there is only a certain number of universities. Russia, like the US, has a very wide and varied geography. There is a wide and varied school administration which can affect quality, and there are tons of different universities at all different levels with different specifications. It is a very wide and stratified educational system at every level, and that is very similar to US, which has a large number of different universities and different types of schools, and they all administrated in different ways.

'The UK has very centrally administrated universities and all the schooling below universities is also very centralized — though, of course, their private school system is very unique and stratifying in a way that is even more profound that what happens in Russia or the US. When you have such a varied educational environment, the benefits of a one specific type of school over another maybe aren’t as profound as they can be in the UK.’

However, while the US and Russian systems have significant commonalities, they are also quite different. ‘While there are big urban-rural divides in the US, the regional disparities in Russia follow much more of a European paradigm, whereby the capital city holds all of the different elements of economic, political, and cultural power at the expense of the rest of the country,’ Adam explains. ‘While that is the European paradigm, it is obviously simply exacerbated by Russia’s massive size. The size of the US means that there are likewise some regional disparities, but it is also true that economic, political, and cultural power in the US is a bit more evenly spread out.’

While the degrees of stratification between Russian and American society are similar, Adam says, the reasons for them are different.

For instance, it is a trend now in the US to eliminate standardized tests for higher education in an attempt to increase equity of access, whereas in Russia, you introduced a standardized test, the Unified State Exam, for the same purpose. That is because of the different contours of inequalities in each context

As for any one-size-fits-all solutions, Adam notes, ‘There is a long list of things that institutions and governments could employ, too many to really go into detail about. Some of them work in all contexts, and could be imported from the experience of other countries, while some would be context specific to address specifically Russian issues of mobility.’

Free Time

So how does a scholar of sociology of culture — the study of the sociological implications of how people spend their free time —  spend his free time? ‘I enjoy hockey,’ Adam says. ‘I have been to quite a few Spartak Moscow games. They are my team, because I have been to all of the Moscow hockey teams, and their atmosphere is the best. It’s a lot of fun.’

Assistance provided in preparing this interview by Anna Polyanskaya is gratefully acknowledged.