Does social science as it is commonly understood and practiced work in post-socialist settings? That may sound like an absurd question, even a bit crude.
My guests today, Alla Korzh and Noah Sobe, see limits to the very social imaginaries underpinning social science.
They argue that the diversity of post-socialist transformations challenges the existing paradigms and frameworks of theory and method used in much social science today.
Together with Iveta Silova and Serhiy Kovalchuk, Alla and Noah co-edited a 17-chapter volume entitled “Reimagining Utopias: Theory and method for education research in post-socialist context.” The book explores from many perspectives the shifting social imaginaries of post-socialist transformations to understand what happens when the new and old utopias of post-socialism confront the new and old utopias of social science.
Alla Korzh is an assistant professor of international education at the School for International Training Graduate Institute, World Learning.
Noah Sobe is a professor of cultural and educational policy studies at Loyola University Chicago and past president of the Comparative and International Education Society.
Citation: Korzh, Alla and Sobe, Noah, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 122, Podcast audio, July 9, 2018. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/korzhsobe/
Will Brehm 2:34
Alla Korzh and Noah Sobe, welcome to FreshEd.
Alla Korzh 2:38
Thanks for having us, Will.
Noah Sobe 2:39
Thanks a lot, Will, it’s great to be here.
Will Brehm 2:41
So I want to just start by asking, what do you mean by the word utopia?
Noah Sobe 2:47
Part of choosing that title was to recognize that alongside the political and economic project that was state socialism, there was also a particular social vision. So ideas of equality were important, even dignity, democracy were important names, of course, sometimes honored in the breach. So basically like invoking utopias, we’re trying to elevate the importance of social imaginary. 20th century socialisms had their social imaginaries and part of post-socialism is the encounter of different utopian visions for what makes a good society, the good human being, the good future.
Will Brehm 3:29
And whose utopia is are these?
Noah Sobe 3:33
That’s a good question Will. Just in terms of thinking about utopias, I think in a lot of ways we were inspired by an eminent Polish historian and philosopher named Bronislaw Baczko, who worked for many years in Switzerland and France. And kind of like Benedict Anderson did with his work on national imaginaries, in books like Utopian Lights Baczko put the importance of social imaginaries on the research horizon. Utopia is no place, right? I mean, it has its origins and Thomas More’s 16th century political fiction, of course, that was inspired by Plato. But the notion of utopia quickly escaped more, and I would propose, kind of has become the paradigmatic form of the social imaginary across Europe and North America. Of course, more often than not we encounter utopias in ruins. But the idea is that examining utopias is one strategy for engaging with possible futures, right, possible futures of human societies.
Will Brehm 4:44
What are socialist utopias?
Noah Sobe 4:48
There multiple socialist utopias, and there are multiple socialisms. I think, you know, key pieces involve ideas about human equality, human dignity, even commitments to democracy as sort of difficult as it is sometimes to wrap our mind around that, given the totalitarian political forms that many socialisms took. But they were also, you know, a lot of, sort of, quite laudable social goals — gender equality, a fair economic system — that are quite different than the utopias of capitalism, for example. So I think what’s particularly fascinating about the post social spaces that those don’t vanish, you know, they continue, they get reconfigured, and they interact with other social imaginaries is that people bring in and that are brought in.
Will Brehm 5:52
Does the post socialist utopia or imaginaries not only connect to these socialist utopias views of the past, but does it also embrace some more of the capitalist utopias that you were also talking about? Do they sort of merged together?
