'Sociologist Must Know How to Work Both with People And Data'

The Bachelor's programme 'Sociology and Social Informatics' will work out well for those who are 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 peculiarities and advantages of the programme with its academic supervisor Anna Nemirovskaya.

'Sociologist Must Know How to Work Both with People And Data'

Photo from Anna Nemirovskaya's personal archive

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

— The programme's title reflects the modern essence of the profession of sociologist. It shows how the sociology and people's lives have changed due to digitalisation.  There appear new online and offline communities. People start communicating in new formats and conceive 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, influence of digital economy and Internet on people, it is not enough to know how to use classical research methods like interview or overt observation. It requires other methods and technologies.

A modern sociologist is an expert 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 a sociologist to study analytics and software development?

— Earlier sociologists had a problem: how can you get honest answers to the questions about people's lives and expenditures during surveys and interviews? It was important not to push but to ask personal questions gently so a person would answer honestly and the results would not be 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 which can tell about users' mood, preferences, interests, social circle, purchases and other things.

Comprehensive researches which combine classical and digital methods are useful not only in academic community, but in business sphere too. Sociologists help to improve products and services, study the customers and offer ways to enhance corporate culture. Everything depends on the research purpose 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 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 a user to take part in a survey. A person will tell what products are lacking, how to improve navigation within the app and delivery speed. It will be easier for market researcher to select respondents as they can see who actively uses the app.

It is easier for the respondents to take online surveys as well. You can fill in the form at any convenient time when there is no one around. Besides, it is less stressful than face-to-face contact.

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

— What skills can a student gain on the programme?

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

During research seminars and students' projects we discuss various topics that are of interest to sociologists. Among these topics are Internet and social media networks, teenagers and the youth, modern culture, person's health and well-being, development and consequences of social inequality, marketing and management. Participating in such projects allows students of different years of education to work both with lecturers and research professors from various sociological laboratories and centres.

We teach our students to perform modern statistical analysis and visualising data in R, programming in Python, machine learning, to work with databases and use digital technology in marketing. It will help future sociologists to correctly analyse and interpret 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 studying qualitative methods of sociological researches:  in-depth interview, overt observation, discourse analysis and others. 

Students on this programme try themselves in different spheres during internships and project activities such as analytics, survey industry, HR management, marketing and scientific researches. It helps them to understand what they want to do after 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 is the reason 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 perform programming. But how are they different from software engineers?

—First of all, a sociologist sets out tasks, research goals and forms hypotheses. They act as a research designer, a project developer and an analyst. 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 for a sociologist.

There is a joke that software engineers care about a software code more while sociologists care about people. Perhaps, there is some truth in it. Indeed, sociologists study people's opinion and reactions, interrelations between their groups and 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 for HSE. There are foreign students and lecturers. The international laboratories have been working successfully for a long time: Ronald F. Inglehart Laboratory for Comparative Social Research and Laboratory for Social and Cognitive Informatics. There are other educational programmes in English in the campus, it is necessary for modern labour and science markets.

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

The terms of social studies, informatics, statistics came from English and other European languages. If a specialist knows English, at least it will be easier for them to make sense of the terminology and read professional literature. They can communicate on equal terms during conferences and seminars, present the results of their researches to a larger number of clients and colleagues. Of course, knowing English, our graduates can study on master's programmes in different countries. They have more opportunities for a professional growth and further concentration. 

If a prospective student does not know English that well yet, will it be an obstacle for studying on a 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. During seminars and practical trainings lecturers create friendly atmosphere, organise business simulations and professional trainings, involve the students in discussions, brainstorms and making presentations. If some terms are not clear, students can always ask a lecturer to clarify it!

How is it possible to heighten students' interest in science?

— Students are inspired by lecturers with vast experience in researches. Over the last 15 years Elena L. Omelchenko, professor, has obtained 35 grants for scientific researches and published several books. Daniil A. Alexandrov, tenured professor, studies the sphere of education. Recently he has published an article on bullying in Russian schools. This is only a small part of our lecturers' achievements!

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

Where do students gain practical skills?

— Both during the internships and classes. For example, within the course ‘Information Systems’ there is an annual mini-conference Poster Session of the 2nd Mini-Conference on Demo-Reviews of Рисёрч. On this conference the second-year students try their hand at preparing and presenting posters. During class hours of this course the students learn how to work with bibliographic databases and get acquainted with current researches on the topic they are interested in. After that they make a map out of these researches and analyse the state of the scientific field. Students present the results in the form of posters on an online conference which is open to all the students and lecturers. It provides students with useful experience of analytical and team work, public presentations and support of their project ideas. All these skills are necessary for a professional.

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

During the third year each student has to undertake an internship at the partner-companies of the programme or university or they can contact an industry-specific company of their choice. Some students choose academic centres for the internship:  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, they collect the materials for their theses or use ready-made and open data.

Often projects turn into scientific articles later. 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 the article by our student Anastasia Bakhareva won the competition of World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR). Such results show that our students work with up-to-date topics. It is the acknowledgment of our work quality and students' talent.

Where can the graduates work with their degree? 

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

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

What kind of prospective students are you waiting for?

— We are waiting for people who are interested in researches of 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 training will be an advantage, but we will teach students a lot ourselves. 

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

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

We are waiting for curious and active students who are invested in people, communities and social processes, people's well-being, values of each person in particular and social groups, their behaviour and interrelations. That is why we value curiosity, active mind, observation skills, empathy, 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 to achieve it for sure.