‘We Want to Become a Centre for Generating Ideas and Sharing Experience’
On September 28, the HSE Centre for Cultural Sociology held the first session of the Moscow Culture Workshop 2021–2022 – a series of meetings where participants have an opportunity to discuss research papers prepared by prominent scholars. Jeffrey C. Alexander, Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology at Yale University, delivered the first lecture, entitled ‘Nature as Iconic Object: Its Performative Creation’. Dmitry Kurakin, Director of the Centre for Cultural Sociology, spoke to the HSE News Service about the purpose and setup of the workshop.
Dmitry Kurakin, Director of the Centre for Cultural Sociology and Chair of the workshop
To explain the origin of this project we have to take a few steps back first. The biggest issue in the Russian social sciences, the main hindrance to their development, is their partial isolation from global research and up-to-date discourse.
Science is communicative in nature—the social and humanitarian sciences especially so. It is the scientific community that determines which problems and questions take priority, and which approaches and methods to solve them are developed in a collective way through continuous dialogue.
As such, academic work—even when done in the silence of a library—is primarily a conversation, and a long-lasting one
In Europe and the US, people move around different universities even while they’re still students. They go from one place to another, take part in conferences and seminars, and, most of all, socialize—discuss ideas and events and just make friends. All of this takes place in a university setting, and that makes a good university a part of the interconnected global space for developing scientific ideas (this is a foundational experience not only for future researchers—globally minded scientific work is becoming a basic pattern for all kinds of creative activities).
That is why one of the most significant achievements of any modern university is the development of a campus culture—the unique atmosphere of spirit and a lively thirst for knowledge, freedom of scientific inquiry and mutual openness
Russia’s social sciences partial isolation is a problem that is well-recognized by many researchers and scientific administrators. However, there are various solutions to the problem. For example, promoting academic mobility and publishing in international journals are both very efficient, but they are just parts of the solution to a very complex issue. Hiring distinguished international scientists to train Russian protégés has been a reliable approach since the time of Peter the Great.
That said, some of research groups already have enough experience and academic weight—they are part of the conversation. We believe that this is the case for us at the Centre of Cultural Sociology, which is why at some point we began to think what to do next.
We looked at best practices we’ve been involved in and tried to design something similar, making improvements where possible
Our main point of reference was the Yale University Workshop in Cultural Sociology. It is a group of researchers, half of whom are graduate students, another half are professors—including visiting scholars—who discuss draft articles in detail. The group has a consistent makeup, which means that the discussions become deeper and more sophisticated from meeting to meeting. This creates a level of discussion that cannot typically be achieved at one-off events such as conferences and seminars.
What’s more, the workshop gives doctoral students the opportunity to quickly and effectively learn the ins and outs of working in their field
For a long time, the Meisterklasse at Konstanz University in Germany used to be a place where young (and not-so-young) cultural sociologists from various countries would meet, socialize and extensively talk to distinguished researchers (including, at various points over the years, Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, John Searle, Ralf Dahrendorf, Hayden White, Aleida Assmann, Randall Collins and many others). We decided that we’d built up enough academic clout to make our own contribution to this international dialogue.
We want to become another centre for generating ideas and sharing experience, and to bring this experience to Russia so that our researchers and students of all levels can take a look on the work of our cultural sociological international team in the making. To this end, we created a YouTube channel for the centre to broadcast all this work
A Space for Slow Reading and Boosting Ideas
This kind of open group work has two main goals. The first is to contribute to the international cultural sociological agenda and to strengthen lines of communication between partner centres and researchers. In our age of high speeds and excess information, researchers usually read each other’s works in a hurry simply because of the enormous quantity of required reading.