Noah Sobe 6:09
Yeah, I mean, I think so we chose the title reimagining utopias because it describes sort of what’s happening on the ground. I mean, it describes what’s been happening in post socialist settings, other settings as well. But the post social settings are the one we focus on over the last 20 to 30 years. So we’re describing a process of sort of coexistence and conflict, a negotiation that’s taking place in the world, in classrooms, right, in offices and homes, basically, as people navigating, you know, navigate changing global situations. But there’s another, there’s a sort of second important dimension to reimagining utopias that we’re trying to develop or play within the book. And that relates to the notion of social science. I think it’s quite possible to consider a lot of European North American social sciences as a utopian project in and of itself, as riven with social imaginary. And so the scientists, the researcher of society, generally is committed to the idea that better, sort of firmer, fairer, more just knowledge of society is valuable for aiding a transition from what is now to what will be next. There’s a lot of utopian thinking and social visions that are embedded in processes of social science research. And certainly, we saw a lot of the research that was done on post socialist, particularly Eurasia and other parts of the world as well, you know, powerfully shaped by those imaginaries. And so one of the things we’re trying to do in the book is to rethink some of that. To actually reimagine the social imaginaries, the utopias that are embedded in social science, that are embedded in comparative education.
Will Brehm 8:13
Before we jump into that larger topic, I do want to ask a little bit about what sort of contexts were you looking at. Post socialism I would imagine covers many parts of the world, so what contexts were of interest to you?
Alla Korzh 8:29
This is a really good question, Will. By post socialism, we really mean any country that has experienced some form of socialism and has been on this pathway, or transition to neoliberal capitalism. So initially, when we started this project, we really looked at the former Soviet Union as that post socialist space. But then we realized that there are other countries that have had similar transformations within different contexts within different cultural contexts. And those are countries in Asia and Africa. And we’ve included those in our edited volume, we have contributors who have focused on Ethiopia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, so it’s pretty comprehensive.
Will Brehm 9:21
And would this also include countries that are still socialist, but also embracing lots of neoliberal capitalism? Like, they’re not post socialist, not outside of socialism.
Alla Korzh 9:33
Will Brehm 9:35
So, Vietnam and, say, China.
Alla Korzh 9:38
Exactly. Because every country, even on this post socialist trajectory, is still grappling with, you know, the vestiges of socialism as it sort of embracing in at its own pace, embracing these forms of neoliberal capitalism.
Noah Sobe 10:00
Will, I think you’re question is a great one, because it also raises sort of what we and others mean by the concept of “post.” So it’s really not a break and a departure from but a turn, you know, as Alla was saying, it’s about grappling with the legacies and your example of Vietnam is a perfect example of that. In theory, a socialist state, but one in which socialism has certainly taken a turn and taking on new forms and been combined with other things. So, I would say in that sense, it is, you know, accurately post socialist and like the other settings examined in the book.
Will Brehm 10:38
Noah, you said that earlier that there were many different socialisms. So, I would imagine there are many different post socialisms.
Noah Sobe 10:44
I would agree with that. Alla?
Alla Korzh 10:46
Yes, most definitely. And I think we’re probably part of the group of scholars who critique the transitology approach to post socialism who view it as a sort of this linear or temporal transition, like a quick break away from socialism into a post socialism and really recognize the diversity of post socialist experiences and transformations and therefore every context will have perhaps some similarities, but also very much diverse intricacies of those transformations. So, yes, see, it would entail multiple post socialisms.
Will Brehm 11:27
If we connect this to this idea of social science, and these, you know, the utopian thinking in social science, how are some of these different posts, socialisms, sort of producing social science — what are the different ways in which we can think of what social science is? You know, social science as way of producing certain certain knowledges and that they’re actually quite different from this transitology approach, or this linear thinking of what post socialism is. But if there’s this diversity that you’re talking about, then, you know, what does that diversity look like in terms of what is valid knowledge? How do we produce knowledge in these different contexts?
