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CfPs for the workshop ‘Towards an institutional ethnography of late socialism’, 16-18 December 2021 (HSE St Petersburg, online)

Proposals for papers are invited for the online workshop on practices and performances of late-Soviet institutions — from communist party structures and government ministries to plants, collective farms, schools and pioneer camps, the military and the police, and to the institutions of science and cultural production. We wish to explore such institutional cases from the broadest range of perspectives, including microhistory, microethnography and historical sociology, and in doing so address a significant conceptual gap in the anthropology of the state and historiography of late socialism.  Keynote speakers are Alexei Yurchak (Berkeley) and Sergei Abashin (European University St Petersburg).  Working languages are English and Russian (simultaneous translation provided). Conference coordinator is Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (HSE St Petersburg). Application deadline: 15 September 2021.

CfPs for the workshop ‘Towards an institutional ethnography of late socialism’, 16-18 December 2021 (HSE St Petersburg, online)

Part of Large project of the HSE ‘Social anthropology of late Soviet institutions’

The state is not the reality which stands behind the mask of political practice. It is itself the mask which prevents our seeing political practice as it is. There is a state-system: a palpable nexus of practice and institutional structure centred in government and more or less extensive, unified and dominant in any given society. There is, too, a state-idea, projected, purveyed and variously believed in in different societies at different times. We are only making difficulties for ourselves in supposing that we have also to study the state - an entity, agent, function or relation over and above the state-system and the state-idea. The state comes into being as a structuration within political practice; it starts its life as an implicit construct; it is then reified - as the res publica, the public reification, no less - and acquires an overt symbolic identity progressively divorced from practice as an illusory account of practice.

— Philip Abrams, Notes on the Difficulty of the Studying the State(1988 [1977])

Philip Abrams has been seminal for outlining what is now a flourishing field of ethnographies of the state. Yet, if these insights have been instrumental in generating research into the ‘imagined state’ (Gupta 1995) — what Abrams described as the reified life of the state-idea — they have ironically been much less conducive to institutional ethnography. There is important work which details the circulation of the state ‘as if’ an entity or agent beyond state institutions (Navaro-Yashin 2002; Ssorin-Chaikov 2003; Reeves 2014). But what happens within the institutions themselves? The analytics of sovereignty (Hansen and Stepputat 2005; Bryant and Reeves 2021) has been effective in the exploration of subject/citizen/refugee/outcast, etc., but less so in what Abrams called the ‘palpable nexus of [institutional] practice and structure’. Paradoxically, while the anthropology of the state has been recently advanced by research into everyday life and materiality of documents within state institutions (Messick 1996; Riles 2006; Hull 2012; Reeves 2013; Mathur 2016), it stops short of generating its own institutional analysis thus effectively relegating it to institutional economics and political science.


The Anthropology of the State

The proposed workshop aims at addressing this asymmetry. We call for papers that will do so from a particular local and temporal vantage point: we are interested in charting the workings of late-Soviet institutions. The workshop hails from a basecamp of a major research project ‘The social anthropology of the late-Soviet institutions’ that we have just started at the HSE. Its aim is to fill the gap in the historiography of Soviet and Soviet-type societies which s contours very much, if surprisingly, resemble those just outlined for the anthropology of the state more generally.


Soviet Historiography

Everyone agrees that the state plays the key role in the organisation of Soviet order but there is precious little actually done on state institutions (including communist party institutions) of the late-Soviet period. Exceptions include Humphrey (1984), Ssorin-Chaikov (2003 and 2016), and Abashin (2015) on collective farms; or Mitrokhin (2021) the party apparatus and industrial ministries. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Important research has been done on knowledge production, including economic mathematics and cybernetics (Leeds 2016 Kirtchik and Gouarné 2021) and on late-Soviet subjectivity (following Yurchak 2006). Yet in focus is knowledge rather than power in the Foucauldian knowledge/power nexus, and citizen/subject rather than the institutional locations and practices (but see Verdery 2014; 2018). Institutional microhistories, microethnographies and historical sociologies thus remain unexplored systematically despite (or perhaps indeed because) bureaucracy, red tape, overregulation and secrecy have been a cliche that is inseparable from the image of late socialism, if not all Soviet order. There are assumptions about institutional structure and practices that implicitly underpin the analyses of Soviet subjectivities, materialities, economies, science and knowledge, and ideological hegemonies. But these assumptions remain taken for granted, rather than being explicitly addressed.


Institutional Analysis

Soviet order comprised and saw itself(in the sense of Scott [1998]) through different collective organisations — perhaps even modes of existence/collectivesin the usage of Latour (2013). These were various establishments, factories, work collectives, kolkhoz brigades, housing cooperatives, party cells, construction bureaus, amateur hobby circles, etc. Yet all these have been integrated into a complex institutional system of state socialism — interconnected, and constituted through, formal and informal administrative and governance procedures. These might be called grammars of state socialism(to paraphrase Samanani, Fedirko, and Williamson 2021) with dependent and independent clauses, as in complex sentences, and various organisational orders. Tellingly, this system has never been systematically examined neither from the perspective of classic Durkheimian or Parsonian sociology nor from to those of institutional economics, theories if institutional isomorphism (DiMaggio and Powell 1983), Weberian approaches to bureaucracy and the ANT. Pertinent questions such as how institutions think(Douglas 1986), how the states write (Messick 1996) and what is the agency of state documents (Hull 2012) have been hardly asked about state socialism.


Proposals for papers are invited that address these significant research gaps. Without in any way wishing to limit the thematic possibilities, we suggest a few of the potential areas of interest:

  • Closely examined institutional cases that may vary from party organisations or ministries (including military industry and science), state enterprises (urban as well as rural), institutions of planning (i.e, the Gosplan), storage (i.e., the vegetable bases) and distribution (including housing, educational institutions from schools to pioneer camps), and repressive apparatuses from state militia to penitentiary system.
  • Institutional practices rather than rules charted — unless the production of rules is the practice in focus.
  • Not macro-perspectives but micro-ethnographic and -historical ones used that shed light on the practicalities of institutional interworkings.
  • Dominant analytics of late socialism reexamined or critically engaged, such as those of formal and informal divides, performativity in Austinian or Latourian senses of this term, the economy of storage, etc.



Keynote addresses
  • Alexei Yurchak (Berkeley) ‘Bodies Lenin: a laboratory of Soviet sovereignty’
  • Sergei Abashin (European University at St Petersburg) ‘Soviet kishlak- Soviet kolkhoz: towards institutional ethnography’

We seek applications from all subjects fields of studies of late socialism, i.e., anthropology, history, literary criticism and modern thought, historical sociology, economics, politics and law, etc. Requirements: qualitative (not qualitative) case-study centred research in a format of historical ethnography, pragmatic sociology and micro-history.



Application details and deadlines
  • 15 September: paper application deadline
  • 1 October: paper selection
  • 16-18 December: workshop (online)
  • to apply: email paper title, 300 words-long abstract, your affiliation and CV to by 15 September 2021 to <latesovietinstitutions@gmail.com>.
  • Conference website: https://spb.hse.ru/humart/chr/news/488812040.html
  • Questions & queries: Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov <nssorinchaikov@hse.ru>



Workshop organising committee

The international academic council of the project ‘Social anthropology of late Soviet institutions’, comprising:

  • Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (HSE) (projects PI)
  • Alexei Yurchak (Berkley)
  • Galina Orlova (HSE)
  • Doug Rogers (Yale)
  • Caroline Humphrey (Cambridge)
  • Roman Abramov (HSE)
  • Jeremy Morris (Aarhus)
  • Slava Gerovich (MIT)