As most journalists have left Russia, those few individuals doing street interviews about the war now gain greater visibility. Just like polling, regardless of the intentions of those doing vox pops they suffer from the same fatal flaws as polling does. Sergei Chernyshov’s first-hand account
about life in ‘provincial’ Russia won fulsome praise from many experts for its attempt to shine a light on the effects of the war far away from the cosseted metropolises. He was writing about his family and the place where he came from.
It is not a vox pop, to be sure but it is an example of the ‘Facebookization’ of liberal Russian commentary. In it he drew attention to the money brought back to marginal spaces by Wagner fighters and local people’s pride in such veterans. Chernyshov is a welcome reminder of the limited impact of sanctions on ordinary people in far-flung places. But in my reading
it suffers from many of the same prejudices, flaws, and misunderstandings that polling and vox pops reproduce.
While sympathetic to structural causes of poverty which make a few desperate people join the war effort, Chernyshov is guilty of a common sin when the privileged take the time to enquire into the lifeworlds of society’s least fortunate. He argues that if people are brutalized and poor they give in to the basest of instincts and are fatalistic. Except there’s no real evidence for this generalization, which was in any case subject to strong critique even fifty years ago by sociologists. The anecdotalization of observations about Russian society is of course inevitable given the circumstances, but the vulgarization of knowledge should be resisted by serious observers and social scientists. And indeed, anyone interested in more than simplistic answers to difficult questions.
This isn’t a call to police the borders of inquiry, quite the opposite. I want to draw attention to how much knowledge is produced about Russia from highly situated, we can even say, biased perspectives. This was true before the war and will be true afterwards.What can we do?
Admit that interactions, from polling, through to focus groups and vox pops are highly artificial situations. They are at best refracted forms of knowledge creation. The light produced is bent in the process and can change in intensity and colour depending on the lens the observer is using. Now I’m not saying my own method – long term immersion and ethnographic triangulation – is free of bias. I would freely admit that it took me time to come to terms with those of my informants who clearly do delight in the destruction of Ukraine, however tiny a share they represent. For a better example of careful eye-witness reportage, here is a report
from Mother Jones
From around the 1920s, field researchers distinguished themselves from social scientists who sought to ape the natural sciences through applying the principles of positivism. They emphasised that the researcher must first experience what their research subjects experienced before
being able to take a more ‘objective’ or ‘detached’ view. This emphasises retaining the context of the social phenomenon under study.
As a result, ethnographers tend to relinquish claims to repeatability [‘reliability’]. But they try to overcome this by repeatedly revisiting the field. They go to other field sites to compare results there, and they ‘triangulate’ – cross-checking accounts in the same place, with other external observers, and by observing what people actually do, alongside their speech.