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'Sociologists Need to Know How to Work Both with People and Data'

The Bachelor's programme 'Sociology and Social Informatics' is well suited to those interested in public processes, people's lives and data analysis. The programme offers state-funded places and fee-paying places for foreign students. We talked about the specifics and advantages of the programme with its academic supervisor Anna Nemirovskaya.

'Sociologists Need to Know How to Work Both with People and Data'

Photo courtesy of Anna Nemirovskaya

— Why is the programme called ‘Sociology and Social Informatics’?

— The programme's title reflects the modern essence of the sociology profession. It shows how sociology and people's lives have changed due to digitalisation.  New communities appear online and offline, and people start communicating in new formats and considering themselves differently. Of course, there are new types of data that we need to explore. If a student wants to analyse social networks and online communities, the influence of digital economy and the internet on people, it is not enough to know how to use classical research methods like interviews or overt observation. It requires other methods and technologies.

Modern sociologists are experts not only in social constructs and methods of collecting and analysing data, but in software development, psychology, economics and management as well. They should be fully developed people who are ready to master new approaches and tools for various practical and academic tasks. That is why our educational programme develops sociological thinking and combines classical methods with modern data analysis. 

— Why do you think it is important for sociologists to study analytics and software development?

— Previously, sociologists had a problem: how can you get honest answers to questions about people's lives and expenditures during surveys and interviews? It was important not to push, but to ask personal questions gently so that people answer honestly and the results are not distorted. Nowadays it is easier to track people's genuine opinions if you look at their activity on different websites and networks. People leave digital footprints that can reveal users' moods, preferences, interests, social circles, purchases and other things.

Comprehensive studies that combine classical and digital methods are useful not only in the academic community, but in the business sphere too. Sociologists help to improve products and services, study customers, and suggest ways to enhance corporate culture. Everything depends on the purpose of the research and the sphere it is conducted for. 

If you observe users' behaviour and then interview them, you get a more complete idea. Let's see how it works in practice.

For example, a student regularly uses food delivery services. If we look at what he does on the app and what products he chooses most often, a company may offer him a discount. 

If the service team wants to expand the range of products, it can send a push notification and ask users to take part in a survey. People will say what products are lacking, as well as how to improve navigation within the app and delivery speed. It will be easier for market researchers to select respondents, as they can see who actively uses the app.

It is easier for respondents to take online surveys as well. You can fill in the form whenever it is convenient and when there is no one around. It is also less stressful than face-to-face contact.

If you combine this data with information about respondents' health, dietary regime, physical exercise, and stress level, you can get valuable guidelines on how to improve people's quality of life.

— What skills do students gain on the programme?

— It's important that students develop sociological imagination, creative and critical thinking right away. To accomplish this, we have included not only basic sociological courses in the programme, but also economic theory, sociological psychology, sociological and digital anthropology, project management and so on. 

During research seminars and student projects we discuss various topics that are of interest to sociologists. These include the internet and social media, teenagers and young people, modern culture, people's health and well-being, development and the consequences of social inequality, marketing and management. Participating in such projects allows students in different years of study to work both with lecturers and research professors from various sociological laboratories and centres.

We teach our students to conduct modern statistical analysis and visualise data in R, programme in Python, familiarise themselves with machine learning, work with databases and use digital technology in marketing. This will help future sociologists to correctly analyse and interpret the data they work with.

It is important to note that statistical methods and working with quantitative data are not the only things students of our programme learn. They immerse themselves in the study of qualitative methods of sociological research:  in-depth interviews, overt observation, discourse analysis and others. 

Internships and project activities let students try their hand at various fields such as analytics, surveying, HR management, marketing and scientific research. It helps them to understand what they want to do after their bachelor's degree. In addition, students can choose an individual educational track: they can add minor, optional and elective courses to the basic courses. So, minor courses on Applied Programming or Urban Studies can be supplemented by courses on various methods of Data Analysis, Machine Learning and others. That why our graduates are ready for both work in different branches of applied sociology and further studies on master's programmes in diverse fields.

Of course, sociologists must know how to program. But how are they different from software engineers?

—First of all, sociologists set out tasks, research goals and form hypotheses. They act as research designers, project developers, and analysts. They should know about social informatics and have skills in software development to collect and analyse data and create new tools for surveys. Software development expands the range of methodological tools available to sociologists.

There is a joke that software engineers care more about software code, while sociologists care about people. Perhaps there is some truth in it. Indeed, sociologists study people's opinions and reactions, interrelations between groups, and the behaviour of the masses. If sociologists lack data on people or social processes for their tasks, they know how to effectively and ethically organise work with respondents and what research methods are the most effective for this project. 

Why is the programme in English?

— Internationality is common at HSE University. There are foreign students and lecturers. The international laboratories—the Ronald F. Inglehart Laboratory for Comparative Social Research and the Laboratory for Social and Cognitive Informatics—have been working successfully for a long time. There are other educational programmes in English at the campus; this is necessary for modern labour and science markets.

If sociology students want to learn about the best new applied research, developments and scientific projects, they should know English. We live and explore society in the global digital world. It is important to know what conclusions our foreign colleagues come to.