Alla Korzh 12:22
So through our book, we have seen obviously, that an over reliance on Western dominant knowledges often results in the displacement of non-Western knowledges, experiences, rendering them as insufficiently scientific for example. And our contributors have demonstrated a number of ways to produce and validate knowledge in post socialist contexts. And one of them is the use of local traditions of knowledge production. And what we mean by that is the rediscovery of the forgotten or discarded meanings of certain concepts and practices as a way of creating spaces for multiple knowledges to coexist. African scholars, like Woldeyes and Melisa, in our volume, interrogate, for example, the notion of good education and the indigenous meaning and understanding of what good education means in juxtaposition with Western imposed concepts and values. So again, one way is the use of local traditions of knowledge production. Another way is — it’s more of a methodological approach — is to stay flexible, a sort of flexibility and creativity with culturally appropriate methods. What we’ve seen is that a lot of research tends to rely on traditionally established data collection methods, qualitative data collection methods, such as surveys, or interviews, and focus groups observations or document analysis to produce valid knowledge of post socialist contexts. And they might be, you know, the sort of rigorously conceived studies, but they might not necessarily be capturing the nuanced realities of the post socialist lived experiences. Namely, if we look at the method of surveys, for example. When employing surveys, we can generate a ton of data, but it might not be the most credible data, especially when surveys are run in contexts with political historical and cultural legacies of Soviet state control and surveillance over public knowledge and performance. Another method that comes to mind is formal interviews and focus groups. Those methods might actually evoke memories of interrogation which in Soviet contexts, resulted in public arrest or detention, which further complicates the data gathering and the credibility of data. And therefore, as some of our contributors shared, it’s important to reimagine the culture with appropriate methods and replace formal interviews with conversational interviews, for example. This conversational methods should not be discarded as invalid or less scientific or less rigorous. They might be a more culturally appropriate in certain contexts where a participant might feel more comfortable being surrounded by family members and community members to be sharing that knowledge with the researcher. And finally, what’s important to highlight as in order to navigate this theoretical and methodological dilemmas, one must remain critically reflexive throughout the entire research process, questioning their own subjectivities, and carefully rethinking the representation of the other and recognizing the multiple forms of knowledges of our participants and treating them as equal collaborators and co-constructors of that knowledge.
Will Brehm 16:36
Would that mean — this last point of being reflective and making sure you’re accurately representing others, and bringing them in as co-collaborators, some of what we might call in, in western science, quote unquote, research participants — does this actually mean sharing with people that you’ve had these sort of conversational engagements with things that you’ve written or basically, quote, unquote, analyzing data, but data has, of course, being reimagined as well here? How do you actually create this reflective moment in these post socialist contexts?
Alla Korzh 17:16
It’s important to stay critically reflexive throughout the entire process and to engage the participants not only in, you know, in the data collection, but also, you know, traditional in the West, you know, we would call the strategy of member checking when we engage participants in checking for accuracy of rendering that data in the transcripts, but also interpretation. It’s not enough just to check in with a participant and say, am I you know, did I capture it correctly and accurately. But it’s important to really engage them in the interpretation of their knowledge in that local context. And I think this would be a really important point for a researcher to stay critically reflective about the adoption of this Western frameworks, Western interpretations of the local phenomena and checking in with the participant if what we think is happening, indeed, whether that resonates with their own understanding of their own lived experience.
Noah Sobe 18:30
You mentioned research participants. Another term that gets used quite a bit in western social science is the informant. I mean, so you can imagine just sort of how, how problematic that term is, I mean, also collaborator. These are problematic terms in parts of the world. Or even take the, you know, the process of human subjects, you know, informed consent, Oh, don’t worry, this thought, just sign your signature, and it’s just going to go in a drawer. And no one’s ever gonna look at it. You know, I just need your consent. I mean, these are some practices that in certain circles, people sort of take as natural as the best way and as unchallengeable. But in other parts of the world, they raise serious problems and relational problems, but also problems around how knowledge is generated and how people frankly, are respected.
Will Brehm 19:21
I want to ask a very practical question. So if not, research participant or informant or collaborator then what?
Noah Sobe 19:29
Well, I think participant isn’t completely corrupt. Allah, what do you think?
Alla Korzh 19:35
I’ve embraced the term participant throughout my research and also teaching.