By contrast, a workshop is a space for slow reading and thoughtful discussion, an island of focused work in the maelstrom of modern academic life
The second goal of this work is no less important: creating a pattern that our colleagues (including students) can access, analyze, and effectively utilize. Articles and books written without co-authors are common in the social and humanitarian sciences, which means that the process for writing such texts is largely unseen—it isn’t clear where one can learn how to do it. It isn’t taught widely in universities, and scathing reviews from journals (an inescapable part of the life of any acting researcher) are not always the best helpers.
The workshop focuses on this ‘hidden’ side of things: we look into the drafts of articles, uncover issues and find ways to solve them, pick out winning strategies and try to make sure that the process is genuinely helpful to authors and other participants
There is, perhaps, another ‘hidden’ goal. Our centre is actively developing, and there are going to be job openings. We hope that the workshop will attract the attention of the strongest candidates and give them a reason to take an interest in us. We hope that the workshop will allow candidates to assess not only our publications, but also our theoretical inclinations, actual international partnerships, intellectual style, internal culture and way of working. The same goes for students, who can write works under our supervision or take internships with us.
In short, we see our workshop as a kind of ‘nuclear reactor’ for powering international research and developing cultural sociology at HSE University and in Russia as a whole.
It will also develop our centre, both in terms of research and teaching. I hope the workshop will continue to develop and lead to new forms of academic life: joint research, books, summer schools, and joint programmes with other universities.
International Partners: The Dream Team
Over many years, a network of partnered research centres has formed across the US, the UK, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Italy, Norway, Austria, Germany, China, Israel, Canada and other countries. This network originally formed around the Yale Center for Cultural Sociology, and it serves as the core foundation of the workshop. That said, we aren’t limiting ourselves to that group, and we have invited several other talented researchers to join us. We have worked with some of them before, and aimed to establish contact with others for a long time so that the workshop became a good occasion for that. Thanks to the workshop, we are expanding our existing partner network.
Two Yale professors have played a key role in creating the first season: Jeffrey Alexander and Philip Smith
Jeffrey Alexander is a truly distinguished scholar, a contemporary classic. Even his earlier works became truly famous, such as his four-volume Theoretical Logic in Sociology, which is well known in Russia. He spent last few decades establishing the ambitious theoretical project in cultural sociology, which has since come to be known as the ‘strong programme.’ Over the years, it has grown from an energetic but rather small intellectual endeavour into an integral part of mainstream contemporary cultural sociology.
Philip Smith is an incredibly prolific researcher—if you were to ask me to name my favourite articles or books on sociology, Phil’s works would be the first to come to my mind. Jeff and Phil helped to design the workshop, and their support and direct involvement have been vital. I am very thankful to them.
We have managed to put together a very talented group, a dream team.
For example, Jennifer Silva’s books on the working class in America are practically bestsellers, and Jason Mast’s research on the theory of social performance is a key contribution to the formation of that research field. Those are just two examples—this year’s participants include other, equally talented researchers.
To attract attention from a wider audience, we decided to supplement our work on texts with more traditional lectures. In addition to the lectures by the Senior Fellows of the workshop, Jeffrey Alexander and Philip Smith, we also have two distinguished invited lecturers. They are Gabe Ignatow and Lisa McCormick, both widely known and prolific cultural sociologists whose lectures will undoubtedly attract serious attention.
Jeffrey C. Alexander, Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology at Yale University
My history with HSE goes back to the beginnings of my collaboration with the brilliant young sociologist Dmitry Kurakin. It was because of our friendship that I gave a lecture at HSE several years ago during a visit to Moscow.
I enjoy the challenge of responding to questions from people I have never met and from perspectives I'm not familiar with. Such experiences have often helped me to think of new pathways forward in my work.
I presented a new cultural-sociological theory of materiality. I expected the reaction to be controversial—because there has been over the last few decades such a powerful anti-cultural materialistic reaction to the cultural turn.
I want to demonstrate that cultural sociology does not negate materiality but, rather, approaches it in a different manner. I believe material objects are at the center of the meanings of social life, and that they allow access to collective meanings through the aesthetic, tactile experiences they engender.