The terminology of social studies, informatics, and statistics comes from English and other European languages. Specialists who know English find it easier to make sense of the terminology and read professional literature. They can communicate on equal terms at conferences and in seminars, as well as present the results of their research to a larger number of clients and colleagues. Of course, knowing English means that our graduates can study on master's programmes in different countries. They have more opportunities for professional growth and further specialisation. 

Are prospective students who do not know English well at a disadvantage on the programme? 

— I believe that the students can handle it. We provide them with the time to get used to using English and overcome the language barrier during their first year. Lecturers create a friendly atmosphere in seminars and practical sessions, organise business simulations and professional training, and involve the students in discussions, brainstorming and making presentations. If some terms are not clear, the students can always ask a lecturer for clarification!

 What does the programme do attract students to research?

— Students are inspired by lecturers with extensive research experience. Over the last 15 years, Prof. Elena Omelchenko has obtained 35 grants for scientific research and published several books. Daniil Alexandrov, tenured professor, studies the sphere of education. He recently published an article on bullying in Russian schools. This is only a small selection of our lecturers' achievements!

Moreover, there are four sociological scientific laboratories: the Centre for Youth Studies, the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, the Laboratory for Social and Cognitive Informatics, and the Laboratory of Sociology in Education and Science. These laboratories mostly structure their research around young people, comparative analysis, the internet, education, and information consumption. They use different methods. The Centre for Youth Studies is focused on qualitative methods, while the other laboratories use quantitative methods or mixed research design. While studying, students can choose the field they like the most, undertake an academic internship in one of the laboratories, and try their hand at science as a research assistant.    

Where do students gain practical skills?

— During both internships and classes. For example, the course ‘Information Systems’ organises an annual poster session mini-conference. At this conference, second-year students try their hand at preparing and presenting posters. During class hours, students of this course learn how to work with bibliographic databases and get acquainted with current research on the topic they are interested in. After that, they map out this research and analyse the state of the scientific field. Students present the results in the form of posters at an online conference which is open to all the students and lecturers. This provides students with useful experience of analytical and team work, public presentations, and support of their project ideas. All these skills are necessary for professionals.

Another option is project activities. Students get involved in the projects of our lecturers and scientific laboratories, develop draft research and conduct it from beginning to end. In 2021, the students studied cyber-bullying, distance learning, digital safety, customer behaviour and many other topics. 

During the third year, each student has to undertake an internship at a partner company of the programme, a university, or an industry-specific company of their choice. Some students choose academic centres for their internships, such as the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences or the Centre for Independent Social Research. Some students work as trainee analysts for survey, advertising or marketing firms. During the fourth year, the students also have an internship, but it is a pre-graduation internship. Students join the projects of laboratories or their academic supervisors, collecting materials for their theses or using ready-made and open data.

Projects often go on to become scientific articles. Over the last five years, our students have published 25 articles in top journals and delivered presentations on different conferences and seminars. Moreover, in 2021 an article by our student Anastasia Bakhareva won the competition of the World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR). Such results show that our students work with up-to-date topics. It is an acknowledgment of the quality of our work and our students' talent.

Where can graduates find work with their degree? 

— Let me first say where they already work. Some of our graduates pursue careers in research, for example, in sociological centres and analytical companies. Some of them get jobs in marketing companies or departments, online advertising and PR agencies. Others build careers in IT, financial technology, and game design. For instance, Anastasia Kuznetsova created a course about work on Tableau for Stepik, Pavel Dolgov became a Lead UX researcher at Alfa-Bank, Mikhail Uliczkiy is a CRM analyst at CIAN, and Alina Kamanina works as a game analyst for G5 Entertainment. Graduates have many prospects—the main thing is to choose what you like and not be afraid of setting ambitious goals.

Our students continue their studies on master's and doctoral programmes. They successfully enrol in programmes in the social sciences, information management, organisational analysis, marketing and computer science. If a student is interested in a scientific career, the programme offers interesting opportunities at the thesis stage. Students can prepare a thesis in the form of a scientific article for an international indexed journal in English and submit it to the journal for review. Another way is to conduct research in the form of a replication study: a student replicates a design and method of research that has already been published. This helps to confirm their qualification. Such forms of theses and the experience of scientific publications make our graduates' portfolios appealing to any master's programme.

What kind of prospective students are you looking for?

— We are looking for people who are interested in research into modern society and social processes. We will be happy to have students who are attracted by applied analytics in various professional fields. Of course, a good mathematical education will be an advantage, but we teach students a lot ourselves. 

Besides, sociologists do not just work with data. They communicate with respondents and experts a lot, study various social groups, go on expeditions, and organise focus group discussions and social experiments. 

The educational process is structured so that students gradually master the methods of data research and analysis. In addition, every year they can choose new and interesting courses and form a more quantitative or qualitative educational track. They can also choose to learn a wider range of analytical tools. 

We are awaiting curious and active students who are invested in people, communities and social processes, people's well-being, the values of individuals and social groups, their behaviour and interrelations. That is why we value curiosity, active minds, observation skills, empathy, an interest in the new and a simple urge to study. If you want to be successful in any sphere, you should be goal oriented and genuinely want to become a professional. Our programme will help you achieve that.