Noah Sobe 19:55
But I think the fact that there is no one best answer is telling. So this book was designed as a research methods text, and it’s very different than most research methods texts. It’s not a sort of how to bake a cake type of recipe. Instead, one of the things that all our authors engage with across the book, and there was a really nice, multi year collaborative process that led to this, but one of the things that pretty much everyone engages with is this notion of the dilemma. I mean, researchers in the field face dilemmas, and one of them, we’ve just been talking about how you think about conceptualize and interact with the people that you’re studying people, assuming you’re studying people. And to think of it as a dilemma sort of frames it as something that around which we do have to make choices. And we have to hope that we’re going to make better choices. And next time, we’ll make even better choices. I mean, so there are better and poorer ways to do this. But at the same time, there’s no, like, there’s no magic solution, and you sort of what you do in Kyrgyzstan is going to be very different than what you do in Vietnam and Poland. So to frame it as a dilemma, you know, so not only you know, how you identify researchers, but how you collect data, how you analyze data, all those dimensions, I think are really critical,
Will Brehm 21:19
There’s no necessarily universal answer here. It’s context specific. It’s historically specific. That’s quite interesting sort of way to reimagine the way in which social sciences even done in a sense. I’d like to ask were you influenced by Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory in this work on reimagining post socialisms?
Noah Sobe 21:45
Yeah, Connell’s work, other people’s work on Southern Theory has been really influential. You know, I also think of Asia as Method as an inspiration. There are a lot of connections between doing work and post socialist settings and in post colonial settings. So, one of the things Alla was just going over with, in terms of some of the research methods like, you know, the questionability of a survey or formal interviews, you know, really turn on some of the same questions about the bases on which we generate knowledge, the sort of conditions of possibility that make it possible to know things in the world, which is something that people working in a post colonial tradition are very much challenging. And so that’s one of the clear connections with what the editors and the contributors to this book are doing, and working with working in a post socialist setting to really challenge, work with, and challenge ourselves around, you know, how it is we think about this whole knowledge producing project.
Will Brehm 22:57
How does this then impact the way we think about about the social world? So, I mean, for example, let’s say this big topic of globalization and theories of globalization — does this reimagining post socialisms sort of create new meanings and new insights into this sort of phenomenon of globalization?
Noah Sobe 23:20
So it’s a great question, Will. I think that, you know, one of the things that exploring the variety and variability within post socialist context shows us is that, for one, we need to rethink how we think about context in the first place. It’s something that we shouldn’t just take as a given fact. But we should understand how contexts are produced. And clearly, global processes and global phenomenon are one piece of that as our indigenous local and the other sort of many layers kind of influences, techniques, practices, and so forth, that go into creating the embeddedness of any educational interaction. You know, the other thing that I think when you read across the book becomes very clear in relation to globalization is that globalization is as much a reaching in as it is reaching out. That, you know, while we should be long past the point where we conceive of local as a place in the global as a force, although we still see features of that in a lot of comparative education scholarship. The globalist constructed in remote parts of central Asia in ways that are very similar to how its constructed in Brussels or New York, and we need to, I think, examine sort of the production, reaching out to the global as much as the global reaching in and I think you see both across the book.
Alla Korzh 24:58
I think what our volume contributes to is, you know, the existing body of scholarship and knowledge in globalization studies on the divergence of local experiences and transformations. I think this is one of the key arguments that we’re trying to make is that it is important to pay attention to the diversity of post socialist educational reforms and processes, as much as there’s this not wholesale but there’s definitely a Western reform adoption process happening across the region, but the way they are being re-adopted and re-contextualized or indigenized in local contexts have very different and those nuances really need to be uncovered and theorized and reflected on. And along the lines of what Noah mentioned earlier about the highlight of the book being the dilemmas of field work as much as we’re seeing the commonalities across so many of our contributors in terms of what dilemmas they faced, there’s so many nuances also about those dilemmas, as they are contextualize in those cultural landscapes.
Will Brehm 26:22
Is there an example of some of these dilemmas that you could point to, to show this diversity of differences in fieldwork in these post socialist contexts?
Alla Korzh 26:34
I would say one of them is grappling with methods. Again, thinking back to surveys or focus groups or interviews or even, you know, diaries, for example. And one of the dilemmas is that we go into the field expecting those methods to work because, you know, they’ve been tested in so many contexts, but they might not necessarily be culturally appropriate. For example, when conducting research in my own work, with institutionalized orphans, where their behaviors have been sanctioned by the school authority. And any signed survey will result in some sort of repercussion for that. And I think this is one of the dilemmas that is also being shared by some of the contributors of this book. Another ethical dilemma is IRB. I feel like this is one of the probably widely cited concerns and field work dilemmas across the contributors of this book is how to navigate it in the contexts, in post authoritarian contexts where a signed informed consent results in sense of fear, suspicion and discomfort because individuals are situated in this cultural historical legacies of Soviet state control over public knowledge and performance. So, the way a researcher navigates it is perhaps you know doing away with informed consent forms and instead of replacing it with oral consent which still justifies voluntary participation but at the same time it reduces that potential risk and it alleviates that pressure from having to physically sign a form and then fearing for their lives. Noah Sobe 28:55 I think one thing that’s important about the book is that
Noah Sobe 29:01
the contributors are all researchers who for the most part got PhDs in North American and European universities; many of them grew up under socialism or post socialism — not all — but they are all acutely aware of the power differentials involved in research.In times it’s a researcher returning to community that she or he belongs to but in a different role and at times it’s a researcher entering a community that he or she does not belong to. But in each of these instances you have some of the playing out of these global local interactions that we’re studying and I think what one of the strengths of the book is that everyone’s paying attention to that positionality and not just treating positionality as something that you dispatch with at the beginning of a research project you sort of mitigate it but actually analytically using it. I mean there’s a lot to be gained from engaging with positionality and sort of reflexively engaging with the knowledge that you’re working on trying to develop.
Will Brehm 30:12
We’ve obviously talked a lot about sort of individual research practice — what happens when a researcher goes to these different contexts or returns to the context from where one is from — and we’ve also obviously talked a little bit about this institutional review board, the IRB, how there’s some sort of institutional structures from particularly Western universities but of course that structure has moved to other universities as well around the world and that also causes problems. But I want to end our conversation look at a different area and that is the field of comparative and international education. What does some of the insights you’ve gained from this book tell us about the field of comparative and international education?
Noah Sobe 30:59
Well, one of the things, Will, we looked a lot about the production of research and I would say — Okay, if not one of the weaknesses, one of the one of the subjects for the next book, let’s say, okay — is that I don’t think we engaged enough with the afterlife of research. What happens with and to research after it’s produced, both to the producer of the research and to those who are researched and to those who use it. And I think that’s very important for thinking about European North American knowledge that’s produced about post socialist spaces, even if it’s produced in some of the ways that we’re working within the book. To me, that’s something that the whole field of comparative education would do well, to spend more, you know, to give more attention to the afterlife of research, what happens once we get that publication out or make that conference presentation? What happens to that knowledge? But that’s kind of not really answering your question. That’s the answer your question by saying, you know, here’s one thing that book doesn’t do. I don’t know, Alla, I would be tempted to say, you know, one of the things that it does is, you know, give us new tools for new methods tools, new ways of thinking about methods.
Alla Korzh 32:23
Yeah, absolutely. I think what really led us to this book is the lack of critical reflection on how to mobilize theory and methodology and methods in post socialist educational research contexts. In particular, there’s been plentiful research done in the fields of anthropology and sociology that had examined the field work dilemmas and the adoption and re-contextualization of theories in post socialist spaces. But we hadn’t seen anything in the fields of education, especially in the field of comparative and international education. So we hope that this is a meaningful contribution that allows us to critically think about how to mobilize theory in a critical way, not just adopt in Western theoretical frameworks, but thinking about how those frameworks really relate to that context and what meaning they carry for our participants as we are engaging them in the co-construction of knowledge, in addition to how we mobilize methodologies and methods in a culturally responsive, culturally sensitive ways that really allow us to tap into the lived experiences of individuals and generate credible and meaningful data that accurately portrays the non Western realities.
Will Brehm 33:58
Alla Korzh and Noah Sobe, thank you so much for joining FreshEd today.
Noah Sobe 34:02
It was a pleasure, Will. Thank you.
Alla Korzh 34:03
Thank you so much.
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Reimagining social science and post-socialist utopias